REFLECTIONS FROM HISTORY AND FAITH
By Jeff Olson, August 20, 2022
Note from Cheryl: Jeff submitted this piece in a timely manner. It is my fault it is being published a little late due to a vacation.
The date was August 16, 1977. The place was the Klamath National Forest in northern California. Our assignment was the “Hog Fire.” My job as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service Bighorn Interregional Fire Suppression Crew required hard work and long hours, and I had just woken up from a long and well-deserved sleep. The first thing I remember hearing was Elvis Presley singing through a portable radio one of the guys had in our tent. I always had liked some of Elvis’s music, so I was enjoying waking up to some familiar songs as a welcome addition and cheerful antidote to our long and unpredictable days. Well, over the next 30 minutes or so I began noting a pattern of one Elvis song right after another. Perhaps it was his birthday, I thought. No, that’s in January. Maybe an Elvis dedication chosen for no apparent reason at all or maybe because he was coming to do a concert somewhere in the listening area. At last I understood, when the D.J. got around to announcing that the “King of Rock and Roll” was dead. Was he serious? How could this be? He is….or was… only 42.
What follows here is simply my way of paying homage to a gifted, talented, and generous man who has been portrayed in many different ways over the past 45 years. I can probably add little if anything to what’s already been said and written about Elvis Presley, but maybe all we need from time to time is a reminder of what was good, what is enduring, and then celebrate that such a life came along and passed our way if only for a little while. Elvis had everything this world had to offer….except for what he longed and searched for the most – and which it could never provide.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Elvis had an identical twin brother, Jesse Garon, who was delivered stillborn 35 minutes before his own birth. After Elvis’ birth, Gladys was close to death and was immediately taken to a local hospital. Jesse’s death would always deeply affect Elvis, leaving him with feelings of loneliness and guilt throughout his life. It was said that this loss was perhaps the singular strongest driving force in his life. Elvis’ mother reportedly told her son “he was living for two people.” Jesse’s death also drew Elvis and his mother even closer, so close in fact that her early and untimely death in August 1958 rendered Elvis devastated. Many close to him said that Elvis changed irrevocably after Gladys’s death, grieving her loss for years and thinking about her in relation to just about everything he did.
His family attended an Assembly of God church where Elvis found his first musical inspiration. However, he would sometimes sneak off in the middle of the service to listen to the preaching and singing at a nearby black church. While in grade school, after impressing his teacher with a rendition of “Old Shep”, he was encouraged to enter a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy show in October 1945. This was his first public performance and he placed fifth. For his eleventh birthday, he received a guitar. Though he took some lessons, he was still too shy to want to sing in public again.
In the fall of 1948, in the interest of searching for a better life, Elvis and his parents packed their belongings in their 1939 Plymouth, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Until early 1953, they lived in public housing or low-rent houses in the poor neighborhoods of north Memphis. Elvis’ grades in school were average, and those in music were sometimes worse. His teacher told him he had no aptitude for music, but he set out to prove otherwise by bringing his guitar to school and singing during lunchtime. As a Hume’s High School senior, he competed in the school’s annual minstrel show, and that’s when his talent and popularity began to be noticed locally. He later recalled that music was the only subject he ever failed, perhaps because he was not very interested in learning how to read music.
Elvis graduated from Humes High School in June 1953. On July 18, he went to the Sun Records studio to record two songs as gifts for his mother, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” He recorded two additional songs the following January, but none garnered much attention. He also auditioned for a quartet and a local band, but he was told that he had no ear for harmony and that he would never make it as a singer.
Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, was on the lookout for unique talent – someone who could appeal to black audiences as well as white. As he expressed it, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Marion Keisker, Phillips’ business partner, was so impressed by Presley from his earlier recordings that she repeatedly suggested to Phillips that he should bring him back in for another audition. In early July 1954, Phillips finally agreed and had Keisker call him. Phillips sent two of his favorite session musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, to meet with Elvis and report back to him with their assessment. After talking and jamming with Presley, Moore told Phillips, “He didn’t knock me out, [but] the boy’s got a good voice.”
Phillips decided to schedule a recording session with Presley for July 5. He had him sing as many songs as he knew, but it was only when Elvis unexpectedly launched into “That’s All Right” with Moore and Black following him with backup that things began to click and gel. Phillips knew this was what he’d been looking for, so he began taping. Upon playing the recording on his radio show, the phone calls started pouring in – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The boy who was told he had no music aptitude and no future as a singer somehow successfully sang his way into a 23-year future all the way to the top. In the years to come, Elvis Presley would always acknowledge that Marion Keisker was the first to see his potential. Elvis stated at an awards presentation in 1970, “she is the one who made it all possible. Without her, I would not even be here.”
Accounts from his closest friends and family indicate that Elvis never abandoned or rejected his Christian roots. They said he was a true believer with a spiritual hunger in search of peace. Presley once stated, “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.” Throughout his life, gospel music was his constant source of solace and escape in a world (and often a prison) of fame and fortune. During his career, he received only three Grammy Awards, all for gospel/inspirational songs. According to his stepbrother, Elvis recommitted his life to Christ in December 1976 in the presence and with the prayers of evangelist Rex Humbard and his wife.
Only eight months later, Elvis would be gone. Imagining a world without Elvis Presley would take a lot of imagination, but then I realized….this world would never really be without Elvis Presley. As successful as he was in his career, Elvis would at times express doubts to some closest to him about his longevity and legacy. One, in particular, was Marian J. Cocke, Elvis’s primary/supervisory nurse during his intermittent stays at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis and subsequently his part-time resident nurse during the last two years of his life. Elvis once asked her if she thought he would be remembered after he was gone. She responded, “Yes Honey they will remember you, there’s no doubt about it.”
Forty-five years have validated Mrs. Cocke’s reassurance to Elvis. His music lives on through over 700 recorded songs (16 number ones) heard over the airwaves and played and replayed by millions upon millions of fans through the years. His persona and charisma live on through 33 motion pictures and nearly 1,700 concerts. His two-year service to his country in the U.S. Army should also be remembered. And as I write this, he is celebrated in a motion picture that to date is among the top ten of the year.
However, what all the impressive stats about his career do not tell us is what made Elvis Presley who he was – the man whose qualities still live within the hearts and memories of those who knew and loved him. In her book, “I Called Him Babe”, Marian Cocke tells us something of Elvis the man: “In time to come, as you read this, I hope I have conveyed to you the Elvis I knew. He was a good man, a kind man, a generous man, and a loving man. He never forgot his upbringing. Many times he spoke of those “lean years.” The greatest pleasure he got out of life was in doing for other people, and I truly doubt that anyone, anywhere could ever match him in generosity and kindness. Oh, I don’t mean in what he gave the world: the benefits he did, the people he helped in hospitals, the bills he paid for people he didn’t even know.” [As he told me] “Sometimes I think the one thing that would please me the most would be to give all of this away and walk through that [Graceland] gate with my daddy, in overalls and barefooted, but free.” Elvis’s favorite song is said to have been “Snowbird.” When you listen to the song again, perhaps it will take on a new and deeper meaning in light of the life of Elvis Presley.
Yes, August 16, 1977, saw the death of a king, but Elvis Presley never considered himself a king or “The King” as millions referred to him. Gospel singer J.D. Sumner recalls a woman approaching the stage in Las Vegas with a crown sitting atop a pillow and Elvis asking her what it was. She answered, “It’s for you. You’re the King.” Elvis took her hand, smiled, and told her, “No honey, I’m not the King. Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.”
I have to think that the death of a king was also the homecoming of a singer, a singer saved by grace into a new life with Christ, his King. If so, Elvis Presley was now free – his search finally over – as he moved from Graceland to the Promised Land and a reunion with his Mom, Dad, and Jesse.
Cover Image by Pastor Sam
CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/ via Wikimedia Commons