Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley
Author: Charles L. Ponce de Leon
Publisher: Hill and Wang
ISBN: 0-8090-3042-X (Hardback, illustrated, 242 pp., incl. notes and index)
It is not too often that a really good book about Elvis is published. Most biographies are rehashes of the same old stories, often repeating the same old errors. They tend to be simplistic and are often poorly written and just as poorly edited. This applies equally to works from supposedly reliable sources, such as those authors who have somehow gained the sponsorship or support of EPE, as to others who seem only to be cashing in on Elvis's name, a prime example of the latter being the recent pile of rubbish, "Elvis Through My Eyes" by Heart Shapré, which was so badly written and produced that I did not waste my time in reviewing such a pile of rubbish.
"Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley" is, then, a real pleasure. With not a trace of EPE to be seen, the book is a joy from beginning to end, from cover to cover, and in all aspects. A book must look good, without excess: "Fortunate Son" looks good, with an understated dust-jacket, bearing a small, but effective portrait of Elvis and nothing more than the title and the name of the author, mostly black text on a pristine white background (a subconscious allusion?). A book must feel good: "Fortunate Son" feels good, with nicely covered boards and great binding. Inside, the text must be clean and correct. The text of "Fortunate Son" is impeccable: excellently written, proof-read to perfection, crisply printed. A book's illustrations must be carefully chosen and relevant. The illustrations of "Fortunate Son," though relatively few in number, are very well chosen and complement the text so well that they almost tell the tale in themselves. Full marks so far.
The real test of a book then lies in its content. Once again, "Fortunate Son" succeeds and does so in style. Allow me to explain.
The problem with Elvis's story is that it is rarely told in context. If one is prepared to read numerous and diverse books, one is able to place Elvis in the correct historic and social contexts, thereby gaining a fuller understanding of his importance, his motives, his problems. But this is not a simple task and the books required are not readily available: they tend to sell less well than the rubbish, so are promoted less (publishers should consider promoting them more in order for them to sell better, but they don't), soon becoming as good as unavailable. Books such as Bertrand's "Race, Rock and Elvis" and Doss's "Elvis Culture" should be required reading, but hardly receive a mention in fan magazines and are passed over by most fans in favour of more popular titles. Furthermore, most biographies are aimed squarely at fans, often being replete with photos (usually the same "previously unpublished" ones) and clearly not aimed at the general public. The few good, real biographies, such as Guralnick's "Last Train To Memphis" and "Careless Love," are so large that they tend to be shunned by the general public and so readership once again becomes limited to the fans.
What Ponce de Leon manages to do in "Fortunate Son" is to synthesise the contextual studies and to mix them with a basic, accurate, biography, thereby producing a single work that is accessible to fans and general public, and which is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. The text is very well written and places Elvis in the correct historical and social contexts. Such contexts are provided for the main periods of his life and career: his childhood and adolescence in Tupelo and Memphis, with his over-caring parents, but also with his contact with other cultures and races; his own importance in the development of American culture during the 1950s; his failure to develop as a film star during the 1960s and his musical ups and downs during that same period (including his rejection by African Americans, up until then his staunch supporters); the troubled 1970s, when new challenges eluded him and the spectre of depression loomed. All are examined in similar fashion and the reader is left satisfied and with a far greater understanding, not only of Elvis the entertainer, but also of Elvis the man and, above all, Elvis the American, with a final surprising, yet by then understandable, comparison to Walt Whitman.
Why is context so important? Simply because we live in a very different world to that of the 1940s and 1950s and, to a somewhat lesser extent, to that of the 1960s and 1970s. We forget or are simply unable to imagine the attitudes and mores of fifty years ago and longer. Without context we are unable to understand the impact of a white boy in the deeply segregated South having the audacity to demonstrate his knowledge of Black music, being brave enough to be different, being daring enough to perform in his own style, quite different from anyone else's. Without context we cannot comprehend Elvis's feelings of lack of achievement (didn't he achieve everything?), his frustrations and his suspicions. In short, without context, we cannot achieve complete understanding.
Despite the relatively few number of pages, especially when compared to a tome such as Guralnick's two-volume biography, Ponce de Leon succeeds in covering all the salient points and including all of the important characters. Tom Parker's role is handled well and fully, the influence of Elvis's parents is also examined, as is that of his hangers-on, and of Priscilla and all of the other major players. Nothing is excessive and all aspects covered add to an better overall understanding of Elvis.
Forget the rubbish, forget the gloss, forget the hyperbole. This book tells Elvis's story the way it needs to be told. There is little that can be said against Ponce de Leon's work: it is accurate, sympathetic, honest, well written. Yes, it could have been longer, but that would only have made it less accessible. As it is, it is just about perfect for the role it is intended to fulfil. If you buy just one Elvis book this year, make sure it's this one: "Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley." You will not be disappointed.
copyright August 2006Contact me.
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