Last week I learned that Conan O’Brien is a huge Elvis fan and has a deep knowledge of all things Elvis. This was very apparent when I watched a recent video interview he did with probably the best expert there is on Elvis, Peter Guralnick. So, I rushed to write a blog article about Conan’s love for Elvis.
Unfortunately, in last week’s post I zipped past Guralnick too quickly, and that’s not right. Guralnick is a leading music critic, writer on music, and historian of American popular music. He has been writing books chronicling the history of blues, country, rock and roll and soul since he graduated from Boston University in 1971 with a master’s degree in creative writing. The first of Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley in 1994, told the happy, inspiring story of Elvis’ life and career up to his departure for Germany in the Army. I own this book and read it many years ago. I liked it a lot.
Guralnick followed with Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley in 1999, and I started to read this one, too, but I just couldn’t handle the down side of Elvis’ life. There are some things I just don’t care to dwell on. However, both books have been acclaimed as in-depth, scholarly examinations of Elvis Presley’s life and music.
My favorite Guralnick book is Elvis – Day By Day, co-written with Ernst Jorgensen.
It has been a valuable aid in writing numerous ElvisBlog articles. Lots of little known facts, and 300 photos, too. Guralnick was granted unprecedented access to hundreds of thousands of photos, documents, letters, artifacts, and memorabilia by Elvis Presley Enterprises and Colonel Parker. So, let’s look at some of the points Guralnick covered in chatting with Conan O’Brien about Elvis.
You are probably aware of Elvis’ spiritual awakening in the 60’s, but did you know it had an effect on his music? Guralnick said, “Between ’64 and mid-’66, He never went into the recording studio except to record the movie songs. The reason was not because the movies were killing him. The reason was that what he wanted to do every waking moment, morning, noon and night, was to study his religious texts.” The Colonel decided Elvis had to break out of this pattern, and the way would be to record a gospel album. “That’s what brought him back into the studio to record How Great Thou Art. But, while he’s doing that, he’s also doing all the songs like “Down in the Alley.” He would just go from one to another. That essentially began his regeneration.”
And you probably think Elvis never toured Europe was because Col. Parker was an illegal alien (from Holland), and he was afraid he might not get back into the U.S. Conan stated, “Had Elvis toured Europe, they would have lost their minds. The Europeans would have gone crazy for him. They always desperately wanted Elvis to tour.”
However, Guralnick disagreed that the Col. Parker angle had anything to do with it. He based that on interviews with Tom Hulett, the promoter for many of Elvis’ American tours. “I got the same thing from Helett that I got by inference from the Colonel. That basically, they were afraid to take him to Europe. Why? He’d get busted… because of everything that was happening. Paul McCartney’s getting busted. There were a lot of busts going on. The Colonel used the term ‘We can’t guarantee Elvis’ security overseas.’ And you can read that the way I think he meant it. I mean, he was never going to say it.”
Conan asked another question about the Colonel. “You got closer to the Colonel than anybody. What was your take on the guy?” Guralnick replied, “Col. Parker, whom I very much liked, was a fascinating guy… Elvis saw the Colonel as being the one person who could take him to other worlds – the worlds he wanted to go to. It was a partnership that worked very well for many years. One of the great things about the partnership is that everybody in Hollywood, everywhere they went, took them as total yokels. And the two of them just chortled, I mean, took these guys who were taking them for rubes, and taking them for everything they had. Hal Wallis was ready to tear his hair out… over and over again, in which he was taken contractually by somebody he felt so superior to.
Did you know Elvis had a photographic memory? Guralnick says so: “One place he seemed to get some joy – he was a big movie buff. Dr. Strangelove, Monty Python. He could recite all the lines from Monty Python.”
“He had a photographic memory. When he was a kid, he memorized Gen. MacArthur’s farewell speech. He was so admiring of Dr. Martin Luther King, that he could recite the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
Guralnick spent some time discussing efforts by Col. Parker, Vernon, Dr. Nick and the Memphis Mafia buddies to intervene and help Elvis with his prescription medication problem. They never worked. “He was in the hospital in ’73 in Memphis for a form of glaucoma, and Dr. Nick brought in two psychiatrists under the guise that they were optometrists who were consulting. Elvis immediately saw though it.”
Conan O’Brien made one final lament to Guralnick near the end of the 72-minute interview. “I think about this with Elvis, wishing that, or hoping, that he could have been well enough to live longer and see, you know, how respected he is now by people like you, by intellectuals, by historians. How he’s achieved that status.”
Again, I recommend that you click here and watch this fascinating interview between Conan O’Brien and Peter Guralnick. You won’t be disappointed.
Last week’s article ended with a tease about Conan singing Elvis songs on the next one. Now that Peter Guralnick has been given the attention he deserves, we’ll try to cover Conan singing Elvis next week.
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