BY JEFF OLSON –
Notable events in American History are quite often remembered by those living at the time through recalling where we were and/or what we were doing when they occurred. For instance, my father remembered quite distinctly where he was when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, and some of you may still remember where you were when President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963. Of course there are other examples, but this week I want to highlight a moment from our history which many of us may still remember and one which struck deep within our society and culture. Forty years ago this week, the “King of Rock and Roll” died in his home in Memphis, Tennessee.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Elvis had an identical twin brother, Jesse Garon, who was delivered stillborn 35 minutes before his own birth. His family attended an Assembly of God church where Elvis found his first musical inspiration. However, he would sometimes sneak off in the middle of the service to listen to the preaching and singing at a nearby black church. While in grade school, after impressing his teacher with a rendition of “Old Shep”, he was encouraged to enter a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy show in October 1945. This was his first public performance and he placed fifth. For his eleventh birthday, he received a guitar. Though he took some lessons, he was still too shy to want to sing in public again.
When Elvis was 13, his family moved to Memphis. His grades in school were average and those in music were sometimes worse. His teacher told him he had no aptitude for music, but he set out to prove otherwise by bringing his guitar to school and singing during lunchtime. As a Hume’s High School senior, he competed in the school’s annual minstrel show,and that’s when his talent and popularity began to be noticed locally. He later recalled that music was the only subject he ever failed, perhaps because he was not very interested in learning how to read music.
In August 1953, Elvis went to the Sun Records studio to record two songs as gifts for his mother. He recorded two additional songs the following January, but none garnered much attention. He also auditioned for a quartet and a local band, but he was told that he had no ear for harmony and that he would never make it as a singer.
Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, was on the lookout for unique talent, someone who could appeal to black audiences as well as white. As he expressed it, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Marion Keisker, Phillips’ business partner, was so impressed by Elvis from his earlier recordings that she repeatedly suggested to Phillips that he should bring him back in for another audition. In early July 1954, Phillips finally agreed and had Keisker call him. Phillips sent two of his favorite session musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, to meet with Elvis and report back to him with their assessment. After talking and jamming with Elvis, Moore told Phillips, “He didn’t knock me out, [but] the boy’s got a good voice.” Phillips decided to schedule a recording session for July 5. He had Elvis sing as many songs as he knew, but it was only when he unexpectedly launched into “That’s All Right” with Moore and Black following him with back up that things began to click and gel. Phillips knew this was what he’d been looking for so he began taping. Upon playing the recording on his radio show, the phone calls started pouring in and the rest, as they say, is history.
The boy who was told he had no music aptitude and no future as a singer somehow successfully sang his way into a 23 year future all the way to the top. In the years to come, Elvis Presley would always acknowledge that Marion Keisker was the first to see his potential. Elvis stated at an awards presentation in 1970, “she is the one who made it all possible. Without her I would not even be here.”
Accounts from his closest friends and family indicate that Elvis never abandoned or rejected his religious roots, his beliefs about Christianity. They said he was a true believer, but he also had the hunger of a spiritually-starved man in a sincere search for peace. Elvis once stated, “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.” Throughout his life, gospel music was his constant element of solace and escape in a world of fame and fortune. The only Grammy Awards Elvis received were for his gospel records. According to his stepbrother, Elvis recommitted his life to Christ in December 1976 in the presence and with the prayers of evangelist Rex Humbard and his wife.
Sometime in the afternoon or evening of August 16, 1977, I awoke from a much needed sleep after having been on the fire line for over 12 hours on a forest fire in northern California. What I heard then was a radio program paying tribute to Elvis Presley. I wasn’t sure just why, but I learned soon enough. It didn’t seem real at first, a world without Elvis, but then I realized that this world would never really be without Elvis Presley.
This was a moment from America’s history which would not be forgotten. Yes, a king had died, but Elvis Presley never considered himself a king or “The King” as many referred to him. Gospel singer J.D. Sumner recalls a woman approaching the stage in Las Vegas with a crown sitting atop a pillow and Elvis asking her what it was. She answered, “It’s for you. You’re the King.” Elvis took her hand, smiled, and told her, “No honey, I’m not the King. Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.” I would like to believe that the death of a king was the homecoming of a singer saved by grace into a new life with the King of Kings. If so, Elvis’s search was finally over.