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Stanley Booth article, 2002

Sun Aug 11, 2013 9:43 pm

As most of you probably know, Stanley Booth is one of the best rock writers around.

As early as 1968, he wrote about Elvis and interviewed Dewey Phillips, for publication on Esquire magazine. He's mostly known as a Rolling Stones expert - he's written several books on the band. For more on him, his Wikipedia entry may be a good introduction, with several links to some of his works.

The following Stanley Booth article was published eleven years ago by Mojo magazine in the UK. When I first read it, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever read about Elvis. I still think the same, basically. Some of you may find it a bit irreverent and provocative in places, but I feel there's a deep respect for Elvis hiding behind those lines. And a deep disrespect for all the hoopla that surrounded Elvis from almost day one.

I've transcribed the article directly from my copy of the magazine, leaving nothing out, adding nothing. If somebody feels that by posting this article here I'm violating some kind of copyright, please do let me know and I will delete the post right away.

I just felt I had to share this piece with those of you that may not know it :

“Lookin’ For Trouble ?” – by Stanley Booth – Mojo magazine, issue 101 (April 2002).

"During Elvis Presley’s lifetime, he was regarded by the so-called quality in Memphis the same way the Grand Ole Opry was then regarded by the upper crust in Nashville: as an embarrassment. At best. Now the vernacular music of the American South is studied by PhDs and other serious folk; then, it was just a bunch of low-class noise.

But that was, as they say in the South, a way long time ago. Elvis has since been explicated by people who might more reasonably have been expected to be Talmudic scholars, as well as by his ex-wife, associates, complete and total strangers, and numerous best friends. So much has been written about him that someone recently asked me whether anything remained unsaid. The answer is yes.

Elvis grew up in Memphis’s L.C. Humes High School neighborhood. Bordered on the west by the Mississippi River, it descended from the city limits on the north to include the Vollintine Ghetto, a Jewish enclave on the avenue of that name, continuing southward to Joe Cuoghi’s Poplar Tunes Record Store, never nearing the affluent environs of East Memphis.

During the 25 years I lived in Memphis, I spent a lot of time in the Humes area, among Elvis’s former neighbours. They included a career Navy officer who, in the morning of December 7, 1941, standing watch on a supply ship near Honolulu, witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbour; a 13-year-old femme de plaisir; a world-class ballet dancer (a pretty pink-and-white thing he was, too); an underage male prostitute AWOL from the Army; a number of teenagers addicted to model airplane glue; a Vietnam War grass widow who celebrated, in a workout room with a whorehouse mirror, matinée encounters with two men, one of them a friend of her soldier husband; a seven-year-old girl from the Hurt Village housing project who had sex with her slightly older brother and his friends; and a lot of other interesting people. Elvis wasn’t that unusual, compared to his neighbours.

Still, one of Elvis’s classmates remembers that he wasn’t allowed to associate with Elvis and Elvis’s friends, “because them boys was hoods”. George Klein, president of Elvis’s graduating class, later procurer to The King, lasted in the inner circle partly because he was nice to Elvis early on. George’s mother wouldn’t let that redneck guy in her house, but Elvis could sit on the porch and talk with George after school, and Elvis never forgot the hospitality.

In 1967 I was 25 years old, living in Memphis, a scarcely published (and extremely hungry) writer. My friend John Fergus Ryan, an older Memphian, was then publishing his “funny stuff” in such periodicals as Kulchur and Esquire. The latter, edited at the time by Harold Hayes and Robert Sherrill, among others, was one of the best-ever American magazines. Esquire asked Ryan to profile Elvis, and Ryan’s (uncharacteristically unfunny, as well as unlucky) way of approaching the problem was to write Colonel Parker a letter saying that, seeing as Elvis was loved by everyone except intellectuals, if the Colonel would permit him to interview Elvis, he’d make the intellectuals love Elvis too. Parker, no fool, knew there were only a dozen or so intellectuals on the planet and never responded to Ryan’s request.

Eventually, I asked Ryan if he’d mind my taking a crack at the Elvis story, and he generously invited me to have a go. Elvis and I were not running buddies, but my family’s doctor was Charles Clarke, who had been Gladys Presley’s physician. My mother went to the beauty parlour patronised by Priscilla Presley (she’d be a good-looking girl, Mother used to say, if she’d wipe all that stuff off her eyes), and I also knew a number of people in Elvis’s circle. However, the key, I felt, would be finding Dewey Phillips, the disc jockey who played the first Elvis record on the radio. Elvis had listened to Dewey, as did most everybody in the Mid-South, from the time Dewey started on WHBQ radio ar the end of 1949, at least until Elvis became a recording artist. Dewey’s story is, in the words of Memphis music legend Jim Dickinson, “the untold story of rock’n’roll”.

Dr. Clarke’s son Charlie (he turned me on to a band called The Rolling Stones) knew Dewey, who’d fallen from fame to obscurity. When I located Dewey, working at what appeared to be a deserted furniture store in Millington, Tennessee, a few miles north of Memphis, Charlie and I drove up to see him. It was the beginning of a brief but intense friendship between Dewey and me. Dewey would die in September of 1968; he was 42, the same age Elvis was when he died nine years later. With Dewey I went to Graceland, to Elvis’s Circle-G Ranch, to Sam Phillips’ recording studio, and many other places. The story I wrote appeared in Esquire in February 1968. Not much, except in fan magazines and hostile newspaper reports, had been written about Elvis before.

