Last Train To Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

A few years ago I read this book and took a few notes on it, which we present here in case they can be of benefit to the Helytimes reader:

Elvis’ parents were real country folk. His father had done time in Mississippi’s dreaded Parchman Farm prison for writing a bad check. It all seems pretty Dickensian: his boss was “making an example of him.” Elvis’ twin brother was born dead, and Elvis’ mom told him he’d acquired the power of the dead twin.

Then the Presleys moved to Memphis and lived in public housing until they made too much money to qualify (still not much money). Even in Memphis they were seen as kinda bumpkins. Elvis was completely devoted to his mother.

In Memphis Sam Phillips was running Sun Records, trying to record “real Negro music,” and the unrelated Dewey Phillips had a radio show that broadcast to a mostly black audience. Elvis listened mostly to gospel music and sometimes sang at an Assembly of God church.

As a boy Elvis used to turn on lights on Saturdays for his Orthodox Jewish neighbors.

Elvis was driving a truck for an electrical company and trying to be an electrician, even though he felt he was too easily distracted to be good at wiring – he was a little afraid of blowing himself up. He was dating a girl named Dixie who was really in love with him. They were committed to remaining “pure” until marriage.

Elvis used to hang around Sun Records, and he recorded a demo of himself. Sam Phillips had him on a list of maybe promising singers. Months later he found what he thought was a good song for him. It turned out to not sound so good, but Elvis and the musicians Sam had recruited kept screwing around for hours until Elvis started singing an old blues song.

When Elvis’ record of That’s Alright Mama first got huge on Dewey Phillips’ radio show. The first time it was played on the radio Elvis was too nervous to listen and went to the movies. Dewey Phillips kept calling his parents and demanded Elvis come down to the station. When he got out of the movies he went down there. Dewey tricked Elvis into being interviewed on air. He asked Elvis where he went to high school so everyone would know Elvis was white.

Elvis wore “crazy” clothes, like a pink shirt. But he was also incredibly sensitive. He was always afraid people were laughing at him. Sam Phillips wouldn’t let him play at a bunch of rougher bars because he thought Elvis would get beaten up.

[Roy] Orbison later said of his first encounter with Elvis: “his energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing… Actually it affected me exactly the same way as when I first saw that David Lynch film [Blue Velvet]. I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.'”

One thing I took from this book was that musicians in those days died on the road like all the time. Cars caught on fire. And of course we all know the fate of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. At some point Elvis’ mother made him promise not to fly anymore, so he would take the train to Hollywood and New York.

(says a bandmate of an early tour): “he would run the women, he’d run two or three of them in one night – whether or not he was actually making love to all three, I don’t know, because he was kind of private in that sense and if I thought he was going to run some women in the room with him, I didn’t stay. But I just think he wanted them around, it was a sense of insecurity, I guess, because I don’t think he was a user. He just loved women, and I think they knew that.”

By 1955 when Elvis was 20 girls would tear his clothes to pieces. “Of course the police started getting them out, and I will never forget Faron Young – this one little girl had kind of a little hump at the back, and he kicked at her, and these little boots fell out.” (???) Sometime after this Elvis took Dixie to her junior prom.

Manufacturing a hit record back then could actually put a small record company out of business, because there were high upfront costs of making the record, so Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ contract, seemingly without rancor.

“Popular music has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley,” wrote the Daily News. OH REALLY!

In between having his clothes ripped off Elvis seemed to “date” relatively pure-heartedly. There’s a weird account on p. 315 of Elvis and his girlfriend sort of dry-humping and tickling each other and almost doing it but then not doing it: “‘we almost did it, didn’t we baby?’ And I said, ‘We almost did.’ He said, ‘That was close, wasn’t it?'”

Later, in Hollywood, “more experienced girls” were surprised to find that “what he liked to do was to lie in bed and watch television and eat and talk all night – the companionship seemed as important for him as the sex – and then in the early-morning hours they would make love.”

This book had a good amount about what food everybody ate. Elvis liked eggs cooked rock hard and burnt bacon. At age 23 he’s conducting an interview “while lunching alone in his dressing room on a bowl of gravy, a bowl of mashed potatoes, nine slices of well-done bacon, two pints of milk, a large glass of tomato juice, lettuce salad, six slices of bread, and four pats of butter.”

In Hollywood he seems to have fallen in with some real lame characters and professional best friends. He stayed at the Knickerbocker Hotel until that got too nuts and he stayed at the Beverly Wilshire. His movies were shot on the Paramount lot. Sometimes he would call his mother and talk to her all day.

This book ends with Elvis getting drafted into the Army. He agreed with his weird hypnotizing carnival-guy manager Colonel Tom Parker that he should turn down all special offers and just be a regular soldier. He joined the Army and then his mother died. He was totally shattered.

After his mother died, he invited his dentist over and showed him around the recently purchased Graceland.

He said, ‘the newspapers have made my house so laughable’ – that was the word. He said, ‘They have made it sound so laughable, I would love to have your opinion of my home.’ He took us all through the house, my taste is not so marvelous, but it was very attractive, it all fit – there was a modern sculpture on the chimney over the fireplace, and I had the same sculpture in my office, it was called ‘Rhythm.’ Anyway, when we got back to the living room, he said, ‘What do you think? and Sterling said, ‘If you give me the key, I’ll swap you.”



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