What if his beat went on? — Had Elvis lived to see 70, how might his career have continued?
The king of rock and roll moved easily from “Hound Dog” to “How Great Thou Art,” and, had he been resuscitated in 1977, a newly health-conscious Elvis likely would have moved closer to his gospel roots. That’s the one major consensus among a sampling of musicians and friends of Elvis.
What if Elvis had lived? He would have been 70 today. We asked people from Memphis Mafia members to superstar singers to the entertainment magnate who recently bought the bulk of Elvis’s estate what a septuagenarian King would be doing.
Elvis’s brush with death would have steered him to clean living, said Robert F. X. Sillerman, head of CKX, the New York company that last month acquired an 85 percent interest in
Elvis Presley Enterprises. “Knowing his interest in the martial arts, I don’t think there’s any question that he would have turned to a health regimen. I think he would have become the poster boy for fitness,” says Sillerman.
He would need the energy, says Sillerman, envisioning Elvis as a “heritage artist,” like Mick Jagger, Simon and Garfunkel and the Eagles, who could still draw huge crowds for occasional performances. “If he were still interested in performing he would be the only one around the country who could consistently sell out stadiums.”
Sillerman sees Elvis’s love of gospel music - the music that won his only Grammy awards - as likely “accentuated by his journey into a healthy life . . . But I don’t think that would mean that he wouldn’t continue to perform traditional rock and roll.”
In fact, Elvis would have been a “lightning rod” for music creators and producers, helping keep rock alive for the fans, young and old, who still leave standing room only for major rock acts. Sillerman said Simon and Garfunkel, who drew more than a half million fans to a concert in Rome last year, help prove there is a huge audience of fans, young and old, with “a desire to immerse themselves in this kind of music.”
Whatever Elvis sang, it would have been “melodic and powerful music that would not have been influenced by rap and hip hop,” Sillerman suggests.
Soul superstar Isaac Hayes, who shared the top of the charts with Elvis in the 70s, says he didn’t get to know Elvis, but, like Sillerman, he doesn’t see Elvis emulating the hip hop music styles of the 21st Century. “How many rock and rollers do you see doing rap or hip hop? Do you see Jerry Lee Lewis doing it? Willie Nelson? Elvis was a good ol’ boy, a Southern dude. I don’t see him doing hip hop. He was influenced by black music, but black music of a different kind.”
Hayes also sees Elvis returning to the movies and “getting more serious in his acting.”
Petula Clark, the British singer who shared the record charts with Elvis in the mid-60s, also sees Elvis as a “serious actor. He was never given the opportunity to star in a serious movie. I think he would probably have been a very good actor, like Sinatra if you like. He was very charismatic on the screen. In a way I liked him better on the screen because you could get closer to him.”
Clark says the British invasion, including herself and the Beatles, owed a major debt to Elvis and the rock revolution he helped create. Clark says she and the Beatles had listened to Elvis in the beginning and “assimilated” his music the way Elvis had assimilated gospel, the blues and rhythm and blues into rock and roll. “The Beatles sort of digested all of this American music which we had been hearing for all of these years and regurgitated it so that it sounded different. It came out with a more Liverpool accent. The Beatles put some real lyrics to it and some real music, and George Martin produced these records as if they were little masterpieces. The Beatles opened up the gates for the rest of us to get through.”
Still, Clark says no one “shoved Elvis off his throne. He was the King everywhere, and he would have remained the King.”
Clark says she appeared in a touring production of “Sunset Boulevard” five years ago. During its Memphis run, she visited Beale Street every night and was persuaded to sing. “I got up and sang ‘Hound Dog,’ and I had never sung ‘Hound Dog’ in my life. It was incredible. It was just incredible. I felt like Elvis was right there with me.”
Another musician, former Box Tops drummer Thomas Boggs, who felt the fame of a hit song (”The Letter” in 1967) says Elvis’s downfall was partly due to isolation. “They didn’t know what to do with a star like that.” Boggs, who later founded the restaurant chain Huey’s, says Elvis “would still be the King,” but he would have become more involved in gospel music and would have ventured into the business world, including a restaurant chain.
Knox Phillips, son of Elvis’s first record producer, Sam Phillips, agrees that gospel music would have been Elvis’s true calling late in life. “He would have put his heart and soul into gospel. It would have made him much happier. I think he would have influenced a lot of people, and he would have been out of the rat race of trying to compete with the latest rap or hip hop artists.”
Former University of Memphis communications professor John Bakke, who staged the first scholarly conference on Elvis in 1979, sees Elvis so immersed in gospel music that he “would probably have a cable TV show, probably broadcasting from Mud Island. I think he would be heir apparent to Jerry Falwell’s old-time gospel hour, and he would have a tremendous audience. I don’t see him as a preacher, but he had a deep reverence for religious tradition, especially in song.”
Bakke says Elvis likely would have given up on the movies. “I just don’t think that’s where his heart was.” Instead, he might have gotten into the business world, likely buying an interest in the Memphis Grizzlies.
Two of Elvis’s closest friends, Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling and disk jockey George Klein, also see Elvis as a businessman late in life. Both say Elvis wanted to form his own production company, producing films and record acts.
Both say Elvis would have continued his singing career, finally touring Europe, which his manager, Col. Tom Parker, never allowed him to do. And he would have atoned for his formulaic movie career by starring in and possibly producing his own films. If not heavy drama, Elvis might have been in an action series like Dean Martin in the Matt Helm detective series, says Schilling.
Both say Elvis would have kept Graceland as long as he lived, but Klein says he might have turned it into a museum by now and sought more privacy by moving east “out past Collierville.”
From there, he would have overseen a business empire that would have included at least one Elvis Presley Casino in Tunica and probably others in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, says Klein.
And, no, there would be no rap or hip hop music in his repertoire. “I guarantee you that wouldn’t have happened,” says Schilling. “He wasn’t into hard rock either.”
What would Elvis look like at age 70? We asked several regional artists, who came up with their own takes on the King at 70.
See Sunday’s M Section
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