Peter Guralnick: from Elvis to Sam Cooke

Last Train to Memphis Peter Guralnick’s two-part biography of Elvis Presley (“Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley” and “Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley“) remains the most compelling work of non-fiction I have ever read (and perhaps the most compelling anything I have ever read). It’s an absolutely sprawling but thoroughly amazing work. Taken together, the two volumes consist of nearly 1400 pages about the life of a man who was obsessively covered by the media of his time and endlessly chronicled after his death. After reading Guralnick’s biography though, while you might recognize an anecdote you’ve heard before (e.g. Elvis shooting his television), the picture of Elvis that emerges is somehow unexpected and surprising (e.g. Elvis taking LSD and sitting by his mother’s grave). I read the first volume in roughly 1996, and it covered from Elvis’ birth until he entered the Army. I had to wait three years for the second, and more explicitly tragic, volume to be released. It picked up where the first volume left off, traveling through the ’68 Comeback Special, the Hawaii and Las Vegas decline, and ultimately ending in Elvis’ lonely and pathetic death.

Careless Love I was reminded of the Elvis biography and Guralnick’s incredible work tonight when I read Charles Taylor’s Salon review of Guralnick’s new biography of Sam Cooke, “Dream Boogie.” In the review, Taylor writes that Guralnick’s magisterial work on Elvis Presley, which can leave you feeling unmoored for days, convinced that you have just read, as Guralnick claims, “the saddest story” he knows, can stand alongside Taylor Branch’s ongoing “America in the King Years” and Robert Dallek’s two-volume life of LBJ as one of the greatest recent accomplishments in American biography. When I read the two books, I remember being so immersed in the overwhelming sadness of Elvis’ life that I could think of nothing else for weeks.

Even if “Dream Boogie” merely hints at the greatness of Guralnick’s earlier Elvis work (and Charles Taylor’s review suggests that might be the case), it’s still a must-read for anyone who cares about music.

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