Just Another Boy From Tupelo: Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley

My mom’s a big Elvis fan, which means I’ve heard his music more or less forever. Hell, she once had an Elvis impersonator she was a fan of over for dinner. Then again, my hometown’s big into this scene, too. Growing up, there was a 50s rock festival every summer. A few towns over, there’s an annual Elvis festival. It was hard not to get tired of his music growing up.

But it’s hard not to be curious about the man, too: he’s so iconic in music, it’s impossible not to be aware of his shadow. There are tons of quickie, scandal-ridden biographies, the depictions of him as a pill-addled maniac in popular culture, even the iconic photo of him shaking hands with Nixon. By the time I got around to this book, I figured I already knew everything I needed to about Elvis: he got famous back in the day, made some movies, got fat, hooked on drugs and died. And as Peter Guralnick shows in the first volume of his two-part biography of Elvis, I was completely wrong.

In some ways, I’m surprised a book like this hadn’t been written before: a straight telling of Elvis’ life, cutting through the bullshit with an objective viewpoint, while still remaining sympathetic to the man himself. In other words: a book about Elvis, the world he lived in and how each influenced the other. Not about the idle gossip or rumours.

Here, Guralnick cuts right to the roots of Elvis, looking at him before he was famous, driving a truck for an electrical company and hanging out at Sun Records, looking for a recording gig. It’s a fascinating read: we see Elvis living in the projects, barely making it through school and working hard for a living. Throughout this book, this Elvis is always right at the shadows; even as his fame went through the roof and he bought Graceland, he still realized where he came from and was appreciative of his fans, going out and signing autographs and taking pictures. It’s a cliché to say celebrities love their fans, but at this point in his career, Guralnick makes a point of showing Elvis really did: on a regular basis, he’d go out to sign autographs for fans and press some flesh.

The musical side of his life is also illuminated. I have memories of Elvis as a singer who danced around, but there was more to him than that. He had rudimentary guitar skills, played some piano and learned songs after just a few listens. While he served something of an apprenticeship from Sam Phillips at Sun Records, he was always a driven, determined musician who was going to make it, one way or another. When Guralnick writes of the many sessions Elvis had, it becomes clear that Elvis was always a perfectionist, demanding take after take, sometimes radically altering the song in the studio until it sounded the way he wanted it to.

Just as interesting is the supporting cast: Gladys, his worrisome mother (who Elvis was utterly devoted to); his moody, jaded dad Vernon; Dixie Locke, the woman he nearly married right before finding success and remained close to, even after they separated; the eccentric DJ Dewey Phillips, whose show inspired Elvis and helped popularize his music; and of course, Tom “Colonel” Parker, the smart, shrewd and ruthless promoter who all but turned Elvis into a rock star and then into an industry.

Rating: 9/10. Music biographies don’t come better than this and I can’t wait to read the second volume. Recommended for rock fans, especially if you think you already know everything there is to know about Elvis; you don’t, not even close.




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