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Book Reviews

  • The Gospel: Book explores spiritual side of Elvis
    By Michelle Bearden
    (Winston-Salem Journal, August 18, 2007)
    Thursday marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley at his home in Graceland. Many knew him as The King. For all his loyal followers, here's a tricky question. How many Grammys did Elvis Presley win?
    Answer: 3.

    Now, for extra points, name the categories of those Grammys.
    If you said rock, soul or blues, sound the buzzer. All wrong! The only three Grammy Awards Elvis won were for - drumroll, please - gospel music.

    Although he's one of the most written about, listened to and imitated entertainers in modern times, "there's a lot about Elvis Presley people don't know," says Joe Moscheo, a member of the Imperials, a Southern gospel quartet.

    Moscheo has broken a 30-year silence and written a book about his friend Elvis, who died in 1977 at age 42. This book, he promises, delves into new territory. It's about an Elvis only close friends and family knew. After more than 1,000 books about the man who became a legend, what could be different?

    "Most people only want to know about the show-business side of Elvis - the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," Moscheo said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "That's the flashy stuff. But the inner circle saw something else in the man." That included late-night jam sessions around the piano, singing the gospel standards Elvis was raised with growing up in Tupelo, Miss., the only son of Vernon and Gladys Presley.

    On his third and final appearance on the immensely popular The Ed Sullivan Show, where he was famously dubbed "Elvis the Pelvis," he insisted on singing "Peace in the Valley," his mother's favorite song. The network balked; Elvis won.

    Moscheo's book, The Gospel Side of Elvis (Center Street, $19.99), enlightens fans about Elvis and his faith. Although his public persona certainly didn't highlight his spiritual inclinations, Elvis "certainly was a Christian who loved the Lord."

    In fact, Moscheo goes so far as to suggest that Elvis was in some way "anointed" and his work continues to impact people 30 years after his death, much like a ministry.

    "He had his faults, particularly in the later years. He wasn't a saint by any means," Moscheo says. "But he was a generous man with a loving spirit who loved his mama, his God and his gospel music. I felt it was time people knew there was so much more to him."

    Moscheo worked as a producer on the 2001 documentary He Touched Me: The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley, which aired on PBS and is still used in fundraising campaigns for the network. Writing the book wasn't especially difficult, Moscheo said, because he had done so much research for the film. He also produced a DVD called Elvis Lives: The 25th Anniversary Concert.

    Moscheo's insights come from his vantage point as a member of the Imperials, who sang backup at Elvis' Las Vegas shows for four years. The two men formed a friendship that continued until Elvis died, even though they did not see each other in the last two years of Elvis' life.

    Although he's 70, Moscheo still performs with the Southern gospel group at Elvis Presley fan events around the world. Coming up is a 12-city, 40-date tour in Europe this fall. "They love him over there," he says. "He wasn't part of their scene when he was alive, so anything remotely connected to Elvis is a huge draw overseas. They can't get enough."

    Moscheo finds it ironic that through Elvis' influence, his group is playing spiritual songs in an increasingly secular part of the world. Without his ties to Elvis, "we wouldn't have this kind of in with Europeans. So he still has a hand in changing lives for the Lord."

    What most people don't know is that it had been Elvis' lifelong dream to become a gospel singer. In 1954, he auditioned with a gospel group called The Songfellows. But after his first recording with Sun Records, his solo career took off and the rest is rock history.

    Elvis never forgot his inspiration, and he was honored posthumously with induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1999, Moscheo says.

    Moscheo writes of two particular spiritual experiences involving Elvis. When a band member got cancer, Elvis gathered everyone in his entourage and asked them to pray for her. The next day, "the doctors could find no sign of the malignancy," Moscheo recalls.

    A second story involved Elvis' favorite minister, the Rev. Rex Humbard, who visited Elvis at a 1975 performance in Alabama. After the two prayed together, Elvis seemed to have been touched by the Holy Spirit, transformed with a glow and a grateful new outlook.

    The book gets an endorsement from the woman who won Elvis' heart, Priscilla, his former wife and mother of his only child, Lisa Marie. In a foreword, she writes that she always felt the gospel side of Elvis was never full explored: "It was truly the foundation of his style, his spirit and his passion."

