New Perspectives on Elvis

A One Day International Conference

Room 340, Third Floor, University Centre, Main Campus

21 August 2017, University of Memphis, 10am – 6pm

16 August 2017 was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, probably the most influential, controversial and popular music performer of the twentieth century. ‘New Perspectives on Elvis’ is a day-long international event held at the University of Memphis. The aim is to offer fresh perspectives on the icon, grounding him in the context of his place and time, and also interpreting him in relation to developments both inside and outside the academy.

Thanks to Amanda Nell Edgar for all her organizational help in bringing this event to the University of Memphis.


Michael BertrandTennessee State University

Claude Chastagner, University Paul Valery, France

Sara CohenUniversity of Liverpool

Neil NehringUniversity of Texas at Austin



James Goff, Jnr, Appalachia State University

Forty years after Elvis Presley’s death, untold millions recognize him by his first name alone, the mention of which conjures up an immediate set of images and sounds. Yet the real man remains elusive precisely because of competing images and sounds. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of religion, where Presley emerged even in life as an enigmatic mix of American religious values and hedonistic excesses. Enamored by the gospel music stage, his earliest musical heroes were gospel singers—both black and white performers of the genre. He was likewise influenced and haunted by the decidedly evangelical and Pentecostal strictures of his youth. As he grew older, he broke most if not all of the rules of this early church training as well as the stated wishes of his mother Gladys—a woman who pampered, spoiled, and sheltered him as long as she could. Her death in 1958 marked a major turning point in Presley’s rather fragile family structure and her funeral marked the last official connection he had with the Assemblies of God, the most important denomination of his youth. Even so, religion and gospel music remained important. When Presley died on August 16, 1977, two things of religious portent stood out: the book he was reading at the time of his death, A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus, and the album on his stereo (presumably the last one he played), an unreleased copy of the Stamps Quartet’s Sweet, Sweet Spirit. This paper will examine the religious moorings that both propelled and challenged Presley’s adult life. While recent scholarly work, most notably that of Randall Stephens, has argued that Pentecostalism helped give rise to the sights and sounds of early rock ‘n roll, missing is the degree to which Presley came to drink more broadly from the well of southern evangelicalism, in large part because southern Pentecostals were themselves in the midst of major transition.

Professor James Goff, Jr is Chair of the Department of History at the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His research interests include American religious history and gospel music. Professor Goff Jr’s publications include Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and “Conflicted by the Spirit: The Religious Life of Elvis Presley” Assemblies of God Heritage 28 (2008):22-31.



Daniel Downes and June Madeley, University of New Brunswick St John, Canada

Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 in August of 1977. Since then the King of Rock and Roll has embodied a number of after lives.  A number of processes of mediation have prevented the King from resting in peace since his death. Fans and impersonators have kept him alive via interactive performance and personal memory and through visits to the Graceland Memorial, and in recent decades his translation into fictionalized form embodying a broken, refracted and often voiceless Elvis usually nameless or referred to as “Bubba.” These representations draw on various post-mortem understandings and portrayals of Elvis as a signifier of contemporary cultural issues. We would argue that these mediations are also responses to fear of trademark infringement and right of publicity laws. This paper will explore the posthumous and continued use of Presley’s image, rather than his music. Elvis resonates because of a range of cultural myths that encircle him, ‘and the multiple and contradictory ways in which he is articulated to those myths’ (see Rodman, 1996 p. 40, emphasis added). However, the commercial use of Elvis’s image by his estate, in the form of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), and their concentrated efforts to control the meanings of those images, transforms Elvis into a transpropertied commodity form exploiting new uses of the right of publicity. Here, we argue that the image of Elvis propagated and policed by EPE has been highly sanitized and limited. In addition, we examine the practices of Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs) to show the tensions between the social and cultural appropriation of his image and his status as a corporately-controlled, transpropertied cultural commodity.

