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Published on this day in 1969, but the interview took place earlier on in August.
Ray Connolly of The London Evening Standard wrote:Posted on August 17, 1969
London Evening Standard (August 1969)
‘Sometimes when I walk into a room at home and see all those gold records hanging round the walls I think they must belong to another person. Not me. I just can’t believe it’s me.’ This is Elvis Presley talking: the legend himself. The man who virtually started the rock and roll group as we know it today, who changed the course of pop music, and in so doing helped change the course of social history.
Because that, and absolutely that, has been the influence of Elvis Presley – the boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who has had more hit records than anyone else in the world.
Elvis is appearing in Las Vegas for the next month in the very grand and brand new International Hotel. This is his comeback to the stage and live performances after nine years of making only films and records. Nine years in which his hits have become fewer, but the devotion has lingered on.
Getting through to Presley is practically impossible. Security guards with guns and walkie-talkie sets shadow him day and night, and it took an interminable amount of dealings with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, to be given the VIP treatment and meet the man.
But when one does get through, how does one speak to a legend?
He is sprawling on a red Spanish sofa in the sitting-room of his back-stage suite, sipping a soft drink from a bottle. The walls are plastered with good-luck telegrams, including one from the Beatles. He’s wearing the black karate-style suit designed for his season at the hotel, and his hair, dyed pitch-black as always, is swept back off his face in the style he created fourteen years ago. His side-boards are now very long and spiked. He is certainly handsome, with reputedly the best film profile since Rudolf Valentino. Fittingly enough, he would pass for a Las Vegas gambler in a movie. But, he says, he never gambles himself.
He rises to greet guests with an almost athletic enthusiasm, then rubs his great wide rings which are heavily clustered with diamonds against a silver wrist bracelet bearing his name. He looks ever so slightly nervous.
The room is scattered with aides and friends. There are no women present. Priscilla Presley, the girl Elvis married two years ago, is up in their thirtieth floor penthouse suite. Their baby Lisa Marie, eighteen months old, is at one of their homes in California. The Colonel watches his creation like a cautious mother, only interrupting when the question of money arises. There is a story, it may be a myth, that says that he takes fifty per cent of what Elvis earns. If that is true, he must be a multi-millionaire by now.
‘We didn’t decide to come back here for the money, I’ll tell you that,’ laughs Elvis. ‘I’ve been wanting to perform on stage again for the last nine years, and it’s been building up inside of me since 1965 until the strain became intolerable. I got all het up about it, and I don’t think I could have left it much longer.
‘The time is just right. The money – I have no idea at all about that. I just don’t want to know. You can stuff it.’
‘Can we just say this,’ says the Colonel, all homespun, folksy humour. ‘The Colonel has nothing to do with Mr Presley’s finances. That’s all done for him by his father, Mr Vernon Presley, and his accountant.’
Mr Presley Snr, a fatter and greyer version of his son, nods at the formal third person way of speaking and takes another beer from the bar.
‘He can flush all his money away if he wants to. I won’t care,’ the Colonel adds.
Presley’s decision to show himself to his devoted following came as a shock. Most people had given up their idol for lost as a string of crummy, cheaply-made movies came out of Hollywood, always with Presley in the thinnest role. Invariably, the biggest expense on the film budget would be the million dollars requested for Elvis.
‘We’ve now completed all the deals I made when I came out of the army in 1960,’ he says, almost apologetically. ‘And from now on, I’m going to play more serious parts and make fewer films.
‘I wouldn’t be honest with you if I said I wasn’t ashamed of some of the movies and the songs I’ve had to sing in them. I would like to say they were good, but I can’t. I’ve been extremely unhappy with that side of my career for some time. But how can you find twelve good songs for every film when you’re making three films a year? I knew a lot of them were bad songs and they used to bother the heck out of me. But I had to do them. They fitted the situation.
‘I get more pleasure out of performing to an audience than from any of the film songs. How can you enjoy it when you have to sing songs to the guy you’ve just punched up?’
How does he combine marriage and show business? He pauses and smiles: ‘Very carefully – just very carefully.’
Did his wife object to his returning to being a sex symbol?
‘No. We plan a big family. When you’re married you become aware of realities. Becoming a father made me realise a great deal more about life.’
But marriage hasn’t reduced the sexiness of his act. On stage his guitar still becomes a sort of phallic tommy-gun, while occasionally he appears to simulate an act of rape – with the microphone. And then there are his off-the-cuff comments: ‘Don’t pull my cord, lady,’ he says, as a fan reaches for the microphone lead.
On the first night of his performance a woman in the audience began stripping, overcome by excitement. Another took off her panties to mop the sweat from his brow. He gratefully accepted them, buried his face in them, and then tossed them back. It was this threat of sexuality which fourteen years ago promoted clergymen to call for his banning and imprisonment.
His life-story is almost classically American. Born in the South, his twin died at birth and he became the idolised only son of a poor white couple, Gladys and Vernon Presley. At nineteen, when working as a truck driver, he was discovered by a small record company when he asked to make a private recording for his mother’s birthday present. By the time he was twenty-one he had sold millions of records, and created a new-style teenage anti-hero. His suit was of gold, like his Cadillacs, and his image was one of unchained anti-authoritarian youth.
If you want to go any way at all towards understanding the music and corresponding sub-cultures of the under-thirties, you have to know about Elvis Presley. He was the beginning of the rock generation. And after the startling impact he made in 1956, nothing could ever be the same again.
Today, pop music can be dated and categorised neatly into pre-Presley and post-Presley. The rock and roll that Hendrix, The Who, or the Beatles are recording today began in a more primitive form with Presley. He was the one greatest original force that pop had thrown up. And his following still witnesses this.
In England the fans have been particularly avid. ‘I don’t know why they’ve been so loyal,’ he says. ‘They’ve really been fantastic to me. I still can’t believe all the letters that come in after all this time.
‘I know I’ve been saying for years that I must visit Britain, and I will, I promise. But at the moment there are personal reasons why I can’t. I shall be doing more shows in America now. I’m very satisfied with the reaction I’ve had here in Vegas. That’s what the business is all about for me. There will be films, too, but of a more serious nature, and I’ll be making another television show for NBC.’
At thirty-four, he is thinner than he’s been for years and the work-out he does every night on stage is bringing his weight down even more. He looks like a man in his early twenties.
‘I don’t understand it,’ he said, in his slow deep drawl. ‘People keep telling me I look young. I don’t know how I do it, either. I got very heavy at one time when I was in all those movies, but I lose weight very quickly, you know.’
Apparently a shy man, he claims to have few friends in show business. ‘I guess I’m just a boy from the South. I’ve never been connected with show people. I have my own friends.’
POSTSCRIPT This interview is included here not because Elvis said anything remarkable, but because to get to Elvis was remarkable in itself. I would have wished for longer to talk to the man, and he appeared quite willing to answer questions, but the Colonel cut short the interview after a bare twenty minutes. I have to be honest and admit, however, that due to stark terror on my behalf, the questions were not particularly intelligent. I suppose I always regarded this piece as an opportunity thrown away, which is fitting really, since much of Elvis’s mid and later career was a case of talent being thrown away. In 1969 he had such hopes for serious movies and tours of the world, but by 1977 he was dead, a drug-wasted junkie. Who knows, perhaps without the Colonel’s terrible deals and the toadying of his entourage, he might have lived up to our expectations. As it was after 1969 he did little but disappoint.
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