The Elvis Encyclopedia

Author: Adam Victor

Publisher: Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

ISBN: 978-0-7156-3816-3 (UK); 978-1-58567-598-2 (US); (Hardback, 598pp.)


Several efforts have already been made to provide an encyclopaedic approach to Elvis, his life and career. Good old Albert Hand started the ball rolling in the early 1960s with both his "El-cyclopaedia" and "The A-Z of Elvis Presley"; in the 1980s a fine effort was made by Worth and Tamerius's "Elvis, His Life From A to Z"; and the 1990s gave us David Stanley's ambitiously titled "The Elvis Encyclopedia," which, like Pierce's "The Ultimate Elvis" of the same period, was more a chronology than an encyclopaedia.

As the current decade approaches its end, a new book purporting to offer an encyclopaedic approach has recently been published. It shares the title of Stanley's offering and, unfortunately, has a very similar cover to the original hardback edition of Pierce's error-ridden effort. Not the best of omens!

Still, "The Elvis Encyclopedia" is certainly an impressive work, being slightly larger than A4 in size, with 598 pages of good quality paper, nicely bound, and weighing in at no less than 2.75 Kg. Its superb presentation promises much, but does it deliver?

Cosmetically "The Elvis Encyclopedia" is a gem. It is excellently illustrated in both colour and monochrome, often with more unusual photos of Elvis, but also with record covers, advertising material, film posters, and, interestingly, some magazine covers. The printing is very good, both of the illustrations and of the text, which, although quite small, is finely printed and easy enough to read. A great deal of effort seems to have been taken in the layout and general design of the contents and this is certainly reflected in the end result.

What a pity, then, that less effort seems to have been made to ensure that the content matched the packaging.

True to its title, "The Elvis Encyclopedia" presents an alphabetic list of keywords, together with an associated greater or lesser explanation. Now, to be honest, it would be asking a great deal to expect a reviewer to read through a publication of this type, checking each and every entry. Instead, then, I thought that I would at least start by looking up items in which I am particularly interested: favourite films, favourite songs and writers, that sort of thing. That's when the problems started.

In the entry for "Fun In Acapulco" we are told that Gene Simmons, who played one of the divers, went on to be the frontman of the rock group Kiss. Incorrect. The Gene Simmons of Kiss fame was born in 1949 and would have been just 13 years of age at the time of the filming of "Fun In Acapulco" Š that really should have been an indication that perhaps the diver was not the same Gene Simmons. Indeed, the Simmons of FIA "fame" was a 29 year-old, apparently from Tupelo.

Next a look at one of my favourite Elvis films, "Follow That Dream." I was more than disappointed to discover that a large part of the entry for that film is lost somewhere between pages 119 and 120. What is left of the plot is further spoiled by additional setting errors.

"Almost In Love" is a beautiful song, clearly of Brazilian origin, so why does the entry for this number state that the composer is Rick Bonfa? It takes very little research to discover that the real composer is none other than Luiz Bonf‡, the great Brazilian composer, who was responsible many samba and bosa nova numbers, including the famous "Manh‹ de Carnaval" (from Black Orpheus - Orpheu Negro).

On then to Fan Clubs. Having lived in Belgium for over 35 years, I was interested to see if the long-lasting United Elvis Presley Society of that country was mentioned. Well, yes, it is lost in the long list of almost ten full columns of club names, the purpose of which is unclear, as only the club names are provided (they are at least sorted by country, even if the USA comes first in the pecking order), with no contact information or indication of membership numbers. Crazily, even several of the UK branches of the OEPFC of Great Britain are listed, which is simply a duplication. Anyway, back to the explanatory text associated with Fan Clubs and here is yet another mistake: Peter Haan is noted as the president off the Belgian fan club and Hubert Vindevogel as president of the Dutch club. Oh dear, it should be the other way round! Both Peter and Hubert are rightly proud of their clubs and nationalities and will not be pleased.