Dr Daniel Downes is Associate Professor of Information and Communication Studies at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. An academic, musician, and broadcaster, Downes has published articles on copyright, the structure of the new media economy, and the role of media in the construction of community and personal identity. His research interests include the relationships between cultural and maker practice and technology, and the role of intellectual property in the regulation of cultural industries and popular culture. He is the author of Interactive Realism: the Poetics of Cyberspace (McGill University Press, 2005) and co-editor of Post-Colonial Distances: The Study of Popular Music in Canada and Australia with Bev Diamond and Denis Crowdy (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008).

Dr June M. Madeley is Assistant Professor of Information and Communication Studies at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, Canada. She is interested in the content, production and reception of various communications media and applies a focus on class, gender, ethnicity and racialization to her work. Her current research centers on reception among fans of anime and manga (Japanese comics) and she has published work on this topic in The Journal of Popular Culture and the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics. In addition to research in the area of fan studies, science fiction and Japanese popular culture she has contributed to research analyzing Shrek, The Rolling Stones and Elvis.



Landon Palmer, Indiana University

Since at least the early sync-sound era, motion picture companies have recruited music stars for film roles, adapting their existing presence on radio and the stage to the spectacle of the big screen. Following the decline of the studio system, motion picture companies extended this practice to casting rock stars for screen roles. In this case, such casting served to structure cinema’s emergent relations with competing media industries such as recording and television. By forming a bridge between a postwar Hollywood and the growing recording business, Elvis Presley’s screen career demonstrates how film stardom during this period could serve extracinematic and cross-industrial goals for media industries. Placing Presley’s screen career at the intersection of celebrity studies and media industries studies, this paper details how the old guard of the studio era developed Presley into a film star in order to adapt to challenges posed to Hollywood’s power, forming around Presley a system of commodity production wherein filmmaking served as a vehicle for music recording and vice versa. By surveying the production histories of Presley’s films at 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer between 1956 and 1961, this paper illustrates how studios utilized Presley as a means to draw from content outside of cinema in hopes of integrating a former assembly line mode of production into the expanded media landscape of the 1950s. Challenging the narrative surrounding Presley’s film career as a block of interchangeable titles, this paper (which is part of a current book-length project on rock stars in film) contextualizes his filmography within Hollywood’s postwar efforts to adopt and compete with new media – including television and long-playing records – as well as emergent cultural developments and modes of consumer practice in the form of youth music.

Landon Palmer is a PhD Candidate studying Film and Media in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University currently finishing a dissertation on the cross-industrial history of casting rock stars on film between 1956 and 1986. In addition to articles on popular music and media culture in iaspm@journal: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and Celebrity Studies, he has published on Elvis Presley’s early film career for Music, Sound, and the Moving Image and a forthcoming anthology on the work of director Michael Curtiz.



Bertel Nygaard and Rasmus Rosenørn, Aarhus University, Denmark

Elvis Presley became a transnational cultural phenomenon already in the weeks following his famous ‘gyrating’ performance of Hound Dog on Milton Berle’s television show on June 5, 1956. While no-one abroad could actually watch Elvis on TV, and only very few had yet heard his records, journals and newspapers in faraway countries echoed the commotion caused by the Elvis phenomenon in particular ways, reflecting different outside approaches to the US and its significations. There are only few and brief studies of the patterns of foreign reception and use of Elvis as part of specific, historical constructions of cultural meanings and practices. This paper studies the transnational establishment and early transformations of Elvis as a transnational cultural phenomenon through a close look at the flows of relevant information, rumours and signs from the specific vantage point of the Danish public sphere. Through newspapers, journals, radio programs, movie theatre programs, records, and early fan club activities, we intend to map several modes of relating to Elvis, roughly corresponding to temporal phases in the cultural reception and in Elvis’ own stylistic changes: (1) initial demonizations and exclusions of Elvis and rock’n’roll from the sphere of culture; (2) more tolerant (though often condescending) conceptions of Elvis as ‘low-brow’ culture; (3) acceptance of Elvis as part of hybrid conceptions of culture (i.e. as part of a specific youth culture); (4) normalization of Elvis as a part of mainstream culture. These different modes and phases all emerged within a short span of time, from 1956 till the late 1960’s, all in specific forms and with peculiar ‘timings’ shaped by the receiving Danish context. Each mode and phase contained specific configurations of more fundamental and general negotiations of boundaries between noise and music; music and the human (sexual) body; generations; ethnic identities; gender roles; and social classes.

