Customer Reviews: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley
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on January 19, 2001
"Last Train to Memphis" and its sequel, "Careless Love", make a deeply engrossing, carefully researched, finely written biography of Elvis Presley.
Author Peter Guralnick took eleven years to exhaustively research sources and interview people who knew Elvis personally and would tell their firsthand experiences. Guralnick's scholarly approach automatically eschews any hint of the fan adoration that can taint celebrity biographies. Guralnick might even have erred on the dry side rather than the juicy or dishy side of the story. This is all to the good, because Elvis' life story, a fantastic, zany, epic arc through American pop culture, is one that needs no embellishment and is served well by a measure of journalistic restraint.
Guralnick made a wise choice with the two-book format, because in Elvis' life there was a distinct "Rise and Fall." "Last Train to Memphis" is the rise: "Careless Love" is the fall. In each volume, Guralnick reveals much not just about Elvis, but about the people who were his family and closest friends and how their actions and relationships to him and to each other shaped Elvis into the man he became.
Accounts of his school days, his early days as a musician, his early girlfriends, and his family life all flesh him out as a human being and penetrate the shell of celebrity to offer a three-dimesional glimpse of the individual and his own ideas and aspirations and insecurities. The first volume ends with the death of Elvis' mother, a loss that sent him into the first tailspin of many, from which he never seemed to recover.
After reading this volume, you will be hooked on the story and will want to immediately begin the second volume, which is much darker and sadder as the King's world starts to unwind, chronicling his spiraling drug habit and his battles both public and personal. The second volume is catalogued and reported as dispassionately as the first, so that the same unblinking honesty that gave "Last Train" such sparkle and joy reveals the true depth of Elvis' isolation without having to resort to hyperbole.
Guralnick said it himself; that the rise to fame and the person were larger than life, and so too was the decline larger than life. It's an ending that leaves you feeling sad that what began so brightly should end so awfully.
I read these books because I knew very little about Elvis and wanted to know his life story, and they are a deeply satisfying and very credible account of the King's life. I can't imagine that there is a better bio out there for anyone who wants to study Elvis 101.
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on April 24, 2003
But it's not true...Elvis DOES the pages of Guralnick's outstanding biography of Elvis Presley, a biography that will stand the test of time as the definitive study of the King of Rock n Roll.
In Volume One, Guralnick takes us from Elvis' humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi to his departure for Army duty in Germany twenty-three years later. In between, readers will be fascinated with what they THOUGHT they knew about Elvis. LAST TRAIN differs from other books about Elvis in two very distinct ways: First, the author gives us first hand accounts from the people who were actually there. There's no tabloid journalism or second-hand anecdotes. Guralnick has done his research and it shows. Second, Elvis is never presented as an icon or an idol. Guralnick has the unique ability to step back away from the action as an impartial observer and give us an extraordinarily clear image of what Elvis was really like - a really nice, clean, religious kid who was consumed with music and making people happy.
You can almost feel the electricity of the recording sessions at Sun Studios. You can watch Sam Phillips as he realizes that this boy could change the course of popular music forever. Elvis' girls, friends, musicians...they're all here and they all have a piece of the story to tell. And what about the "Colonel" Tom Parker? Genius or huckster?
Of course, the hysteria is recorded as well. After all, it's part of the story. Crazed fans were nothing new. After all, girls had been going nuts over singers like Frank Sinatra and many others for years. But the world had never seen anything like this? How can you explain it? Guralnick never really comes right out with an explanation, but you'll be able to pick it up between the lines. But you'll enjoy the book so much in the process, all you'll care about is what happens next.
The writing, the storytelling, the's all outstanding. But if I had to pick two moments that really struck me, one would be Elvis near his popularity peak looking out of a train window. He saw a lone dog running in a field and longed for the freedom to roam the world unhindered by masses of admirers. It's a very simple, but powerful image of things to come. The other is the [end of life] of Elvis' mother near the end of the first volume. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes I've ever read, Elvis kneels beside his deceased mother's body, crying out that he would give up all of his success and go back to digging ditches if he could only have her back again. If you have dry eyes at the end of this book, your heart needs to be jumpstarted.
Like all good writers, Guralnick expertly foreshadows the tragic events that will take place in Volume Two. Even if you think you know the full Elvis story, you'll learn plenty by reading this book. The only bad part about finishing Volume One is not having a copy of Volume Two nearby. Buy both. You won't be sorry.
488 pages of text, 50 pages of notes and bibliography
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VINE VOICEon October 13, 2000
Peter Guralnick demonstrated in his definitive history of Soul music, Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, that he has a nearly unique grasp of the singular way in which popular music and the political culture intersect in American society. Along with Robert Palmer (Deep Blues) and Greil Marcus (Mystery Train), he has helped to craft a still pretty slender body of literature which takes pop music and its impact seriously, but also places it within a larger societal context. Now, in his two part biography of Elvis Presley, he has set out to strip away both the mythology (Volume One) and the demonology (Volume Two) that obscure Elvis and to restore some reasonable sense of perspective on the man and his music. In so doing, he offers us a new and useful opportunity to understand the personal and societal forces that converged to make him into The King, one of the genuine cultural icons of the 20th Century, and to trigger the Rock & Roll Era.
