Norman salutes return of the King
Of all the big rock n roll stars they don’t come much bigger than the King himself. And if playing the role of Elvis Presley in a new stage production is the opportunity of a lifetime, then capturing his story was also a challenge for the man who wrote the book.
Author and journalist Philip Norman has seen his account of Presley’s latter years, This Is Elvis: from Burbank to Las Vegas celebrated in a performance by Steve Michaels as the man who came to define an era, a sound and a style.
Norman wrote for the Sunday Times for many years but it is his rock biographies, including the seminal Shout: The True Story of The Beatles published in 1981, that have brought him most acclaim.
He makes the point that he has more strings to his bow. “I’m not only a biographer. I’ve written books on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But I also write plays and fiction,” he says in an interview with Daily Business.
“Some time ago I wrote a book on Buddy Holly and met with Laurie Mansfield who put Buddy the Musical on the stage for 13 years.
“Unfortunately I didn’t get to write the book of the musical but we got chatting about an Elvis show.”
This is Elvis, showing at the Edinburgh Playhouse, commemorates the 50 years that have elapsed since the King’s iconic 1968 Comeback Special when Presley rediscovered his rock’n’roll roots.
Presley was nervous as he hadn’t performed live for seven years having been consigned to turning out second rate movies for his controlling manager Colonel Tom Parker.
The first act depicts the raw acoustic energy of the TV Special which was watched by 42% of the TV-owning audience in the US.
We see a slim, seated and leather-clad Elvis in a semi-circle with some of his favourite musician buddies: the Jordanaires and Scotty Moore, his guitarist who had put down the licks on Jailhouse Rock and had been by his side since 1954.
Norman says Presley struggled to cope with getting older in a young man’s industry, yet he was only in his thirties when he made his return.
“When he made his comeback he was just 33 in an era when it was thought you were finished when you passed 30. People in their 70s are not past it these days. There are old age pensioners on stage now.”
The show attempts to recreate the anticipation of his return and the energy in the performance.
“We show how he was thwarted in Vegas and how he also put on some brilliant shows and his singing was still great. Every song became his. In the Ghetto I still find is a touching and meaningful song.”
The second act depicts the Vegas years, another form of wilderness when Elvis was playing to well-heeled gamblers who flocked to Nevada for elaborate dinners and the lure of the card table.
Norman says Presley’s move to Vegas marked a shift in direction that was engineered by those who hung on to his fame.
“His manager Colonel Parker was a gambling addict and had all these huge deals with the hotels and casinos and didn’t have to pay his gambling debts, because he delivered Elvis.
“Parker was showman. He had joined a militia and never was a real officer.
“It is tragic that Elvis never got away from Vegas. It is a great American tragedy. It’s the story of Gatsby really. He was wearing rhinestones and singing big ballads and coming on stage to the theme of 2001 A Space Odyssey. It was pomp rock.”
There was always talk of the King performing in Europe but it never came to pass as the Colonel would never leave the US for fear of being kept out and Presley died at home in Gracelands in 1977.
As one of Norman’s other subjects John Lennon famously said in reaction to the King’s death: “Elvis died when he went into the army.”
Norman disputes the former Beatle’s verdict.
“I don’t agree with that. When Elvis came out of the army he still made great music. He hadn’t gone into an entertainment corp. He had gone into a tank regiment in West Germany like an all-American boy and, yes, his image changed. Before that he had been terrifying to America, and especially terrifying to American girls.”
Norman says that This Is Elvis touches on the dark side. It is well documented that a bloated, junk food fuelled Elvis lost his raw energy and became dependent on prescription medication. However, this show is a celebration of one of the all-time greats and he believes Michaels does the King justice.
“We don’t want to show a singing cheeseburger, and Steve Michaels is absolutely amazing. He sounds just like Elvis and looks just like Elvis, and he performed an Elvis tribute act before taking on this role,” says Norman. “And we want the audience to feel uplifted.”
Aside from his writing, and partly because of it, Norman has brushed shoulders with many celebrities and has just as many stories to tell.
He spent two days with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when the latter was filming Where Eagles Dare in Austria. A fellow guest in the hotel pulled a gun on Burton, 24-year old Norman and a young actor called Clint Eastwood, as Burton had tried to exclude him from their table.
“We all just sat there with our hands up,” says Norman.
Taylor told Norman she had learned enough Welsh when she married Burton. She told him: “It is such a good language to swear in.”
There was plenty of that the morning after the night before.
Slightly tamer than that experience was Norman’s encounters with John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono during the writing of Shout.
“Yoko invited me to the Dakota building many times. The first time was shortly after Lennon’s death and I was shown around the apartment which was just as he had left it.”
Norman said she was initially co-operative but then became less so. However, she didn’t make any attempt to stop the book coming out.
That book went on to sell over one million copies and it thought to be a definitive account of the Fab Four.
This is Elvis is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 17 February