Dr Bertel Nygaard is an Associate Professor in Modern History at Aarhus University, Denmark. His academic work focuses on the social and cultural contradictions of modernity. He has written extensively on modern social revolutions, utopian constructions and temporality as well as on the cultural construction of politics in Europe after the French Revolution.

Dr Rasmus Rosenørn is curator at Ragnarock: The Museum for Pop, Rock and Youth Culture. His academic work focusses on youth cultures of 20th century popular music, especially Danish and European receptions of American styles, from early jazz to 1950’s rock’n’roll to contemporary dance music.



Marilisa Merolla, Università di Roma, Italy

On September 9th, 1956, CBS broadcasted the first of three Elvis Presley appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even before his voice, his deliberate walk and intense body movements emerged from the darkness of the studio and marked a dramatic discontinuity with the past. When he started singing ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ it was clear that Sam Philips’ prophecy was fully realized: “the Negro sound and the Negro feel” had won over the white public, and not only in the United States. Elvis was the dark made visible. Examining the Italian case, this proposal moves from two separate perspectives: one inspired by the psychological interpretation of Elvis’ impact as a sort of white archetype of the blues on European societies, and another one anchored to the current debate among historians about music and international relations during the Cold War. This paper uses these two separate categories to investigate the impact of Elvis’ rock’n’roll music on the European and Mediterranean landscape of Post-World War II, when – with Eisenhower’s People to People program – blues, jazz, soul and rock’n’roll were used by the US Department of State as “sonic weapons” to combat the perception of the US as a racist society. In fact, paradoxically, a more authentic representation of Elvis as the “dark side” of the American way of life arrived in its raw version through the military model launched by the soldiers in charge at the AFSouth (Allied Forces Southern Europe) Headquarters, the NATO command centre for the defence of France, Greece, Italy and Turkey. Overcoming filters and censorship of the local political and cultural institutions through the military model, Elvis embodied the explosion of rock’n’roll music, which was considered a real threat by Italian political parties (Catholic, Socialist and Communist). In the political contest of the Cold War, the threat for the main traditional political parties was the “laicization” (secularization) of the youth.

Dr Marilisa Merolla is Associate Professor in Contemporary History at “La Sapienza” Università di Roma. She is the founder and the director of Music Making History Research Unit which co-operates with several Universities and teaching facilities throughout Europe and United States. Her degree dissertation in political science was on psychology of music, while her doctoral dissertation in contemporary history was on the Italian mass media. She has taught and made numerous conference presentations on Italian contemporary history, the history of mass communications and sound as historical source. Her publications include the monograph Rock’n’Roll the Italian Way.



Kalemba Kizito, University of Memphis

The iconic figure of Elvis Presley is not only a celebrated marker for Memphis City tourism, it also stands in enduring testament to the power of celebrity legacies. The tendency to defy mortality and live on in the grandeur of historical embellishment is a compelling reason to pay attention to the cultural significance of celebrities. Elvis was at the pioneering intersection of the mediated celebrity iconography, built to command several personas as a sex symbol, rock star musician, film actor, and fashion star, all of which are the associated attributes that society has come to expect of celebrated cultural icons and personalities. In this paper at the 40th anniversary of his death, I use this commemoration to reflect on the the meanings of celebrity in global culture today. Using a cultural studies approach, I extrapolate a critical reflection from the biography of Elvis to ponder on the question of the social utility of celebrities as products of a highly mediated culture industry.  I argue that the cultural construction of the celebrity is not only a consequence of market logic that seeks to profit from the glorification and commodification of individuals, but that at its root, it is a reflection of an aspect of western culture that yearns for superiority of and over a constructed other. The other is a result of the attendant parasocial dynamics that result from a manufactured hierarchy of human value placing the few as culturally superior over the many who participate in this mediated economy of social relationships. As a benefit to scholarly inquiry, this paper invites a critical reflection on nuanced connections between celebrity as a trope and its relationship to concepts of ideology that transcend just social hierarchies into an analysis of a globalized cultural phenomenon of western cultural superiority over the rest.