There are several main factors that Guralnick cites, which appear to have had a particular influence on how events transpired. First is the city of Memphis itself, which served as a nearly perfect crucible for forging the blend of Gospel, Country, Blues and Rhythm & Blues that made up Elvis's sound. A southern city, but not Deep South, there was at least limited interaction between the white and black worlds. But most importantly for this story, the city was saturated with music. Second, Sam Phillips, owner of his own fledgling Sun Records operation, was on the scene looking for a white act that could bring the black sound to a mass audience:
Sam Phillips possessed an almost Whitmanesque belief not just in the nobility of the American dream but in the nobility of that dream as it filtered down to its most downtrodden citizen, the Negro. 'I saw--I don't remember when, but I saw as a child--I thought to myself: suppose that I would have been born black. Suppose that I would have been born a little bit more down on the economic ladder. I think I felt from the beginning the total inequity of man's inhumanity to his brother. And it didn't take its place with me of getting up in the pulpit and preaching. It took the aspect with me that someday I would act on my feelings, I would show them on an individual, one-to-one basis.'
Finally, there was the man, actually he was more of a boy at the beginning, Elvis Presley. And Elvis was himself the product of several forces. There was the impoverished kind of white trash milieu from which Elvis came and which gave him a sense of alienation and otherness. As Phillips said of him:
He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior. He reminded me of a black man in that way; his insecurity was so markedly like that of a black person.
Then there was his mother, Gladys, who--in addition to raising him to be polite, respectful, humble, even deferential--also gave him unconditional love, bordering on worship, which he returned in kind. These forces combined, as so often seems to be the case, to make him insecure on the one hand, particularly in the manner in which he approached and dealt with people, but, on the other, left him burning with an inner certainty that he was special and was meant to accomplish great things.
All of these forces combined into a volatile mix in the Sun recording studios on July 5, 1954. Phillips had brought Elvis in to work with a couple of local musicians, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, because he wanted them to do some ballads and Elvis had done some demos there, which Philips was not overwhelmed by but he thought Elvis had some potential as a ballad singer. The session was pretty desultory, if not downright unsuccessful, until that inevitable, now mythical, moment when during a break Elvis started fooling around doing Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's old blues tune "That's All Right [Mama]". Phillips, initially shocked that this quiet white mama's boy even new the song, immediately recognized that this was just the type of thing that he had been looking for and got them to record it.
All of the tumblers had clicked into place. It was the nature of Memphis that Elvis and Sam had been exposed to, more like drenched in, the music of the black community. Sam happened to be looking for someone who could transport that music and, most importantly, the style and atmospherics of the music, into the white community. And in walks Elvis, that quintessential hybrid of insecurity and manifest destiny.
If success did not come overnight it did come quickly and Guralnick masterfully charts the meteoric rise that took them up the charts and took Elvis to television and then to Hollywood. This first volume also sees Colonel Parker take over from Sam, the purchase of Graceland, the eventual breakup of the original band, the death of Elvis's mother and his induction into the Army. Guralnick makes it all seem fresh and exciting, carrying the reader along on the tide of events. An incredible number of famous names stud the narrative and prove to have significant roles to play, including: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Snow, B.B. King, Sammy Davis, Jr., Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Steve Allen, Milton Berle and, of course, Ed Sullivan. This is a great biography, one that should especially appeal to folks whose only image of Elvis is the fat, sweaty, drug-addled lounge lizard of popular caricature.
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on January 20, 1999
Extremely well-written bio, it took me right back to the 50's. Shows how important Sam Phillips was in the genesis of Elvis' "new" style of music. Gives glimpses into the King's initially very conservative moral stand - no drinking or smoking. Sometimes he even read from the Bible to his dates.
The book takes us to the day he is shipped out to Germany. Towards the later chapters, darkness seems to creep into Elvis' life. He is very fearful, and the death of his mother appears to almost destroy his self-confidence. It gives great insight into just how and why Elvis' music was truly revolutionary. Shows how Elvis rose to the top thanks to three forces. First of course was his own talent, drive, ambition and energy. Then there was Sam Phillips who not only recognized that this phenomenon was totally new and different, but helped steer Elvis in the right direction musically. And finally there was the very clever Colonel Tom Parker, who was like a field general obsessed with effectively promoting Elvis' career.
All in all, this book is hard to put down - in fact one wishes it would never end because it is such an enjoyable read.
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on July 11, 2012
After seeing this book praised for so many years, I finally decided to read it. I came away disappointed. Yes, Guralnick writes in an engaging style, and you learn a lot about Elvis as a person. But he provides little historical, musical, or sociological context for Elvis's life. It's just one concert tour after another, as Elvis records one song after another, with barely any discussion of the individual songs or what made them significant.

