Elvis – his debt to Bri­tain

It is four decades since Elvis Pres­ley, the quin­tes­sen­tial Amer­i­can, died. Yet his roots lie in the Bri­tish Isles, re­veals An­drew M Brown

The Oldie - - NEWS - An­drew M. Brown is obituaries ed­i­tor of the Daily Tele­graph.

It’s hard to be­lieve that nearly forty years have passed since it fell to Regi­nald Bosan­quet – at the very end of News at Ten on 16th Au­gust 1977 – to an­nounce to the Bri­tish peo­ple that there were un­con­firmed re­ports Elvis Pres­ley had died.

There was a com­mer­cial break and then, in an ITN news­flash, Reg­gie con­firmed the aw­ful news. Back then, all the news­read­ers care­fully spaced out the words ‘rock – and – roll’.

Elvis prob­a­bly only vis­ited Bri­tain for two hours, when stop­ping off for re­fu­elling at Prest­wick USAF base in 1960. But he al­ways had a pe­cu­liar affin­ity with the Bri­tish, and he him­self was more Bri­tish than you might re­alise.

Along with those pow­er­ful ge­netic and cul­tural in­flu­ences most peo­ple know about – the Red In­dian ances­try, the black mu­sic that shaped him – the great bulk of Elvis’s her­itage, like that of most white south­ern­ers, was English, Scot­tish, Ir­ish and (pos­si­bly) Welsh. Oh, and there was a dash of Nor­man, too.

None of this is sur­pris­ing if you con­sider Elvis’s per­son­al­ity. He is en­tirely lack­ing in that dour­ness said to char­ac­terise the heav­ily Scan­di­na­vian

Mid­west­ern states such as Min­nesota. Cru­cial is his sense of hu­mour, which Al­bert Gold­man, in his sneer­ing bi­og­ra­phy, de­scribes as ‘his deep­est but least recog­nised trait of mind’.

Elvis loved silly Bri­tish com­edy and would un­wind from the pres­sures of his tour­ing sched­ule with re­runs of Monty Python and Peter Sell­ers’s In­spec­tor Clouseau films. He was a close stu­dent of Sell­ers and, when Dr Strangelove came out, in 1964, he watched it three times in a row, plus three re­peats of the fi­nal reel.

He was also alive to the for­mu­laic ridicu­lous­ness of show­busi­ness, and of his own im­age. You hear that in out­takes of record­ings for the 1966 film Spinout. Through take af­ter take, the ‘Dumb-didumb-di-dumb’ cho­rus of ‘Beach Shack’ sends him into con­vul­sions of laugh­ter.

You see Elvis’s echo of teas­ing, Bri­tish hu­mour in his gen­tle rib­bing of the per­form­ers on stage with him; or in the oc­ca­sion when he in­tro­duces his

girl­friend, Gin­ger Alden, to the crowd, be­fore, mock-se­verely, telling her to ‘Sit down, Gin­ger’, with an aside to the crowd: ‘That’s enough for her.’ His on-stage mono­logues be­came such a fea­ture that, in 1974, Colonel Parker, his canny man­ager, re­leased Hav­ing Fun with Elvis on Stage, a ‘spo­ken word’ LP – just the jokes in be­tween the songs.

At their best, his so­lil­o­quys were mas­ter­classes in comic free as­so­ci­a­tion. He al­ways found the solemn spo­ken ‘bridge’ in the mid­dle of ‘Are You Lone­some Tonight?’ faintly em­bar­rass­ing. There is a gen­uinely funny record­ing from the early 1970s in which, among other adlibs, he changes the fa­mil­iar lyrics ‘Do you gaze at your doorstep...’ to ‘Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?’

Sadly, in later con­cert record­ings, the nim­ble comic tim­ing is re­placed by drugged in­co­her­ence. When he at­tempts those ver­bal tricks with the same song in his fi­nal live tour, the ef­fect is un­set­tling.

