Shockwaves of grief went around the world when Rudolf Valentino succumbed to appendicitis at the pinnacle of his career. Morbid fascination and a cultic spirit followed the death of James Dean in a flaming crash of his sports car on an isolated country road. Roses and a shroud of mystery followed Marilyn Monroe to her crypt in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Already the casual moves of the crooner, Bing Crosby, are missed. But the reactions to the death of these notables is but a whimper compared to the bizarre and ghoulish atmosphere that has followed the demise of Elvis Presley.
Never in the history of our nation has so much emotion been released following the death of an entertainer. Will Rogers, Judy Garland, John Garfield, Jayne Mansfield, Jack Benny, and Louis Armstrong will be remembered as legends. But Elvis is in a class by himself. His legend is already titanic. T.V. specials, portraits in watercolor and oil, special-release record albums, tee shirts, drinking mugs, and other marketing gimmicks are reaping an exploiter's dream. Why? Why Elvis rather than Crosby or Garland?
If ever a star's rise to fame was meteoric it was Elvis'. His appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the fifties made him an overnight sensation. The initial response to the uninhibited gyrations of the droopy-eyed singer from Memphis was one of frenzy. Parents were furious and kids were ecstatic over the new barbarian of rock and roll. On his second appearance with Sullivan the cameras were restricted to shooting Elvis from the waist up. Still his magic was not eclipsed. With instant fame and fortune Elvis traded in his panel-truck for two or three cadillacs, one gold and one pink. He spent money like a fellow who just won the state lottery. Variety magazine described the new "Elvis" rage as a teenage fad and predicted a very short tenure to this "flash in the pan." But twenty-five years later the pan was still flashing. Why?
Before his last concert newsmen interviewed Elvis fans asking them why they were so devoted to their hero. The responses were strange but revealing. “He is so kind to his mother." "I love his eyes." "He is so honest." Can we really explain the phenomenon of Elvis in terms of his love for his mother? If we can, then what in the world will happen when Liberace dies? Other performers have had exciting eyes. But the last quote is significant. "He is so honest.”
When people responded to Elvis’ honesty what were they talking about? Elvis Presley was not George Washington. His reputation for honesty was not built upon what he said. His "honesty" was not a matter of words but of personal openness. Elvis' stage presence was unique. Even Sinatra, the master of timing, could learn something from Elvis. Elvis was always in deep, open communication with his audience. All of the barriers that isolate a performer from his audience were shattered by his personal magnetism. Elvis let people in. He gave himself with intensity to every person in the theater. That is the most costly thing a performer can do.
Elvis Presley had what people call "warmth." With his fame and fortune he never quit being a truck driver. He never became sophisticated. His music was simple and earthy. Though his early pelvic gyrations were considered shocking, his music never became vulgar. He sang of intense emotions but not illicit ones. His music spoke of "tenderness," "cruelty," puppy dogs, and blue Suede shoes. His "warmth" made him appear open. His openness made him appear honest.
Elvis Presley was not a saint to be imitated by every Christian. But his personal warmth was a quality we can learn from. Sociologists tell us that we are living in such a highly mobilized society that our lives have become anonymous. We suffer from cultural frigidity. We deal with the grocer and the gas station attendant in impersonal ways. The loss of close community relationships has created a crisis of coldness. Elvis broke through that coldness with a costly gift of warmth. At the end he was drained and confused. His public had come close to emptying him. His reservoir of warmth was running dry. But his followers will not let him die. They want more warmth. I wonder where they will find it . . .