  • Killers & Kings
    (Memphis Flyer, August 10, 2007)
    Murray Silver could have been a contender. Silver never says as much in his latest literary offering, When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama, but it's an unspoken thesis of the author's magical mystery memoir, which explores the birth of rock, wrestling giants, porn queens, Tibetan monks, and a plot to kill Elvis Presley.

    ... Silver's breakthrough book Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis (which he wrote with the help of Lewis and the Killer's child bride Myra) earned mixed reviews when it hit bookstores in 1982. But less friendly assessments of the work hardly mattered because Hollywood was interested, and Silver had a movie deal in the works.

    ... After the disaster of Great Balls of Fire, Silver attempted to collaborate with Elvis' personal physician Dr. George Nichopoulos, or Dr. Nick, on a tell-all book about the original rocker's private life and medical history. Dr. Nick's reputation was ruined by allegations that he'd over-prescribed drugs to Presley, and the jury of public opinion continued to hold him at least partially responsible for the King's untimely passing. Sensitive to Dr. Nick's peculiar needs, Jerry Lee Lewis recommended Silver as a biographer, saying, "He did a pretty good job with my book -- and he's way out there." According to Silver, the book was also supposed to provide readers with evidence from Dr. Nick that Elvis was murdered.

    "This was going to be the most explosive, shocking story of all time," he says. "It was going to be bigger than the Kennedy assassination. Bigger than the grassy knoll." From the moment Silver encounters Dr. Nick, the tone of his book changes from grumpy and disgruntled to claustrophobic and paranoid. Shortly after sending off a proposal for publication, including five sample chapters, the writer and the infamous rock-and-roll physician were swarmed by the national news media.

    "That's when the wheels came off the wagon," Silver says. "Nick and I were [portrayed as] wackos, weirdos, and liars. Ted Koppel was trying to get me on Nightline. Bill O'Reilly was trying to track me down. They all wanted to do a story about the book." The problem was, there wasn't any book, only a proposal and five sample chapters. "I was told, 'You don't understand, sir. If you've got proof Elvis Presley was murdered, we want to hear it.'" ...

  • Popping up in a book near you
    By John Weeks
    (, February 8, 2007)
    I love to browse in bookstores, which is hopelessly antiquated of me, I know. And yes, perhaps I am hopelessly antiquated, but I hope that I am so in a charming, endearing way. I do firmly believe that there are many benefits to hanging out in bookstores. For one thing, I am able to spot trends in the book world. I mean trends other than the big one, which is that books are becoming more charmingly, endearingly antiquated by the day. The very latest trend I have noticed is that one particular kind of book is making a brave comeback of sorts. I am talking about pop-up books. ... There also are pop-up biographies, pop-up literary classics and pop-up travel guides. (Can't make it to Elvis Presley's home in Memphis? All you need is an armchair and a copy of "Graceland: An Interactive Pop-UpTour.[ )]"

  • Essential Elvis? Here it is
    By Robert Hilburn
    ( / New York Times, February 6, 2007)
    'Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis' isn't a CD but a book of candid photos of Presley on the cusp of fame in 1956.

    The latest album in RCA's endless Elvis Presley's CD reissue series may have "essential" in the title, but don't believe it. RCA has called nearly a dozen earlier albums or boxed sets "essential," and few have lived up to the claim. However, there is one Presley-related item that deserves that description: "Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis," a book of exquisite Presley photos taken in 1956 by Alfred Wertheimer.

    These are remarkably intimate and revealing portraits, mostly shot "fly-on-the-wall" fashion as Wertheimer followed Presley in the recording studio, on a train ride, to a coffee shop lunch counter and at home in Memphis, Tenn., with his parents and friends.

    Presley fans have marveled for years at some of the photos, more than 100 of which were featured in "Elvis '56," a large-format paperback published in 1979 by Collier Books. Now, Insight Editions not only adds some 200 more photos from the period to the mix, but also displays them in a gorgeous 11-by-14-inch hardback edition. One thing that makes the black-and-white photos so striking is that we rarely saw Presley in such candid fashion after 1956 because the singer's manager, Col. Tom Parker, valued mystique in his marketing. He not only kept Elvis away from photographers, but also from most journalists. Other photographers got access to Presley in 1956, but usually in formal sessions where things seemed posed. The wonder of Wertheimer's work is that virtually every shot of Presley seemed as informal as a home movie, whether the 21-year-old was reading a Betty and Veronica comic book, combing his hair in front of a mirror or French-kissing (!) his date backstage.

