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Elvis Presley: A Southern Life [Hardcover]

Joel Williamson

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Book Description

Nov 2014
In Elvis Presley, one of the most admired Southern historians of our time takes on one of the greatest cultural icons of all time. The result is a masterpiece: a vivid, gripping biography, set against the rich backdrop of Southern society—indeed, American society—in the second half of the twentieth century.

Author of The Crucible of Race and William Faulkner and Southern History, Joel Williamson is a renowned historian known for his matchless ability to write compelling narratives. In this tour de force biography, he captures the drama of Presley's career and offers insights into the social upheavals following World War II. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley was a contradiction, flamboyant in pegged black pants with pink stripes, yet soft-spoken, respectfully courting a decent girl from church. Then he wandered into Sun Records, and everything changed. He first went onstage in 1954. "I was scared stiff," Elvis recalled. "Everyone was hollering and I didn't know what they were hollering at." Girls did the hollering—at his snarl and swagger. Williamson calls it "the revolution of the Elvis girls." They took command, insisting on his sexually charged performances. They lived in an intense moment, this generation raised by their mothers, when men had been at war. The first Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education occurred two weeks before Elvis's first gig, turning high schools into battlegrounds of race. Explosively, white girls went wild for a white man singing a black man's songs, "wiggling" erotically. The book illuminates the zenith of Presley's career, his period of deepest creativity, which captured a legion of fans and kept them fervently loyal throughout years of army, wine, and women. Williamson shows how Elvis himself changed—and didn't. The deferential boy with downcast eyes became the bloated, demented drug addict who, despite his success, never escaped his sense of social inferiority. He bought Graceland in part to escape the judgment of his wealthy, established neighbors.

Appreciative and unsparing, musically attuned and socially revealing, Elvis Presley will deepen our understanding of the man and his times.

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About the Author

, Lineberger Professor Emeritus of the Humanities of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of a number of landmark works, including

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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "...He's Just a Great Big Beautiful Hunk of Forbidden Fruit ..." 2 Aug 2014
By delicateflower152 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
If you number yourself among the legion of Elvis fans and remember "The King" in his heyday, "Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" may shatter your image of that man. If you remember Elvis Presley in his later years and harbor feelings of repulsion and disgust, Joel Williamson's biography of that legendary entertainer may help explain Elvis' actions and may evoke your sympathy for the man.

"Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" provides a perspective on his life and times that is not a common one. In this more scholarly work, Williamson integrates Elvis' responses and actions with the cultural mores and attitudes of the South and the social changes occurring in the post World War II United States to give readers a more balanced view of Presley's rise and fall. The influence of African-American musicians and Presley's own impoverished upbringing are explored, as are the backgrounds and influence of his parents. Joel Williamson does not gloss over the more seamy aspects of Elvis' early life, nor does Williamson attempt to glorify or denigrate Presley's later actions. Williamson does delineate the importance of Elvis Presley's music and attitudes with respect to the changing of attitudes toward race. He writes "...Elvis brought blacks and whites together as if there were no race line in America. He also significantly melted the lines that might divide generations and genders, and religions and classes in the nation ..."

Through the years and as Joel Williamson follows the progression of Elvis' life and career, the reader of "Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" begins to see a deterioration in both Elvis' morals, his music, and the type of individuals comprising the entourage with which he surrounded himself. Elvis exuded a sexual magnetism and energy, Ed Sullivan may have been prescient with his initial comments about and impression of Elvis. Further, in the time before social media, fans that elevated Elvis to "star" status were unaware of - what would be termed today - his sexual addiction and pedophilia. In "Elvis Presley: A Southern Life", Joel Williamson does not shy away from Elvis' darker propensities. Yet Williamson relates this information in a manner that is nonjudgmental and dispassionate.

The advanced reader's copy of "Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" had no photographs included on its pages. However, since it contains 333 pages and the publisher's edition 384, the difference is likely the addition of photographs. These should enhance the text markedly and add to the reader's appreciation of the scholarship that producing this work required.

"Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" is a work of which Joel Williamson can be proud. Readers who remember the youthful Elvis Presley and his music may find the pages of this book reveal facts and information that is distasteful and harsh. Readers who remember only the older, declining Elvis and his glitzy Vegas shows may find "Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" affirms their negative view of "The King". Regardless of the view to which you ascribe, you will find Joel Williamson's discerning biography of Elvis Presley well-written and one that handles some difficult subjects with skill and discretion. The combination of biography with the social, sociological, and cultural influences of the time, clearly showing their impact on the subject and his life, elevates this book above most biographies about Presley.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elvis Presley 12 Aug 2014
By C. Yates - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Joel Williamson, a noted historian who writes his works in most informative and entertaining narratives, has captured the life of the iconic ELVIS. Much has been written about Elvis Presley but nothing quite so thorough and enriching. There is no doubt the book would be critiqued as a 'poor white trash' novel in any literature or sociology class...the difference made would be IT IS ELVIS. The book depicts the Presley and Smith families as Gladys and Vernon bury Elvis's twin brother and Vernon goes off to prison for altering a check.

