Elvis: The rock of Ages

Today would have been the 70th birthday of the man who invented rock'n'roll and changed the world forever. Six generations explain his enduring legacy
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The Independent Online

Sophie Hart-Walsh, 17, Student

"I'd fuck Elvis," says the homophobic Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) as he attempts to chat up a girl in the film True Romance. It speaks volumes that the best chance a young man thinks he has when approaching a woman is to mention that, if pushed, he wouldn't mind sleeping with Mr Presley.

Elvis is the 20th century. He epitomises and somehow preserves everything innocent and kitsch about the Fifties and everything sexy and rebellious about the Sixties. For me, Elvis remains an icon of a time I wish I'd seen and been a part of. And Elvis is the only person who can provoke my parents to perform a home-choreographed routine to "All Shook Up" in the kitchen. That means a lot.

Colin Murray, 27, Radio 1 DJ

I was born the year Elvis died, but my family wasn't really into him. Even so, you don't discover Elvis; he's always there, a presence in your life. When I was 16, at a car boot sale, I bought a Reader's Digest Elvis six album box-set. The box-set album covers formed a massive poster of Elvis when they were stuck together. It's been on my wall ever since.

The wonderful thing about Elvis was he was so erratic. I love his early period when he hadn't yet crossed over into the white mass market. And I love fat Elvis and the ridiculousness of the later tracks. And, of course, in his heyday, he was beautiful.

Toby Litt, 36, Author

After university, I travelled across America by Greyhound bus. One of the great moments of the trip came when I asked the short-order cook in a Memphis diner where I'd find Graceland. "Uh," he said, "that would be on Elvis Presley Boulevard." Ah yes, I suppose it would.

Elvis was never afraid of the obvious. I made the pilgrimage, took the tour, was impressed by how bijou and homely the house was. Like many American residences, it aspired to the White House. We didn't get to see the bathroom where it all ended. Afterwards, I went to Sun Records, cradle of rock 'n' roll. This was one of the main reasons I'd come to America.

What still impresses me about Elvis, both at the beginning and the end of his career, was his ability to be a true rocker, to be in control and out of control at the very same time.

Very few British singers ever had this. Van Morrison often, Lennon sometimes, McCartney rarely, Jagger never. This is the same, whether Elvis channelling "That's Alright Mama" in the 1950s or goofing off to make the TCB band laugh in the 1970s.

He never maintains deliberate distance, but you can't get anywhere close.

In a couple of minutes, "That's Alright Mama" solves the great problem of American music, the one left by five decades of jazz: how to be hot and cool at the same time? How to swing and take it on home.

And part of this was the sense, which never went away, of the most profligate waste of powers.

Imagine, Elvis's voice seems to be saying, "What I could do if I went really wild". On "One Night of Sin", the unbowdlerised version of "One Night", he suggests he might "make the earth stand still". He's being modest. If he wanted, he could make like Superman and flip it into reverse.

Sharleen Spiteri, 37, lead singer, Texas

Ever since I was a little girl, I've been into Elvis. I grew up in the Seventies and there was an Elvis movie on telly almost every weekend. I used to dream that one day he'd be my boyfriend - or that I'd have a boyfriend that looked just like him. Now, the thought of Elvis is like a comforting smell or touch to me. He's not on my mind all the time but he's always with me, influencing me, even if I'm not aware of it.

I can't think of anyone who hasn't been affected by him in some way. As much as everyone says he stole from black music, he was the blueprint for rock'n'roll. When I dressed up as Elvis in the video for my song "Inner Smile", it just felt right. Four years on, I still have women coming up to me in the street and telling me how cool they thought the video was. Men, on the other hand, found it unnerving.

Colbert Hamilton, 41, Elvis impersonator

I grew up in Birmingham and my mum bought Elvis records. I first remember getting into him as a teen, just at the time he died; he was all over the TV.

Elvis crossed boundaries other artists probably never will. He did rock, he did country, he sang gospel, he sang Christmas songs. I think that's unique. And the wealth of material he recorded was phenomenal.

For my act, I start in the Seventies jumpsuit then go back to the early roots, gold lamé or a pink suit, and a shirt and black slacks for the encore. It's a winning formula. White audiences go for it. People can be cynical because there aren't many black Elvises in England; but Elvis usually gets them in the end. Years ago I went for Stars in Their Eyes, but they wouldn't let me on because "Elvis wasn't black". But in theory he was: he took so much from black music, so much of the style of the black guy. You just have to do your show.

David Sedaris, 48, Author

Elvis passed me by. I grew up in North Carolina and there weren't any Elvis fans in our house. My father always had a fear that we would develop Southern accents, so he would have disapproved of us listening to him. He probably thought of Elvis as a hillbilly.

In our middle-class neighbourhood, all the mums loved Tom Jones. They cut pictures of him out of magazines. But I worked in a cafeteria washing dishes, and the white women who worked there loved Elvis. It was a class thing. The poorer white women loved Elvis.

When I was a child, I wasn't even sure whether Elvis was alive or dead. He wasn't on my radar. His hits had come and gone. I do remember thinking he was cute, however. I wouldn't have minded seeing him naked. He looked like a guy who you might see working in a gas station in North Carolina with grease on his shirt.

I was living in San Francisco when he died. It was reported as though it was supposed to change my life. And I felt left out. I couldn't jump on the bandwagon. I didn't have any response to his death, except to be a little surprised that he hadn't been dead for years.

I have warmed to Elvis a little. Two years ago, I heard an interview with his biographer and I was struck by how unfailingly polite Elvis was - he was good to his mum and wrote thank-you letters. But the only way that he really touched my life was through one of his films - I have no idea what the particular one was called. My brother and I watched it together while we were in Greece 20 years ago.

In one scene Elvis befriends a little boy. The little boy says to Elvis, "Friends?" And Elvis shakes his head and says, "No, amigos." And, since then, my brother and I must have said those phrases to each other a thousand times.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is now out in paperback (Abacus, £7.99)

Michael Howard, 63, Tory leader

My first encounter with Elvis was in a record shop in Llanelli. The record was "Heartbreak Hotel", which I still think is one of his greatest hits. It made a huge impact on me because it was so different from anything I had heard before. I became a devoted fan from that moment.

I was delighted when we were able to play "A Little Less Conversation, a Little More Action" at our party conference in October. Elvis was helping to highlight our charge against Labour, that they are all talk. I will always associate Elvis with my late teens and my early 20s. They were very happy, exciting days. Listening to Elvis brings back those memories. It seems impossible to believe he would have been 70 this weekend. What would Elvis have been like at 70?