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A new bio pic aims to remind audiences of the King of Rock-and-Roll’s greatness

May 25, 2022 at 9:00 a.m. EDT

Illustration by Mark Weaver for The Washington Post. Original images: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (legs); Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images (sign); ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images (Graceland sign); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (crowd); RB/Redferns (Portrait); Robert Alexander/Getty Images (graffiti); Blank Archives/Getty Images (newspaper)Illustration by Mark Weaver for The Washington Post. Original images: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (legs); Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images (sign); ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images (Graceland sign); Hulton Archive/Getty Images (crowd); RB/Redferns (Portrait); Robert Alexander/Getty Images (graffiti); Blank Archives/Getty Images (newspaper)

On a gray 30-degree morning at Graceland, Priscilla Presley speaks on a black stage next to a four-foot-tall white cake emblazoned with piano keys, paisley designs, blue-and-gold trim and a peacock. The blue bird resembles stained glass found in the living room of her former, iconic, white-columned home, which looms grandly over her shoulder. Today, Jan. 8, 2022, is Elvis Presley’s 87th birthday, and fans have congregated with her on the front lawn for an annual ceremony.

“I am so surprised how many people are here,” the King of Rock-and-Roll’s ex-wife tells the crowd. “On the plane I was thinking, ‘What if nobody shows up?’ But I know Elvis fans will always show up.”

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By my rough estimates, at least 500 people are gathered around the ceremony’s open white tent. Two older women stand before me in matching black jackets, a pair of handsome Elvises gazing seductively from their backs. A nearby couple speaks German; a man with Elvis sideburns and a late-Elvis paunch speaks with a thick Scottish brogue. After her speech, Presley slowly strolls along the metal barrier that separates her from the crowd, talking with fans, posing for photos and signing autographs, bringing an approachable grace and warmth to the cold Memphis air.

“We’re all here to keep his legacy alive,” she had vowed in her speech, and 2022 is a big year for meeting that commitment. A new movie, “Elvis,” starring Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as his scheming manager, Col. Tom Parker, will premiere on June 24. Aug. 16 will mark the 45th anniversary of Elvis’s death, and Graceland will celebrate with exhibits, concerts, giveaways and other events. Between the anniversary and pent-up pandemic demand, Graceland’s management expects a big turnout for the nine-day Elvis Week in August.

As with most people here, Elvis is part of my family’s DNA. As a teenager in the ’50s, my mom pasted Elvis photos on the ceiling so that he’d be her first dreamy sight each morning. In 1974, when I was 8, she took our family on a sacred pilgrimage from Fairfax, Va., to Cole Field House in Maryland to see him in concert. I can still hear “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) before Elvis took the stage, then the sudden barreling drums and gonging cymbals, the horn section blasting the riff to “See See Rider” like the furious thump of a fighter’s jab. I can see Elvis strut coolly onto the stage.

Throughout my childhood, Elvis was ever-present in our home, like a good-looking, sequined uncle. “Blue Christmas” chimed through the house each December; his 1973 Hawaii concert boomed from the eight-track player in the car. On a basement refrigerator, a poster of Elvis — playful grin, white jumpsuit, big collar — greeted us every day until we moved. When Mom died, we all took an Elvis knickknack from her home. I may not share her full passion, but I’ve inherited a lifelong affection for the King.

Still, I can feel his relevancy fading. Back in 1987, when Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper sang “Elvis is everywhere,” the line seemed true. Elvis-is-alive stories were tabloid staples (in 1988, Memphis magazine studied 53 examples from newspapers such as the National Enquirer and the World Weekly News, dividing them into categories such as “Elvis and the Aliens” and “Elvis’ Ghost”). In 1999, author Erika Doss, then a professor of fine arts at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote her book “Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image” about the almost religious-like adulation that continued after his death. When I emailed her recently to see what’s changed over the past 23 years, Doss, now a professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, replied that she hasn’t followed the Elvis phenomenon in recent years. “The music scene has changed a lot in the past few decades — and Elvis is not a part of that at all,” she wrote.

At Graceland, I notice two things about the birthday crowd: We are old — and we are White. It’s the same at the hotel, the gift shops, the museums, the restaurants. I see no shortage of bald spots and middle-aged bellies. The only people of color I see the entire weekend are staff. And so I wonder: Can Elvis, who has sold over 1 billion records, remain relevant to millennials and Gen Z? Will charges of cultural appropriation damage his legacy in an increasingly diverse America?

