It will be 50 years this December since Elvis Presley made his famous “comeback” on TV, and it has been more than 40 years since his death. The trajectory of The King’s career can be tracked in three iconic photographs, each marking a phase of his life
1. Million-Dollar Quartet, 1956
When Elvis Presley was 13, his family moved from backwater Mississippi to bustling Memphis, a fertile riverfront crescent of black and white music—blues, R & B, jazz, country, rockabilly, gospel. It was only a matter of time before Elvis would make his way to the Memphis Recording Service, home of Sam Phillips’ Sun Record Company.
Three years before this iconic image of the “Million Dollar Quartet” was taken at Sun, Elvis had already darkened Phillips’ doorway. Several times, in fact. The first time was the summer of 1953, soon after graduating L.C. Humes High School. At that time, he paid $4 to record two treacly ballads as a gift for his mother, Gladys—“My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”.
In January 1954, he returned to cut another two songs on acetate. Sam Phillips happened to be there that day, and was impressed. Five months later, he asked Elvis to return to cut a demo of the ballad “Without You”; even though nothing came of the session, the veteran producer loved Elvis’s voice, looks and swagger. He teamed the 19-year-old with two members of a local country band, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, and after a month of daily rehearsals they got together on July 5, 1954 to make rock ‘n’ roll history, by recording “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and, at Elvis’ impromptu urging, Arthur Crudup’s 1946 tune “That’s All Right, Mama,” which quickly became a regional hit.
By December 4, 1956, when this picture was snapped by UPI photographer George Pierce, Elvis had left the Sun Records label for a lucrative deal with RCA brokered by his manager “Colonel” Tom Parker (real name: Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk). Though now a nationally known star, Elvis still lived in Memphis and just dropped by with his girlfriend (Marilyn Evans) to shoot the breeze. It just happened to be the day another Phillips’ protégé, Carl Perkins—then a rising star for his hit single “Blue Suede Shoes”—was recording new material, accompanied by a relatively unknown Memphis piano player, Jerry Lee Lewis.
At some point in the events that unfolded, another Phillips’ protégé, who’d hit the country charts of late, Johnny Cash, showed up to eavesdrop on Perkins’ planned recording session. With Elvis seated at the piano, the four began a friendly singalong jam, and the engineer on hand, Jack Clement, had the smarts to turn on the tape recorder. After running through five or so songs of dubious quality (“Paralyzed” by Otis Blackwell being the best), Elvis turned the keyboard over to Jerry Lee Lewis and left the studio. Jerry Lee then proceeded to give a master class in rock & roll piano. But, happily, not before Pierce snapped this photograph. The uncropped version of the photo shows that Evans is seated on top of the piano. This is Elvis Presley at his happiest and healthiest moment—before the Army stint, before Hollywood, before Vegas, before drugs.
Excerpts from the session:
2. Elvis Presley’s “Comeback” special on NBC-TV, aired Dec. 3, 1968 (recorded in June 1968)
History, and the counterculture, had left Elvis in the dust by 1968, the year of everything horrible: Tet Offensive, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, Chicago Police Riot, the election of Richard Nixon. In the parlance of the day, Elvis was no longer “relevant.” His endless string of lightweight (I’m being kind; they were wretched) Hollywood films and atrocious soundtrack pabulum had alienated even his most ardent fans.
Musically, this was also the year of Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, the Stones’ Beggars Banquet (and “Sympathy for the Devil”), The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, music that bore no resemblance to anything as inconsequential of what The King had lately been recording. Nonetheless, Elvis showed he still at least had a musical pulse, with the release of two singles “Big Boss Man” and “Guitar Man” and a surprisingly swift and dramatic return to his roots for this televised special, which aired on Dec. 3, after the horrors of the year had mostly transpired. The NBC special, simply called Elvis, had some prerecorded studio music but the segment that shocked and amazed every viewer was the set of songs he played “live” with the members of his original band, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana.
Swaddled in leather from head to toe, his hair dyed coal black and his eyes clear, Elvis offered a reminder to his old fans and to all the longhaired hippie freaks who’d dismissed and doubted him that he was still the King. Watching this segment 50 years later still sends chills down the spine.
