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Is Elvis still king?

August 12, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

Thirty years after his death, is Elvis Presley still king?

That depends on whom you ask.

For local fans Dottie Stabler and Debbie Lippy, the answer was a resounding yes.

But asked who Elvis was, 11-year-old Josh Parsons of Glengary, W.Va., said, "He's a singer." Josh couldn't say what kind of music Presley sang, but he'd seen a couple of Presley's movies that were "OK."

And 17-year-old Crystal Wageley of Hedgesville, W.Va.?

"I don't know anything about him." But then after hearing a couple friends talk about him, she did remember his hip shake, sideburns and signature "Thank you. Thank you very much."

The "undisputed King of Rock and Roll" - according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum - was found dead at his Memphis, Tenn., home on Aug. 16, 1977. With the 30th anniversary of his death on Thursday comes more media attention, a 24-hour tribute on Turner Classic Movies with an 11-movie marathon, and the continuing release of at least 15 new books about Presley this year.

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But it's been almost 30 years since Presley drew breath.

An American icon

"I would definitely say, in terms of the culture at large, Elvis has not yet left the building," said Robert Thompson, who teaches the history of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "It's hard to get through a day, certainly hard to get through a week without running into some reference to Elvis."

And because he performed during an age when his work was captured electronically, there is lasting evidence of his mark on culture.

"I think he really still stands as an American icon and mainly because he covers so much territory that we don't have many icons cover," Thompson said.

When Presley hit the big time in the mid-1950s, he represented the optimism, excitement and danger of the postwar American dream.

"He's rock 'n' roll, he's sexy, he's powerful, doing that move with his pelvis," Thompson said.

Then Presley's image changed as he did beach movies and spoke against hippies.

"Before long, he's become fat, sweaty, sequined Elvis. Just at a time when the postwar dream becomes fat, sweaty and sequined," Thompson said.

Presley, like America, became a parody of himself, huffing and puffing in a goofy shirt during the age of Watergate, the lost war in Vietnam, long gas lines and stagflation, Thompson said.

While most of Presley's movies are valuable as kitsch, many people still take his music seriously and it gets lots of play, he said.

Thompson said he has the sense some of Presley's music has become classic.

"The real sign of whether something becomes classic is whether it can transcend the entire generation that created it," Thompson said.

"My guess is Elvis will be replayed on radio stations of one format or another for at least another half century, maybe longer," Thompson said.

Still king to some

"I don't think the Elvis craze has slowed down any" among the generation that listened to him when he was alive, said Russell Bissett, owner of Sports Bags Unlimited in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Bissett only had three Elvis Presley items - a tin sign, a tote bag and an umbrella - on display at his vendor's tent at the Berkeley County Youth Fair last Tuesday, but that's because he's found ages 15 to 25 aren't interested in Presley.

Todd Morgan, director of media and creative development for Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises, estimated that about half of the approximately 600,000 annual visitors to Presley's Memphis home, Graceland, during recent years are 35 and younger.

He thinks they learned about Presley through specials aired on TV, on their own or through older relatives.

"I think he's still popular because even my grandkids love (his music)," said Dottie Stabler, 61, of Charles Town, W.Va.

For Stabler, "Elvis was my youth days. We danced to his music and just enjoyed his sound."

Debbie Lippy, 38, of Hagerstown, admired Presley's humanitarianism and enjoys Presley's music.

"I can remember sitting on my parents' living room floor, watching 'Aloha from Hawaii' live on TV in 1973," said Lippy, who was 4 then.

Like Stabler, Lippy has visited Graceland. But she has more than the King's music on vinyl or cassette tape to show her admiration. Her home is filled with Presley memorabilia she has been given or found at flea markets or yard sales.

What about today?

Elvis Lives, an event that began in 2002 to draw people to downtown Hagerstown, was last held in 2005.

It wasn't a lack of fans that led to its demise, but a lack of volunteers to help organize the event, which included Elvis tribute artists, said Linda Irvin-Craig, one of the organizers.

She said the event's fan base, which was multigenerational and included people who traveled from as far as Texas, had been building.

There were fans who would travel from one Elvis event to another in August and September, with many smaller events staggered around Elvis Week in Memphis, Irvin-Craig said.

While there are still plenty of Elvis tribute artists performing and memorabilia for sale, some younger people just don't seem interested in the King.

Kassi Shafer, 17, of Martinsburg, said her father owns Presley recordings, but she prefers rap, hip-hop and heavy metal.

Still, she has listened to the King's music, even if not voluntarily.

"I did in middle school," she said. "We had to in band."

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