Last week we marked the birthday of an American original: the late Elvis Presley.
Jan. 8, 2015, will mark his 80th birthday.
This is hard to wrap our minds around given Elvis always seems to remain forever young, frozen in time.
We remember either the gyrating young rock ’n’ roller of the 1950s or the Vegas polished, white jumpsuited Elvis of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The image of the overweight Elvis at the end of his life has been crowded out by the happier memories of how we like to remember Elvis: in his prime.
For those of a certain age, the boomer generation, Elvis has always been on our minds. The memories and images have been numerous: His auspicious debut to the American public on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” shot from the waist up lest his gyrating hips offend sponsors and the older generation.
Not only making a splash in the music world, Elvis had good looks, talent and charisma that netted him a major deal with Hollywood to make motion pictures. Most iconic from this period was the title number from “Jailhouse Rock.”
Other memorable moments: Getting his famous hair cut by Army barbers after being drafted in the late 1950s. Elvis making his triumphant return to music and movies after his U.S. Army stint. The continued recording successes and those innocuous musicals that Elvis grew quickly tired of.
The British Invasion led by the Beatles made Elvis look a bit outdated in comparison.
Elvis eventually phased out the movies and returned to performing.
After marrying Priscilla, the love of his life, Elvis did his watershed comeback television special in 1968. Clad in a black leather suit, he made the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” relevant again to the American public. Elvis segued back into the spotlight with new recording sessions that crossed over into country and pop.
Elvis also returned to performing at Las Vegas and around the country. It was during this time that he recorded some of my personal favorites like “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “Burning Love.”
In the early 1970s I reconnected with Timmy K, an old grade school friend, while in college at Pitt-Johnstown. Timmy K was a huge Elvis fan, citing numerous records Elvis held on the rock, gospel and soul charts at various times.
“The King, buddy…” Timmy K would always intone, as if proclaiming Elvis’ coronation.
I would laugh and imitate Elvis by saying “Thank you … Thank you very much.”
I returned the favor to Timmy K by inviting him to my singing debut at the original Cal and Dot’s pub in Geistown. My then co-worker Joe had a small band and graciously let me sing three songs at Cal and Dot’s. I dressed in white bell-bottoms and a high-collared white shirt to add to my Elvis imitation. I even did my Elvis moves from the Vegas era.
Timmy K was duly impressed with my performance and was even moved to tears, which surprised me. While we did not agree on much, we did agree on Elvis. He was “the King.”
Recently on the Internet I befriended a former classmate who I was shocked to discover was a personal friend of Elvis since her childhood. His favorite gospel singer was a relative of hers. Also, she and her family would spend time at Graceland with Elvis and his family. It was fascinating to hear her insights into Elvis the person. She also told me that Elvis was planning a benefit concert for the Johnstown flood victims when he died.
I reflected on what it was that made Elvis, well, Elvis. Many do not know Elvis had a twin brother, Jesse, who died at birth. Sometimes I wonder how much that affected Elvis, possibly living out his life for the both of them. There seemed to be two personalities: the soft-spoken polite Elvis off stage and the charismatic dynamo performer onstage.
Stories are legion of his kindness and generosity, as well as his humility and his Southern courtesy. I think Elvis reflected our good and dark sides. Like all of us he had his personal demons, some of his own accord, some because of the immense fame that dogged him to the point where he had to rent out an entire amusement park to take his young daughter, Lisa Marie, there for her birthday.
While living in Atlanta I was amazed at how popular Elvis still was, no doubt due in part to his Southern roots. His music has inspired and influenced everyone from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen.
For the past 60 years, the enduring popularity of Elvis has crossed over all gender, racial, generational and geographic demographics.
He was, and still is, the King.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.