Elvis Presley is the grandaddy of all pop icons. His image is everywhere – no entertainer besides Marilyn Monroe has been so endlessly marketed and impersonated. Thirty years after his death, sightings of The King are still reported in tabloids across the globe.
But how well do we really know Elvis? Under the layers of kitsch, the man himself is sometimes forgotten. For some, he is a caricature. This is surely an injustice to one of the finest singers in common memory, who wins the hearts of millions every day.
I’ve always been curious about Elvis’s early life – the death of his twin, his Southern background, and his close relationship with his mother. My own knowledge of Elvis comes chiefly from his music, having listened to my parents’ records as a child. Elvis And Gladys seemed like the perfect chance to rediscover the man whose voice is so familiar, but whose soul remains elusive.
The book is written by Elaine Dundy, author of one of my favourite novels, The Dud Avocado, and researched with the assistance of genealogist Roy Turner, who has also contributed to several biographies of Marilyn Monroe.
The first part of the book deals with Elvis’s ancestry, which was wonderfully diverse. He had both Cherokee and Jewish blood running in his veins, giving the lie to the notion that in the old South, races didn’t mix. Dundy examines his lineage chiefly through the maternal line, and though Elvis’s forefathers were mostly poor, she treats them with the same respect as if they were stars in their own right.
Gladys Smith Presley has often been stereotyped as a pushy showbiz mom. But Dundy expertly picks at the myth and explores not just the beginnings of a rock ‘n’ roll star, but the mother-son relationship itself. Gladys was unselfish, loving and warm – the kind of woman who would give you the shirt off her back, even if it was all she had. Her easy charm belied the many sufferings of her life, right from the outset. And yet there was a darker, sadder side to Gladys as well. From his earliest years, Elvis sensed this fragility and sought to protect her and his father, Vernon, as much as they did him.
Gladys also loved to sing, and she, Elvis and Vernon would enter talent contests as a trio. For them, performance offered an escape from their troubles and becoming a star was their wildest dream. Elvis was enthralled by Captain Marvel and other comic book heroes, and even as a boy, his secret mission was to save his beleagured family, forever perched on the very brink of catastrophe.
Then, perhaps inevitably, fame came for Elvis. The teenage truck-driver wandered into Sun Studios and Marion Keisker heard him sing. It is significant that it would be a woman who first recognised Elvis’s talent – she responded to his voice and beauty, likening him to a black man in a white boy’s body. In later years Elvis would be accused of stealing rock ‘n’ roll from black musicians. Perhaps he might not have become so famous had he not been white, but these critics fail to realise that Elvis grew up among the poor, black and white, and as a musician he did not discriminate. Their culture was his culture, too.
It is delightful to hear about those early days when the poor boy made good. He bought Gladys a pink Cadillac, a big house, and all the appliances she could wish for. After years of subsistence, Gladys and Vernon were now living out the American Dream. But they, like Elvis, were never accepted by the elite circles in which they were now expected to thrive.
It is at this point that the dream begins to go sour. Elvis was his mother’s son, thoughtful and considerate. This did him no favours in the cut-throat atmosphere of celebrity. He was quickly signed up by the shrewd, controlling Colonel Tom Parker, and his popularity (and notoriety) soared. But the artist, and the man that was Elvis Presley, was left behind. Even Gladys grew tired of the trappings of wealth, and felt isolated from her old friends. She began drinking heavily and died within a few years, leaving Elvis emotionally bereft.
The wonder of Elvis Presley, and the seeds of his tragic demise, are both powerfully evoked in Dundy’s book. It is so imaginative and passionately written that I forgot I was reading a biography – it’s as absorbing and thrilling as any novel. In Elvis And Gladys, Elaine Dundy has reclaimed the spirit of Elvis and his adoring mother, which all but his most ardent fans have overlooked for far too long.
More about Elvis And Gladys – here