Kalemba Kizito is a second year doctoral student at the University of Memphis. His research interests are in critical media and cultural studies. A primary focus of Kalemba’s research and scholarly work is the role of emergent technology as cultural force: how and what ways technologies of the digital era are mediating both local and global social and political relationships. Currently he is looking at how surveillance and its extensive apparatuses function to propagate and monitor differences in society. Through his research, he hopes to understand the cultural dimensions of mediating difference, and the role different technologies play in this regard.



Robert Fry, Vanderbilt University, Nashville

This presentation explores the relationship between sound, celebrity, and place as manifested in Nashville’s music tourism industry, focusing specifically on the guided tour of RCA Studio B, Nashville’s only studio tour. Beginning with a bus ride from the Country Music Hall of Fame, fans are transported from the museum space that preserves history to the studio space where that history was made, as if they are traveling back in time to a storied location within the historic and mythologized Music Row. Because they are taken there by bus, and the studio is not otherwise open for walk-up tours, the studio’s location seems hidden or undisclosed, providing visitors with the sense that they are traveling into historic Nashville and allowing them to immerse themselves in the space that fully established Nashville as the home of country music. The emotional experience of interacting with the famed studio is enhanced through stories of celebrities and the recording process, best represented by the studio’s focus on Elvis Presley. As the tour narrative unfolds, fans are allowed to stand where Elvis recorded, touch the very piano heard in his recordings, and hear intimate stories of Elvis’ interaction with the space. During the tour, the atmosphere of Elvis Presley’s legendary creative process is recreated, reanimating the myths of both Elvis and RCA Studio B. Through the RCA Studio tour, Elvis’ songs and creative process come to life, authenticating both musician and studio.

Dr Robert W. Fry is Senior Lecturer in Music History and Literature at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music in Nashville, TN, where he teaches courses in global music, jazz, blues, music in the American South, and music tourism. His current research focuses on music tourism and the role of fan culture in the production of a musical place, which he writes about in his forthcoming book, Performing Nashville: Music Tourism and Country Music’s Main Street (2017), part of Palgrave Macmillan’s series, Leisure Studies in a Global Era.



Amanda Nell Edgar, University of Memphis

Each August, fans converge on Memphis to memorialize and celebrate Elvis Presley. Like all fan pilgrimages, the ceremonial visitation of Graceland is important to Presley’s loyal audiences, providing a spiritual sense of connection with “The King.” When Black Lives Matter protesters gathered outside the home-turned-museum in August 2016, an act dubbed #OperationBlueSuedeShoes, the demonstration highlighted Memphis’ historical racial tensions and equal treatment in public spaces including the area just beyond Graceland’s property boundaries. After three protesters were arrested and ordered to leave the area, Senator Harris pointed out that if “a crowd is allowed to enter … humming Elvis Presley tunes — then another crowd that is chanting ‘black lives matter’ must also enter.” Last August’s event highlights two coordinated frames of analysis: race and place. On one hand, much has been written about the racial influences of Elvis’ musical style. The perception that Elvis performed “Black music” but received substantially more financial benefit than his Black colleagues remains a lasting legacy in Memphis. This critique is rooted in place as well, since in the context of Memphis’ de facto segregation, space continues to influence the ways racial equality is understood. Eventually unsubstantiated rumours that Graceland planned to respond to #OperationBlueSuedeShoes by continuously playing Elvis’ “In the Ghetto” to drown out protesters, therefore spoke to long-standing tensions regarding both race and place. This presentation uses the frames of race and place to offer an analysis of personal accounts and public discourses surrounding the August 2016 protests to argue that musical context travels with audiences, including non-fans and anti-fans, so that issues like Black Lives Matter and #OperationBlueSuedeShoes become important considerations in our understandings of the contemporary meaning of Elvis and his music, particularly as these meanings are situated in proximity to Graceland and the annual fan pilgrimage and celebration.

