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The King

August 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: Well, get out of that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was 1956, when an unknown twenty-one year old from Tupelo, Mississippi, changed the face of American music and cultural history, seemingly forever.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: I believe you were doing me wrong and now I know. I believe you were doing me wrong and now I know.

PAUL SOLMAN: His name. – Elvis Aaron Presley, his trademark–lips that quivered and hips that quaked.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: Shake, rattle, ‘n roll. I said shake, rattle, ‘n roll. I said shake, rattle, ‘n roll. I said, shake, rattle, ‘n roll.

PAUL SOLMAN: In his first live TV performance on the Dorsey Brother’s Stage Show, the man moved with such vigor, an aerial camera was needed to keep him in view.

Starting out in the early 50’s as part of the “Blue Moon Boys,” Elvis mixed a brand of rhythm and blues with country music– a sound that would become a hallmark of rock and roll.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: We’re going to rock–

PAUL SOLMAN: Enter “Colonel” Tom Parker, who looked at Elvis and saw money signs. The fast talking manager orchestrated a deal with RCA, which paid off immediately when “Heartbreak Hotel” topped the charts.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: – I’m so lonely I could die–

PAUL SOLMAN: But this was the 1950’s, the America of Eisenhower, conformity, complacency, and racial segregation. Elvis’s black sound, his emphatic hair, his even more emphatic pelvis–aroused pre-pubescent, pre-rebellious baby boomers. Their parents were often outraged. But thanks to TV, the kids won out. One of the first to introduce the hot new attraction–Milton Berle.

MILTON BERLE: Elvis, if I did that thing the way you did that thing (wiggles), do you think I could get all the girls the way you do?

ELVIS PRESLEY: Well, it might not help you get girls but at your age it would get your blood circulating.

PAUL SOLMAN: Elvis’s unbridled performance of “Hound Dog” on Uncle Miltie’s show was right on the edge. Mid song, he put his guitar aside, and emphasized the beat with more flexible equipment.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: You ain’t nothing but a hound dog–

PAUL SOLMAN: Elvis was due to perform on the Steve Allen Show within a few weeks. NBC was pressured to cancel, but after reassuring viewers that Elvis would be gyration-free, the show went on.

STEVE ALLEN: We want to do a show the whole family can watch and enjoy. And we always do. And tonight we are presenting Elvis Presley in what you might call his first comeback. And at this time it gives me extreme pleasure to introduce the new Elvis Presley. Here he is.

PAUL SOLMAN: It would be an embarrassing, even surreal performance. Dressed in white tie and tails, the singer serenaded a “Hound Dog” in top hat. The Ed Sullivan Show chose a different way around the censors. In 1957, for his third and final Sullivan appearance, Elvis was allowed to perform in any manner he chose.

PAUL SOLMAN: The camera, however, never hit below the belt. A seven-year movie contract with Paramount followed–from a farm boy in “Love Me Tender,” to roles as an island tour guide, a prize fighter, a sheik–

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: Come hear my serenade–

PAUL SOLMAN: –even a rodeo rider, and the musical ex-con in “Jailhouse Rock.”

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: Let’s rock. Everybody, let’s rock–

PAUL SOLMAN: But the Hollywood Elvis in swimsuits and Hawaiian shirts as a critical failure and a far cry from the bad boy of rock’n roll. In 1968, Col. Parker dressed Elvis in black leather and returned him to the stage to again strut the stuff that had made him a superstar.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: You got me doing what you want. Baby, what do you want me to do? Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. There’s something wrong with my lip- you remember that, don’t you? (laughter among audience)

PAUL SOLMAN: The lip shivering, hip shaking King was back, with a note of triumphant irony. He was older, so were his adoring, aging baby boom fans. Elvis went on to Vegas to perform two nights a week, but the life, the stardom, it was all getting to him. He became exhausted, sick, and began to rely on prescription drugs. Elvis’s last TV appearance came six weeks before his death.

ELVIS PRESLEY: Thank you very much. If you think I’m nervous, you’re right.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case of which I’m certain. I’ve lived. Life is full–

PAUL SOLMAN: Elvis died of a heart attack in Memphis August 16, 1977. He was 42.

ELVIS PRESLEY SINGING: – I did it my way.

PAUL SOLMAN: The amazing thing is that despite his physical death, the cry continues louder than ever: Long live the King.

SPOKESMAN: What we are about to unveil here is staggering–a certification for sales totaling more than 400 million records outside of North America.

PAUL SOLMAN: RCA says Elvis record sales rose 61 percent in the past 12 months, and he remains the label’s top-selling artist worldwide. This week, RCA announced the release of a new four-CD set: Elvis Presley Platinum: A Life in Music. There are some 500 Elvis fan clubs in the U.S. and hundreds more across the globe, from Germany to Singapore, to Macedonia.

And then there’s Graceland, where tourists can choose from more than 2500 mementos to take back home. Among private homes, Graceland says, it’s second only to the White House in tourists, 700,000 annually. Another site on the Presley pilgrimage, Elvis Presley Memphis, which serves up the King’s favorite southern meals, including his beloved fried peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Meanwhile, on the interpersonal front, sorry Ken, but Barbie’s moving out. Mattel has debuted a Barbie Loves Elvis gift set. For the sophisticated Elvis fan the Cleveland San Jose Ballet’s tribute to Elvis, Blue Suede Shoes, which has toured to sold-out performances nationwide. (music in background)

And for those students returning to campus this fall Elvis awaits. More than 300 college courses on the King are offered in the U.S., with no shortage of reading. More than 200 books have been published about Elvis in English alone, plus, you can access one of the hundreds of Web sites on Elvis history, Elvis sightings, even a fictional page which pretends to show the star’s life as seen through the eyes of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garron Presley. And Elvis thrives on the silver screen in movies like “Forrest Gump.”

WOMAN: Forrest, I told you not to bother this nice, young man.

ACTOR PORTRAYING ELVIS: Oh, no, that’s all right, ma’am. I was just showin’ him a thing or two on the guitar here.

PAUL SOLMAN: He also provides a key moment in “Honeymoon in Vegas.” And there are thousands of performing Elvis impersonators, including at least one Las Vegas headliner, Ram Patrick by day, Elvis Presley by night. Add it all up and you’ve got a cultural figure who’s an even larger presence 20 years after his death than he was in life.

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