This book had at least three principal sources of inspiration.
It started, of course, with the research that I conducted while writing my biography of Elvis Presley and the closely allied work of Ernst Jorgensen in developing his definitive Elvis sessionography.
One of the first obstacles that we both encountered was trying to sort out the stories. Often some of the most vividly detailed recollections by unimpeachable eyewitnesses were impossible to place in chronological context simply because: who was watching the clock? And yet it mattered when events took place, it was of crucial consequence whether one event occurred before another, for without that knowledge, on the most basic level, there could be no understanding of cause and effect.
For that reason alone, I learned early on, my first obligation was to go back to primary sources, if only to try to establish a chain of evidence that might conceivably lead to objective truth. Ernst and I tested out our theories on each other, challenged each other's logic and sanity, and very quickly adopted a single double--edged rule: scorn no source, however humble, but--conversely--trust no source implicitly without first testing its assumptions. Just as an archaeologist carefully studies and preserves layers of debris left in turn by successive generations, we tried to sift through not just the evidence but the provenance of the evidence to determine as accurately as possible just what happened here.
Our big breakthrough--at least in terms of this book--came with our introduction to the Graceland archives in 1996. Obviously Ernst and I had access to a wide variety of sources prior to this date, but we could never have imagined the wealth of hitherto unexamined documentation that awaited us on our first joint archival venture. When we initially encountered this material, it lay virtually untouched, much as it had been left when Elvis' father, Vernon, died in 1979, and as it had been received from Colonel Parker's Madison, Tennessee, offices, when the Elvis Presley Estate purchased Elvis' manager's collection of photographs, artifacts, posters, products, contracts, and correspondence in 1990, transporting thirty--five tons of material in two eighteen--wheelers, two large moving vans, and a host of smaller vans and vehicles. What we confronted on our first visit was almost unimaginable: carefully preserved, lovingly filed, but completely unsorted in rusted file cabinets and colorful pink, red, and green trunks that could have served as magician's props. It presented a challenge that Ernst, my wife Alexandra, and I were scarcely about to shrink from--but, on the other hand, I'm not sure that Ernst and I could have maintained what little equilibrium we were still holding on to had it not been for Alexandra's steadily realistic perspective and the quiet encouragement of Graceland's chief archivist, Greg Howell.
I said there were three basic sources of inspiration for this book. One was the persistent drive to establish a timeline on both Ernst's and my part. Another was to pool our resources in a more formal way than extended transatlantic debate. The third, however, was in many ways the most compelling: to have fun with the material that we found. I don't know if the reader can fully imagine the excitement we all felt when Alexandra discovered Vernon Presley's touching postcards from prison anxiously seeking news of his three--year--old boy. To be presented by Greg with photographs of Colonel Parker as a young man in Holland, serving in the Sixty--Fourth Regiment of the U.S. Coast Guard Artillery in Honolulu, putting on a New Year's Eve show with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler in Tampa in the mid--1930s; to have a single ticket for a previously undocumented 1955 show in Dermott, Arkansas, flutter out of a miscellaneous file; to at last be able to understand and date the origins of Elvis' unsuccessful try--out for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and the surprisingly tangled plot behind his eventual television debut on the Dorsey brothers' Stage Show--these are the kinds of discoveries you want to share in the same spirit with which they were received. We look upon this book, then, as a kind of treasure trove of moments, the patchwork of a life, informed with a wealth of illuminating illustrations and facts both well and little known, all placed as close as we could possibly get, at this time, to proper chronological sequence--we had to believe it wasn't just us, that this was was something that could appeal to Elvis fan, student of American popular culture, and casual reader alike.
Obviously, even a book of this sort involves any number of choices and discriminations, so we are by no means pretending either to omniscience or to the one unassailable truth--if, indeed, such a thing exists. We wanted to tell a story that could be used as a starting point for any understanding of Elvis' life, a kind of biographical exoskeleton that was broad enough to allow various thematic threads to emerge and detailed enough to provide a context to understand the many scrambled (and sometimes innocently thesis--driven) accounts that have been carried from volume to volume, in many cases in the absence of actual knowledge.
