Why Is Elvis Presley Still The King? Thirty-two years after his death, Elvis Presley still attracts new generations of fans who recognize his distinct style, the power of his voice and the inventive exuberance of his performance. Scott Simon gathers friends, fans and critics to discuss how the legend of "The King" has endured over the years.
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Why Is Elvis Presley Still The King?

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Why Is Elvis Presley Still The King?

Why Is Elvis Presley Still The King?

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Going to chat about another music legend - rather a king, Elvis Presley, the subject today's On the Couch, our occasional series which brings guests of different backgrounds together to talk, discover, react and maybe spark some unexpected thoughts.

Adam Victor is the author of "The Elvis Encyclopedia," an A to Z of Elvis Presley's life. He joins us from our London bureau. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ADAM VICTOR (Author): My great pleasure.

SIMON: And a very special guest here On the Couch. He was a singer in Elvis's back-up group, the Jordanaires. Our welcome to Gordon Stoker in Nashville. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. GORDON STOKER (Singer): Well, thank you, and I appreciate you inviting me.

SIMON: Is there something you tell people about Elvis that makes them go, wow, you're kidding me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STOKER: Well, there's - because I worked with him from 1956 to 1970. That's a long time, did worlds of recordings with him. And first of all, he was the most concerned person with his looks of anyone I have ever known. He knew he had one thing going for him and that was his looks. He wore mascara on his eyes and his hair was dyed black. I never saw him with his hair not dyed except about three times, and we complemented him: Oh, man, how great you look with your natural color hair. He said, Yeah, yeah, I might leave it like this. The next time we'd see him he'd have a double dose of black.

He liked that real Valentino look and I think he would have looked better had he not dyed it jet black.

SIMON: Well, I got to ask, what was his natural hair color?

Mr. STOKER: It's dishwater brown, or bronze. He was a light-color brown hair.

SIMON: Adam Victor, why do you think he endures? And we should say in Great Britain he's as popular as he is in the U.S. and probably as popular in Belarus as he is in both places.

Mr. VICTOR: He was such a consummate singer. He had such emotion and he touched so many people with his songs. Even some of the soundtrack songs that most people consider to be of little worth in the middle part of his career in the mid-'60s, he would still put incredible amounts of emotion and he just touched so many people. He was just a kind of wellhead for all of this emotion and this burgeoning sexuality as America loosened up after the Second World War.

SIMON: I want to bring in some fans. We asked for the most knowledgeable Elvis fans on the planet to write in, and believe it or not, quite a few contend for that title.

SIMON: So we picked through the emails and we have selected two. First, let's meet Tess Foley(ph) of New Heaven, Connecticut. She joins us from member station WNPR in Hartford. Tess, thanks.

Ms. TESS FOLEY (Caller): Hi, how are you?

SIMON: Very well, and nice to talk to you.

Ms. FOLEY: I have a special gift. I hope you all take this as a gift.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. FOLEY: Connecticut has a very, very special and unique Elvis Presley tie. I have a special blessing from Mother Superior Dolores Hart, who was Elvis's co-star in the films "Loving You" and "King Creole," and she is now the Mother Superior of the Abby of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and she and the nuns of Abby of Regina Laudis are praying for all of us today that we have a very good and happy, successful Elvis interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, good. Thank you. This is - we can use every, every prayer that we can get. This is wonderful to know. Let me, without further delay - we have another listener on the phone, Jerry Sailor(ph) of South Bend, Indiana. Hi there, Mr. Sailor?

Mr. JERRY SAILOR (Caller): Well, howdy-doody.

SIMON: May I call you Jerry?

Mr. SAILOR: You certainly may.

SIMON: What do you love about Elvis Presley?

Mr. SAILOR: The girls, to be honest with you.

SIMON: You're talking about Mother Superior now, but go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAILOR: No. Aside from that, I think Elvis had a very unique and a very special voice. He was able to sing any kind of music. He sang gospel, he sang pop, he sang rock, he sang blues, he sang country - all beautifully.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SAILOR: That's a very rare thing.

Mr. VICTOR: And it was a truly natural talent. When he first showed up at Sun Studios, pestering them to get an audition, Marion Kisko(ph), who was the secretary and kind of factotum there, she asked him what kind of music he sang and famously he said, I sing all kinds.

It's actually quite interesting. One of the things that I did not know about Elvis was that he told one interviewer, maybe in 1958, that if he hadn't become a singer he maybe would have studied to be a doctor.

SIMON: This is our On the Couch segment. We're talking about Elvis Presley today; the spirit of Elvis, if you please, with Adam Victor, author of "The Elvis Encyclopedia"; Gordon Stoker, member of the Jordanaires, who backed up Elvis onstage, in the studio for so many years. And two Elvis fans, Tess Foley of New Haven, Connecticut, and Jerry Sailor of South Bend, Indiana. Jerry, Tess, can we ask you to take a little test?

Ms. FOLEY: Oh yeah, this is why I called the Mother Superior to ask her to pray for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: We're going to play a montage of Elvis songs now. Once the montage is over, if you could, if you could name them, okay. Ready? Here goes.