Dr. Amanda Nell Edgar is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. Dr. Edgar’s research explores the entanglement of sound and identity in popular culture. Her work has appeared in Women’s Studies in Communication, Critical Studies in Media Communication, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, and other journals, and has been featured on the National Communication Association’s Communication Currents.



Mathias Haeussler, University of Cambridge, UK

When Elvis Presley started out as a public artist in 1954, post-McCarthy America was quick to depict him as an ‘enemy from within’; as a deeply ‘un-American’ performer whose gyrating hip-moves seemed to threaten the very core of the American spirit and character. In spite of the public backlash, however, Elvis embarked upon what would become one of pop music’s most remarkable success stories of the twentieth century, turning into a superstar with global reach. Within four years, Elvis was even drafted and sent to West Germany, serving at the very frontline of the Cold War – a highly successful propaganda coup to win European ‘hearts and minds’ in the cultural struggle between the two superpowers. How did Elvis manage to morph from America’s ‘inner enemy’ into one of its key Cold War figureheads in only a few years? How did stardom and popular music transform the cultural conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union? And what can his story tell us about American soft power in the twentieth century more generally? Building on recent historiographical trends, this paper uses Elvis’s story to investigate the role of popular music and consumerism in the Cold War. It reveals that, even though the US had initially sought to fight the cultural conflict primarily on the grounds of ‘high culture’ and technology, Presley’s success unexpectedly gave America what would become one of its most potent cultural weapons – the public image of a nation freely endorsing consumer choice, innovation, and freedom of expression. But it also argues that Elvis’s own adaptability and aloofness was key to his lasting success as a propaganda tool, allowing him to be easily transfigured into all sorts of things for all sorts of people. As America’s public image changed in the 1960s and 1970s, however, so did the image of its Cold War superhero.

Dr Mathias Haeussler is a Lumley Research Fellow in History at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. After completing an undergraduate degree in history at the Queen Mary, University of London, he pursued an M. Phil and PhD at Cambridge looking at modern European history. Dr Haeussler has published articles in Twentieth Century British History, Cold War History, and International History Review. He has also contributed several chapters to books on European history.



Paul D. Fischer, Middle Tennessee State University

In January 1968, Elvis Presley came to Nashville for recording sessions for the MGM soundtrack: Stay Away Joe. He brought with him a briefcase containing twenty-six 78 RPM records. He handed the briefcase off to guitarist Scotty Moore, with the understanding that Moore would transfer the discs’ content to tape, so Elvis could listen to them more readily. Moore did so, keeping a safety copy of the tape for himself. Elvis never reclaimed the records. Shortly before his death, Scotty Moore offered to sell the briefcase and records privately to several museums and archives. In 2010, an article in The Telegraph (UK) reported that these items would be sold via UK auction house “The Fame Bureau.” As yet I have not found out what became of that auction and/or the records, but that will be part of this paper. Manufacture of 78 RPM records ceased in the mid-fifties. There is no way of knowing if this was Elvis’s collection of 78s, but it is clear these had significance to him more than a decade later. After detailing the fate of the “Briefcase Box,” this paper will look at the artists and songs on these records. Elvis went on to record many of them, “Hound Dog,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I Got A Woman” among them. Matters of race, previous chart action, and the importance of “cover versions” and “crossover” will be discussed. The goal is to use this factual record to generate a new perspective about Elvis’ musical taste and repertoire selection, going into the “comeback” phase of his career. Knowing some of what Elvis was actively listening to at this time, and the songs from these records that became part of his live and recorded repertoire are certain to spark new insights.

