Thursday, January 05, 2012


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Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick, Little Brown and Company, 1994, 488 pp

I read this Elvis Presley biography as research on the 1950s for my memoir. When Elvis had his first big hit, "Heartbreak Hotel", in 1956, I was a nine-year-old in 4th grade. Today I know that kids that age are already up on pop music, the hits and the stars, but it was not like that in middle-class Princeton, N J. By the time I got interested in pop music, it was Bob Dylan and then the Beatles. So I never became an Elvis fan.

Subtitled The Rise of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis covers his life from birth to his army induction in 1958. He was already a huge star by then and had made four movies under the management thumb of the infamous Colonel Tom Parker. It is a good old American rags to riches story and basically the original template for all those VH1 Behind the Music features.

Elvis was in the right place at the right time. The 1950s were the beginning of the era of teenage rebellion, paving the way for the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Civil Rights was a hot new item after Rosa Parks did her thing on the bus. Elvis, with his mix of country, bluegrass and Beale Street blues, his pelvis-centered moves, and his James Dean stance was the complete package. He encapsulated it all and his screaming female fans showed the Beatles' fans how to do it.

Peter Guralnick is clearly a complete Elvis fan and the entire book sings his praises without a hint of criticism or censure. He certainly brings to life the whole Memphis recording and radio scene as well as everyday life in a small Southern city and the day to day performing grind of a rising pop star. The slightly skewed family dynamics of Elvis and his parents are covered in depth, including how Elvis became the owner of Graceland.

At some points, I grew weary of reading about every gig, recording session, TV appearance, and movie set. But I can't deny the thoroughness and depth of the account. By the end, I felt I knew Elvis Presley and his world.

(Last Train to Memphis is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it in your local bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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