“That’s All-Right, Mama” – Elvis plays some mean guitar, perfectly and simply accompanied by Moore and Fontana:
This begs the question: Why would he do anything BUT this kind of material, in this kind of set up, ever again? The answer: Las Vegas, just as Hollywood had already done, would ruin him over the next year.
3. Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon, two doomed American icons, December 21, 1970
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., is the repository of some of the most cherished documents of American history—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Louisiana Purchase. And yet, the single most popular item among the Archives’ 11 million-item collections is this 1970 photograph of Elvis Presley in the Oval Office with President Richard M. Nixon. He is standing alongside Nixon, who looks stunned that anyone of Elvis’s star power would want to hang with him. Elvis, on the other hand, looks stoned. That’s because he was—up all night on barbiturates and whatever other goodies Dr. Nick had provided for him.
How this unlikely duo came to be standing together is equally strange—revealing the darker road that Elvis would travel over the next seven years of his life. More to the point, how had Elvis gone from his triumphant 1968 leather-clad comeback to this pie-eyed visage in just two years?
Well, since that “comeback” special, Elvis had done a series of Las Vegas shows that undermined completely the “back to roots” vibe of 1968. They were garish, schmaltzy, bloated productions worthy of Liberace, not the “King of Rock and Roll”. And here he suddenly was, decked out in a purple velvet suit, a flare-collared shirt, draped in gold necklaces, topped off with a garish belt buckle that always put me in mind of professional wrestling championships.
Adding to the strangeness of the occasion, Elvis had showed up early that morning, unannounced, at the northwest gate of the White House with a 6-page letter he’d written to the president on American Airlines stationery.
In it, he wrote, “I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out…I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques.” Elvis also expressed his concern about “the drug culture, the hippie elements” as well as his interest is assisting the president in his outreach to America’s disaffected young people. As stated, America’s disaffected young people had long since moved on from Elvis, and the last human on the planet most young Americans wanted to connect with was Tricky Dick Nixon, who only six months earlier had applauded the murder of four unarmed students by the National Guard at Kent State University.
Even as the disbelief over Elvis’s appearance swept through the White House, it was music to Nixon’s ears. He bade his appointments secretary, Egil “Bud” Krogh, to write a memo about the proposed meeting with Presley (Nixon’s chief of staff wrote in the memo’s margin, “You must be kidding”). The meeting was arranged for just after noon that same day, and Presley was ushered into the Oval Office—though the gift he had for Nixon, a World War II commemorative Colt .45, was confiscated by the Secret Service. White House photographer Ollie Atkins dutifully recorded the occasion.
Presley came right to the point: he was wondering if the president could get him a badge that would make him a federal narcotics agent “at large.” Nixon conferred with Krogh, who assured him they could get Elvis something along those lines. While they waited for the badge to appear, Elvis and Nixon chatted awkwardly, reportedly talking about the vibe on stage in Las Vegas and about the Beatles. Elvis, perhaps pandering to Nixon’s prejudices rather than speaking what he honestly believed, called the Beatles “anti-American”.
When the White House staffer delivered the badge, Elvis was elated enough to give Nixon a hug. Nixon then presented Elvis’ entourage of bodyguards with gifts of cufflinks, golf balls and presidential ink pens. Reportedly, Elvis kept the honorary badge with him until his death.
Look again at the photograph. Note the dark circles under Elvis Presley’s eyes, the slight pudginess of his face and body, the cluelessness of the wardrobe for 1970 in America. Though he would live seven more years, and die on the floor of his Graceland bathroom, Elvis would, after this, become an increasingly isolated figure, constantly followed by a beefy entourage when on tour and when not on tour hiding out in Graceland. Elvis had, David Hepworth writes in Uncommon People, become a “small child” surrounded by sycophants and medical staff tending to his every need, phobia and addiction (including procuring him sexy 20-something bedmates). At the end, he was more like the queen of an ant colony, a bloated rock star simulacrum, than “The King,” a sequined Howard Hughes at the ripe old age of 42.
From the last live performance by Elvis Presley, 1977:
Two years after this photograph was taken, Richard Nixon would approve the Watergate break-in, then face the Watergate hearings in 1973 and be forced to resign in August 1974. He then spent his remaining years at San Clemente feigning relevance and running surfers off his beachfront property.
Earlier this year, HBO aired a two-part, six-hour documentary called Elvis Presley: The Searcher. It offered a compelling new perspective on The King.