In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service conducted a nationwide survey to decide which face of Fat Elvis Presley should be immortalized on a 29-cent stamp: his 1950s look with pompadour and tweed jacket; or his 1970s one featuring mutton chops and jeweled collar.
Everyone had their eyes set on one outcome – the outcome of this election
Nevermind that the “mature Elvis,” as some media reports referred to him, was the Elvis of “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain,” with his bright eyes and rock-solid jaw nor that he sold millions of albums and often looked quite trim in his jumpsuits throughout most of the era. Thank goodness!
Mature Elvis was forever marked by the dismal spectacle of his last two years or so — the dramatic weight gain, slow performances, and eventual collapse beside a toilet. Even 15 years after his passing, many still refer to Mature Elvis as “Fat Elvis,” an embarrassment. By an overwhelming 3-to-1 margin, America chose an Elvis of a far distant past.
Wednesday marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s passing, and it has become increasingly apparent that Elvis chose the worst time to pass away.
He was 42 in August 1977, which is an age that many rock stars find awkward – particularly the first rock star
At 27, it wasn’t the first rock star death; there had already been a wave of superstar deaths at the beginning of the decade, such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. All were stars on the rise with nothing but hit records and stunning photos to their name.
Their final moments were drug-addled and reckless but still only 27; thus their deaths achieved something close to Kurt Cobain’s James Dean effect — frozen in youth with endless potential.
Elvis did not experience that moment
“Elvis is fat,” The Washington Post’s Style section declared in June 1976 when he performed at Maryland’s Capital Centre. Not only was Elvis overweight, but his stomach also hung over his belt, his jowls hung over his collar, and his hair trailed behind his eyes.”
Only 20 years prior, Presley had shocked the culture with “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog.” At that time, it must have felt like speaking truth to power; Sally Quinn noted with amazement the number of adoring female fans who traveled far distances to see him, hoping to touch the hems of his garments.
“The scarf routine is particularly disconcerting,” she wrote. “A draper drapes the silk scarves over his neck, wipes sweat off his neck with them, girls scream, he throws sweaty scarves to them – they faint and collapse after being pushed away by guards or led away by friends.” In conclusion, she concluded: “This behavior cannot be understood.”
At the very least, Elvis wasn’t cool. When Lisa Robinson was a child in 1956, her first Elvis releases seemed so hip; yet by the time she became a rock journalist in New York in the 1970s — consumed by chart-topping bands such as Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin plus punk revivalist groups like Clash and Television — Elvis seemed increasingly irrelevant.
Vanity Fair Contributing Editor
“I don’t mean to sound snobby,” said Robinson, Vanity Fair contributing editor. “For us who were sitting there at CBGB, he just kind of stood out as this kind of kitsch figure.”
Many of the cool kids of his era still held reverence for his early work and Sun Studio years — Joe Strummer of The Clash often talked about Elvis, while Robinson remembered David Bowie getting over his fear of flying to attend Elvis’ 1972 Madison Square Garden concert — but for the most part, Elvis was seen wearing “the MGM Grand and white jumpsuits with fringe,” which some considered rather corny today.
And then he passed away. His passing made headline news a global event and an unprecedented shock to society – yet for many, it felt as if they were mourning a man who’d passed away years ago, not someone in vibrant middle age who still mattered today.
Elvis Presley in a publicity
still from the 1956 movie “Love Me Tender.” While his early Sun Studio days were still revered by rock critics, many saw him as irrelevant at his passing (American Movie Classics via Reuters/American Movie Classics via Reuters).
On Tuesday afternoon, Marion Clark of The Washington Post lamented, “the 1950s vanished into history…” She went on to recall swiveling pelvises, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” high school sock hops, and her beloved Sun 45s as symbols of loss and change in society.
Many Elvis fans clung to those nostalgic images, turning away from Las Vegas and “Burning Love” medallions in favor of more innocent memories. According to Peter Guralnick’s epic two-volume Presley biography, it wasn’t necessarily their fault if they didn’t appreciate Elvis’ musical skill at that time.
He noted that Presley remained a creative genius, yet his music had been largely neglected due to the company’s indifference towards him and their desire only to capitalize on his legendary status.
Death of Presley when he was young — not James Dean’s young — left him stuck in an aesthetic that society was quickly moving away from. Even Dread Zeppelin, an early 1990s novelty act that put Led Zeppelin tunes over reggae beats, featured a drawling lead singer named Tortelvis; similarly, Fat Elvis impersonators appeared throughout Nicolas Cage’s “Honeymoon in Vegas” comedy as part of its running gag.
Unfortunately, he missed out on other performers’ comebacks and critical reevaluations after years away: Glen Campbell, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson, Tom Jones, and Johnny Cash.
Imagine Elvis in the 1990s, performing an MTV “Unplugged” concert or VH1 “Storytellers,” sporting short hair and a gorgeous suit, his voice filling any room with its majestic presence.
“People often imagine Fat Elvis looking like this gray-haired gentleman with sideburns today,” said Dwight Icenhower, an Elvis tribute artist from Orlando who last year was named the nation’s best Presley impersonator. But Dwight maintains that “his style always evolved over time.”
On Tuesday during Memphis’ annual “Elvis Week,” Icenhower had prepared renditions of songs he believes Presley might have covered someday: “Rock This Town” by The Stray Cats, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John and Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire.”
Elvis always seemed to find the ideal songs he remarked He would’ve just adapted them
Other artists (the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, and Bowie), slightly younger or at least more durable, were the first to figure out how to grow old as rock stars and then offered those aesthetic templates up to even younger rock stars — expensive tailoring, corporate gigs, pared-down ballads, country estates, supermodel second wives, environmental activism and knighthoods.
Guralnick states, “I don’t believe Elvis ever intended to become an old rock star.”