"Impairing the Morals of 1950s America": St. Elvis & the Supernatural

Today is the anniversary of Elvis’ first television appearance, the Dorsey Brothers variety show booked Elvis from January through July 1956. He made his appearance on January 28, and was not allowed to sing his own songs, but limited to the rock ’n roll standard, “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and “I Got A Woman.” If the Dorsey’s were hoping for “safer” music than Presley’s own music, they obviously didn’t listen to the lyrics very carefully. [Insert reference to “one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store”]

Tommy Dorsey, one of the most popular musical figures of the War years and RCA’s best selling artist till Presley replaced him, was not a fan of Elvis’ music. Elvis, it seems, was a joke to many of the Dorsey orchestra--they thought he was “dirty” and wondered if he bathed, because he had a particular smell.  No doubt this was class and geographical bias at its best. The idea that anything good would come from “white trash” was typical, coming from Dorsey’s New York-based orchestra--often times, trained musicians who had been at the top of the music industry for years.  The idea of losing their place to the truck driver from Memphis was unthinkable.

If people think about Elvis in January, they think about his birthday, (January 8) his first television show, and thus, I was asked to write about yet another book about Elvis’ religion. The Seeker King is a popular book published by Quest Books, an imprint affiliated with the Theosophical Society, the author is Gary Tillery, a sculptor who also writes about the spiritual lives of musicians.  Everyone, it seems, wanted and wants to claim Elvis as their own.  In the 1950s, Christian clergy of nearly every stripe denounced his overt sexuality, the “tribal” nature of his music, and warned that he was leading unsuspecting youngsters towards “Elvis Presleyism.” Elvis’ own Assemblies of God had little to say about him particularly, but despised rock music for much of the 1950s and 60s.  Elvis as religious threat is fairly well known, as is the cult of Elvis that existed and still exists over 30 years after his death in 1977.  

Aside from the various sighting of Elvis since his death, to which some have ascribed supernatural significance, saints, like St. Francis and Protestant healer, Smith Wigglesworth were said to have been able to appear in two different places at the same time--called bilocationality.  Elvis sightings though would be closer to the religious tradition he was raised in--Pentecostalism. Since the pages of early Pentecostal magazines were filled with numerous accounts of resurrections--it is well within Elvis’ spiritual upbringing to consider resurrection a possibiity.  A number of other unexplained phenomenon that Elvis claimed to have or others claim for him inch him closer to a Pentecostal saint than any kind of Eastern mystic as some claim.  Elvis believed he was able to heal, according to Tillery’s popular take on Elvis’ religious seeking, he also believed that he was psychic and called by God to greatness.  According to Tillery and other accounts I have read throughout the years, Elvis claimed to have seen a UFO (I realize that even mentioning this will “flag” me for endless spam, but so be it).  So what are we to make of these varied takes on St. Elvis?

By all accounts, Elvis was a seeker, fascinated by Eastern religions, an occasional visitor to Self-Realization Fellowship when he was staying at his Beverly Hills home, and a voracious reader of popular takes on Eastern religions--particularly spiritual automatic writer Joseph Benner, Yogananda Paramhansa, and Khalil Gibran.  If the rock and roll, sexualized performance, or appropriation of African American music made Elvis a danger to 1950s religious  communities as varied as Rhode Island Catholics, Mid-Western Lutherans and Southern Baptists, his religious seeking would have completely put him outside the purview of “proper” religious adherence.  The faith of his family and of his upbringing, the Assemblies of God, had little use for Elvis’ music, sexual gyrations, and to no one’s surprise, were put off by his adaptation of African American music. When you think about the immense pressure of being labled as the main corrupter of the innocent youth of 1950s white America--it must have been alot to bear.  It is no surprise that Elvis began using pills to sleep, to keep the weight off, and eventually just to function as far back as the late 1950s.  We all know how that ended--and yes I am one of those skeptics who believes that it ended. I don’t believe Elvis disappeared to get away from it all, or developed supernatural powers in order to be able to appear to everyone from clerks to truckers.  That so much spiritual capital is invested in this trucker from Tupelo is still amazing. Elvis had the power to corrupt every single innocent young girl who laid eyes on those gyrations, and also by his spiritual admirers--the power to heal, psychic powers, and of course, the power to live forever.  

It is also worth noting that on this important day in rock n roll history, Tommy Dorsey, who booked Elvis despite opposition from his producers, booked Elvis because the Dorsey show’s ratings in the South were dismal, and it was thought that booking Elvis might help that musical and cultural gap.  Dorsey, who also died prematurely of a drug-induced accident that led to his choking to death, is not remembered as a musician who was tainted by the prevalent drug culture of the music business.  Dorsey had become “fond” of sleeping pills, and they led to his demise. Dorsey also eloped at 17 with a young woman, whom he divorced two years later, and re-married a couple more times before settling down--but Dorsey is not remembered for that part of his life, and it may take some digging, but I don’t think Tommy Dorsey ever had the kind of opposition from religious leaders that Elvis did---then again, Dorsey did not dance like Elvis danced....
Pastor at public meeting in FL. against Presley's appearance
At the Dorsey show
Dorsey show singing Shake, Rattle & Roll
With Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey

Discussing "gyrations" ban before FL show


Thanks for this great post. One of the first senior theses I advised in the early 1990s, when the internet was new, was on Elvis spirituality. I set up a web site for my student's survey and she was able to gather lots of fascinating responses from members of a particular Elvis fan club about people's religious attachments to him, including figuring him as St. Elvis.

I can't also help but note that he shares a birthday with Noble Drew Ali.
Mark T. Edwards said…
Scott Hoffman's dissertation from Purdue, "Haloed By the Nation: Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America," has a chapter on Elvis as a religious icon.


Popular Posts