Stark Raving Elvis cover

1958 – The Gift

Byron “Blue-Suede” Bluford–soon to be Prince Byron, heir to the Throne of Rock ‘n Roll–was reborn in the Elks Club Talent Assembly, Portland High School, Spring 1958. It was the kind of renaissance that turns a boy’s life over like a spadeful of dark, rich dirt–which is fine and good, Byron’s pop used to reflect (in the days when the old coot could still think straight), so long as too many worms don’t crawl out.

It started like any dumb high school amateur show: Teresa Binkly, a candidate for Miss Maine Potato, opened with a giggly fire baton routine (minus fire, due to regulations). Billy “Zits” Parker honked out “Lady of Spain” on a musical bicycle pump, his own invention. Then Butch Marcel and the Heartstoppers trooped on and roasted the place with a smoking hot version of “Red River Rock.” Butch was a chubby kid in a zoot suit. He had greasy pomaded hair that tumbled over his forehead, braces on his teeth, and baby-fat cheeks that jiggled as he blew his big tenor sax. Behind him the Heartstoppers made more noise than a 747, twanging and thundering, amps up full, cymbals hung with stopper chains for extra sizzle. The effect of rock ‘n roll in a high school auditorium in 1958 was stunning. Until the Heartstoppers appeared the kids had been orderly. Now they were howling for raw meat.

Butch Marcel approached the mike. After waiting for quiet he motioned to the wings.

“Blue-Suede Bluford!” he announced.

Byron stepped out on stage (with a push from his buddy Fat Larry McCann) and scowled into the darkness. Even with stage fright, something in his image–a manfulness, a dark full-lipped sensuality–hushed the crowd, made them wait for him. In front of the lights, he seemed to loosen up. Almost casually he ambled to the center of the stage and raked a comb through his hair. His muscular coolness drew whistles and catcalls of admiration. Then the music started. He grabbed the mike and belted out “Hound Dog” with all the trademarks–Elvis’s withering grin, blistering eyes, rubbery legs and swiveling, humping pelvis–in a voice that seemed to be stolen right off the record. This was no joke. With a band behind him, Byron was a man dancing on a thousand volts. In the dreams he would have for years, they tore the seats up with switchblades–like something out of Blackboard Jungle. In reality they stomped and cheered so hard the teachers had to cut the whole thing short and send everyone back to homeroom.

Only later, much later, did Byron realize that if he had just been born in the right place, at exactly the right instant, there was no doubt–he would have been Elvis Presley. Long after Talent Assembly was nothing but fodder for old yearbook memories, after America had reeled through assassinations, discovered dope, counterculture and Asian war–after Byron had toughened into a thirty-ish factory worker with long hair, a softball cap that said “BYRON” and a wardrobe of T-shirts with Elvis’s face on the front–he still clung to the memory of how the King’s power had flowed through him that day in 1958. He couldn’t get over it–that one searing instant of glory, because he stood on a stage for three minutes and did what Elvis Presley did.

Byron had grown up a dusky-eyed, dreamy kind of kid–shy, two left feet, fog in his head, a clothespin on his tongue. The older girls, the ones in lipstick and puffy sweaters, had been watching him from the time he was twelve, but he never had an inkling. It was mumblety-peg, toads, BB guns, then solitary dates with his right hand. Even Elvis, when he came along, was Byron’s personal secret. The looks, the attitude, the moves–Byron put them all together in the privacy of home, like a Charles Atlas body-building course. Elvis emerged, a set of fresh muscles.

But where could he strut his new stuff–show off the bumps and grinds, the hip sling, the shaky leg, the Tupelo drawl? How many Talent Assemblies came along in one lifetime? Even in the aftermath, when Butch Marcel had begged him to join the Heartstoppers, it was as himself, Byron Bluford–to sing Chuck Berry songs, Buddy Holly songs, Roy Orbison songs. Where was that at? Being Elvis was what mattered, after all. Why stand up in front of people and try to be anything else?

Yet how the hell could you make a life out of being Elvis? What could you do with it that wasn’t just a gag? After high school, as real life crept over him like a mist, each major encounter–with the wife he married young and divorced quick, with the mother he couldn’t satisfy, with the future he seemed to drown in–each dim milestone brought it up all over again. As long as he continued to exist without a life that made any sense, the question wouldn’t give way, wouldn’t crack. Without the answer to it, Byron Bluford was nothing. And because he lived without the answer, he hardly considered it a life. It was something else. Time spent killing time. Watching himself go nowhere. Waiting . . . for what?

Eighteen years later, the answer came–from the King himself.

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