To find out, I’m on an Elvis road trip, starting here in Memphis, then on to his birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., and back north to Nashville, to measure the state of the King’s long reign and what it says about identity, youth, race and what endures musically and culturally. Because even Elvis himself had doubts about his legacy. “They’re not going to remember me,” he told backup singer Kathy Westmoreland shortly before his death. “I’ve never done anything lasting.”

When I arrive at my sleek room at the Guest House at Graceland resort on Elvis Presley Boulevard, a black-and-white Elvis stares from the TV screen to the sound of “Jailhouse Rock.” The screen, I discover, has a choose-your-own-Elvis feature, and depending on my selection, I can be greeted by a ’50s, ’60s or ’70s Elvis image, along with tunes from that era. One TV channel continuously shows Elvis’s Hawaii concert; another shows the ’68 “Comeback Special.” On a third channel I find a program about Graceland at Christmas, where a gloved archivist displays daughter Lisa Marie’s stocking with the care one might show the Shroud of Turin.

The resort seems full, even though the coronavirus’s omicron variant is at its peak, and it’s all a reminder: Predicting the end of Elvis is a foolish enterprise. Soon after “Heartbreak Hotel” topped the charts in 1956, critics deemed him a hip-swiveling flash in the pan (“The only consolation,” a Sioux City Journal reporter wrote in a concert review, was “that Elvis Presley’s sensational popularity will be short lived”). When Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958, his career seemed dead. But thanks to the plotting of his manager, Parker, a less-threatening Elvis emerged as more mainstream and popular than before. After a series of dreadful films and uninspired soundtracks in the ’60s, Elvis was a cultural afterthought. Then came his electric black-leather ’68 comeback.

At a “Conversations on Elvis” event at the Graceland resort, Priscilla Presley told a story about the aftermath of his death. She was an executor of Elvis’s estate, and one of the attorneys urged her to sell Graceland.

“He’ll be forgotten in six months,” the attorney said.

Not quite. In 1982, when Graceland opened to the public, it received 400,000 visitors. The next year it rose to 550,000, and it continues to welcome half a million visitors each year, making it one of the five most-visited homes in America. But maintaining interest is not guaranteed. In March 2020, Rolling Stone published a story with an ominous headline: “Can Elvis Rise Again?” The story cited a Forbes report stating that the Presley estate “was annually pulling in $60 million a decade ago,” but the number had dropped by 30 percent. Auction-house sales of Elvis memorabilia had also fallen from $4 million in 2017 to less than $1.5 million in 2019, according to Rolling Stone.

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When I email these numbers in April to Joel Weinshanker, managing partner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, his response arrives 12 minutes later.

“Even during covid, the publishing and licensing revenues have continued to increase,” he wrote. “In 2019, JUST at Graceland we sold over $12M of merchandise/memorabilia.”

Weinshanker promotes and protects Elvis’s legacy with the unworried confidence of a man who calls Elvis “the most handsome, charismatic person ever to live.” He provides proof of Elvis’s enduring appeal: “We have probably still the most popular entertainer channel on SiriusXM,” he says, then mentions a trio of successful Graceland movies on the Hallmark Channel. Before the pandemic, “Elvis in Concert — Live on Screen,” featuring Elvis singing on a big screen accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, filled arenas in the United Kingdom, Australia and Latin America. Projects under development include “Agent King,” an animated Netflix series featuring Elvis as a government spy.

“We’re very cautious — it’s not about the dollars,” Weinshanker tells me in a 40-minute phone conversation. “It’s really about what’s best for Elvis and what’s best for his brand. But we’ve never been busier.”

Even if you’re not an Elvis fan, the Graceland tour is memorable, particularly the Jungle Room, with its tiki-tinged furniture, artificial waterfall and green shag carpeting on the floor and the ceiling. For me, Graceland was like entering a 1970s time machine, from the period furniture to the old-school television sets. For Weinshanker, though, the experience was more profound. “My first experience at Graceland literally changed me as a human being from the beginning of the tour to the end,” he says. “I was a different person when I came out. I think it just does that to people.”

