Still the King

Elvis is alive and well, hundreds of miles from Graceland The Music Issue Continued: Confessions of a Rock 'n' Roll Survivor

The Music Issue Continued:

Feature Story

by Kevin Crowe

On any given Saturday, our quaint little Market Square is teeming with life. The Farmer's Market draws a continuous crowd. The occasional busker fills the air with classic ragtime. Hordes of children run through the fountains. There's also a man in a white jumpsuit, sporting a pair of blue suede shoes. He's standing in front of a portable karaoke machine. The speakers aren't the best that money can buy, but they're good enough to get the job done. The first couple of bars of â“Little Sisterâ” begin.

â“Everyone,â” a silver-tongued itinerant says after he snatches Elvis' microphone, but Elvis doesn't seem to care. â“Elvis is in the house!â”

His name is Jeff Martin, and for the past two years, he's been donning the Las Vegas Elvis outfit. He's got the dapper black hair. He's got the thick, black muttonchops. He's got the glitzy shades, too. He's a preservationist, in a sense, protecting an idealizedâ"and slightly gimmickyâ"memory of the King of Rock'n'Roll.

The nation's housewives were picking up copies of The National Star by the thousands when, in April of 1977, the tabloid ran the provocative headline: â“Elvis, 42, fears he's losing his sex appealâ"psychologist explains Presley's tantrums and why, at 230 pounds, he craves young girls and jelly donuts.â”

There he was, in a gruesome photograph on the cover, only days after he checked himself out of a Baptist hospital. Rumor had it that the King was woofing down an average of 25 pills or injectible vials of painkillers every day. Pills before bed, and more pills in the morning. The Elvis that appeared on the Star 's cover looked silly and, even worse, old, a far cry from the hip-shaking sex symbol that lit up female libidos in the late '50s. The king was fat, breathing heavily and sweating profusely. His eyes stared off toward nothing in particular, his pupils dilated to the size of nickels. He would no longer strike any of his signature karate poses during his increasingly lackluster performances.

To put it another way, the King of Rock'n'Roll was a has-been, a fat buffoon, a mouth-breathing parody of the real Elvis Presley. Gone were the giddy shrills from thousands of star-crossed girls, as Elvis lumbered his way through a terribly misguided tour, which began right here in Knoxville on May 20, 1977. Elvis had had his fair share of bad press, sure, but nothing could've prepared him for what was about to come. Critics, looking to take the former king down a peg or two, had no mercy when the sweaty, hulking singer came to the stage. There was no such thing as a cheap shot if you were unfortunate enough to attend an Elvis concert during the summer of '77. A writer in Detroit summed up the spectacle, with acrid intensity:

â“Let me tell you something, gang; when I say old, I mean old. That turkey needs a feather transplant.

â“It is damning Presley with faint praise to say that he stunk the joint out. If he appeared live and in concert tonight in my backyard, I wouldn't bother to raise the window shadeâ. As it was we got stung $15 a seat to listen to his aging voice crack and to hear him stumble over lyrics he should've memorized 20 years ago.â”

And so it went, in just about every town that Elvis took his tired, dope-fueled body. Everywhere he went, his doctor followed, keeping the King happy with uppers, downers, anything that a doctor can prescribe.

But in a strange twist of fate, Elvis' record sales were going up for the first time in years. Perhaps when folks saw this dopey excuse for an Elvis, they missed their charismatic and slightly ribald King. When Elvis ceased to be Elvis, records began to fly off the shelf, as fans yearned for royal rock'n'roll totems, anything to remember his reign as it once was. RCA had reissued 16 singles, all of which found their way onto the British charts. Back stateside, his newest single, â“Way Down,â” enjoyed brief popularity on easy listening and country charts. To see Elvis live may have been a disaster waiting to happen, but his music had yet to lose its velveteen cocksureness.

Elvis continued to hit the road, popping stimulants instead of sedatives, as he stretched and struggled to hit the high notes. At his final show in Indianapolis, the crowd was in a frenzy. The women screamed, bleating, writhing in pure ecstasy. It was as if Elvis was 20 years younger, and he was out shaking his hips for the first time. He finished by singing â“Can't Help Falling in Love,â” and the band began an ominous vamp â"â"

â“Ladies and Gentlemen,â” the voice said over the loudspeaker, â“Elvis has left the building.â” Moments later, the voice returned. â“ We'd like to remind you that following this evening's concert the Elvis Super Souvenir Concession Stands will be open for a short while. If you didn't get your souvenir of your evening with Elvis, be sure that you do so before you leave â.â” Colonel Parker, who had managed and exploited Elvis since his days in the army, had a slogan that he was real keen on repeatingâ" always Elvis â"and it's always been Elvis ever since.

"He knows just about every Elvis song there is,â” says a middle-aged fellow, who has stopped to hear Martin sing â“Suspicious Minds.â” â“I've heard other singers out here, they're pitiful. I know he does better.â”

â“I'd like to get a gig,â” Martin says during one of the few breaks he takes during his four-hour Elvis marathon. â“I'd like to work with a band. But I'd need a car first.â”

Saturday mornings find Martin taking the bus from South Knoxville to downtown. He schleps his karaoke machine and box of Elvis' greatest hits to Market Square, and for a few hours, he's living a dream.

â“He's a legend,â” Martin says matter-of-factly, because what else is there to say? Always Elvis , even Colonel Parker couldn't have predicted how fervently the King's fans would honor his memory.

It all began in Knoxville, oddly enough, in 1954, just another routine day on Market Square. A local merchant named Sam Morrison of the Bell Sales Company was promoting Elvis' â“That's All Right, Mamaâ” by playing it over his loudspeakers. By sheer luck, a talent scout from RCA heard the song and bought two copies. One of those copies made its way to New York and, in just a few months, RCA was negotiating with Sun Records for Elvis' contract.

But that's ancient history. Elvis is still the King of Rock'n'Roll. Thousands of devotees have made the trip to Graceland over the years. Here on the Square, Martin stands alone. Small crowds gather from time to time, but more often than not, he's performing just for himself. At the end of each song, he strikes a stiff karate pose, and holds it, just in case there's someone willing to take a picture.

When he speaks, Martin is ill at ease. His hands shake uncontrollably, and his soft voice is barley audible over the Square's patrons. Yet when he's singing, he's a different person. He's in another world. He's no longer the man who rode the bus up from South Knoxville. He's King for four hours a week, and no one's going to argue with that. There's no ego here, only the unshakable belief that maybe, just maybe, lightning will strike the same place twice.

â“What's my favorite Elvis song?â” Martin ponders the question for a minute. â“My favorite Elvis song is when it's sung my way.â”

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