ELVIS AND JOANNA – And Priscilla And A Few More

The reddish hair tint aside, at the age of 70 Priscilla Presley is starting to look like she did when she was 14, the age at which she captivated GI Elvis, ten years her senior, in Germany. This was evident last week when I watched her being interviewed on TV by Jonathan Ross, after which Elvis Costello snatched up the Gibson J200 acoustic guitar that once belonged to Elvis that Priscilla had brought along and gave us a verse or two of ‘Alison’, rounded off by a short coda from ‘Suspicious Minds’. Priscilla looked bit surprised, as if the Elvis she didn’t marry might make off with it, and was clearly unsettled by Ross’ rather spontaneous wit after the more deferential approach of American chat show hosts.
         Her similarity to her 14-year-old self was even more obvious last night during an ITV programme called Elvis And Me, hosted by Joanna Lumley who was filmed interviewing Priscilla in London, Memphis and Tupelo, and included scenes which were intercut with images of her as a teenager alongside her soldier boyfriend. Partly this was to do with make-up, caked on now just as it was 56 years ago, but it was also because these days Priscilla is desperately trying to look younger than her years whereas in 1959 she was desperately trying to look older than she was. Somewhere in between they might meet and look identical but I have always thought that when Priscilla adopted the more natural look that conflicted with Elvis’ rather outdated penchant for cheesecake beauty queens with beehives, she was a truly beautiful woman.
         Joanna Lumley’s rather gushing style has irritated me in the past but I was pleasantly entertained by Elvis And Me and prepared to overlook the inevitable dollops of saccharine that she and Priscilla brought to the show. It opened with scenes from Abbey Road studios where the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was putting the finishing touches to backing tracks that would be overdubbed – or is it underdubbed – with Elvis’ existing vocals on a slew of songs, mostly ballads, for his If I Can Dream: Elvis With The RPO album, specifically ‘American Trilogy’ which turns out to be one of Priscilla’s favourites. This shameless plug for the album was probably the price that the producers of Elvis And Me had to pay for Priscilla’s co-operation but I was a bit surprised to learn that it was her who drew Elvis’ attention to ‘American Trilogy’, an arrangement of three existing songs first recorded in 1971 by country singer Mickey Newbury, which Elvis incorporated into his concerts the following year. I always thought Elvis believed his women should keep their opinions to themselves, especially as regards his business, and stay in the kitchen.
         Then it was off to Memphis for a tour of Graceland and Tupelo where the tiny shack in which Elvis was born has been turned into a shrine. Joanna made it clear that, sensibly, she fancied the young Elvis much more than the white jump-suited Vegas Elvis, and informed us that she had adopted Elvis’ sneer for the lopsided smile used by Patsy Stone, her character in Absolutely Fabulous.
         Clearly an enthusiastic fan, she was welcomed courteously into Graceland by Priscilla who seems now to have been anointed the Presley widow, though this isn’t strictly the case as they were divorced at the time of Elvis’ death, and therefore hostess of the iconic house correctly described as ‘the second most famous home in the USA’. No one’s going to question these assumptions, least of all Joanna as she was shown around a bedroom, the lounge with its grand piano that Elvis would play late into the night when he suffered from insomnia, the dining room where large meals were consumed and two ‘playrooms’, one with three big TV screens set into the wall, and where the bars served only milk and soft drinks because Elvis wasn’t a boozer. You probably don’t need me to tell you that the décor throughout is a bit like those palaces occupied by middle-eastern dictators whose courtiers value their lives too much to suggest that perhaps the colour scheme might just be a tad on the extravagant side.
         From Memphis Joanna went to Tupelo to sit on the porch outside his birthplace, inside which no cameras are allowed, to talk to one of Elvis’ childhood friends and to visit the chapel where he prayed and sang. Then it was back to Memphis for a visit to the Sun Studios where old pal George Klein reminisced, thence to a diner where Joanna chatted with Dixie Locke, Elvis’ first girlfriend who vouchsafed that he was a good kisser, and finally to Lanksy Brothers clothing store where Elvis bought his gear and where utterly fantastic western clothes, many of them modelled on the outfits that Elvis wore in the fifties, can still be bought. Joanna tried some on and very fetching she looked too, and I’m kicking myself that when I was in Memphis in 1977 I didn’t kit myself out there as well.
         Joanna’s final interview was with Jerry Schilling, long serving member of Elvis’ entourage, who tried to be discreet about Elvis’ relationship with Colonel Tom Parker but failed and it was here that a bit of grit entered the picture. Diplomatically prefacing her inquiries with the words ‘Some people say that…’ she gently led Schilling on to admit that Elvis and Parker had rowed about performing in the UK, the arguments usually ending with the Colonel spitting at Elvis: “Well you go on then, do it yourself.” Parker, of course, knew that Elvis was no more capable of organising a European concert tour that he was of arranging a trip to the local shops.
         Elvis And Me concluded on a sad note, unavoidable really. “Touring killed his marriage and that killed him,” said Schilling. “He died from a heart attack brought on by food and drug abuse,” said Joanna more accurately a few minutes later. “He sold a billion records but died with only five million dollars in the bank. He’d given it all away.”
         As ‘authorised’ Elvis documentaries go, this was an hour well spent.

(The photo was taken by Jaimie Gramston)


Ian Gordon Craig said...

I admire Priscilla for her handling of the Graceland Estate after Elvis died. Although they had been divorced c.4 years by that point, without her initiatives the estate would probably have been lost and, though I've never been there, it occupies an "important" place in the history of contemporary entertainment.

Regarding the interior of Graceland: What we see today is Priscilla's restoration of how it looked when she lived there. Elvis's subsequent girlfriend, Linda Thompson, redecorated the place c.1974 in what was then considered a more contemporary style. (She loved the color red). Priscilla changed it all back before it opened up to the public. But it looks great, and certainly more credible than that glossy white “shotgun shack” in Tupelo, on which I expect to see solar panels any day now.

I (grudgingly) think Jerry Schilling's assessment of Colonel Parker's abilities were quite accurate. Certainly he lacked any artistic vision, but as a manager he saw his responsibility as simply one of making money rather than developing his client. Classic Elvis albums like the wonderful post-army "Elvis Is back" failed miserably in sales terms when compared to the dross of the movie soundtracks. Similarly, attempts at "dramatic roles" in films like “Flaming Star” and “Wild in the Country”, didn't attract significant audiences when compared to embarrassments like “Blue Hawaii” or “Girls Girls Girls” etc. The blame for not deciding to opt for the art of it, rather than the dollars, ultimately has to rest with Elvis.

One can argue for ever about what actually was the first rock n roll record, but Colonel Parker's actions and attitude unwittingly invented the pop industry as we know it: Posters, calendars, dolls, lunch boxes, That marketing approach, where the musical product was almost secondary to what could be gained from exploiting the image, was the real “first”. The tragedy is, his client’s genuine ability and genius was tainted and side-lined as a result.

I won’t be buying the new orchestral album, but it has more merit then The Colonel’s compilation “Elvis Sings for Children and Adults To”, released soon after Elvis died.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Yes, full marks to Priscilla for the way she handled the estate and for standing up to Parker. I won't be buying the orchestral album either. Thanks Ian.

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