Elvis: Young vs. Old

It's the sneer. The ducktail was cool, the voice silky, and the hips (pelvis!) lit their share of fires. But it was that sneer that told us a young Elvis Presley knew he was cool, silky, and yes, lighting fires.

John Lennon famously said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." Judging by the piercing, feedback-inducing screams that fill the soundtrack of every public appearance Elvis made between 1954 (his debut at the Overton Park Shell) and 1958 (when he was inducted into the Army), what he delivered was indeed as original as anything American pop culture had seen (was there "pop culture" before Elvis?).

The songs were necessary tools for a rising King, and they remain classics. "That's All Right, Mama" and "Mystery Train" at Sun Studio. "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock" at RCA. The man induced fainting spells with merely a transitional hum in "Don't Be Cruel." No one could croon, they said, like Sinatra. Well, listen to "Love Me Tender," still the greatest love song ever recorded. The strength of a giant, remember, is measured by how gentle he can be.

Pre-Army Elvis was the perfect post-war American icon. Gals wanted to be with him; guys wanted to be him. He was a country boy who took New York — and the rigid Ed Sullivan — by storm. He loved his mama, stayed home (buying Graceland in 1957), and when his country called him to duty, off came that ducktail. Looking back, it would be hard to invent such a star.

Elvis aged quickly, and it started the day he enlisted. He lost his mother, found Hollywood, and lost an artistic battle with Beatlemania he couldn't win. But those images of a youth who changed the world would not fade, and never will. Those images burned, and they still do in any reflection of who — no, what — Elvis Presley was. I'm here, he said. Forever. And he said so with a sneer.

— Frank Murtaugh

"Lord almighty, I feel my temperature rising . . . because your kisses lift me higher, like the sweet song of a choir, and you light my morning sky with your burning love," belted Elvis Presley in 1972.

Gone was the mama's boy who nervously gyrated his way through innumerable bubble gum hits. Also in the rear view, the contemplative artist who, rather unconvincingly, lamented his way through life "In the Ghetto."

Only a man assured of his uncontested status as King of Rock-and-Roll could sing

"Burning Love" the way Elvis did in '72. It's like a baptism by fire, cleansing the King of decades of Hollywood schlock.

Elvis wrote virtually none of his songs, but to hear him heave "Burning, burning, burning, and nothing can cool me; I just might turn to smoke, but I feel fine," is to hear a grown man in total mastery of his art. He owns that song.

The King reclaimed his music career with the '68 Comeback. "Suspicious Minds," released in 1969, introduced a mature, adult King, done with playthings like teddy bears and hound dogs. "Burning Love" is the King at his greatest, though, pouncing like a lion on his prey, bounding around the song like the Muhammad Ali of the microphone.

We all know where his highness went from there. It's a tale of grand excess: A private doctor with the horse tranquilizer hook-up. A dozen chocolate-ice cream sundaes for breakfast, or whatever you call the first meal of the day when it's served at 2 p.m. Increasingly bejeweled jumpsuits. An expanding waistline.

When we think about late Elvis, it's easy to focus on the sad, bloated creature who ascended his throne for the final time on August 16, 1977. But in 1972 no one knew his fate. And riding around in your Dodge Charger in August with the windows down and Elvis' new one blaring, it must have felt like he'd reign forever.

How hot was he? We'll let him answer that one himself: "Lord have mercy, I'm burning a hole where I lay."

— Preston Lauterbach

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