Friday is the birthday of Elvis Presley, rock and roll’s first superstar, who would be turning 86 if he were still around.
It’s also my son-in-law’s birthday. He does a mean Elvis impersonation when the band is tight and the mood is right. It’s my wife’s first younger brother’s birthday, too. I’ve never heard him impersonate Elvis. He was a decent singer in the Statesmen back in college. I imagine he’d be more than tolerable at “Hound Dog’’ or “Heartbreak Hotel.’’
Neither my son-in-law nor my brother-in-law would be Elvis, though. He was unique, gone now since the summer of 1977. Well, most folks think he’s gone. Conspiracy theorists still push the notion that he didn’t die. Rather, he stole away to a quiet life. He’s been spotted driving truck, working a service station and any number of other pursuits far from the public eye.
My personal favorite is that he left fame, fortune and his Graceland mansion in Memphis to live a challenging but anonymous life as a lumberjack deep in the woods of Wisconsin. Sometimes I picture an aging Presley, having dropped 50 pounds — what with all that tree chopping — working a long, demanding day out in the woods, then kicking back in a little tavern, drinking a beer or two and preparing for another day on the job.
Thing is, though, when I picture him there in the tavern? I remember all of those movies Presley did after he got out of the service, and I can see him being coaxed onto the tavern’s stage some evening to sing a couple of tunes with the house band. “Hey, fellas, you ought to hear this guy sing. Come on up, Herman, and do a song with us.’’ Herman Smith is the name I give Elvis Presley there in the Wisconsin woods. Anyway, Herman/Elvis finally agrees to sing a song, he wows the crowd, he wins the heart of a young and naïve woman, he falls under the spell of an older woman, he gets in a fistfight with a bully, he comes to his sense and it’s happily ever after.
In my reverie, I ignore the part where, first time he sings with the house band, someone in the tavern says, “Hey, I’ve heard that guy before,’’ and Herman/Elvis is found out and the public goes wild, again.
Elvis leaped onto the international entertainment scene at a simple time — at least a simple time for me. I was 13 or 14 when I started to pay attention to rock and roll on the radio. In school, I was learning about the Soviet satellite, Sputnik. On the sports pages I was following the exploits of a 7-foot center from University of Kansas named Wilt the Stilt.
In the hay fields in the summer, I was trying to imitate the voice and phrasings of Elvis, who topped the playlists on the few AM radio stations that reached to the middle of South Dakota in the evenings. ”Don’t Be Cruel’’ and “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’’ were spinning endlessly. I wanted to sing those songs as wonderfully as Elvis did. That was my dream. Deep down, I suppose even I knew would never come true. But what’s the point of being 14 years old if you can’t have those kinds of dreams?
It wasn’t just Elvis on the radio. Buddy Holly got a lot of air time. So did Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone and Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent. But Elvis topped them all. Here’s something to consider: My dad wasn’t keen on rock and roll. He preferred Irish ballads and big-band swing tunes. But he liked the way Elvis sang. My mother? I’m pretty sure she had a major crush on the guy from his first record.
As for me, I liked how the music made me feel. Songs by Elvis made me happy, even the sad ones. I can’t explain it. That’s just how it was. That’s how it is still. I hear a Presley song, and I’m happy. That’s worth noting on the birthday of the guy who did that for me.