Fame is like rocket fuel. Some people have enough to take them high into the sky, but sooner or later they fall back to earth and cease to be famous. But some people rise so high that they go into orbit and stay famous for good.
Elvis Presley is one of those cultural satellites. His voice and image will probably be known as long as the human race survives, instantly recognizable to billions right around the world. Whole generations have been born and grown to adulthood since his premature death in 1977, but every new generation supplies him with new fans. For people of all ages he remains now what he first became in the 1950s: the one-and-only King of Rock n Roll.
But there was more to the music of Elvis than one style or one genre. He had a twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, at birth in 1935, but Jesse was still-born and Elvis would be an only child. He would later seem to be trying to live for his lost twin, trying to cram two lives into one, ever eager for new experiences and new challenges. His home-town of Tupelo in Mississippi was a melting-pot of cultural influences, black and white, Christian and secular, and he grew up listening to many different kinds of music, from gospel to rock, from country-and-western to blues.
He made no special mark at school and school made no special mark on him. It couldn't teach him what he was desperate to know: how to sing, how to perform and capture an audience. He had to work that out for himself and there were plenty of hard knocks and setbacks along the way. He had lucky breaks too, but it's easy to believe that he would have succeeded in the end even without them. Elvis was something special, seeming more like a force of nature than a mere human being as he harnessed an unmistakeable voice to eye-catching stage-moves and overwhelming charisma.
But even as he rose to national and then international super-stardom, he always kept his essential modesty and charm. Whatever mistakes he made in his later choices of songs and fashion, Elvis was never arrogant, uncouth or ill-mannered. He remained a southern gentleman in the best sense of the word, courteous to men and women of all races, all ages and all conditions of life. He was raised right by his beloved mother, Gladys Presley, and tried to live according to her principles. By 1955, he was famous across the south-eastern states of the United States. The following year he recorded his debut album with a big label, RCA. Entitled simply Elvis, it was the first rock-and-roll album to top the billboard chart.
Then he began to star in Hollywood films and appear regularly on television, and his fame truly began to grow. Elvis both shaped and was shaped by a new cult: the cult of the teenager. The cheering boys and screaming girls at his concerts saw themselves as distinct from their parents' generation and were looking for new music, clothes and hair-styles to prove it. Elvis was the biggest of the stars they idolized and imitated, but, exactly as his teenage fans would have wanted, he didn't win universal popularity with older people. Frank Sinatra, who had had hysterical crowds of his own in the 1940s, condemned the "rancid-smelling aphrodisiac" of rock n roll and the "cretinous goons" who performed it.
Elvis responded with good humour to the comments and Sinatra must have re-considered them, because Elvis would later guest on a Frank Sinatra Special on television. That was in 1960, after he'd served two years in the U.S. army. He'd also lost his mother, who passed away from heart failure at the early age of 46. Perhaps if she'd survived she would have been able to supply more good advice to her only child. Sadly, as time passed it became apparent that Elvis was in sore need of guidance. He was wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of his boyhood by then, but he hadn't become a performer to pore over contracts or spend hours with accountants. He relied on others for that and perhaps some of them were more interested in him for the money he made than for the magic he generated on stage.
But the magic had begun to dwindle. During the 1960s, Elvis would slowly turn into a caricature of his early self. He had been a live-wire fizzing with the primal energies of rock n roll; in the end, he became a show-biz dinosaur, lumbering on-stage in Las Vegas and Hawaii for fans who were piling on the pounds with the years just as he was. But his musical choices weren't his only problem: so were his medical choices. His doctors were prescribing drugs in startling quantities, helping to turn Elvis into a slurring addict. His mother might have cast a suspicious eye on their motives, but she was gone.
So no-one was there to save Elvis. One of the most famous men in the world, surrounded by managers and advisors, still adored by countless millions, was slowly destroying his own health with over-work and over-consumption of food and drugs. As the 1970s progressed, he came perilously close several times to over-dosing on prescription drugs. His mental state deteriorated with his body and the worse the drugs he was taking made him feel, the more he turned to drugs in search of relief. It was a vicious circle that, without outside intervention, could end in only one way.
No intervention came and in 1977 the inevitable arrived: the death of Elvis. One of the greatest performers and influences on popular culture of all time suffered a fatal heart-attack at the age of only 42. To those who had seen his final stumbling appearances on stage, it can have come as little surprise, but to millions around the world it was shocking and tragic news. Some may have mourned Elvis as a symbol of their own departed youth, but their grief was no less sharp for that.
Elvis went too soon. He still had so much to give and so much to enjoy. With better choices, better management, he might have pulled himself out of his decline or never entered it in the first place. But nothing will ever take away his early achievements or the global significance of his music. He might be four decades departed, but on record and on film he lives on, still reigning in millions of hearts as the one-and-only King of Rock n Roll.