Our methodology was simple, even if the road it took (and continues to take) was bumpy more often than not. Almost every entry in this book is based on a contemporaneous document or documents, in many cases augmented by eyewitness accounts. If a group of people is listed as having traveled with Elvis, it is because we have seen airline tickets or hotel bills. If a time is given for a recording session, it is because we have had access to the paperwork for that session. If Elvis is said to have visited a particular place, purchased a particular item, performed in a little Texas town on a given date, signed a specific contract, sent or received a letter or telegram, it is because documentary evidence of this event exists. And where we do not have that documentation but what we believe to be compelling anecdotal evidence exists, we have tried to indicate likelihood as opposed to fact by the language of the entry, in the hope that keen--eyed readers may verify or refute our hypothesis.
There is no question, though, that documents require interpretation, too (just because a train or airline ticket exists, for example, does not always mean that it is used, and receipts only begin to tell a story), and we are resigned by now to the idea that we are not infallible, that we are providing neither the first nor the last word on the subject. The first word, of course, belongs to the many indispensable sources that we have relied upon: newspaper archives; helpful local librarians; Lee Cotten's pioneering research (his two--volume account of "Elvis on Tour" in the '50s and '70s, Did Elvis Sing in Your Hometown?, remains authoritative); the astonishing, primary--source research on Elvis' early success carried out from Sweden by Brian Petersen (The Atomic Powered Singer) and Holland by Ger Rijff (Long Lonely Highway, among many others); Donna Lewis' meticulously observed diaries (published in two volumes so far as "Hurry Home, Elvis"); Stein Erik Skar's Elvis: The Concert Years, l969--1977; Joe Tunzi's indefatigable photographic and discographical research (Elvis Sessions II, among others)--if we were to list every one of our individual sources, the source notes would be as long as this book! Jim Cole of the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis proved an enormous help, as did Sam Gill at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library, where the Hal Wallis papers are housed.
In the end, however, two men are responsible for the continued survival of much of the information contained in this book, and it is they who should be recognized as keepers of the historical record. I'm not sure either one of them would have fully embraced the title, and yet the character of each is absolutely consistent with the notion of careful preservation and attention to detail. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' manager of twenty--two years and one of the most colorful figures ever to set foot in what he liked to describe as "the wonderful world of show business," and Elvis' father, Vernon Presley, a man of humble means and (like the Dutch--born "Colonel") limited education, showed a spirit of scrupulous, almost academic dedication to the task of maintaining these records, and without their efforts much of this history would simply not exist.
Well, it has been a great adventure for us all, not just for Ernst and Alexandra and me but, I think, for Greg Howell and his entire staff (Carol Drake, Carrie Stetler, Angie Marchese, Phoebe Neal, Sheilah James, Michele Desrosiers, and LaVonne Gaw), who threw themselves wholeheartedly and unstintingly into the project. Discovering the informal home tape recordings that Elvis had made at various points in his life (including a brief glimpse of Elvis' parents, Vernon and Gladys, singing religious songs, which certainly went to show one thing: Elvis got his talent from his father) was just one of the many ancillary benefits that stemmed from a frequently messy but never less than mesmerizing plunge into a past that has so often been all but buried in a blur of myth and repetition. Obviously we couldn't put everything in, and I'm sure we haven't gotten everything right, despite what has seemed at times like an increasingly irresistible obsession with our obsession. It's an ongoing process, which others are bound to carry on. But we hope we have provided some of the tools to do so--for hobbyists and historians alike. And we hope we have provided a portrait, in words and in pictures, of the trajectory of a life, the life of one of the century's major cultural forces, around whom controversy will continue to swirl (as it does around every significant historical figure, for whom each generation must find its own truth) but whose voice will unquestionably continue to be heard.
Peter Guralnick photo copyright David Gahr