More than 30 years after his death, Elvis Presley has been reduced to the shorthand of iconography. Ray Connolly remembers meeting the man
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011
Elvis Presley changed my life. I’m old enough to admit it now. Actually he changed a lot of lives. That’s the point about him, the reason why we hear his name and see his face so often, why his record company still releases two or three albums of his songs every year, why his best work can still be given away with a newspaper looking for a sales boost, and why he is recognised by his first name as easily as anyone in the world. He’s been dead for 34 years, yet everyone knows about Elvis.
I first heard him in March 1956. I was 15, a schoolboy in a small town in Lancashire. He was like nothing on earth: nothing in my world, anyway. The word “teenage” barely existed. Once you were fully grown, you were expected to dress and talk and think like a younger version of your parents. In that austere, cautious, know-your-place moment, the sound of Elvis singing “Well, since my baby left me, well I’ve found a new place to dwell” struck like a lightning bolt. His voice was stark, ghostly, echoing. Paul McCartney still talks of that record, “Heartbreak Hotel”, as being musical “perfection”. Culturally it was something else—a birth cry, perhaps, although we didn’t yet know what was being born. Whatever it was, I was determined to be included.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was not the first rock hit in Britain. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” had come out the previous year and started riots when it rang out in the film “Blackboard Jungle”, or so the papers said. Maybe, but not in the cinema I went to. “Rock Around the Clock” was sung by a pleasant, chubby, 30-year-old man with a chessboard jacket and a kiss curl who had stumbled on board a new trend. Entertaining as his Comets were, Haley’s music was beamed through a prism of early-onset middle age.
And then came Elvis, just 21, with his puppy-dog face, obscenely long hair for the time, and all the confidence of the idiot savant who had sucked in half a dozen musical styles, mixed them together and unwittingly created an idiom of his own. He even had a strange name: Elvis. We’d never heard of anyone called Elvis before. His detractors, which is to say just about everyone out of their teens, declared immediately that he was a flash in the pan who couldn’t sing.