It wasn't just prepubertal girls who liked Elvis Presley (it soon turned out) but their great-aunts as well. They thought he was sweet.
The city of Memphis, where Elvis lived, did know quite what to make of him at first because for one thing he wiggled his hips a lot and got his voice way back in his throat as if singing through a milk shake and, besides, you could not be sure it was really art.
So at first - long after Sam Phillips at Sun Records got him making records, and long after the softest hardcore of his fans had discovered him - Elvis was largely ignored by the local establishment.
There was a feeling, in the 1950s, that blacks were taking over the entertainment world, and to hear people talk you'd have thought they all just sat around singing madrigals and could not abide vulgarity.
And Elvis was vulgar, because he wiggled and because he threw the maidens of Memphis into swoons and thus may have been sexy.
But the top blew off on the "Ed Sullivan Show" on television when he wiggled exceedingly, and came to the attention of many sober people who have never heard of him. One of them demanded to know how we expected men like Dr. Schweitzer to live his beautiful life of service, and the Queen of England to do her duty, too, if any bumpkin could seduce the world with a few grunts and whines while doing his hips.
How this interfered with Dr. Schweitzer was not altogether clear, but it split the city into hostile camps. On this side the teachers of elocution and the chamber music crowd, temporarily and uneasily allied with plantation owners, bankers and editorial writers, while on the other side, Elvis' side, were all girls from 6 to 13 years of age, and iconcclasts in general.
Once the girls found out their parents were revolted by Elvis Presley and his wiggles, they embraced him with everlasting bonds, naturally, and as they grew up - and as the singer's popularity seeped up from the young to the old - it finally occurred to the city at large that Elvis was not so awful, after all, and the hip business was wholesome waggery like a dog after a bath, sort of.
If Elvis, ever noticed the shift in his favor, he did not comment on it publicly, and in any case he did not grant interviews much. When he did he mainly said yes, sir, and looked innocent. If he had any thoughts he concealed them from reporters.
I went out to see him at his Audubon Drive house about the time he was becoming well-known and his mother answered the door. They had been to a funeral out in the country and got home later than expected, so Elvis was taking a shower.
"Go on back," she said, and she thought it rather ceremonious for the reporter to wait until he finished. In due time he emerged, hastily dressed and minus shoes and with damp hair, a very picture of the artless country boy. It is easy, years later, for reporters to remember quite well what some celebrities told them, but nobody, so far as I kow, remembers anything Elvis ever said, largely because he did not say anything.
A fellow who wrote a story for a national magazine said it was hard work, since he never so much as met Elvis, but then he would not have got many quotes, if he had spent a week with him. Elvis, it struck me, was not a verbal fellow.
My barber was a cousin of Elvis' and from time to time would disappear to go on a trip with him. These were exciting events, to those who went along, he said. Elvis would rent a floor of a hotel in Beverly Hills and they would all sit around at night listening to music and drinking Cokes.
A fellow who ran a liquor store had a room in the back where he said Elvis used to come and shoot the bull. No drinking, mind you, just passing the time like "What you know?" and "Nothing what you knew?" I never could find out what they talked about, there were usually several of them, and concluded Elvis just like being in a friendly place.
He served a stint in the Army in Germany and by the time he came back to Memphis newspaper thought it important enough to send a reporter to Fort Dix to write a story. "Yes, sir," was one of the guttering quotations resulting from the interview.
It was the general faith in Memphis that Elvis would buy a Cadillad or pay for a nose job (one of his friend required nose surgery for cosmetic reasons) if you just got to know him. Rumors, for which there was probably a good foundation, circulated about his gifts to charity.
He had the pinkest cheeks, as a youth, of any singer I ever saw, and this was generally attributed to a clean life of buttermilk and collards, though I gathered from my barber, the cousin, he drank a lot of Cokes. No matter, he certainly looked wholesome.
"Never a breath of scandal about him," people used to say as if they had expected to hear he drowned little kittens for kicks.
"In New York, party-giver and television show person Elsa Maxwell once told me about a wild week she had heard Elvis spent with some actress. Miss Maxwell adored gossip and loved to visualize things in her head, but as I imperfectly remember it, there was no real tidbit there, not even enough for Miss Maxwell to enjoy.
Needless to say, if a reviewer said anything less than that Elvis was glorious and possibly of divine origin, the fans wrote abusive letters. They were organized into clubs, and reviewers believed they were armed, probably.
A quarter-cent goes quickly, once you survive it, and it has never been possible for those who met Elvis whe he was lean and pink-cheeked and wet-haired, to believe he put on weight, and certainly it never occurred to anybody he might someday die, except maybe as Sarah Bernhard died after a great number of farewell [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and long after everyone else.
He was a Mississippi boy, drawn to Memphis, a home of the blues, and long lines of tourists used to stand outside the iron gates of his house just to see where he lived, as if they expected to be cured of some trouble, some disease. They just stood and looked, and almost never saw their idol who was not one for sashaying back and forth out the front door.
"I hate to see," as one of the Memphis wits one wrote in a song, "that evening sun to down." Some say Elvis was the most entertaining thing to happen since Davy Crockett (the city's congressman) located naked into the town harbor when his boat sank in the 1820s.