Is there anything left to be said about Elvis Presley's life since the publication of Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography in the late 1990s? Even Ponce de Leon, who teaches history at SUNY-Purchase, acknowledges his significant debt to Guralnick in an "interpretive biography" that skims over many of the details of Presley's life to focus on cultural context. Unfortunately, this doesn't lead to a new appreciation, just a retread of some familiar themes. Thus Elvis was "influenced by the products of a national mass culture" until he became one of that culture's greatest icons while creating a sound that wove together various strains of music from Southern whites and blacks. The presentation is so compressed that much of the music and many movies are elided, and even the personal details are packed tightly into a psychological reading that sees Presley's downward spiral as an attempt to escape the pressures of fame in "an alternate universe governed by his own whims and predilections." Ponce de Leon's portrait is sympathetic, confidently defending Elvis from those who would brand him a racist, but this is all just reinforcement, not reappraisal. The competent, workmanlike retelling of Presley's life won't alienate fans, but neither will it spark debate. (Aug.)
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By now, the story of Elvis Presley is widely known: a humble lad from Tupelo invents rock and roll and becomes a Hollywood star, an icon of the American dream, and ultimately, bloating into a parody of himself, a victim of his own success. Peter Guralnick told the legend best in the definitive Last Train to Memphis (1994) and Careless Love (1999). While it's agreed that Presley was a singular talent who successfully melded the influences of disparate cultures to create and popularize a brand new sound, "rock and roll would surely have appeared without Elvis," Ponce de Leon writes; but it may not have had the resonance and impact that the figure of Elvis made with it. Reacting to the time and the place--America in the 1950s--promoter Tom Parker saw the potential the new mass media afforded for making Elvis more than a regional star, and the "emerging purchasing power of teens" fueled his rise. Whereas Guralnick provided detail, Ponce de Leon distills Elvis' context. Benjamin Segedin
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