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Monday, Aug. 8, 2011

Finding Elvis Presley, the 'Reluctant Rebel'

Milwaukee authors explore cultural impact of the King

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The late rock critic Lester Bangs once predicted, “We will never again agree on anything the way we agreed on Elvis.” The harmonic convergence that was Elvis Presley's career continues to be turned over and explored, reflecting culture as we were and as we are. Rock 'n' roll was supposed to be a fad. Few expected it to take root. For better or worse, much of the praise and blame can be laid at the feet of Elvis.

In Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times (Praeger), a triumvirate of learned Milwaukee writers takes a crack at deconstructing the ripples made by Elvis then and now. UW-Milwaukee history professor Glen Jeansonne, Shepherd Express A&E editor David Luhrssen and UWM Ph.D. candidate Dan Sokolovic trace the Presley family's trek from Tupelo, Miss., to Memphis, Tenn., as they made their home in shotgun shacks, relatives' houses and government projects during Elvis' formative years.

Poverty, race and religion are the cornerstones of Elvis' tale. The arc of his influences, seismic success and bloated demise is explained through a historian's viewpoint. Eschewing scholarly drone, the authors use anecdotal source material from the future King's relatives, running buddies, musicians and paramours.

Drawing on Albert Goldman's revelatory muckraking, Peter Guralnick's definitive chronicles and the thoughts of Milwaukee Elvis impersonator Tom Green, among others, the book ranges wide in pulling together the parts for Elvis' story. Of particular interest is how the authors connect the dots behind Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk (aka Col. Tom Parker)—a shady, Dutch, carny-educated one-time manager of Gene Austin, Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold—becoming the mastermind of Presley's career.

Presley's career can be neatly segmented into the opening blast of the Sun Records era and the full blossom of the RCA Records era. Following his Army enlistment, Elvis' career was defined by an assembly line of mostly bad Hollywood movies. The authors take a look at how Parker oversaw film budgets and placed songs that would keep the gravy train rolling his way.

As the British Invasion and later FM radio elbowed Presley from the charts, his career drifted into the horse latitudes. In 1968 he managed a virile if skillfully controlled television comeback. His leather-clad image was calculated, but the intimate setting led to rejuvenated recording sessions that yielded Presley's final chart run. After letting his confidence slip away, Elvis seemed to reclaim his rock 'n' roll swagger.

From there it was residencies in Las Vegas, smaller tours and a downward spiral. Presley died Aug. 16, 1977.

Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen will read from Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave.