Forty-five years after his death and the world is still enamoured by Elvis Presley. With a film directed by Baz Luhrmann recently released about his life grossing $US50.5 million at the box office, 13.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and hit singles like “Hound Dog,” placing #1 on three US top single charts for a record of 11 weeks—no one could say the star has been forgotten. In fact, with bobbleheads, bad impressions, and the never-ending bad renditions of his hits on karaoke night, Elvis is not just a household name—he’s a legend.
There’s no doubt that Elvis shaped the world as we know it. Culture, the teenage years of thousands of his fans, and most importantly, the world of music. As Bruce Springsteen put it, “There have been pretenders. And there have been contenders. But there is only one king.” The problem comes when you ask yourself, why Elvis? What was so special about him? With concert halls banning him from dancing, and radio stations refusing to play his music due to his allegedly sexual nature, Elvis was most definitely paving the way for freedom onstage. He’s shaped pop and Rock n’ Roll music as we know it. But behind the spotlight, who was he?
Elvis himself didn’t know the answer. This question was one he struggled with throughout his life. As Elvis put it, “The image is one thing, and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image.”
Elvis, a small-town country boy, began his journey to fame in the most inconspicuous manner possible. His early life was the definition of humble beginnings. He grew up in a poor family, living in a two-bedroom shack his father built himself (his $100 million estate at Graceland couldn’t be further away). Eventually, he worked his way up to an $8 guitar—his success certainly not the product of training or parental indulgence in his career.
Elvis’ love for music was born in a small church near his home. Attending every Sunday, he was enraptured by the lively gospel music and atmosphere of his Pentecostal Church. Growing up, Elvis would scramble out of his seat and run towards the choir, singing with a small and out-of-tune voice, as most children do. Though he had a lifelong struggle with his faith, he never forgot the feeling of standing in that room as the piano played and voices lifted in praise.
One critic described Elvis as “arguably the greatest white gospel singer of his time [and] really the last rock and roll artist to make gospel as vital a component of his musical personality as his secular songs.” Throughout his career, he frequently wove into his singing elements he learned from gospel singers he loved. As he put it, “I know practically every religious song that’s ever been written.” Winning his first Grammy award for Best Sacred Performance, and consistently releasing covers of old spirituals and classic gospel songs throughout his career, Elvis kept his roots, even as his life disintegrated before his eyes.
Despite his struggles with faith, Elvis tried to stick to the morals he learned as a child. As he said himself, “I’ve tried to lead a straight, clean life, not set any kind of a bad example.” But as often happens, living a healthy and happy life was difficult due to the pressures and negative influence that came with his fame and fortune. Being a star was lonely, Elvis often lamented. Admirers and critics lurked around every corner, shallow relationships and friends were attracted to his fame more than him, and genuine connections became few and far between.
The worst event of his life, and a catalyst for his fall from grace, occurred during his time in the army. After being drafted at 23 years old, Elvis was introduced to opioids by a friend, beginning a lifelong struggle with addiction and chronic illnesses that led to his death at the young age of 42. The irony was that even after this first encounter, he was a strong proponent of the anti-drug movement. As one acquaintance said, “[Elvis] was so anti-drug when I met him. I mentioned to him that I smoked marijuana, and he was just appalled. He said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’” Deeply opposed to recreational drug use, Elvis also rarely drank. Conscious of the alcoholism that ran in his family, he was determined to avoid it.
But still, the king of Rock n’ Roll lost the fight. In the 8 months leading up to his death, at the height of his addiction, he had consumed over 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics. Nearing the end of his life, he was barely able to perform, slurring his words and hanging on to the microphone stand to stay upright on stage. As so many drug abusers do, he ostracised those who came between him and his addiction. Firing and estranging his closest friends and colleagues and becoming more and more solitary, Elvis avoided the reality of his deteriorating health.
Despite his fame and addictions, Elvis spent the last years of his life searching for meaning. His suitcases were packed with books on religion and spiritualism. He once remarked to a friend, “I mean there has to be a purpose…there’s got to be a reason…why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley…I swear to God, no one knows how lonely I get. And how empty I really feel.” As fans grew increasingly outspoken in their disappointment at his lacklustre performances and let down by the records he managed to release, “it all [went] right past Presley, whose world was now confined almost entirely to his room and his spiritualism books.” Unable to move from his bed, let alone function, Elvis sought comfort in the idea of something more. In his own words, “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.”
Elvis may have been a cultural icon, but he was also a man—a man with fears and insecurities, hopes and dreams. A man that struggled and fought to be the best he could be, despite the pressures of stardom and the fear of irrelevance. A man that grasped at faith when nothing else could be found. Stability, trust, and love felt scarce in his life. It was hard to trust, and even wise to be wary at times. And yet, despite everything, Elvis strove to find truth.
Every human on this earth struggles to find truth and meaning like Elvis. As philosopher Henry David Thoreau put it, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Some find peace of mind in their work, others in family, and others in charity. But in the end, even through his struggles, Elvis chose to find his truth in faith.
Shea Standish is an intern writer at Signs of the Times.