If he had lived, Elvis Presley would have turned 75 years old today.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His birth certificate listed his middle name as “Aron,” later ascribed to his father’s misspelling of the Biblical reference he and his wife had chosen. Elvis had an identical twin who was given a sound-alike middle name. That child–named Jesse Garon–was stillborn and was buried on January 9. Elvis often said his middle name was given to remind him that his brother was a part of him.
Elvis began his professional musical career in 1954, at the age of 19. By the time he was 21 he was a worldwide sensation. You know the rest from there: over one billion units in records sales worldwide; 150 albums and singles certified at least gold; 40 top ten singles and 18 number one hits; thirty-one motion pictures, plus two more concert films; the highest rated TV broadcast in history–twice. They don’t get bigger than Elvis.
That sounds cliche, but it really can’t be more true. Elvis defined the story arc of a rock ‘n roll legend. He was a poor, good-looking kid with an immense amount of talent. He had a quick rise to fame and became as big a star as there ever was. All of it was balanced on his musical hybridity, his commodification in mass media, and his distinct appeal to a younger generation (coupled with an active loathing of him by vocal contingents of an older generation). He parlayed his musical stardom into television and motion picture success; he became a “has been” who only had followings among a bunch of grown-ups and preteens before having a “comeback” in his early middle age. He tour extensively, even going to Vegas–a town he opened up to a new clientele. He ended his career as something of a joke, a bloated and crumbling god, almost playing a caricature of his former iconic self. He died of a drug overdose, and became as large in death as in life.
All other rock stars since him have been impersonators of him, even if they are departing from his story. He is the North Star in our commercial, musical, popular culture.
I’ve written a lot about Elvis on this blog, and I will probably write a lot more in the future. Back when this site was hosted on Blogger, the very first post on Latino Like Me (in August 2007) was about the 30th anniversary of the death of the King. His death is an event I remember very well, even to this day, although I was only 5 years old at the time. It stands out to me now as a reference point for this, the anniversary of his birth.
The above picture is of Elvis during his final concert performance in June 1977. This is the man who died less than two months later. Visually and otherwise, he has but the faintest connection to the image of the star I posted at the start of this entry.
I have spent most of my life consciously knowing of Elvis Presley–the man and the legend–as a dead person. The dead Elvis has been surrounded in the glorious tragedy and obscure minutia of his tragic demise–the drugs, the loneliness, the excess, the pain.
Strangely, at the same time, I have also grown up knowing another Elvis, a living breathing one. This one is wrapped up in youth, in the 50s and 60s, in talent and passion and hysteria.
The birthday of Elvis is not disconnected from the anniversary of his death. I don’t think it can be. But, at least for me, it is primarily an occasion that brings up memories of things that happened long before I ever lived but that made lasting impacts on my life nonetheless.
The 75th birthday of Elvis Presley is real, even though he isn’t alive to experience it. That’s because of another thing he meaningfully embodied, not in life but in death–immortality through culture.