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Not Just A Fat Guy In Sequins 

Presley's lost revolutionary legacy

Now he took hold of Black and White,

Grabbed it in one, then the other hand,

and he held on tight.

And he shook it like a hurricane,

he shook it like to make it break.

He shook it like a holy roller with his

soul at stake.

– "Elvis Presley Blues" by Gillian Welch

Next Thursday, Aug. 16, will be the 30th deathiversary of the fat singer in the sequined jumpsuits. The drug jokes, fat jokes and oddball diet tales will be hauled out, and the bee-hived women will flock to Graceland for graveside worship services. But the original Elvis Presley -- the strange, rubber-legged kid who rocked the country to its foundations in 1956 and '57 -- has left the building, or has at least been pushed to the back of our cultural memory. It's a shame, because that Elvis Presley -- the young, vital, turned-the-world-upside-down Elvis -- was a fascinating person, as well as the musical, cultural and racial equivalent of a nuclear bomb. It's too bad that legacy has been drowned in a tide of latter day jumpsuits, personal quirks and inconceivable pill habits.

American culture has a way of turning the extremely famous into something more than human. But it was a very human and shy boy, a mama's boy with a wild streak and a "dreamy" disposition, who wound up taking the 20th century's great musical leap of faith for us. Others had tried mixing black and white musical styles, but nobody was ready for Presley's singular synthesis of the two, nor his raw energy and quirky flair.

What has been forgotten is just how gutsy that kid was -- the kind of guts that's often the property of the underclass. Growing up poor in public housing, with nothing to lose -- why not play a white man's version of rhythm & blues? But, again, it took real courage. Most histories of early rock present a romanticized view of the pre-civil rights movement South. When historians talk about the cross-fertilization that took place between black and white music, you can almost imagine a South where it was perfectly OK for blacks and whites to get to know one another, even to trade guitar licks in each other's homes. That wasn't the case by a long shot.

During the South's "Happy Days" of the 1950s, nearly total segregation wasn't just social custom, it was the law. To most whites, it was ludicrous to think they could gain anything from black culture -- hell, it was crazy to even call it "culture." It was unacceptable, in any circumstances, for a white southerner to seek out, much less copy, black behavior of any sort, including music. Any frank cross-cultural exchanges had to occur in the shadows. Yet it was impossible to keep the two races totally separate, and in the murky areas of the South's history, the fringes of the two cultures had a way of weaving themselves into new, exotic cloth. But this was never done openly, sometimes not even consciously -- and certainly not in the revealing bright light of the national media. Not until Elvis Presley.

In 1956, the year of Elvis' big national breakout, the greasy-haired kid who became a symbol of freedom for millions of teenagers was, to many American adults, more symbolic of degeneracy. Elvis was the only white man to move so freely onstage, or to dress and sing in a way that was so unabashedly, defiantly black. It was the kind of thing you could be killed for. Consider, for instance, the Alabama White Citizens Council, a Klan offshoot, which "set up a 20-man committee to do away with this vulgar, animalistic, nigger rock 'n' roll bop."

It took a brave, maybe even a desperate, leap of faith to meld divergent Southern musical forms into a popular national art. Presley's personal triumph over his culture's racist inhibitions set the tone for what rock 'n' roll at its best would be, not just for the South but for the nation: a challenge to the status quo, a celebration of freedom, and a bold embrace of America's wide, deep cultural diversity.

Memory of Presley's revolutionary impact has been worn down by his own history of long decline. But at his most important, and his most daring -- in those three or so years before commercial pressures, the Army, and the long tentacles of his manager, Col. Parker, squeezed the spark from him -- Presley was the raw flame, America's own funhouse mirror that, depending on your outlook, reflected either a scary, vulgar delinquency or a completely unexpected excitement and sense of liberation.

When the 30th Deathiversary tributes start, now you'll know why Presley once drove people crazy. Remember that he wasn't just a fat druggie crooner who loved fried chicken and karate. At one time, he set the world on fire, he felt like an earthquake rumbling through the world, he opened white eyes to black music, he brought Americans the gut feeling that everything had changed. And he did it all himself.

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