Striking a blow for tolerance in Memphis, the city of the Kings

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The Independent Online
There are ten of us on the forecourt of what was once the Lorraine Motel, on tiny Mulberry Street in downtown Memphis. You would think there would be more of us. These days it is the National Civil Rights Museum and above us is Room 306 and the balcony where on 4 April 1968, Dr Martin Luther King was shot dead.

The hordes visiting Memphis this week are interested in another king altogether. It is only five blocks from here to the newly-opened Elvis Presley Memphis restaurant on Beale Street, where, at five in the afternoon, the fans are cramming behind the velvet ropes to wait an hour for a table inside.

The contrast - the nearly vacant tarmac at the Lorraine versus the crush at the restaurant and even more at Presley's Graceland home - invites a snobbish reaction. What are they doing flocking to honour an entertainer who died fat and feckless when they could be here learning about the greatest civil rights leader America ever had?

Because these people are on holiday. Because eating deep-fried peanut butter - one of the king's favourites - is a giggle. Because peeking at the gold-leaf wash basins aboard the Elvis' private jetliner, the Lisa Marie, at Graceland is fun. Because Dr King could sermonise but could not sing. And because today is 20 years since Elvis' death.

And maybe because they know that Elvis mattered also. Who influenced America more in the second half of the century, King or the King? Discuss.

Ask the Nixon Library which photograph is most requested by its visitors - the President with Presley. Ask the US Post Office which of its commemorative stamps has outsold all others - the 1993 Elvis stamp. Ask RCA Records who is the biggest-selling artist of all time - Elvis, of course. It may be a stretch to say that Elvis was the father of Rock and Roll. What about Louis Jordan or Bill Haley before him? But Presley's musical legacy is unanswerable. He borrowed the rhythm and blues sound that had been the domain of mostly black artists, added inspiration from gospel and country, and translated it into rock and roll for the mainstream, black and white.

Wink Martindale, a TV game show host today, this week reminisced about the evening in July 1954 when Sam Phillips of Sun Records came into the Memphis radio station where he worked with the first Elvis single ever, That's Alright Mama and, on the flip side, Blue Moon. Until then, the station's ratings had depended on giving black music to its white teenage audience.

When they heard the record, "everyone thought Elvis was black", Martindale remembered. "We immediately knew that something really special was happening, but not one of us understood that the course of popular music was being literally changed overnight".

The delivery of the black beat to the white population was arguably as great a gift to racial integration as any achieved by Dr King. It is ironic then, that almost all of those mobbing the Graceland shrine are white.

More seminal was the impact on buttoned-down fifties America of Elvis' sexually-charged, pelvis-grinding stage performances, especially his early appearances on television. So deep was the shock over his gyrations and his phallic guitar gesturing, that by his fourth appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, viewers were only allowed to see him from the waist up.

"Elvis was the first public controversy of the silent, fifties generation," says John Bakker Professor at the University Of Memphis and an Elvis scholar. "People, until then, had not argued about anything, not even about Korea. And from Elvis came the seeds of the social and cultural revolution that hit America in the sixties".

Hard to fathom, however, is the power of Elvis mania today. His record sales have hit a billion and a half and are accelerating. Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), which owns Graceland and the Presley image, is a multi- million-dollar concern that has plans for a casino and hotel at Graceland and for a world-wide chain of Elvis restaurants. London should have one soon.

What is driving the craze? Is it EPE, which works so hard to protect Elvis from negative publicity - there will, for instance, never be a video of his last concert tour when his once-handsome features had become marshmallow. Conversely, is it the Elvis muck-raking of the tabloid media? Or the "Elvis lives" nut-cases who keep seeing him at their supermarkets? Or the legion of Elvis lookalikes the world over?

Or is it, simply, the voice?

Spare a thought, meanwhile, for Dr King. The 30th anniversary of his death is just nine months away. What kind of ballyhoo will that get? Not much of a one to judge by the small table offering Civil Rights Museum souvenirs at Memphis Airport gift shop this week. Eclipsed by the nearby monster Elvis display, it has a small plastic sign on it that pleads: "Clearance Sale".

Leading article, page 13

The Presley legacy

Elvis Presley's first 10

number ones in the UK.

All Shook Up - June 1957

Jailhouse Rock - Jan `58

One Night - Jan `59

A Fool Such As I - April `59

It's Now Or Never - Oct `60

Are You Lonesome Tonight? - Jan `61

Wooden Heart - Mar `61

Wild In The Country - Aug `61

Rock-A-Hula-Baby - Jan `62

Good Luck Charm - May `62

Source: HMV Chart