Gladys is depicted as a champion who cares for and encourages her son his whole life. Vernon is a bit despicable as a low life, lazy, not wanting to work, blaming others for his downfall and looking for Elvis to be a financial success for the family be it working in the neighborhood, dropping out of school or as a famous singer.

Elvis was a most talented singer who blended black music from his neighborhood to white man's music on stage and his records. He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi among his clan. The clan was constantly there. The Presleys and Smiths were constantly surrounding the young man, from Germany in the army to Graceland in Memphis. Trailer trash' people live this way..doesn't mean those who live in mobile homes are poor, white or black, rich or poor. There is a tendency to be clannish, never get ahead regardless of income, be victims versus accepting responsibility for themselves; men abuse women and the women expect to be abused (be it sexually, emotionally, physically) and there are no winners. The family has no established boundaries for which to live....just as elegant antebellum Graceland had at least three trailers on the grounds to house various family members.

Elvis came on the scene as our country was in the throes of social upheavals after WWII. Race was a primary upheaval in the south with Brown vs Board of Education and parents fearing whites and blacks mixing in schools. Now there is a white man singing black songs to white girls and they are going a bit wild hollering and screaming with Elvis not even knowing why the commotion. There was a display of sexuality never seen before at concerts...Elvis and the crowds. Elvis was noted for his 'girls in bed' constantly. The innocence of Pricilla Presley was a MYTH that many wanted to believe but most Americans knew better. Elvis's cousins and bodyguards (mafia) called the girls to Elvis's bedroom. He was called the 'King of Foreplay' by his guards.

I could continue about the book I just finished reading in two days but will hope this review has wet your appetite for more in-depth reading of ELVIS PRESLEY A SOUTHERN LIFE. Elvis changed and sometimes he did not. The sweet innocent boy died lonely, a bloated drug addict with an inferiority complex.. The book says 'musically attuned and socially revealing' and this could be in capital letters. A fascinating book with years of research and factual personal accounts to show the life he lead as 'trailer trash' !!

My book came from Amazon and I would recommend it to anyone who loved/loves Elvis, music and sociology. You will be most intrigued!!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best of times, the worst of times 11 Aug 2014
By Mary Ann - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I just completed reading this superior/garbled/excellent volume over a three day period, interspersed with trips to YouTube to listen to the songs at appropriate intervals. Like another reviewer mentioned, the foreword would have better been omitted, but I read that, too--also the preface, bibliography, and epilogue. At 65, I was not a swooning teenager when Elvis came on the scene, but I remember seeing him for the first time at about seven, and having a pair of rock-and-roll shoes with sideburns in third grade, and hearing his music the rest of my life.
The first third of the book tells the life of Elvis and his family in the context of Southern life, and is superb--compassionate, readable, in-depth social commentary. Then I hit the second third, and was challenged to believe it came from the pen of the same writer--chopped, mixed, incomplete introductions of people that pinballed in and out of the narrative. After a bit, I forgave a great deal, because that pretty much reflected Elvis' life during the period, and kept on reading. The final third regains balance, and of course it is sad and sordid, but does forge ahead to conclusion.
Elvis is depicted as his mother's son, with both of them at the mercy of his feckless father. 'Daddy' never develops a work ethic to his dying day. Elvis charms a generation with every note, but craves someone who truly cares to provide a lullaby. He died so young, but he could not have stood anymore.
My marathon three-day read was well-spent, especially during this anniversary month.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Story Untold 6 Aug 2014
By Elisa 20 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I wish I could write a more favorable review. I can tell a lot of research went into this book and the writer, Joel Williamson, does a good job with organization and transitions (with one exception, below). The Vine copy is without any photos, not even on the cover--and no space where they would be placed--so it is hard to gauge the effect of photos when combined with text. That said, to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you review the book you have, not the book you wish you had.

It's too bad this book is good in some things but misses so much that I wish it had. There seems so little about Elvis Presley in it, who he really was, what he wanted, what he felt, his feelings and ideas about the music. It seems so disproportionately about him getting female audiences worked up on stage and then going to bed with a lot of women off-stage, but it's just not that interesting to read about. I didn't see any original research or even much from others who were important to him (women, roadies, musicians, Sam Phillips, Colonel Parker...anyone).

