Originally created 08/17/97

Elvis by the book

Every second of Elvis' life has been written about by somebody, it seems. You could begin with I Called Him Babe: Elvis Presley's Nurse Remembers and go straight through to Elvis: The Last 24 Hours. From there you can pick up the trail in Dead Elvis.

Every phase of the man's career has been pored over. There's Early Elvis: The Tupelo Years, Soldier Boy Elvis or Elvis in Hollywood. For the story behind the story, there's plenty of titles like Elvis: Portrait of a Friend and The Truth About Elvis.

Twenty years after his death, Elvis threatens to rival the Civil War as a literary subject, said Vernon Chadwick, who founded and directs an international conference on Elvis.

"If anything is going to compete in number of books produced, it is going to be Elvis," Mr. Chadwick said.

After a point, the books become like the greatest-hits albums. There are so many, it's hard to know which to choose.

The most respected books in the field, Mr. Chadwick said, are Peter Garulnick's Last Train to Memphis and Greil Marcus' Dead Elvis.

Mr. Guralnick's book, one of the most popular books on the King at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Augusta, is a detailed look at Elvis' life to 1958. (The second volume will be out in 1998). The book is a fact-based narrative, light on speculation about the Elvis Presley phenomenon.

Mr. Marcus, as much a critic as a reporter, took the opposite approach in Dead Elvis, subtitled A Chronicle of Cultural Obsession. He is interested in Elvis the myth as well as the musician and what is behind the shopping mall sightings and the proliferation of Elvis impersonators. It's not a surprise he should take such an approach. Mr. Marcus' best-known book on rock music, Mystery Train, has a section called "The Presliad" that recalls Presley's career in Homeric terms.

Other, more obscure books that Mr. Chadwick recommends are Stark Raving Elvis by William McCranor Henderson and Growing Up with the Memphis Flash by W.A. Harbinson and Kay Wheeler.

The Henderson book is a fictional story about a former Elvis impersonator who goes to Las Vegas. Mr. Chadwick describes the book as a "brilliant blending of the public and private fascination for a figure that has taken on symbolic importance for an entire cultural era." The Harbison and Wheeler book documents the Elvis craze in Texas in the 1950s through the eyes of an adoring fan.

At Barnes & Noble Booksellers, another popular book is Frank Coffey's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Elvis.

Mr. Coffey's guide is a USA Today-style run through Elvis' life, with lots of little nuggets and pictures. Each chapter ends with a box that reminds you of "the least you need to know." It's the sort of book you can pick up anywhere and start reading.

In an appendix Mr. Coffey lists his favorite Elvis books. He, too, likes Mr. Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis and puts Mr. Marcus' Mystery Train on the list for its "Presliad" section. He also gives a nod to Dave Marsh's Elvis, which seems fair, given that Mr. Marsh wrote the introduction to Mr. Coffey's book.

If you go way off the beaten path, you'll find John English's favorite Elvis book, Joni Mabe's Museum Book: The First Museum in Book Form, Collectors Item Limited Edition, Featuring Some of the Greatest: Elvis, Jesus, Loretta Lynn and So Forth, and Three of the Worst: Hitler, The Klan, and Satan, So Get Yours Today While Supply Lasts.

Mr. English is a University of Georgia journalism professor, and Joni Mabe is an Athens artist with a heavy fascination for Elvis. Her collection of memorabilia includes a wart allegedly removed from the King and a toenail lifted from the carpet in Graceland's jungle room, he said.

She self-published this book in 1988. Mr. English, who teaches popular culture, art criticism and journalism, described it as "stream of consciousness memories and recollections and factoids."

Elvis inspires such mania in part because people need heroes, Mr. English said. If it wasn't Elvis, it would be somebody else.

Still, he believes there is something real that has elevated the King to his exalted position. The only pop culture figure to come close to becoming the same sort of icon is Marilyn Monroe.

"I don't think there's anything bogus at all about the Elvis legend," Mr. English said. "He was a fabulous entertainer. I saw him twice. His voice still soothes, it still rocks. It's still a major talent."


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