    Adding to the lure of the photos is that Presley was still in the infancy of fame, and Wertheimer's photos captured his fascinating blend of innocence and raw charisma. In its way, it's as compelling a portrait of a rock immortal as "Don't Look Back," D. A. Pennebaker's 1967 film documentary of Bob Dylan on tour in England. ...

  • Elvis, mysteries and the call of the weird
    Elvis Religion: The Cult of The King
    By Gregory L. Reece
    I B Tauris. 200 pp. US$29.95.
    Reviewed by Ron Cerabona
    (Canberra Times, Panorama section p. 18, December 9, 2006)
    We've all heard about people who have devoted their lives to Elvis Presley, but Gregory L. Reece, a philosophy lecturer, has done the legwork. He's seen the movies, read the books, and visited the websies, the conventions and the museums. And, of course, he's been to Memphis. The result is Religion: The Cult of The King (I B Tauris. 200 pp. $29.95), a book that is more serious, scholarly and sympathetic in tone than you might expect, dealing with everthing from True Romance to tribute artists. A lot of it might be of interest only to the truly Elvis-obsessed (some of the novels and songs are quite obscure) and there seem to be some omissions, but it's still impressive.

  • Elvis unrooted, nonetheless calling the shots
    Fortunate Son
    The Life of Elvis Presley
    By Charles L. Ponce de Leon
    Hill & Wang. 242 pp. $26.
    Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler
    (Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 2006)
    Shortly after he graduated from Humes High School in Memphis, Elvis Presley ambled into the recording studio of Sun Records. Guitar in hand, sporting sideburns, a pompadour, and flashy pink-and-black threads, he told the assistant he was a singer in search of a band. "Who do you sound like?" she asked. "I don't sound like nobody," he said.

    Elvis was something new under the Sun. Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1935, he was blessed with talent, charisma, volcanic ambition, and an uncommon common touch. He was, as well, a study in self-contradiction: misfit and mama's boy, defiant and deferential, a juvenile delinquent in hot pursuit of the American Dream. Drawing on country music, gospel, and the rhythm & blues of African Americans, Elvis taught 1950s teenagers how to rock and roll. And he became their King.

    Thirty years after his death, Elvis still reigns. Not surprisingly, the Fortunate Son enters a crowded field of Presleyana. A concise narrative, the biography is a synthesis of recently published work. Anyone interested in the details of Elvis' life, Charles L. Ponce de Leon acknowledges, should read Peter Guralnick's masterful volumes, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley.

    Ponce de Leon's interpretation of Elvis' life is a slight variation on a familiar theme. A surviving twin, whose brother Jesse was stillborn, Elvis believed he was destined to do good works. Plucked from his day jobs as mechanic, truck driver, and movie-theater usher by Sun Records' Sam Phillips, he became a national sensation, thanks, in no small measure, to the machinations of his manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker.

    Raised to be wholesome, humble, and law-abiding, Elvis attributed his success to fidelity to his roots, region, and religion. Then, after his mother died and he got out of the Army, he began to lose his way. He abandoned live concerts and records for Hollywood - and a succession of dreary but remunerative movies. Self-indulgent, depressed, a chronic womanizer, Elvis hid inside a sycophantic entourage. He became so dependent on prescription medications that an autopsy found fourteen different drugs in his system, five in amounts that approached or exceeded toxicity.

    Elvis' fans see him as a tragic figure, ensnared by success and a secular commercial culture. Ponce de Leon agrees, but emphasizes Elvis' role as prime mover in his own life, making decisions "influenced in equal part by his temperament, background, and life experiences."

    Ponce de Leon also endorses the oft-made claim that Elvis' conventional values and mainstream musical tastes, which propelled him to success in the 1950s, held him back in the 1960s and 1970s, making it difficult for him to attract younger fans. And yet, these very qualities help explain his enduring appeal. Alienated by the counterculture, millions of Americans, Ponce de Leon acknowledges, "appreciated Elvis' religiosity, his continued interest in country and gospel music, and his invocation of patriotic and spiritual themes."