At the time, he says, he was a cocky manager for a band that had sold millions of records. But Graceland showed him the colossal hugeness of Elvis. “I walked out realizing how big, how all-encompassing and how really never-to-be-repeated the success and the rise of Elvis was,” he says. “It wasn’t just music and pop culture — it was his outfits, it was being a first adopter. I saw a revolutionary. Da Vinci was a revolutionary. Vincent van Gogh was a revolutionary. Einstein was a revolutionary. You can’t even understand the leap. It’s otherworldly, it’s hand to God, any of these terms that you want to use. And it made me think of the world in a different way. And on that day, I said, ‘One day, I’m going to be involved in Elvis’s legacy.’ ”

Linking Elvis to the world’s most noteworthy humans is common among aficionados, I find. At the “Conversations on Elvis” event, the affable, entertaining host, Tom Brown, a local radio personality and a frequent host of Elvis events and programs, says that people often ask him, “How long will this go on?” And he replies, “Do you say that about Shakespeare?”

The audience applauds, but that comparison may be part of the long-term problem. Elvis isn’t Shakespeare. He was an interpreter, and the artistic titans that we revere through the ages were timeless originators, whether they composed symphonies or painted abstracts. Okay, Elvis was indeed an originator. And a revolutionary. With his mix of country, gospel and blues, nobody sounded like Elvis before Elvis. But he relied on the material of others. By cultural contrast, Dylan’s lyrics continue to be studied in college classrooms. Lennon and McCartney’s beautiful, inventive melodies will probably be played forever.

One notable writer disagrees with me on this distinction. Peter Guralnick is the author of two seminal biographies of Elvis — “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love” — and he has written books on giants such as Sam Cooke, Robert Johnson and Sam Phillips. When it comes to popular music, establishing a style, he says, is more important than who wrote the song. He cites the example of Jerry Lee Lewis (who once said he could have been a great songwriter, it just wasn’t worth his time): “Every song he’s ever sung is stamped with Jerry Lee Lewis’s style, and I don’t think you could find either a greater genius or a more unforgettable artist than Jerry Lee Lewis from that generation.” And if songwriting was so important for legacy, greats such as Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly might be better remembered than Elvis.

At a claustrophobic stuffed-with-stuff souvenir shop within walking distance of Sun Studio in Memphis, I stroll past shelves loaded with every conceivable Elvis item. Elvis air fresheners, car-seat covers, cookie cutters and dog leashes (on Twitter, the Elvis account plugs products such as Elvis whiskey, Topps trading cards and a Build-A-Bear stuffed bear in a Hawaii concert jumpsuit). If merchandise is a sign of legacy, Elvis is still the King. I defy you to find Tom Petty oven mitts or Jimi Hendrix ice trays.

I’m intrigued by a Mr. Potato Head based on Elvis’s 1961 film “Blue Hawaii.” Like the cover of the soundtrack album, the Elvis spud holds a ukulele and wears a red Hawaiian shirt and yellow lei. As I look through the box’s clear plastic, I realize: For some young people, Mr. Potato Head might be more recognizable than Elvis.

On Spotify, where 55 percent of users are age 34 or younger, Elvis ranks, on this particular day, 368 on its list of 500 most-listened-to artists. For a guy who’s been dead for 45 years, that’s an impressive number, and it’s higher than Frank Sinatra (466) and unranked stars such as Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Beach Boys and the Who. Michael Jackson is ranked 86, and the Beatles are 109.

In a 2017 YouGov survey of more than 2,000 Brits age 18 to 24, 29 percent said they had never heard an Elvis song. I find that number astonishing yet understandable. Why should anyone under 30 know Elvis? Gen Xers like me grew up in a three-network era. We knew the Three Stooges and “Gilligan’s Island” and, yes, Elvis movies, because they appeared on local TV. Today there’s no such thing. And today’s youth have entertainment options we never imagined: TikTok, YouTube, elaborate video games, hundreds of cable channels, streaming services. Everything is a niche market. How does a 16-year-old find Elvis amid the cultural clutter? And why would they want to find him? As a teenager, I wasn’t interested in discovering Al Jolson or the Andrews Sisters; why would today’s teens seek an icon from the Eisenhower administration?

