Ray Connolly’s Being Elvis: A Lonely Life is a revelation. In many ways, it is the Elvis Presley biography that we’ve always needed—the one that takes us deep inside the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s dizzying highs and soul-crushing lows. Published in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Presley’s untimely death, Being Elvis traces the story of Elvis’s life and times in all of their stark reality and largesse.
Well known for his pioneering work in telling the story of the Beatles in their heyday and beyond, Connolly possesses blue-chip rock journalist credentials, speaking with authority and wisdom on a movement and an industry that has made and remade itself dozens of times since its inception. In particular, his biography John Lennon, 1940-1980 is a masterwork of rock historical scholarship. Benefitting from a 1969 interview with his subject, Being Elvis may be Connolly’s crowning achievement, a book that tells the familiar story of the King’s apotheosis, but does so within the powerful context out of which Elvis was born: the impoverished, hardscrabble world of the early twentieth-century American South.
In its finest moments, Being Elvis underscores the incredible unlikelihood that Presley would have even glimpsed pop stardom, much less eclipsed history as a cultural icon. Connolly’s description of Elvis’s hometown offers a stark reminder about the seeming impossibility of his later social mobility: “Tupelo, Mississippi, then, as now, the poorest state of the Union, was a scabby little town of about six thousand people in the thirties, and the Presleys’ little home was a frame house on blocks with no electricity and no running water on a dirt road above the creek and highway, close to the woods and farms.”
Not unlike the Beatles, Elvis was the ultimate outsider, lacking the access, network, and education to work his way into an entertainment industry that wanted little, if anything to do with his ilk. But as Connolly shows, it was this same outsider mentality that afforded him with a means for picking the locks of stardom. Also like the four lads from Liverpool who would follow in his wake, Elvis’s lowly station and lack of realistic prospects allowed him to be a big dreamer, to even dare to imagine hitting the big time in spite of the prodigious odds against success that confronted him at nearly every turn. As Elvis famously told his mother Gladys during his boyhood years, “Don’t you worry none, Mama. When I grow up I’m going to buy you a fine house and pay everything you owe at the grocery store, and buy two Cadillacs, one for you and Daddy and one for me.”
But that was only the beginning, of course. As one of its most impressive features, Being Elvis draws readers into the recording studio as Presley seeks out and refines the hit records that would make his name. In his description of the landmark recording session devoted to “Heartbreak Hotel,” for example, Connolly casts to the song as a “doomladen, spooky blues” that “practically pleaded for what Sam Phillips used to call the ‘slapback’ echo he got at Sun through his two connected Ampex tape recorder system. The RCA engineers, however, just couldn’t get the same effect. In the end the record came out sounding as though Elvis was hollering down a well. But, with the Floyd Cramer piano break in the middle, Elvis knew what they had.” Did he ever.
In a later section of the book that will be of particular interest to Beatles fans, Connolly addresses Elvis’s legendary August 1965 meeting with the Beatles in Bel Air. As it happened, the evening was laden with awkwardness. As Connolly writes, “Normally Elvis was good at putting strangers at ease, but the atmosphere in the room was starched, as all four Beatles just gazed at him, with what looked like puzzled embarrassment. Finally he found something to say. ‘Well, if you guys are just going to sit and stare at me, I’m going to go to bed,’ he joked.”
The highlight of the historic meeting was an impromptu jam session in which Elvis and the Beatles—sans Ringo, who was shooting a game of pool—played “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “See See Rider.” For much of the night, Elvis was stiff and laconic in the company of the upstart Beatles. At one juncture, John Lennon tried to break the ice with humor, adopting a comical European accent and saying, “Thank you for zee music, Elvis. Long live zee King.” As Connolly points out, John’s remark “probably came out like a snap of sarcasm. But Lennon actually meant it.” On a later, flippant occasion, John would describe the meeting as “a load of rubbish. It was just like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck.” But in truth, he knew better, making sure that members of the King’s entourage understood that “if it hadn’t been for Elvis, I would have been nothing.”
As with the Beatles, Elvis’s life—and his ability to enjoy anything approaching normalcy—was defined through the lens of his overwhelming fame. In 1970, Lennon confided to Connolly that “it was murder for us as Beatles at the height of the hysteria. But there were four of us to share it. Elvis was on his own. There was only him. It must have been impossible.” In many ways, it would be that very same isolating fame that would catch up with Elvis in Graceland in 1977—and with John, at the hands of a madman, in the Dakota archway only a few short years later.
To Connolly’s great credit, Being Elvis brilliantly captures the ways in which abject loneliness, as the most dispiriting aspect of celebrity, drains the very heart out of the artistry that once gave life to celebrity in the first place. As Connolly observes, Elvis wasn’t the first “rock ‘n’ roll singer. But he was the first rock superstar, a status which meant that not only was there no one from whose experience he could learn, but also there was no one with whom he could share the burden of being himself—of being Elvis.”