Could You Handle It?

What would your life be like if you went from being a twentysomething living with your parents in subsidized housing in a mid-sized southern town to being financially rich beyond your wildest imagination in just under two years? Could you handle it? Would you have the discipline to remain the essential person you were before your newfound wealth? How would you react if you suddenly could have anything you ever wanted for yourself and your family and be surrounded by people who never said no to you?

This is not an infomercial nor is it the story of someone who became successful after purchasing a wealth-building program from an infomercial. The scenario I just described is the story of Elvis Presley.

In the early 1950s, he and his family were living in government-subsidized housing in a poor part of Memphis. Elvis held various jobs including driving a delivery truck. His passion, talent and dreams involved music, however, and he spent time on famous Beale Street soaking in the wide range of music being performed in that legendary part of town. He started singing in 1954 and by 1956 was the most popular and famous singer in the country.

Over the next twenty one years, he became an icon in addition to being a singer, songwriter, actor, father and walking health disaster. He owned houses, horses, guns, motorcycles, cars and an airplane. He acted in 33 movies. Early in his career he set records with record sales and in his later years his record sales decreased but demand for his concerts increased. And his addiction to drugs increased too; prescription drugs mostly. Nobody told him no.

By many accounts, Elvis was generous. He spent lavishly on friends and family. He did what he could to put on spectacular shows despite his mostly self-inflicted health problems. He still had hit songs and sold-out concerts into 1977, his last year alive. His estate is a major tourist attraction as well as a museum frozen in time; it will no doubt be crowded tomorrow, the 33rd anniversary of his death. Many rooms in the house are open to the public but the bathroom where he passed out and died is not.

Could he handle the fame and fortune? Barely. Was he still the essential person he began as? I think that deep down, he was, but there was so much spin around his life that it is hard to tell truth from image.

I am too young for his music to have been part of my formative years, but exposure to his music over the past couple of decades has led me to appreciate his talent. There is something authentic at the heart of his music and he lives on in those songs. If some network plays his 1968 ‘comeback’ special, spend some time with it; it’s worth watching. That was a better time in his life.

Here are two clips from sessions that eventually became his 1968 special. He has fun and makes fun of himself in the first one and shows a more serious side in the second.