"My aim in everything I write is to disappear into the world I'm writing about," Peter Guralnick said.
More often than not, that world has been one of rural juke joints and dance halls, "brush arbor" revivals, fish fries and old primitive recording studios the sites of the music that is often reverently and sometimes condescendingly referred to as "vernacular."
In 1994, Guralnick's "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley" was released to nearly universal acclaim, and became the definitive Elvis Presley biography virtually overnight. The novelistic account of Presley's early years almost single-handedly reclaimed one of the culture's prodigal heroes: The book renewed interest in Presley and replaced the accumulated clichés and speculation with a portrait of a conscious, deliberate artist with a uniquely democratic vision of popular music.
His book "Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley," released in 1999, completed the increasingly sorrowful story with characteristic empathy and detail.
Throughout his career, Guralnick has retained the missionary ardor that characterized his early writing on the blues; he has worked as an executive producer on recordings by, among others, Charlie Rich and Sleepy LaBeef, has written two documentaries about Elvis and has produced an ocean of liner notes.
Finding The Real Elvis
As we spoke during a rare break between research trips for his upcoming biography of soul singer Sam Cooke, I asked him about the origins of "Last Train to Memphis" in the midst of a mini-industry of Elvis books and the kitsch that had engulfed Presley's reputation, the book must have seemed like an unlikely contender for the success it ultimately achieved.
"I didn't believe there was an audience for it," admitted Guralnick. "I thought that the interest in Elvis was saturated and that the bias against him was too pronounced. His fans turned out to be a true silent majority."
I asked him about the inspiration for the book.
"I was driving down Maclemore Avenue in Memphis with my friend Rose Clayton, a native Memphian," Guralnick recalled. "She pointed at this boarded-up drugstore, where she said Elvis' cousin used to work, and talked about how Elvis would sit at the counter and just drum his fingers on the countertop, and then she said, 'Poor baby.' And I just had this revelation of a real kid, with acne, with enthusiasm, with this omnivorous interest in music.
"Right around that time Gregg Geller, who started the Elvis reissue program at RCA, asked me to do the liner notes for the Sun Sessions," Guralnick continues, "and I interviewed Sam Phillips and [songwriter] Stan Kessler again. All of a sudden we were talking about a real person working in the studio, not the grand theory behind it all but what actually happened. Finally, I became involved with a documentary about
Elvis, and in working on it gathered the interviews that Elvis had given in 1955 and 1956. Again, I came to realize that this was not the mythic Elvis, there's a real Elvis here this is Elvis speaking for himself. In writing about him, I always tried very hard to strip away the layers."
The Colonel's Approval
One of the frequently cited dead ends in Presley research has been Elvis' manager of 22 years, the late Col. Tom Parker, who maintained a long-standing silence on the subject of his most famous client.
Learning the Colonel would speak at Presley's birthday celebration in January 1988, he flew to Memphis "solely to be in the same room with the Colonel, to absorb his aura."
When Phillips, who sat with Guralnick at the event, decided to take the opportunity to speak with the Colonel for the first time in more than 30 years, Guralnick tagged along and obtained an introduction that led to a cryptic encounter with Elvis' notorious manager. "Colonel Parker and I had begun a correspondence, and his letters always opened with 'Friend Peter,' which was his customary form of address. About a year
and a half after we met, I received an invitation to his 80th birthday party in Las Vegas. Of course I attended, and when it was time to leave I thanked the Colonel and said goodbye. He was sitting in a high-backed chair with a giant stuffed elephant behind him and was wearing a Stetson hat. He looked straight at me, took my hand and said, 'Peter, I put you on the list.' I wasn't sure whether he was saying what I thought he was saying, so I thanked him again for inviting me. He held onto my arm and repeated: 'Peter, I put you on the list.' And he was right. He did put me on the list. Without having spoken to anyone at the party about the book I was writing, I met many people that evening whom I subsequently wrote to, for whom I was validated by the Colonel's invitation. I still don't know why he did it."