(Soundbite of Elvis Presley songs)

SIMON: All right, that's tough. I mean everybody would get one or two. Jerry, can I ask you to go first?

Mr. SAILOR: Okay, I'll give it my best shot here. First was "Suspicious Minds," then "Baby Let's Play House," "Return To Sender," "Now or Never," and the last one escaped me.

SIMON: Okay, well, you got, you got three right. Tess Foley?

Ms. FOLEY: Okay, I'm running lyrics in my head, I'm sorry.

SIMON: Oh, you couldn't hear the answer, okay, go ahead.

Ms. FOLEY: It's "Suspicious Minds," "Baby Come Back Lets Play House," "Return To Sender," I think it was "Desire"; I think that's the title and I don't have the last one, I don't have the fifth.

SIMON: Well, you both did very well. "Suspicious Minds" first, "Baby Let's Play House," so you both got that; "Return To Sender,"; final two, these are rough -"Surrender" is the name…

Ms. FOLEY: "Surrender."

SIMON: …and "Rock-a-Hula Baby."


SIMON: Did you get them all, Gordon?

Mr. GORDON: Yeah, "Rock-a-Hula Baby," that was from a movie thing, and you know, he hated - almost all of the movie songs he hated. There was - every now and then there would be a movie song that he liked, but most of them he said, what can you do with a piece of crap like this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GORDON: Except he talked a little plainer than that.

Mr. VICTOR: That's incredible.

Mr. GORDON: And…

SIMON: When you think that there was a period when he was doing three or four movies a year and maybe 10 songs for each movie, and he did that…

Mr. GORDON: That's right.

SIMON: …year after year after year, without ever…

Mr. GORDON: Year after year.

SIMON: …rebelling. I mean…

Mr. GORDON: (Unintelligible) he never - we'd tell him, if you don't want to do it, tell the Colonel you're not going to do it, tell him - tell him you're not going to. No, no, he'd say. I'd rather do it than argue with him. We'd say, But you don't have to argue with him.

SIMON: We have another special guest to bring in. In the firmament of our stars here in public broadcasting, if Elvis Presley was the king, this is our queen. NPR's very own legendary globetrotting correspondent based in Rome, Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, how are you?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Oh, I'm fine. Thank you, Scott, what an introduction, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I have no idea you were such an Elvis fan.

POGGIOLI: Oh yes, I will admit. I will give also away my age, and I was 10 years old, it was 1956; my parents had guests so I had the TV all to myself. There had been a lot of press that Elvis Presley was sort of too risqué, too sexy, not - not good for prime time, and Ed Sullivan basically gave him a lot of tremendous exposure to all of America, I guess, on that night. And so I have a very, very fond memory of Elvis Presley.

SIMON: You have been around the world as a great broadcast journalist, Sylvia. Can you remember a place where Elvis came up either in name or image or you heard one of his songs that as you reflect on it now, boy, that was surprising?

POGGIOLI: I was - I was in Italy one summer and somebody said you've got to hear this latest Elvis song, and it was "Surrender," which I think you played a little bit a while ago, and it's based - that and another song - "It's Now or Never," are based on two Neapolitan songs, "O Sole Mio" and "(Unintelligible) Sorrento," and of course he was extremely popular.

SIMON: That's right. They are, aren't they?

POGGIOLI: And "(Unintelligible) Sorrento" is "Surrender".

SIMON: Sylvia, we're going to let you get back to covering the globe, but thanks so much for joining us.

POGGIOLI: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And I'm going to restrain myself from saying thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

POGGIOLI: Oh, don't - don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right, not entirely, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. A couple of questions, if we can, that I want to direct to Gordon Stoker in Nashville and Adam Victor in London. His gospel singing was just great, wasn't it?

Mr. STOKER: Yes, there's no one - he could sing any gospel song. You know, the amazing thing about Elvis: Just listen to "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho"; most of the gospel songs that he sang he never used a sheet music of words in front of him. He had it all right up in his head.

Mr. VICTOR: He had an amazing memory for songs. There's a story from his Army years where he would challenge people in his platoon to name any song and he would sing it, and we would.

Mr. STOKER: From memory.

Mr. VICTOR: They couldn't catch him on that at all. In his later years, he actually hired his own backing group of gospel singers, so that because he could just sing gospel when he felt like it, when he wanted. That was what he…

Mr. STOKER: Yeah.

Mr. VICTOR: …wanted to do, that is what he wanted to sing.

SIMON: I can't thank you enough. Adam Victor speaking with us from London. He's author of "The Elvis Encyclopedia." Thanks so much.

Mr. VICTOR: Well, very kind. It's been a great pleasure.

SIMON: And Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires joined us from Spotland Productions in Nashville. Thank you so much.

Mr. GORDON: I always enjoy talking about my favorite buddy, Elvis.

SIMON: Good. And Tess Foley in New Haven, thank you. And Jerry Sailor in South Bend, thank you.

Mr. SAILOR: Thank you.

Ms. FOLEY: Thanks so much.

SIMON: I think there's someone we need to hear from now.

(Soundbite of song, "Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho")

Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY (Singer): (Singing) Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls come tumbling down, God knows that, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls come tumbling down. Good morning…

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

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