He vividly portrays the frenzied reactions Elvis got whenever he performed, but he never tells us exactly *why* Elvis inspired such a reaction in his fans. He never stops to tell us why Elvis or his music was revolutionary, what made his music different from what came before. He doesn't tell us about the state of American popular music in the mid-1950s, he doesn't tell us about the political or cultural atmosphere of the times, he doesn't describe what the film industry was like when Elvis made his movies, and so on. The book sticks pretty closely to Elvis and the people around him. We rarely step outside his circle except for short discussions of Sam Phillips, Dewey Phillips, and Colonel Parker, Elvis's manager.

Right before reading this book, I read Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, by Jonathan Gould, which vividly tells the story of the Beatles and their lives but also provides plenty of historical, musical, and sociological context. I guess I was hoping this book would be similar.

I guess Guralnick does a good job of portraying what it was like to *be* Elvis, and that's commendable. I just wanted more.
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on August 27, 2004
I'm not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick's books praised many times. Most satisfying about this book, volume one of Guralnick's two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick's ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year's time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis' music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick's portraits of Elvis' supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis' mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
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on August 25, 2002
This is one of those rare biographies that transcend its subject. The rise of Elvis is fascinating and true Elvis fans will find a wealth of information in the book, but there is also much more to take from this well researched tome. The discussion of the music of Memphis, the sources that influenced Elvis and the rise of rock and roll make this book a terrific addition to anyone's library who is interested in music or the south.
The relationship between Presley and his many women is discussed here and so is the complex interaction between him and his family. Perhaps his most interesting relationship is with his manager, Colonel Parker. How that relationship shaped his career certainly makes for an interesting read. The author does as fine a job as I have ever seen of documenting his sources and treating his subject with respect, but not awe. This is one of the best bio's I have ever read. I highly recommend this book to students of Elvis, pop music, the south or to anyone looking to be exposed to a world that no longer exists.
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This book traces the early life and career of Elvis Presley. It begins with a few words about his parents' background and his birth. It follows his early years and many moves until his family landed in Memphis. It traces his progress through elementary, middle, and high school, and then proceeds to his rise to stardom as a recording artist. The book ends with Presley boarding the boat to Germany after being drafted by the army.

To write this book, Guralnick not only searched public records, but also interviewed Presley's friends and sweethearts from his early days in Memphis. He is quite sympathetic to Presley, as well as respectful towards fans and their cherished myths. Overall, the book provides a fascinating overview of the rise of one of the most famous musicians of the Twentieth Century. Even though I'm no great fan of Elvis myself, the book gave me a new respect for his accomplishments and spurred an interest to visit Graceland, if just to see the Presley hogpens and Gladys Presley's gravesite.
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on July 21, 2015
Extremely interesting and informative. I can't recall how I decided to make a study of Presley, but indeed I did. I read this book, followed by CARELESS LOVE and then proceeded to a few other books about Elvis. I also recall reading a scathing biography by a man named GOLDBURG I believe, that came out soon after Elvis died. GURALNICK is by far the best written, most objective, and the most informative and interesting read. It isn't dry at all. I found the information about Tom Parker and the way in which he handled the "Elvis industry" very enlightening and unique, but not necessarily as exploitive as others have suggested. Parker kept Elvis's career alive far longer and more lucratively than any of the early rock and rollers. Perhaps they understood how fundamentally flawed and interdependent they both were and neither one seemed to do anything to intervene in each other's self destructive conduct.

After reading this followed by Careless Love, I came to the conclusion that no one could have saved Elvis from himself. This is much more than a "price of fame" story though I had to wonder what kind of life Elvis would have led if his gift had never been discovered. Michael Jackson said he never had a childhood. Elvis never had an adulthood. But despite everything that did and did not happen in his life, he seemed like such a simple, decent guy. And no one yet has begun to analyze or attempt to explain the magic and singularity of his appeal. I was 12 or 13 when I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember that moment as vividly at the day that JF Kennedy was murdered. There was something about Elvis that no other performer has ever matched.
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on March 9, 2004
Peter Guralnick -- with both love and meticulous scholarship -- has written a supremely ethical work of cultural archaeology.
With meticulous care and fairness -- but with no sugarcoating whatsoever -- he excavates Elvis out of the layers of rumor, innuendo, and mystery that have conspired over the years to make him a caricature and a joke rather than a human being.
Gurlanick gives us back the artist (who first thrilled me on 78s) and exorcizes so much of the snobby and dismissive trashy gossip (Goldman) that has obscured Elvis for almost 40 years.
I don't mean that a saint emerges. No way. But in Guralnick's telling, a brilliant musician and excruciatingly vulnerable human being pushes aside the fat guy in the gold Vegas suit.
The result? The music -- in all its glory and raw excitement -- returns to take its rightful and deserved place.
The best books (with Guralnick's 2nd volume) about rock and roll ever written.
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