TERRY WOSTER: Growing up with Elvis
If I said John, Paul, George and Ringo, chances are you'd think "The Beatles.''
If I said George, though, would you automatically think George Harrison? Or might you think George Bush, George Washington, King George or even George Herman Ruth? Right, that last one is unlikely, but the others aren't impossible, are they? (And I say this as a huge Beatles fan, so don't think I'm being disrespectful of the Lads, just pondering fame, popularity and name recognition.)
If I said John, you'd probably have hundreds of choices that wouldn't end with Lennon, depending on context. And Paul? Quite a number of options there that wouldn't necessarily need to be Sir McCartney. Ringo? OK, I'll give you Ringo Starr, although I'd guess there are still a fair number of folks around who might say Johnny Ringo. (Hey, some people might even say John Peters Ringo if I said "John,'' although those folks would be few.)
All of which leads me to this: If I said Elvis, please tell me you wouldn't say Elvis Costello. If I said Elvis Costello, sure, you can think that guy if you want. But if I just one-named it and said Elvis, you have to automatically think "Presley,'' don't you? Or has the age of instant communications moved us beyond knowing much about one of the most accomplished and captivating entertainers of his time?
I've been thinking about the whole Elvis mystique a bit because the anniversary of his death is approaching. He died on Aug. 16, 1977, just two months after a concert in Rapid City. According to the set-list, Elvis opened the Rapid City show with "See See Rider,'' and closed with "Can't Help Falling in Love.'' In between he did more than 20 other numbers, any one of which I would dearly have loved to have been in the civic center to hear.
Elvis was one of the first of the first-name entertainers in my experience. Anyone my age would know who I meant if I said "Jerry Lee,'' but in my experience, people called him Jerry Lee Lewis, the whole name. Same with Buddy Holly. You could call him "Buddy,'' and people of a certain age would know who you meant. But his public knew him as Buddy Holly.
"Elvis'' was Elvis. After a couple of months with his first song or two on the radio charts, nobody called him Elvis Presley except maybe Ed Sullivan and the U.S. Army. He was Elvis, a first name that made girls swoon and guys jealous. And while guys were jealous, they also were studying the entertainer, trying to get a smoky look in their eyes, practicing in front of a mirror to make the edge of their upper lip curl in a playful sneer, slicking back their hair with Brylcreem and letting their sideburns grow far, far beyond the limits of their fathers' tolerance.
Many other rock-and-rolling musicians hit the stages and airwaves at the same time Elvis did. Many were polished musicians — songwriters, instrumentalists, technicians of music. Elvis could play guitar and piano some, and he knew how a song ought to sound. But at heart, he was an entertainer. No matter where he went, he was the guy out front who drew the crowd's attention. He had the black leather outfits, the jump-suits and scarves, the oversized sunglasses and all that, but what he did best was just walk out on stage and blow the audience away by singing.
He started his career as a slender, seemingly shy kid from Tupelo, Miss., a performer who seemed unable to sing without moving every part of his body. He ended his career as "Fat Elvis,'' the puffy, sweating guy in the stretched-out jump-suit. I recognize the difference. So do the rest of his fans. But when he sang, even in his last years, his voice took his fans past all that to a place where they were young, the world was good and the future had no limit.
At some point Thursday evening or night, I'll watch a tape of the 1968 Comeback Special and the Aloha from Hawaii concert, and I'll remember growing up with Elvis.