‘Sploring: The King of Rock & Roll

On a recent road trip (honeymoon!) my husband (omg, I’m married!) and I stopped for the night in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley’s hometown. There is a statue of Elvis there commemorating his 1956 homecoming concert. We stopped in to see it.

So much associated with Elvis is over-the-top, commercialized, glittery to the point where it’s hard to tell if it’s mockery, idolatry, or an extension of Colonel Tom Parker’s vision for Elvis. It’s hard, sometimes, to see authenticity.

But I did in Tupelo.

Joe Makowski was “lucky enough to have seen Elvis 81 times!” That’s true devotion. That’s love.

Laura O’Dwyer from Ireland, dedicated a brick at the statue just this year (2022), and says, “Elvis thank you for sharing your music and love.”

Every dedicated brick in the walkway has a similar message of gratitude for music shared.

Elvis grew up dirt poor. His family was into country music, and he got into gospel and rhythm & blues he heard in black communities in Tupelo.

Did white America find it easier to love Elvis than black blues and rhythm and blues musicians? I’m sure that was a factor in Elvis’ success. But I’m not convinced it was his “fault.” Elvis loved the music that was around him as he was growing up, he had an amazing voice, a genuine musical interpretation, he was charismatic, he worked hard and he got lucky.

Elvis’ music was a unique blend of the musical styles he loved, and it had a whole lot to do, not just with the birth of rock & roll in this country, but also with the “British Invasion” in the 1960s that brought The Beatles and the Rolling Stones to America. Love him or hate him, but to deny his musical influence is willfully silly.

That’s not to downplay other musicians. We wouldn’t have rock & roll without Little Richard’s flamboyant combination of gospel and blues. Nor would it sound the same without Chuck Berry’s riffs. And there is a long list of black blues musicians without whom we wouldn’t have rock & roll, or outlaw country, or heavy metal, or rap, or huge sections of pop music.

I walked around Elvis’ statue, reading the 3-line tributes on the paving bricks. And I see love. People love Elvis. His black-velvet voice, as it’s been called. For what he stirred in their hearts. And that’s real. Because here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t move you, if you hate Elvis, if you think his music sucks, if you think he’s overrated. There was an authenticity there that spangles and capes and the Colonel couldn’t cover up.  

I was thinking that day, what if Elvis hadn’t been as famous? If instead of a phenomenon, he’d been simply part of a larger musical movement? Would our world look different, maybe less divided? It seems ungrateful to wish Elvis’ fame had lifted others along more than it did. And yet, I wonder if, without the Colonel’s big fame vision, it might have.

Elvis was a true cultural catalyst. He embodied the necessary combination at that time and in that place that turned a musical style into a revolution.

But he paid for it with his life. And that’s a tragedy.


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