And I wish this book told me much more about the music and how Elvis brought something new into it all. Somewhere, too, (not just an occasional glimpse) would be the corrosive influence of Colonel Parker, his manager, who epitomized the bad side of the American Dream--the greed--and shaped Elvis to be a cash cow first, an artist...somewhere much further down the line. Williamson says that "Elvis didn't record anything good after 1958" but he doesn't really go into why that was the case, or how his manager didn't care at all about promoting his talent, just about getting his share of the easy money. That was such a tragedy.

I liked the observation that Elvis' Mississippi area had given America its "greatest entertainer (Presley), greatest playwright (Tennessee Williams) and greatest writer (William Faulkner)." And Williamson's emphasis on the influence of the South on Elvis is interesting, too, particularly for those of us unfamiliar with it, especially in the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s. But there's not enough about musical influences and styles, about playing and performing as a group and then as a solo artist. And there's too much, for me, even in the early years about all the audiences and their sexual desires and all the women that Elvis was bedding. I'm sure it could be written about interestingly, but I just found it to be too much and not interestingly written about at all. More to the point, the writing in general seems very textbook-ish in style, without bringing in a lot of facts or insights. There aren't a lot of quotes and there's not a lot of dialogue. Those things help liven up a biography. Here, I didn't really have a sense of anyone as a real person.

For a biography, that leaves a stilted feeling and one that was compounded (for me, at least) by not getting a feeling of what ELVIS felt and thought throughout his life. There's a narrative of events (including an odd chronological jump for several chapters, mid-story back to Elvis' childhood. One minute you're reading about him going into the Army in the late 1950s and the next, his father is talking about the war--but it's WWII and we're reading about Elvis' childhood. (Again, not much idea what he was thinking and feeling throughout it.)

Also, not to be unkind, but the Foreword (by the reader at the publishing house, Oxford University Press) does Williamson no favors in my opinion. This introduction dwells extensively on the idea of Presley's sexual appeal to his female audiences, far more than I think the book itself did, although that is a recurrent theme. That is certainly here, but there's more to Williamson's narrative than that, or than the well-known problems with drugs, weight and a group of hangers-on that didn't have his interests at heart.

I've always felt Presley was such a talent, not only his singing but the acting talent was there, too. Here, it was so sad how--just like Marilyn Monroe, another underrated actor with sex appeal--he kept trying to fight for good acting roles. (Unfortunately, once again, Colonel Parker gets away without the blame for destroying Presley's career that I think he should get. He was greedy and whatever could make him money--like Elvis starring in another cheesy beach musical--was what he cared about. If he had been interested in music--that great jazzy-bluesy-rockabilly music that Elvis started with and could have kept going into his "rock" and "gospel" years--"Elvis the Musician" wouldn't have done most of his best work by 1958. Similarly, if Tom Parker hadn't been motivated by personal gain, and had fought for good roles for him and shunned the cheap money-makers, Elvis might have been known as a great singer-actor, like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby of a different generation. He clearly had talent far beyond his peers in movies (Fabian, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, et. al). Unlike them, Elvis could really act.

I suspect the photographs will help (there should be a lot of them since their absence cuts the book's length by 50 pages), but without seeing them, I have no way to know. Judging on the text alone, which is what I have, I'd say this is well-researched and organized but pretty dry stuff with lots of mention about women he slept with, and not nearly enough about his personality, feelings, and most of all, his music.
3.0 out of 5 stars Only okay. 12 Aug 2014
By G. Kellner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I love Elvis--who doesn't love Elvis? At least some facet of him--sweet southern boy, devoted son, king of rock and roll. He was no saint, however, especially in his later life, when drugs clouded his genius and made him self-indulgent and lazy. To expect a biography of Elvis to gloss over his less appealing traits would be to miss the point. Elvis was so fascinating in part because he was contradictory.

This is not the best Elvis biography I've ever read--Peter Guralnick's "Last Train to Memphis" and his follow up, "Careless Love" detailing the rise and fall of Elvis were both excellent. It's not the worst either. Clearly, the author spent a lot of time researching Elvis and the Memphis he came from. It jumps around some--Elvis's roots are discussed, his early family life, his music (to some degree)--I think the main difficulty I have it that it's called "Elvis Presley: A Southern Life" and I think this thesis was somewhat muddled. I did not especially feel Elvis was explained by virtue of his southern roots. Another reviewer said it was confusing--I think scattered would fit better. It's not difficult to understand, it's just that it doesn't come together in any cohesive way. Elvis was complex and difficult to understand at times--but a biography should shed some light on what made him who he was, and I'm not sure I got that from this.
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