Elvis Presley was the original pop star. His success with Sun Records in the 1950s sparked a wave of fan hysteria that would remain unmatched until The Beatles. With singles like ‘That’s Alright, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, Elvis established himself as a modern musical messiah. But, as with all musicians, his popularity was finite.
When people think of Elvis, two distinct characters tend to spring to mind. There’s the blue-collar Elvis with his jeans and acoustic guitar, and then there’s the besuited ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ Elvis of the 1970s. The former was responsible for crafting some of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll songs of the 1960s, many of which inspired second-generation rock musicians coming from the UK. The latter character, on the other hand, evokes a sort of grotesque commercialism that fellow musician George Harrison found a little disappointing.
The Beatles guitarist was, like so many of his generation, indebted to Elvis. Discussing Presley’s music in the 1980s, Harrison said: “It had an incredible impact on me just because I’d never heard anything like it. I mean, coming from Liverpool, we didn’t really hear the very early Sun Records. The first record I remember hearing was probably the big hit by the time it got across the Atlantic. It was ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ – ‘Heartburn Motel’ as Elvis called it.”
By the 1970s, Elvis was the proud owner of a substantial fortune, a huge mansion in Beverley hills and countless industry awards. In 1971, he performed a run of sold-out shows at the Las Vegas International Hotel, where he beat his previous attendance record yet again. But behind the scenes, his health was declining. Before the decade was over, Presley would be dead. “I met him in Madison Square Garden a couple of years before the end,” Harrison recalled during a round table with Paul and Ringo. “It was a bit sad really because he had all those squawking singers and trumpet players and that stuff. But he had a great rhythm section – James Burton and all that gang, and I just wanted to say to him ‘just get your jeans on and get your guitar and do [sings] ‘that’s alright with me mama’ and bugger all that other crap.”
Harrison went on to recall that, during that first meeting, Elvis looked the very antithesis of hippiedom. “When I saw him, I was like a hippie and I had denim on and all this long hair and stuff. It was in the early ’70s and I went backstage to meet him and there was, you know, one of those massive dressing rooms with miles of toilets and stuff. And so I was there talking to the guys again and he was nowhere to be seen, and then finally he came round the corner and he had that big white outfit on with all the gold things and the big belt buckle. And he looked like Ringo: all of his beard was varnished [laughs], all of his hair was black and he was tanned and stuff. And he seemed…I thought I was meeting Vishnu or Krishna or somebody, it was just like ‘wow’. And I just wanted to say ‘oh why don’t you go and do ‘That’s Alright Mama’ and ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ and get rid of all those chicks singing [whines] ‘ooooh I did it my waaay’. It was sad but he did a couple of good tunes.”