Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Two views of The King

It may not have escaped your notice that Elvis Presley was 30 years dead on Thursday. If we take into consideration the views of those who claim that Elvis died the day he went into the US Army, make that 50.

Nevertheless, even 30 is a deadly number for Presleyophiles, many of whom now know for themselves what it's like to sense the imminent approach of the Grim Reaper.

Yes, time is marching on, and pretty soon there won't be anybody alive who can claim to remember buying the single of Jailhouse Rock the day it went on sale locally (just realised that I've never written the phrase 'pretty soon' before. It reminds me that Elvis also provided rock 'n' roll with its accent. Imagine what Cliff Richard would have sounded like if the King had been born in Bolton or, indeed, Ballymena).

I knew two people who knew Elvis intimately. One told me the truth but I suspect the other didn't.

The one I suspect of being less than honest was Charlie Hodge.

I hesitate to say this knowing that poor Charlie passed away only last year, but I believe he held back for the noblest of reasons.

In the early 1950s Charlie sang with a vocal group called the Foggy River Boys.

The young Elvis often heard them on radio and was a fan, so it was fortuitous that the two found themselves among a bunch of US Army grunts bound for Germany in 1958. The two hooked up and stayed close friends until the day Elvis died.

In the meantime, Charlie played guitar for Elvis, sang with him, handed him his scarves on stage and lived in Graceland for 17 years (he was the only person to have recorded a duet with Presley).

When we see the magnificent, rampant black-leather-clad Elvis during his 1968 television comeback special in what looked like a boxing ring, that's Charlie beaming by his side.

Alas, the Charlie Hodge of later years developed a serious drinking problem and was none too steady when he came to Belfast at the behest of a friend of mine who had a drinking problem of similar intensity.

To cut a long story short, I had the opportunity of talking to him at great length about Elvis. I didn't learn much. The doors were bolted.

The gist of what Charlie told me was that Elvis was a gentleman who took only medicinal drugs (is there any other kind?), didn't drink, didn't smoke, was a wonderful person who every now and then had an eye for the ladies.

To me, the latter comment was akin to remarking that Hitler may have been slightly ambitious.

He also told me that he was with Elvis the night he died. I suppose he couldn't resist it. It wasn't true, of course, but I subsequently discovered that he was the last person to arrange the King's hair before he was laid out in his coffin. That would have been enough of a gesture for most of us.

The other person I knew who knew Elvis well was a raucous rock 'n' roll singer from Arkansas called Ronnie Hawkins, happily still with us. You may know that I used to play in his band in the early 70s when I was young, fresh and tireless. I was the only Irish person in the band (the others American) and, I believe, because of that, he used to tell me more stories than he told the others. Maybe he thought that I, being Irish, was a better listener.

The young Ronnie had gone to Memphis in the early 50s and had hung out with the young Elvis. He even spent an afternoon trying to convince Presley to change his name on the grounds that nobody with a name like Elvis could possibly make the big-time.

Ronnie dropped out when he realised that, for all their efforts, he, Elvis and others like them were succeeding only in performing black music badly. This, had Ronnie but known it, was the birth of rock 'n' roll, thus, for my money, strengthening the claim that Chuck Berry, not Elvis, was the man who really invented rock 'n' roll.

Anyway, Ronnie told me horror stories about Elvis.

Imagine what a shock this was for me in 1973, a time when Presley could do no wrong in the public eye. President Nixon had given him a narcotics officer's badge, for God's sake.

Ronnie would suck on a cigar and imbibe a little Tennessee sipping whiskey; "F**king Presley then didn't look like he looked later on. He had dirty fair hair, spotty skin and teeth all crooked and messed up."

"So what was he like as a person?" I would ask.

"He was a mean son-of-a-bitch. Only a goddamn fool would turn his back on him. That crazy hillbilly cat would've knifed ya in a flash!"

Sometimes it's hard to know what to think.

I know which one of them I believe ¿

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