Young people are always craving something new. When popular music grows stale, a jolt is inevitable, from the progressive rock of the ’70s to punk or grunge. That was part of the appeal of Elvis. Particularly for White teens, Elvis was exciting, shocking, hypnotic, different. For subsequent generations, it’s hard to grasp that initial thrill. A shaking leg seems tame compared with Beyoncé dancing in front of her marching band at Coachella, or Lady Gaga skyfalling from the top of the stadium during her Super Bowl performance. Roger Ebert once noted something similar about the Marx Brothers. It was hard for modern audiences, he said, to appreciate how manic, how radical, how original they appeared to astonished audiences watching “Horse Feathers” in theaters. What’s new becomes familiar, demanding something fresh.

The problem isn’t Elvis the artist or Elvis the man. It’s a White-dominated society that elevated Elvis over artists of color.

“Music has changed so much: the fragmentation of genres, the emergence of specific subcultures attached to genres, the domination of hip-hop, the eclipse of rock as a popular musical form,” says Charles L. Ponce de Leon, author of the Elvis biography “Fortunate Son.” “Even with the top 40, insofar as there is such a thing, you see what the top hits are, and few if any songs have any connection to the older rock and pop for which Elvis is known.”

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Joel Weinshanker says he’s not worried that young people will discover Elvis, for a simple reason: They always do. Women in their 20s, he says, are the second-highest demographic for Graceland visits and Elvis merchandise. He compares it to the enduring success of “A Christmas Story,” which debuted in 1983 and still airs in annual yuletide marathons on TBS. “Why is it just as popular today as it was when it came out? Because dads are watching it with their sons,” he says.

Recently my sister-in-law, who teaches high school English in Fairfax County, showed 35 students a photo of Elvis, then asked whether they could identify him and name a song. Seventy-seven percent recognized him. Only 34 percent could name a tune. Ponce de Leon, who teaches U.S. cultural and intellectual history at California State University at Long Beach, has found something similar. To his students, Elvis exists not as a performer, but as an image.

“Unless they’re music geeks, or they had parents or grandparents who exposed them to the music, they don’t know it,” he says of Elvis’s repertoire. “But they know the look — those iconic photographs performing on Ed Sullivan or him decked out in his white suit in his Vegas incarnation. That’s really how they interact with older culture now: as images. To use a language they would understand, Elvis is like a meme.”

Pieces of electrical tape mark three Xs on the grungy tan floor at Sun Studio. After the eccentric opulence of Graceland, Sun exudes a refreshing grit. The studio space is unremarkable, like an old garage with microphones, yet it tingles with the magic of history. The floor tape marks a milestone moment from 1954. On one X stood guitarist Scotty Moore. On another stood bassist Bill Black. And X No. 3 marks where 19-year-old Elvis Presley sang “That’s All Right,” the song that changed American music.

Tour guide Josh Shaw tells the story. He’s 26, African American and frontman for an indie-rock band called Blvck Hippie. The enthusiastic Shaw guides me and three middle-aged women through the studio as well as an upstairs museum devoted to Sun’s history and artists, including B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Cash. When the tour is over, I ask Shaw, who studied rock-and-roll in a collegiate music class, if he’s an Elvis fan.

“I’m not really the demographic,” he says. “It means something to me as far as having pride in your city, and everybody loves your hometown heroes, but it’s not up my alley personally. The occasional joke with a lot of Black Memphians is that we’ve never been to Graceland.”

Today Elvis fandom seems divided on racial lines, though that wasn’t always true. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Black Americans were among his most avid fans, according to Ponce de Leon. Elvis had seven No. 1 hits on Billboard’s rhythm and blues chart, which reflected African American music sales, and Black stations were more likely to play his music than White stations. White bigots saw the rise of Elvis and the integrated crowds as a threat to Jim Crow and segregation.

Attitudes changed, Ponce de Leon says, during the civil rights movement when “many Blacks were discouraged from patronizing White artists” and cultural appropriation claims became more common. By 1989, in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Chuck D raps, “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s— to me you see / Straight up racist that sucker was.” Yet in a Newsday interview tied to the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death in 2002, Chuck D offered a more nuanced view:

“As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions,” the rapper said. “As a Black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’s icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. … My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.”

Elvis stirs strong racial reactions for multiple reasons, notes Michael T. Bertrand, a history professor at Tennessee State University, in his book “Race, Rock, and Elvis.” His “success rested upon the songs and styles of black artists historically excluded from the popular music marketplace.” He was not only Southern, but he owned an antebellum-style mansion that to some evoked the Old South, and he sang “Dixie” for years in concert as part of his “American Trilogy.” He also associated with racially conservative politicians such as Richard Nixon and George Wallace.

Among White devotees, part of Elvis’s idealized appeal is his humility, his generosity, his spirituality and, yes, his supposed lack of prejudice. But for many people of color, a different image persists.

“Presley has become a symbol of all that was oppressive to the black experience in the Western Hemisphere,” Bertrand writes in his book.

I arrive in Tupelo, about two hours southeast of Memphis, a few days after the birthday celebration. I had expected tacky T-shirt shops and Elvis-themed cafes with names like Grill Me Tender, but the Elvis connection is muted. The hardware store where his mom bought his first guitar is still a hardware store, not a shrine. Aside from two alley walls with Elvis murals and a statue in the town square commemorating a 1956 homecoming concert, Tupelo seems quiet and quaint.

The Elvis birthplace and museum sit about a mile outside of town on land that Elvis bought to create a town park. The two-room shotgun house was built by his father, grandfather and uncle. Unlike at Graceland, where an iPad tour includes narration by John Stamos, the birthplace home tour takes me roughly two minutes, long enough to see items like a quilt-covered bed and wood stove.

After exploring the museum, I meet executive director Roy Turner in his office. Turner recently retired from a 48-year career in the pet food industry, but this, he says, is his dream job. Born and raised in East Tupelo, Turner has Elvis connections: His dad worked with Elvis’s mother, Gladys, in a shirt factory. When he was 28, Turner worked as a researcher for Elaine Dundy, the author of “Elvis and Gladys.”

He explains to me the local social structure that existed during Elvis’s childhood. For Whites, there was well-to-do Tupelo and lower-class East Tupelo. A similar class structure existed for African Americans. “You had the Hill, which had doctors, lawyers, teachers, the people that own retail business,” says Turner. “And you had Shake Rag, which was domestics, yard people, people that work for the train, those kind of folks. And the people in the Hill looked down at the people in Shake Rag.”

The Presleys were one of three White families that lived in the Hill. Turner tells me the story of Elvis and his segregation-era friendship with a boy named Sam Bell, whom Turner got to know over the years.

At a souvenir shop I’m intrigued by an Elvis Mr. Potato Head. For some young people, Mr. Potato Head might be more recognizable than Elvis.

“Elvis spent the night at Sam’s and vice versa, and they ate at each other’s homes,” he says. “Sam was raised by his grandparents — his father was killed in World War II, and his mother had gone north to find work. And he said his grandmother and grandfather thought the world of Elvis because he always said ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am,’ which no White person said to a Black person during that era.”

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The two boys would go the Lyric Theatre in town to see movies. “Elvis would go in the front door, and Sam would go around to the side and then into the colored section,” says Turner. “When they got up in the balcony, Elvis would step over this little barrier, probably 18 inches high, and sit in that section with him. And Sam said, ‘Nobody ever bothered us.’ ”

Tupelo made Elvis, Turner believes, both musically and spiritually. His music was shaped by the church and by the Grand Ole Opry, and by the poverty of his youth. He shares a line from Dundy’s book: “You can hear the soil in Elvis’s voice the way you can hear the cement in Sinatra’s.”

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Maybe it was his impoverished upbringing, but Elvis didn’t like being called the King. In “Careless Love,” Guralnick tells a story of a news conference after Elvis’s 1969 opening in Las Vegas. He posed for a photo with his friend Fats Domino and told reporters of the singer’s influence, declaring him the real king of rock-and-roll. This was not unusual. Elvis routinely noted his debt to Black artists. And to many White fans, the American Dream appeal of Elvis should transcend race.

“Elvis came from nothing,” Weinshanker says, “and became everything.”

On the issue of race, I think Chuck D had it right. The problem isn’t Elvis the artist or Elvis the man. It’s a White-dominated society that elevated Elvis over artists of color. And 45 years after his death, Elvis still serves as a barometer of racial attitudes in America. “This barometer may measure less who Presley actually was and more about who we are at the moment,” Bertrand tells me via email.