Two good pieces of re­search were done into Elvis’s ances­try early on, by Gold­man for his 1981 hatchet job, Elvis, and by Elaine Dundy for Elvis and Gla­dys (1985). Gold­man traces his fa­ther Ver­non’s an­ces­tors back nine gen­er­a­tions to the orig­i­nal ‘em­i­grant’, An­drew Press­ley, a Scots-ir­ish black­smith. Press­ley em­i­grated to North Carolina from Ire­land in the 1740s.

The fam­ily of Elvis’s mother, Gla­dys Love Smith, also came from the Caroli­nas. The ma­ter­nal ‘em­i­grant’ was Richard Mansell; Mansell means ‘man from Le Mans’. As Dundy ex­plains, af­ter the Nor­man Con­quest there were many such men all over Eng­land; some went to Scot­land and in­ter­min­gled with Scots. From there, the Mansells, we think, moved to Ire­land as part of the Pres­by­te­rian coloni­sa­tion of Ul­ster, pro­moted by James I. Richard came to Amer­ica, prob­a­bly in the mass mi­gra­tion of Scots-ir­ish from Ul­ster, which be­gan in 1718. His son Wil­liam mar­ried Morn­ing White Dove, a full-blooded Chero­kee In­dian.

The pu­ta­tive Welsh link emerges through Oc­tavia ‘Doll’ Mansell, Elvis’s ma­ter­nal grand­mother. Ac­cord­ing to Terry Bre­ver­ton, au­thor of An A-Z of Wales and the Welsh, her branch of the fam­ily had ori­gins in the Gower penin­sula. That would ex­plain Elvis’s mother’s Welsh name, Gla­dys. St Elvis was a 5th cen­tury Welsh saint; a ru­ined church and ne­olithic tomb in Pem­brokeshire ded­i­cated to him are not far from the in­trigu­ingly named Pre­seli Hills.

Matthew Arnold iden­ti­fied the pas­sion­ate strain in the Celtic tem­per­a­ment. I think you see this in Elvis’s in­ter­ac­tion with the crowd, a tech­nique he picked up from his friend Tom Jones. He would touch as many of the fans’ out­stretched hands as he could, and toss into the au­di­ence sweat-dabbed scarves that would be snatched at as if charged with su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers.

In a way, all this con­firms what fans have al­ways known: that Elvis’s vi­sion was demo­cratic and all-em­brac­ing. That’s why, as well as the Amer­i­can blues, he ab­sorbed gospel, like (Bri­tain’s favourite hymn) ‘How Great Thou Art’, and coun­try, like ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ (made fa­mous by Tom Jones), and (Bri­tish-kenyan) Roger Whit­taker’s hit ‘The Last Farewell’, writ­ten by a Birm­ing­ham sil­ver­smith.

Elvis’s lin­guis­tic bor­row­ings were end­less. In his south­ern English, you can hear ex­pres­sions found in Chaucer, Shake­speare and the King James Bi­ble. That line, ‘I ain’t never did no wrong’, in ‘One Night’ (a UK Num­ber One 1 twice, in 1958 and 2005), is the same dou­ble neg­a­tive for em­pha­sis that Lord Stan­ley uses in Richard III: ‘I never was, nor never will be, false.’

A fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­men­tary was made for tele­vi­sion at the end of Elvis’s life called Elvis in Con­cert. It opens with a mon­tage of ‘vox pops’, in which fans of all sorts ex­plain what drew them to Elvis. One fan in­sists: ‘Elvis will al­ways be the King, no mat­ter what’ – or, as she might have added, the English, Scot­tish, Welsh and Ir­ish King.

‘Elvis loved Bri­tish com­edy... Monty Python, In­spec­tor Clouseau films....’

Elvis meets fans as he passes through Prest­wick in March 1960. It was the only time the King set foot in the Bri­tish Isles

St Elvis crom­lech – a ne­olithic tomb in Pem­brokeshire. Nearby, the Pre­seli Hills

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