Elvis Presley's 75th birthday may be an excuse for a big blowout, but the occasion also gives fans another chance to re-evaluate his legacy. With changing attitudes come changing theories about his influence. There are also a load of new books about the "real" Elvis, from a best pal to his demonized doctor to a Nashville journalist investigating his insatiable appetite for women (a condition dubbed as "satyriasis").
With so much information to add to the lore, Elvis' legacy extends far beyond rock'n'roll ambassador, from racial barrier-buster and political pal to incidental city planner and fighting arts master. Below, some places and people who experienced the Elvis Effect.
For years, the public pilgrimage to honor the King went straight to Graceland, bypassing his roots in Tupelo, Miss. These days, the Times Online reports, music scholars and the town itself have remedied this geographical omission. The museum and chapel near his childhood home recently got fixed up, and the town got on the Mississippi Blues Trail in 2008. Other institutions are still around, like the Tupelo Hardware store where an 11-year-old Elvis hankered for a rifle but his mother Gladys convinced him to buy a guitar instead. Also standing is the two-room shack where Gladys gave birth to Elvis and his stillborn twin, Jessie Garon.
One Tupelo resident and pal who has surfaced from Elvis' past: 75-year-old Sam Bell, a Graceland special guest this week. According to a London Guardian interview, the two often hung around together, even though they had to use separate entrances, bathrooms, schools-the many ways blacks and whites were kept apart in America. "There was a lot of segregation and prejudice in Tupelo at that time," Bell told the Scotsman newspaper. "but as 13-year-old kids, we didn't care about colour. We were just having a good time."
The National Archives keeps the most important moments of American history, and its most popular possession is the photo of a handshake between Presley and Richard Nixon. According to the Archives and the Huffington Post, that 1970 meeting with Nixon came with an ulterior motive: He wanted to be a Federal Agent At Large to fight illegal drugs. Elvis got the props, and a badge, from the president.
That wasn't the last time for Presley's persuasion at the White House. When long-time pal George Klein (and author of the new book Elvis: My Best Man) got into mail-fraud trouble, Elvis went straight to the top to fix things. He may not have enforced any Narcotics Bureau laws (his vice was purely the prescribed kind), but the King did show political loyalty: Even after Watergate, he remained true to Nixon. Says then-presidential aide Egil "Bud" Krogh. "They liked each other very much."
Saving Las Vegas
Elvis didn't need the badge to save Las Vegas. Although the Daily Mail would blame Sin City for the entertainer's eventual fall, the British paper points out that gangsters with names like Bugsy and the Ant controlled the town until Elvis stormed in with his outsized act and entourage. He injected youth and pizazz into what became "an oasis of indulgence." People who weren't gamblers came, and made the desert stop an entertainment stage.
The turnaround wasn't always welcome, as the Las Vegas Weekly recounts. Once, there was a sniper threat. Another time, some thugs, led by a ringleader with a sword cane, tried to run the stage. Recalls Sonny West (part of the so-called Memphis Mafia who wrote an exposé about Elvis 10 days before his death), they got stopped, but "Elvis, he was ready to go, doing his karate movements. 'Lemme at 'em! Lemme at 'em!' He had to be restrained.'"
Speaking of karate, Elvis received an eighth-degree black belt in the Japanese form. The rock'n'roll ambassador trained for years in the fighting arts, first in the U.S. Army and then under karate instructor Ed Parker, whose most famous discovery was Bruce Lee. He later got four years under fancy uniforms from Kang Rhee, who specialized in Korean forms like Taekwondo. Elvis was reasonably tough: During a demonstration, the King didn't just go without a protective cup - he didn't wear underwear.
The King's influence on the martial arts was a little more indirect. He wanted to do a karate feature documentary, but he didn't get around to it. He may have influenced onscreen martial arts anyhow: It turns out the young Bruce Lee was such a big Elvis fan, he took dance classes to get his hips to move like his idol's. Lee became good enough to snag the 1958 Hong Kong cha-cha ballroom championship trophy. Who knows what those two could've done together, had the Fates not intervened.
A 2009 DVD shows old footage of Elvis demonstrating some favorite moves - below, a glimpse of the King's fancy foot (and hand) work.