    Along with their children and grandchildren, they still pay homage to him in pilgrimages to his grave. Many of them do see Elvis as a victim, "caught in a trap." Others embrace different aspects of the "authentic multiplicity" of this international icon, who now appeals to the credulous, the conspiratorial, and the campy. In 2006, according to diplomat Michael Green, Graceland became "the ultimate summit-slash-road trip," with a visit by President Bush - who declined to choose between a skinny and a fat Elvis - and Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who donned the King's trademark sunglasses and belted out "Love Me Tender" as four Elvis impersonators displayed animal-rights placards pleading "Don't Be Cruel." As Elvis had instructed, his private bedroom at Graceland remained off limits to all of them.
    Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

  • Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll
    By William O'Brien
    (Altus Times, September 8, 2006)
    Against the Grain

    In July of 1954 an aspiring young singer in Memphis, Tennessee was in the studio of Sun Records making a record. He was there at the behest of the founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips, who was overseeing the recording and would be listed on the resulting records as "producer". At the end of the recording session, in which the aspiring entertainer sang several country ballads that Phillips thought good but not brilliant, the young man surprised Phillips by breaking into a spirited rendition of a rhythm and blues song, "That's All Right", that the producer immediately recognized . Phillips asked him to sing it again so he could make a better recording, and the singer readily agreed. The singer was Elvis Presley, and many historians date that recording session as the beginning of the rock and roll era. Presley's most recent biographer, a history professor with the unlikely name of Charles Ponce de Leon, points out that the meeting between Presley and Phillips was fortuitous in that both men, who were white Southerners, shared an interest in African American music and life that was unique in the segregated South of that time.

    Phillips had grown up on a farm in Alabama where he had developed an appreciation for the music that was played in the Black bars and juke joints in that State before the Second World War. Presley had been born in Tupelo, Mississippi to a family of poor whites who had lived for a time in the Black section of that town where he had often attended African-American churches and social events. When Elvis - who was an only child - was a little boy his father, Vernon Presley, was sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary for a time after he had forged his employer's name to a check, and de Leon theorizes that Elvis immersed himself in Black music as a means of dealing with the pain that that separation caused him. And when the Presley family moved to Memphis when Elvis was in grammer school, he began to frequent the various establishments in that City that featured African American singers and musicians.

    Presle''s recording of "That's All Right" was soon being heard on several Memphis radio stations at Phillips' urging, and after it was played listeners would often call the radio station and ask what local high school had Presley attended, which was a polite way of asking if he was Black or White. Soon Presley was appearing in a variety of forums throughout the South and West were be was billed as the "Hillbilly Cat" in recognition of how he combined elements of country music and rhythm and blues in his performances.

    The villain in most biographies of Presley is the mysterious Colonel Tom Parker, an illegal alien from Holland and former carnival operator who became Presley's manager in 1955. But De Leon offers a new interpretation of Parker, and credits him with Presle''s crucial early success. Most managers of professional entertainers at that time had a variety of clients, but Parker's willingness to represent Presley alone, De Leon believes, is evidence of the fact that the Colonel sensed how popular his client could become if he was managed correctly. The author also believes that Parker was one of the first promoters to grasp the importance of television as a medium, and relates how he placed Presley on a several early variety shows where he wasn't well paid but he did get exposure to a large audience.

    "Before Elvis there was nothing", John Lennon once said, and De Leon reminds us of how Presley earned the title of the "King of Rock and Roll" in the late 1950's. And he also chronicles how Presley's once promising movie career was mishandled by the studios, Colonel Parker, and Presley himself, and how the entertainer gradually slipped into a world of paranoia and drug addiction that would lead to his death at the age of 42. But De Leon also makes clear that Elvis Presley was one of the most innovative and influential entertainers of the Post-War era.

  • Jerry Schilling Tells Story of Friendship With the King in Memoir, 'Me and a Guy Named Elvis'
    (ABC News August 20, 2006)
    When he was 12, Jerry Schilling couldn't believe the voice he heard on the radio singing "That's All Right" belonged to a teenager from his own north Memphis neighborhood. A few days after hearing the song, he was playing a pickup football game, and the quarterback on his team was the same kid from the neighborhood, 19-year-old Elvis Presley. "We went into a huddle, and I said, 'Wow, that's the guy with a song on the radio!'" Schilling told The Associated Press.

    Schilling has written a new memoir about his 23-year friendship with Presley, but he didn't use the book to convince anyone that his childhood friend was a great performer or a rock 'n' roll legend. Instead, "Me and a Guy Named Elvis," written with Chuck Crisafulli, shows Presley's more human side, the intelligent and passionate man who struggled with drug abuse and was frustrated with his mediocre Hollywood movies.

    After Presley's death in 1977, Schilling, who still lives in the Hollywood Hills, Calif., home that Elvis bought for him, worked for Elvis Presley Enterprises and produced documentaries and TV specials about the performer. But Schilling had always said he wasn't interested in writing an Elvis book, as other members of the inner circle had done. He changed his mind only when Schilling's wife, Cindy, urged him to tell the story.

    Schilling worked with Crisafulli, an entertainment journalist who has written several books. Publisher Gotham, an imprint of the Penguin Group, said that the pair wrote the book side by side over the course of three years, and it was a very successful collaboration. There are about 30,000 copies in print of the book, which already has been sent back for a second printing since its Aug. 17 release. "It's a fun, complicated book about a simple friendship in a complicated world," Schilling said in a recent interview while in town to promote his new book. "(His death) was the biggest loss of my life, ever. I still miss him."

    Peter Guralnick, author of the two-volume biography of Presley, "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," said Schilling's memoir is a balanced treatment of Presley and offers insights into the characters that surrounded the musician. The book is "a personal memoir that, while it places its narrator squarely in the midst of historic events, never claims credit for those events in the way that so many self-serving memoirs are inclined to do," Guralnick wrote in the book's foreword. The memoir also received the blessing of Presley's wife Priscilla and his daughter Lisa Marie.

    ... Drugs have long been the suspected cause of Presley's death, and Schilling said he took pills to escape the disappointment he felt about the direction of his career. ... "It was the creative disappointment that killed Elvis," Schilling said. "The drugs were just a Band-Aid."

  • Author explores Elvis as 'Memphis Messiah'
    By Karen Middleton
    (Weatherford Democrat August 18, 2006)
    Gregory L. Reece said he met a middle-aged woman in a Memphis hospital emergency room waiting area who had sold everything to move from California to Memphis "just to be with Elvis" nearly 15 years after the death of The King. The woman's cult-like worship of the late rock and roll singer spurred an interest in Reece that led to years of research and finally his book, "Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King."

    In a recent phone interview, Alabama native Reece was walking off a tour bus in front of Graceland. In Memphis for two television interviews and a book signing, Reece's tour of the singer's estate was the latest of several since embarking on his research. Reece's quest to find if there really exists an "Elvis Religion" led him to delve into Elvis impersonators - "tribute artists" - of which there has grown up a whole industry. He found that although most are fanatical about authentic costuming, makeup, hairstyling and sounding as much like The King as possible, they don't give up their day jobs.

    For the most part, the tribute artists know they're not the reincarnation of Elvis and use it as a way to pick up a few extra bucks or have fun. The same held true with Elvis collectors, some opening museums of memorabilia, including a woman in Georgia who has what she purports to be Elvis's toenail picked up off the Jungle Room floor on a tour of Graceland soon after Presley's death, and also a wart that was removed from his wrist by a Memphis doctor in "1957 or 1958."

    Cultish followings notwithstanding, Reece found most posthumous Elvis groupies get together the same as do Trekkies or stamp collectors or anyone else with like interests. If there is an "Elvis Religion," Reece contends, it is in dozens of books, films and songs with the "Memphis Messiah" or "Jumpsuit Jesus" as a literal or fictitious character, sometimes taking on Christ-like attributes and affecting the outcome of people's actions and lives.

    Asked why Elvis' mystique survives nearly 30 years after the singer's death, Reece said he believes Elvis inspires the common man to believe that he, too, could aspire to greatness. "I think it's because Elvis was a mixture of two elements: a very humble, lower class boy from a small town in north Mississippi, and then the other side as the bigger-than-life entertainer," said Reece. "I am intrigued by the people who are intrigued by Elvis. I can't get my mind around such devotion."

    Reece, a former lecturer in philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is now a free-lance writer. His next book, scheduled to come out next year, concerns the "UFO Religion."

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