True story: An October day in 1992 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Two blue-haired ladies stand in front of Elvis Presley's famous gold Cadillac and stare admiringly. One turns to the other and says, "Elvis isn't really dead, you know. I hear he's on a mission for the C-I-A."
The Elvis sightings and rumors of such are down these days, though the image of the King will reign from Memphis to Tokyo this weekend as fans around the world mark what would have been his 75th birthday.
Jan. 8 is a bittersweet day for Elvis fans, but it's more palatable than the other time of year when his name regularly comes up in the news: the anniversary of his August 16, 1977 death at age 42. The specter of Elvis also was raised frequently last June, not always in a positive context, following the sudden death of another pop king, Michael Jackson.
Too often, the appreciation of talent and accomplishment get lost in the strange brew of instant iconography and salacious revelations that flows after the unexpected demise of a troubled superstar.
So let’s look at Presley’s landmark birthday as an opportunity to celebrate the Elvis who brought an music-changing infusion of rhythm-and-blues and country to "That's All Right" and "Mystery Train" – and not the one who sheepishly crooned his way through such cringe-worthy rubbish as “Yoga is as Yoga Does” and “Queenie Wahine's Papaya.”
It's a chance to recall the Elvis who grabbed moviegoers with promising, at times teasingly electrifying performances in flicks like "King Creole" and "Jailhouse Rock" – and not the hack contract player who sleepwalked through teen B-movie junk like "Fun in Acapulco" and "Clambake."
It’s a time to remember the Elvis who loved his mama and his little Lisa Marie – and forget about the stripper-wrestling chimpanzee and the general, bloated excess that ended in the bathroom of his Memphis palace/refuge, Graceland.
As with Jackson, who squirreled away in his Neverland Ranch with his own chimp and demons, it’s difficult at times to separate the music from the tawdry downfall – even if in Presley's case evidence indicates the person he hurt most was himself.
Playing the guessing game of what kind of music Elvis would have produced if he'd been around for the last three decades is folly. But we know that the spirit of rock-and-roll he helped create is alive, and that it's proving ageless. Chuck Berry, Presley's contemporary and one of his fellow co-founding fathers of rock, is still performing at age 83. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen are making new, relevant music post-60, long after first hearing “Heartbreak Hotel.”
"When we were kids growing up in Liverpool, all we ever wanted to be was Elvis Presley," McCartney once said.
If Presley’s goal was to get us rocking – and not, say, faking his death and working on a secret assignment for the CIA – he can consider the mission accomplished. So Elvis, wherever you are: Happy birthday – and thank you very much.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.