Quincy Jones offered an example in a May 2021 Hollywood Reporter interview. He called Elvis racist (at the Elvis birthday event, an aggrieved Priscilla Presley addressed the comment, saying, “I don’t think Elvis had any prejudice at all”). Yet as Bertrand notes, Jones had worked with Elvis in 1956, and he discussed Elvis in his 2001 autobiography. “[He] said nothing about Presley being racist,” Bertrand notes. “In fact, Jones included Elvis along with Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson as icons that had changed popular music and helped it progress. I have not corresponded with Jones, but obviously 2021 is not 2001 or 1956. What changed?”

Attitudes evolve, and race will be linked to Elvis’s long-term appeal. And the discussion will be dictated not by octogenarian record producers, septuagenarian actresses-businesswomen or middle-aged academics. It will be led by smart, thoughtful young people like Shaw, my Sun Studio tour guide.

“I have nothing against Elvis,” he says, while noting that he’s a Johnny Cash fan. “I think he was a talented person, and he definitely ushered in a whole generation of rockers, and he had massive influence. But I feel like there’s so many discrepancies with Elvis, especially in terms of how much of his success was on the backs of Black artists who originally wrote the songs. It doesn’t put a great taste in my mouth.”

At the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, I see Elvis’s custom-made beige wool jacket with velvet collar from the 1950s and his customized 1960 gold-plated Cadillac with portholes and luxuries such as a refrigerator, record player and television. But I’m here for a tour of nearby RCA Studio B, where Elvis recorded many of his hits in the 1960s. I join a group on a shuttle bus for the roughly 10-minute drive. Our guide, a gray-haired woman named Debbie, tells a story she heard from a guest on one of her tours. His uncle had an office in Los Angeles and Elvis was signing contracts. An upset security guard raced in and said, “Mr. Presley, I’m sorry to tell you this, but your fans are in the parking lot and they’ve torn apart your car.” The property was fenced in, the guard had locked the gate, and he was ready to call the police. Elvis said to let them go. “They paid for it,” he said of the car.

Few stars were ever as gracious to his fans, and those kinds of stories are legendary. When his beloved mother, Gladys, died, he wanted to open the service to fans before the colonel convinced him otherwise. He would often talk to fans who gathered near the Graceland gates. Joan Gansky, a lifelong Elvis fan and friend of Tupelo’s Roy Turner, met him multiple times in the ’60s while living in Santa Monica, Calif.

“He always stopped and talked to us on his way home from the [movie] studio,” says Gansky, an expat from England.

When we arrive at Studio B, Debbie shares some history, then instructs each of us to sit at a piano that Elvis used to play. Two long rows of chairs line each wall, and when the obligatory piano photos are completed, she tells us to sit and points at multicolored lights on the ceiling. When he was recording an up-tempo rocker like “Little Sister,” Elvis wanted red lights. When he recorded gospel, the lights were blue. In 1960, when he recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” he asked musician Chet Atkins, who was working for RCA, to turn down the lights. Debbie now does the same to re-create the mood. With its cornball spoken interlude, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was never my favorite Elvis song. I’ll take “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” over anything recorded in Studio B. But when Debbie turns off the lights and plays the 62-year-old recording, something unexpected happens. Sitting in the darkness, we hear only the voice. And suddenly all the noise that comes with Elvis — the spectacle, the impersonators, the merchandise — is gone. What remains, what envelops us all, is that powerful, unmistakable voice.

Many singers had better voices, Guralnick had told me. But Elvis’s voice connects immediately with listeners. It’s an unusual gift, he said. Will people still be listening to that voice a century from now? Who knows? We can’t predict what will endure. It took 300 years for people to recognize the genius of poet John Donne, Guralnick pointed out. But whether humans are playing “Suspicious Minds” in 2072 or not, it doesn’t devalue the work, and how it influenced others.

Maybe impermanence doesn’t matter. What matters, at least for me, is that in this Nashville moment, sitting with strangers in the dark, I am moved by the all-encompassing sound of a voice. So I listen, really listen, and I think of my mom and the singer who joined us for errands, holidays and household chores. And when I remember those moments, I’m reminded: Listening to Elvis, we were happy.

Ken Budd has written for National Geographic Traveler, the Atlantic, the New York Times and many more publications. He is the author of the memoir “The Voluntourist.”

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