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Why Elvis? : Forget the messiah with the guitar--The King was just a sweet mama's boy whose vague dreams of stardom took him places he'd never dreamed of : LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS: The Rise of Elvis Presley, By Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown & Co.: $24.95; 560 pp.)

October 02, 1994|Frank Rose | Frank Rose is completing "The Agency," a history of William Morris to be published next year

'Last Train to Memphis," part one of Peter Guralnick's projected two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, starts off slow and easy--not with Elvis himself, but with Sam and Dewey Phillips, the two men who years later would send him down the road to stardom. This is on purpose. Guralnick aims to give us not the Elvis we already know--the larger-than-life Elvis of myth and merchandising--but "the real Elvis Presley" as he emerged from the fertile soil of the Mississippi Delta.

That puts much of the focus on people such as Sam Phillips, the Memphis recording entrepreneur whose Sun label issued Elvis' first recordings, and Dewey Phillips (no relation), the Memphis deejay who first put them on the air. It also involves setting the record straight on any number of questions, like who Sam Phillips really was and what he had in mind when he brought the 19-year-old Presley into his little storefront recording studio. For instance: Did Phillips really say, as the late Albert Goldman maintained in his 1981 biography, "Elvis," that he was looking for "a white boy who could sing like a nigger"? As capital of a vast cotton-growing region where black labor yielded white wealth, Memphis was a rich stew of folk cultures kept distinct by strict racial taboo. When Dewey Phillips, a white boy spinning colored platters nightly on WHBQ, began to pick up a white audience, that taboo started to wane. Sam Phillips' recording of Elvis was the logical next step. Was Phillips acting out of casual, unthinking contempt for black music, or out of passion and respect? It's a critical question, because in the mythology of rock 'n' roll, the racism of Phillips' ambition as reported by Goldman stands out as something like original sin.

Guralnick paints Phillips as a man whose devotion to rhythm & blues made him a serious nonconformist in the Memphis of the early 1950s--hardly the kind of man who'd say "nigger." He also says Goldman got the quote wrong, but he saves that information for a source note that fails even to acknowledge the controversy.

What we have here is a biography that is at once magisterial and quirky. A Massachusetts writer who in such earlier books as "Sweet Soul Music" and "Searching for Robert Johnson" has explored with affection and intelligence the Southern music that gave rise to rock 'n' roll, Guralnick has produced the definitive chronicle of Elvis' early years--of his rise from obscurity and his launch to unparalleled stardom. But in his zeal to scrape away the glittery encrustation of myth, to "rescue" Elvis from the mass adulation he inspired, he is relentlessly singleminded. He refuses to delve into messy questions of motivation and psyche. He declines to acknowledge exactly what it is he's rescuing Elvis from.

Despite the torrent of books on Elvis, from sizzling exposes by disgruntled ex-attendants to the tart confessional of ex-wife Priscilla, only one other writer has attempted a full-scale biography in the 17 years since his death. That was Albert Goldman, who ridiculed Elvis and his world so mercilessly that Greil Marcus--a critic with whom Guralnick has much affinity--accused him of attempting "cultural genocide." It's probably beside the point to suggest that Goldman might have been acting partly out of self-loathing, that he might have identified with Elvis in some way he was or was not prepared to admit. Yet despite its carpetbagger mentality, its eagerness to dismiss Elvis and all around him as woefully ignorant hillbillies, his "Elvis" is a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich of a book, as irresistibly over the top as a performance by the King.

Guralnick, calm and meticulous, is more akin to Sam Phillips, the musicologist he once described as a "lifelong hero." His Elvis is neither dumb yokel nor rock 'n' roll messiah, just a pimply, poor white mama's boy from the Mid-South, untutored and inarticulate, whose vague yearning to be a star lands him in worlds he never dreamed of. Though he seems nearly as much a function of time and place as of talent and personality, his rise was clearly no accident. Guralnick presents him as the vessel, Sam and Dewey Phillips as the catalysts, and rock 'n' roll as a historical inevitability that sweeps all before it like a Mississippi flood.

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