The essential Elvis Presley — 40 years after his passing

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“Can we watch Elvis on the computer?” my son asked after I confessed that, as a boy, “Daddy really, really liked Elvis Presley.” | Sun-Times files

He sang about the Chicago ghetto, the Kentucky rain, and the blue skies of Hawaii.

He made gospel cool and rock and roll heavenly.

He could rock a leather jacket with the best of them, Marlon Brando and James Dean included.

With piercing eyes and a sexy curl of his lip, he could make a sea of female fans swoon.

He famously thanked the world “very much” at every turn.

Overweight and struggling with prescription drug abuse, Elvis Presley passed away at the age of 42 in 1977 — a tragic ending to an epic life.

And 40 years later he remains the once and future King of Rock and Roll.

Presley’s life story has been told scores of ways in scores of news accounts, books, movies. Born into a dirt-poor family in Tupelo, Miss., the Presleys would move to Memphis, Tenn., where Elvis would find his true calling. Combining the sumptuous sounds of Southern blues and gospel with his unique style of rock (punctuated by gyrating hips deemed scandalous in 1950s and ’60s America), Presley would defy the odds and crush his early competition, carving out a career which would ultimately boast 149 pop singles on the Billboard charts, including 40 Top 10 singles and 18 No. 1 hits. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, taking his rightful place alongside the best of the best in music.

Presley wed only once, to the young Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he’d met while stationed in the army in Germany. He fathered one daughter, Lisa Marie. His beloved home, the mansion-festooned Memphis estate called Graceland, would become the second most-visited home in the U.S. (after the White House).

Four decades after his passing on August 16, 1977, fans are celebrating the life and legacy of Presley. Though some would argue his musical influence was over long before his untimely death, there was no denying his unending mass appeal. Forever on the road throughout the 1970s, and selling out the biggest arenas of the day, Presley was forever young to his fans. Through the albums, movies, Vegas years and the jumpsuit decade, his music remained a shining light to those who found hope in “If I Can Dream,” or romance in “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” or rebellion in “Jailhouse Rock.” His death sent shock waves across the globe, much to the dismay of an industry that had forgotten him and the media that had long-dismissed him as newsworthy. He was by no means perfect, but his music, the really really good music, was.

For those who perhaps first heard of Presley from a 2002 remix of “A Little Less Conversation” by Junkie XL, there’s so much more to the story. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, here’s an abbreviated guide to the essential Elvis (from a lifelong Presley fan):


—Peter Guralnick’s masterful two-volume biography, “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” (1994), which painstakingly surveys Presley’s childhood and rise to fame, and “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley” (1999), which follows the singer from his Army days to Hollywood to his famous “comeback” and his downward spiral fueled by prescription drug abuse, are by far the most ambitious if not definitive studies of the rise and fall of the singer. “Last Train” is the superior work here, but there’s no denying the heartache you’ll feel with every chapter of “Careless Love.”

MUSIC: There is so much more to Presley’s music than “Hound Dog” and “Viva Las Vegas.” Must-haves would include:

— “Elvis Presley,” his debut 1956 album introduced the world to the powerhouse singer with the stunning blues-infused vocals (prior to its release many a radio station DJ first thought Presley was black). From “Blue Suede Shoes” to “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” to “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” and “Mystery Train,” Presley turned the music world on its ear. There is a gorgeous raw energy to his voice that changed the face of early rock and roll.

— “Elvis,” 1956, his second effort was blessed with the music prowess of backing trio Bill Black, Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana, with backup vocals by the glorious Jordanaires.

Elvis Presley performs for 14,000 fans at Russwood Park in Memphis the night of July 4, 1956. | Robert Williams / The Commercial Appeal, via AP/FILE

Elvis Presley performs for 14,000 fans at Russwood Park in Memphis the night of July 4, 1956. | Robert Williams / The Commercial Appeal, via AP/FILE

— “How Great Thou Art,” the gorgeous 1967 studio release, showcases Presley’s beautiful gospel vocals. It won a Grammy for best sacred recording; one listen and you’ll understand why.

— “NBC-TV Special (’68 Comeback)”: Rock, soul, blues, country, pop — it’s all here in what was one of the crowning achievements of Presley’s career. “Trouble,” “Guitar Man,” “Memories” and “If I Can Dream” (the most moving performance of his career) are among the highlights.

— “From Elvis in Memphis” (1969): recorded in Memphis and backed by the wildly talented Memphis Boys (the American Sound Studio’s session band), the blues/country album proved there was pretty much no genre Presley couldn’t conquer.

— “Elvis Presley: Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite,” this 1973 live recording from a benefit TV special “beamed ‘round the world” is the definitive example of Presley the showman. Still in great shape physically, his vocals were as strong as ever. With seemingly everything to live for, Presley’s personal demons would soon overtake his world. His downward spiral went into full gear shortly after this concert performance; four years later he would be dead.

— “Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis,” this 1974 album (released shortly after “Aloha from Hawaii,”) earned Presley his third and last Grammy, for the cut “How Great Thou Art.” Taped at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, it’s another example of his powerhouse vocals.

— “Elvis Presley – The RCA Albums Collection”: The 60-CD deluxe edition released in 2016 features 364 tracks, so you can pretty much set aside a weekend binge for this one. All of his film soundtracks are included, as well as all his live and studio recordings and a 300-page book as accompaniment.

— “A Boy From Tupelo – The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings,” released earlier this year, this is a marvelous compilation of Presley’s earliest recordings, including the first-ever release of “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” from the 1955 “Louisiana Hayride,” in addition to every Sun Records master recording Presley created before moving to the RCA label. In addition, there’s the 1953 “My Happiness”/That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” 7-inch 45rpm, laid down by an 18-year-old Presley at the Memphis Recording Service. It’s a slice of music history.


— “Jailhouse Rock” (1957): You either love it or hate it, but there’s no denying Presley’s screen presence in this musical drama.

— “King Creole” (1958): Presley’s best film performance, this searing drama co-starred Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau and Dean Jagger. His portrayal of Danny Fisher is both riveting and heartbreaking and will stay with you long after the credits role.

— “Viva Las Vegas”: This 1964 romp is remembered as much for its theme song as for the torrid affair Presley had with his co-star Ann-Margret. Not much substance in this boy-meets-girl vehicle, but it’s a welcome respite from the heaviness of the aforementioned dramas.

— “Elvis: That’s The Way it Is,” (1970) a concert album and documentary that provides an unparalleled look at Presley and his band of musicmakers behind-the-scenes and on-stage primarily in Las Vegas, where Presley had set up a sold-out residency at the International Hotel.

— “Elvis ’56”: The year that changed his life is chronicled in this made-for-TV documentary filled with his earliest TV and regional performances, recordings, photographs and newsreel footage.

Tributes and mementos are seen next to the grave marker for Elvis Presley in the Meditation Garden where he is buried alongside his parents and grandmother at his Graceland mansion on August 12, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. | MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Tributes and mementos are seen next to the grave marker for Elvis Presley in the Meditation Garden where he is buried alongside his parents and grandmother at his Graceland mansion on August 12, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. | MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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