I cut my Elvis teeth in Wales, where I was born, so I wondered what I would find listed under United Kingdom. "See England and Scotland." That's just the sort of thing to wipe the smile of a Welshman's face! Still, off to England (I lived there between Wales and Belgium). If one Englishman was responsible for organising the UK fans into the formidable force they were (are) and also helped develop the pop publishing scene in the UK, then it was Albert Hand. Old Albert was at the head of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain and The Commonwealth, as it was then known, for many years (it is still the OEPFC of Great Britain, and has never been a purely English fan club); he was co-responsible (with Hubert Vindevogel of Belgium) for setting up the International Elvis Presley Appreciation Society; he developed the huge fan meetings that we British fans enjoyed in the 1960s; he launched Elvis Monthly, Elvis Special, Pop Weekly and many other periodicals devoted to a variety of UK artists. Albert was no small fry, despite his modesty, so why can't "The Elvis Encyclopedia" get his name right? In this entry he is named Arthur Hand, instead of Albert Hand! That's simply an insult to someone of such importance in the Elvis world. Indeed, Albert Hand really merits an entry of his own in this sort of reference book (there is an entry for his successor, Todd Slaughter). And while we're in the UK (oops, sorry, "England"), why is there so little about the UK Elvis scene? "Elvis Monthly" has its own entry, but it is just a few lines long and refers to the magazine as the "official UK Elvis fan club magazine," which it never was, the club having its own separate publication. At least in the entry for the Monthly old Albert's name is correctly applied. Fine, "The Elvis Encyclopedia" hints at a certain American bias in its introduction ("The focus of [this book] is inevitably the United States"), but the phenomenal efforts of the UK fans in the 1960s, when the OEPFC had over 100,000 members and basically kept Elvis going during the boom of UK beat groups deserves recognition in what claims to be an encyclopaedia.

Although excellently illustrated throughout, even the illustrations in "The Elvis Encyclopedia" suffer from a certain laxness in research or proofing. When I checked the entry for "Jailhouse Rock," one of the several photos that accompany this part of the book is captioned, "Elvis sings Jailhouse Rock." It shows Elvis apparently singing in a jail, but the inmates of this particular jail are all female: the photo is, in fact, a shot from "Girl Happy." I ask you!

And so it goes on. I think you get the picture: each entry that I checked (and there were quite a few more than those indicated above), was erroneous to some degree. This, of course, does not generate confidence and one begins to doubt everything else in the book. As it claims to be an encyclopaedia, where one assumes to find correct information, this rather defeats the purpose. My fears were confirmed when I then scanned through the book and discovered numerous other mistakes. Sadly, then, and despite its excellent presentation, "The Elvis Encyclopedia" seems to fail where it matters most, in the accuracy of its content. Some more careful research and proof-reading might have provided a publication worthy of its name, but as it stands, "The Elvis Encyclopedia" simply does not live up to its name. The reason for this disappointment is probably that the author, by his own admission ("I began this [five year] project as an outsider."), is not a long-term fan and has been prepared to simply accept much of the incorrect information that is so often to be found in other books and, increasingly so, through the Internet. A "real" fan would certainly have allowed far fewer errors to slip through and it really is time that publishers understood this. The very least that could be done is to have the text checked by one or more long-termers before committing to publication. Furthermore, Elvis fans should be fobbed off with poorly proofed texts, even if the wrapping is of superb quality.

The really sad thing about "The Elvis Encyclopedia" is that it looks so good that many newer fans are likely to assume innocently that its contents are of equally good quality. They will therefore rely on it for information and will then disseminate this incorrect rubbish, under the cover of "I read it in 'The Elvis Encyclopedia,' so it must be correct." In a few years, the Internet will be full of Rick Bonfas, Arthur Hands, Kiss divers, and Elvises performing "Jailhouse Rock" in "Girl Happy."


David Neale

copyright February 2009

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