If you don’t find me waxing nostalgically about America of the nineteen-fifties, it’s because for much of that decade my family owned neither a telephone, an automobile, nor indoor plumbing. We lived so far back in the sticks, my mother and I had to flag down the Greyhound bus out on U.S. 11 and ride ten miles into Fort Payne to pay bills and shop for supplies we couldn’t get from the peddling truck that came by every Wednesday. Okay. I know what this sounds like. When I first told my wife this story she wanted to take a look at my birth certificate.
Our entertainment and news came to us via an old Crosley radio the size of a bread box in our living room. But we kept seeing those multi-pronged aluminum poles springing up beside the houses out on the highway, and we knew what they were for. Every time we were in town, we lingered in front of the window of JT Morgan’s to watch the magic black and white images flickering across the screens of those shiny new 21 inch Zeniths.
One Saturday, we were excited by an invitation to a neighbor’s house to watch rasslin’ on their new television. To judge how badly we wanted to watch television, those TV-owning neighbors lived at least a mile away from us which meant we had to trek there and back in the dark. It looked as if our trip had been made for nothing because when we got there, no matter how many knobs our neighbor twisted, how long he’d stood outside turning the antenna, he couldn’t pick up rasslin’. Finally, he gave up and tuned in to a CBS affiliate out of Chattanooga. The whole thing seemed like magic to me anyway, so I didn’t care what we watched, but the men were disappointed that instead of the he-man activity of sweaty, over-weight guys wallowing around on top of each other, they were reduced to staring at a sissy variety program called “Stage Show.”
“Stage Show” looked a hell of a lot more entertaining to me than ‘rasslin’. It started out with a troop of pretty girls dancing in intricate formation to a snappy big band number. Then I thought it was really cool when the girls were followed by a ventriloquist and a couple of dummies selling Nestles chocolate mix. I didn’t pay much attention to what the two guys who were running the show said next, but a man walked on stage through a chorus of girlish squeals. He had a pile of hair and sideburns, and he handled the guitar he had slung over his shoulder as if it were a machine gun. After giving the squealing girls a snarling smile, he launched into a bouncy song about blue suede shoes and how nobody should step on them. During an instrumental break, he hopped around, shaking his legs as if they were on fire. When he finished his song, everybody in the little living room was stunned. The men wondered aloud, “What the hell was that?” My mother said, “I liked him.” I was ten or eleven years old at the time, and all I knew was that in the course of a few minutes, I had abandoned my desire to be a cowboy, a policeman or a fireman. I wanted to be that guy whoever he was.
Of course, it wasn’t long before everybody knew who Elvis was. My uncle sent us bus tickets to visit him out in California. For three days and nights, we heard “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” blaring from the juke boxes of every bus station restaurant across eight states.
When we got back to Alabama, one of my friend’s parents had bought a television, and over the next few months, I finagled invitations to watch Elvis on a few of his appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. In the meantime, over my dad’s fierce objection, I blew whatever spare change I could scrape up on Vitalis Hair Tonic in a desperate attempt to train my hair into an Elvis-like pompadour. I must have looked goofy going around with my collar turned up, looking at everybody through hooded eyes, curling my lip when I smiled. I didn’t have a guitar or a record player, but I stood in front of my bedroom mirror at night, wiggling my legs and “caterwaling” as my dad called it.
The hair thing didn’t work out at all. Instead of handsome and sexually threatening, I just looked like an awkward kid with greasy hair that wanted to lay flat on my head. My voice hadn’t changed, so when my class put on a program at the school assembly, my show business debut was reduced to a frantic pantomime of “Hound Dog”. I was a big hit. But for the wrong reason. The auditorium full of kids roared in laughter. For a week they came up to me, telling me it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. They looked at me as a future comedian, while I knew I was a miserable failure as an Elvis imitator.
I spent the next week climbing on the school bus to shouts of “Hey hound dog.” The whole thing made me want to crawl under something, but I couldn’t find anything low enough. On my next trip into town, I got the hair cut into a flat-top. Though I left Elvis on the floor of the barbershop, for a long time I carried deep feelings of envy and a painful sense of injustice. I had so much in common with Elvis. It just didn’t seem fair that he got to be the King of Rock and Roll while I had to keep on being a poor kid with an over-protective mother.
Over the next few years I saw a few Elvis movies but found them boring. I thought his music fell far below the standard he set before the got drafted into the Army. By the time I got to college, Elvis had faded away, and everybody was listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all those wonderful sounds coming out of Motown. Elvis’s appearance on television in a skin-tight leather outfit in 1968, looked as if he’d returned to reclaim his crown. But a few years later I went to a movie theater on Okinawa with some Army friends to see Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. I walked out of the theater, thinking, Elvis had gone to Las Vegas and traded in his rock and roll crown to become another Liberace.
But Elvis refused let me completely forget him. Every now and then something like “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” or “Way Down,” would hit the charts, and I would admit the guy could probably sing the Memphis Yellow Pages and make them sound pretty good.
On August 16, 1977, I was on the Bessemer Super Highway outside of Midfield, Alabama when the announcer interrupted the music on the radio to say that Elvis had died. Despite my feelings that Elvis’ music was no longer relevant, he was such a larger-than-life figure, that my first thought was, This is some kind of joke. Hell, this is Elvis he’s talking about. After I realized the report was serious, I pulled over in a parking lot and sat there for a while. It wasn’t so much that I was sad about Elvis passing. I felt as if my youth had just been found dead on the bathroom floor at Graceland.