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Happy Birthday Elvis

TALKING TO MYSELF: 8 January, 2012  Elvis Presley would turn 77 today were he alive.  Elvis may have left the building, but he hasn’t left my heart. I never outgrew him. I never saw the need.

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 I wish I could remember the first time I heard him sing on the radio, wish I could say that I knew at that moment a star was born.  But I was a child in grade school when his songs began to blow the top off the music charts, and I suspect I only started paying attention after I heard other kids talking about him. 

My pal Judy Parr was almost always the first in our crowd to hear his newest record. Her family listened to the radio while they ate breakfast. Mine, on the other hand, kept TV’s “Today” show blaring in the morning, which gave me a distinct disadvantage.  In an effort to scoop Judy, I started turning the volume on my radio down low in my upstairs bedroom so my parents couldn’t hear it in theirs downstairs, and left it playing all night. Sometimes, waking briefly at one or two in the morning, I’d catch the strains of a new title, and sigh in anticipation of a schoolyard triumph.

The next day, feigning nonchalance, I would ask, “Have you heard Elvis’ latest song?” I’d hold my breath until her answer came. I’ve never felt cooler than I did on those long-ago recess breaks when she would occasionally answer, “No, what’s it called?”

I was never cool again when it came to pop music. The Beatles hit the world like a tsunami about the time I finished high school and entered college, but I didn’t have time for them. They looked like skinny boys with bad haircuts to me and, over serious, I was too busy getting to where I intended to go. I also took a little detour into folk music in college, and apparently it was the wrong turn to take. Nobody talks about Peter, Paul and Mary much anymore, but the Beatles are everywhere. I’ve always understood there was something about the Beatles I didn’t get that the rest of the world does.  Sure, I thought the rhythm of their music was good for dancing, and the melded sound of their voices was pleasing. Occasionally a lyric would hang in my head, but they didn’t have the soul, and -- I’ll say it -- the sexuality that Elvis’ voice did.

A lot has been written about the outrage his rock and rolling hips caused among the aging gatekeepers of pop culture. But you know most of us never saw Elvis wiggle until his movies came out. No, the sensuousness was all there in his radio voice from the beginning. A girl would have had to be deaf – or dead - not to hear it. It was bad, it was wonderful, it was mysterious, and it told me everything I wanted to know but was afraid to ask.

I think, too, people like Judy Parr and me intuitively knew that he was one of us. He was a southern kid with country roots who probably knew as much as we did about staring down spiders in outhouses and singing hymns in church on Sunday mornings.

So no, I never outgrew Elvis. In his later years, though, I longed to help him. I read about his boredom, his desire to expand his mind as he dabbled in the paranormal, went spying for President Nixon, and other foolishness. By then I was a grown married woman teaching school. I began to think maybe if I could pull him into my high school English class I could save him through literature. Elvis had the soul of a reader, I always thought, if he’d had the right sort of teachers. I know it’s a stretch to picture Elvis settling into a chair in my monthly book club, but he’d done so much for me, it seemed little enough for me to do in return.

            Now, to plagiarize another great southerner, Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.  I wish I could write him a fan letter – I never did when he was alive – and thank him for the memories. "Thank you," I'd say. "Thank you thank you very much."  

Copyright © Georgia Green Stamper and The Owenton News Herald

An earlier version of this essay was published on this blog on 8 Jan 2011.