One night, years later, I walked down Memphis’s Beale Street with three men who would write books about Elvis. None of them, it might almost go without saying, ever lived in Memphis, or for that matter, the South. The Lansky Brothers’ clothing store was still on Beale, and in the front display window, beside such items as a yellow pinup suit with scalloped lapels, there was a large black-and-white photograph of Elvis circa 1957 – the light-brown hair, furry sideburns, slicked-back ducktails. My companions regarded the picture for a time, rapt with reverence and awe. Then one spoke: “Like a creature from another planet”, he said. The speaker was, I knew, from Berkeley, California. I looked at him as if he were a creature from another planet. To explain why, I should go back a bit.

When Elvis’s career began, I was living in the South Georgia town of Thomasville. My best friend, Len Robinson, played clarinet and sax in his parents’ band. Len’s mother played drums; his father, a fireman, played and arch-top guitar, drove a Roadmaster Buick and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and had long sideburns. Growing up in the post-war South, I was surrounded by people who looked and acted lke Elvis. Another planet ? Not the one I was raised on.

The 70’s killed Elvis and nearly killed me. In 1978 I fell off a mountain in North Georgia onto my already knotty head, bruising my brain and breaking my back. My recovery led to a stupendous as well as stupefying drug dependency, which I overcame with the aid of Dr. George Nichopoulos, who had been Elvis’s personal physician. I met Dr. Nick, as he’s called, shortly before he was accused – if not in so many words – by Geraldo Rivera, among others, of killing Elvis with excessive prescriptions of drugs. Knowing Dr. Nick as I did, I found the accusations unbelievable. I attended his Board of Medical Examiners hearing and a later criminal trial. Both cleared Dr. Nick of any culpability in Elvis’s death, but nobody seems to remember that.

Dr. Nick was Elvis’s tour physician; the thousand of pills prescribed were for back-up singers, musicians, technicians, flunkies, as well as the Pelvis. Many of the medications were never consumed. He expended enormous efforts to keep drugs from Elvis and more than once saved Elvis’s life. The only people who understood that, apparently, were the jury who tried him. People write, over and over, that Elvis died from drugs. That it’s untrue deters no one from repeating it. (Elvis’s worst abuse was of laxatives; his colon was horribly distended).

Elvis never knew about Evelyn Waugh, Ivie Anderson, William Carlos Williams and a great many other people worth knowing. He was, all his life, culturally deprived, in many ways a pathetic figure. But he didn’t die from drugs. Victims of oral overdoses are found in languorous, relaxed positions, not pitched forward, head down, arse in the air. The truth, as Memphis Medical Examiner Jerry Franciscus spoke it, is that Elvis died, like his mother, of a bad heart. Anybody who reads the numerous cookbooks presenting Elvis’s favorite recipes knows what killed the Presley’s : they fried their ham in bacon grease. Charlie Feathers, Elvis’s Sun Records stablemate, may have said it best : “It wasn’t drug that killed Elvis, it was breakfast”.

One other point concerns Elvis’s desire for police badges. It wasn’t just a personal quirk. I know from firsthand observation that there were girls in the Humes neighborhood who would sleep with anybody wearing a badge. It was a blue-collar district. Most people there worked for the International Harvester tractor company, Kimberly Clark (they made paper towels and toilet tissue), or Firestone Tire and Rubber, probably the area’s biggest employer. To be a fireman or a policeman was the highest of ambitions; the girls knew it, and so did Elvis. Many nouveau riche Memphians, including even Elvis’s “discoverer” and mentor Sam Phillips, devoloped patrician airs. Elvis stayed true to his raising, such as it was. He simply never learned any better.

But still there is more to be said about Elvis. I have been working for some time on a semi-fictional “memoir”. Elvis’s account of his early years among the era’s heroic musical figures in Memphis: Sam, Dewey, Bill Justis, Jack Clement, the Reverend Herbert Brewster, and Queen C. Anderson, among others. Not long ago I mentioned this to the young woman who was then serving as my agent. She called back to say that she’d talked to an editor friend who’d advised her that my idea was a bad one : “People don’t like their icons shattered”.

Shattered ? To my mind, the best thing about Elvis was his respect for the under-appreciated geniuses that, as a youth, he walked among. Unlike the other Elvis explicators, be they hagiographers or desecrators, I knew many of the people who inspired Elvis, and I know what Memphis was like in those years. But I never was any good at taking advice from people who may know what business types think in New York, Los Angeles and London, but know nothing about the world where Elvis lived and, God help him, died from eating hog fat."

Re: Stanley Booth article, 2002

Sun Aug 11, 2013 10:11 pm

Although I am a regular reader of MOJO, I never read this. Thanks for sharing.

Re: Stanley Booth article, 2002

Sun Aug 11, 2013 10:14 pm

There was a version of this published elsewhere; I believe it was TV Guide. Thank you for sharing this very complete version. I like his main point about Elvis's culture as unappreciated and class-bound. I think his opinion about Nick and Elvis' death is irrelevant, has a conflict of interest, and there's a myth repeated about drug deaths that's not true. But overall, a good piece. His Esquire piece is a classic. rjm