Professor Paul D. Fischer earned his PhD in American Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University (1995). He joined the Faculty of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU’s) Department of Recording Industry in 1996, now serving as a tenured full Professor. He was President of the United States branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM-US) from 2000–2002. He served on its Executive Committee for a decade, hosting its national conference twice at MTSU. His scholarly work and reminiscences have been published multiple times in the Journal of Popular Music Studies, with reviews and essays published by The Journal of American Folklore, Journal of the Art of Record Production, Left History, Radical Teacher, and by the anti-censorship organization Freemuse. He has a book review of Beyond 2.0 The Future of Music forthcoming in the Journal of World Popular Music. He was, is, and shall continue to be a Doctor of rock’n’roll.



Johnny Hopkins, Southampton Solent University, UK

This paper brings together three Memphis icons: Elvis Presley, photographer William Eggleston and Graceland. Using an interdisciplinary approach drawn from music, art, photography, representation and cultural theory, this paper explores Eggleston’s pictures of Elvis’ former home, Graceland. These photographs were commissioned by the Graceland Division of Elvis Presley Enterprises after the King’s death and the opening of Graceland as a museum. They were published in 1983 in Elvis At Graceland a guidebook for fans and visitors – though it was withdrawn shortly after. In 1984 Eggleston published 11 of the photographs as a portfolio entitled William Eggleston’s Graceland. In these photographs, taken several years after Presley’s death, Elvis is obviously absent yet strangely ever present. Eggleston’s intense use of colour was well suited to over-the-top nature of Graceland. Eggleston’s techniques enhanced the surreal otherworldliness of Elvis’ home, creating a version of Southern Gothic. As with his other work these photographs are very much rooted in place. What do these photographs tell us about Elvis? About Eggleston? About Graceland? About our relationship with Elvis? About the American Dream? Elvis and Eggleston never met. Yet both were born in Mississippi then came to nearby Memphis. They were a similar age – Elvis was just 5 years older. However, they came from very different backgrounds. Elvis grew up in poverty in a two room shotgun shack in Tupelo, buying Graceland in 1957 once he was an established star. Eggleston was from a wealthy family and grew up in the kind of cotton plantation house that would have inspired the original 1939 design for Graceland. While Eggleston’s photos are devoid of people and arguably detached, this paper contends that they serve as portraits of Elvis, and of Graceland as home, folly, museum and mausoleum, while also commenting on the American Dream.

Johnny Hopkins is a Senior Lecturer in Popular Music and Media Industries at Southampton Solent University and has also taught at University of Sussex and Goldsmiths. His research interests include identity, representation, cultural appropriation, Native Americans and popular music. He is researching his PhD on music and English / British national identity, and has written an upcoming book chapter on the use and meaning of the Union Jack in 1960s pop music (Bloomsbury, September 2017). Currently he is researching a paper on John Coltrane’s influence. Prior to working in academia he was a PR for musicians including Oasis, Kasabian, Sinead O’Connor, Billy Childish, Jesus & Mary Chain and Primal Scream. As a photographer, his work has been included in album artwork and been exhibited in England and Japan. He is currently documenting Brutalist architecture in the UK.



Mark Duffett, University of Chester, UK

The paradigms that explain media fandom both enable and constrain academic discussions about fan tourism. Robert Fry’s (2014) recent piece on the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Arkansas, for instance, can be understood as a discussion of heritage tourism in the implicit context of participatory culture (Jenkins 2010). Thinking about history provides an inclusive means to investigate what happened in places before fan visits became fully facilitated by the heritage industry. Five years after Elvis Presley’s death, his Memphis home was opened as a tourist attraction. This papers constructs a ‘hidden history’ of prior fan visits, vigils and pilgrimages to Graceland. It considers the ‘gate people’ as a living culture, one that contributed to the mansion’s status as a celebrated tourist destination.

Dr Mark Duffett is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Chester. Following his PhD on Elvis fandom in 1999, he has written widely on related topics. Mark currently has two books in press: Elvis (2018) for the Equinox Press series, Icons of Popular Music, and Counting Down Elvis: His 100 Finest Songs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).