Elvis at 80: The King still rules

Story highlights

  • Elvis Presley would have turned 80 years old this week
  • A new website featuring his music and Spotify playlists helping fans celebrate
  • Biographer believes Elvis would have returned to gospel music had he lived

(CNN)In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service had a vote to determine which image of Elvis Presley should go on a stamp: a rendering of the youthful, late '50s King or the beefier, early-'70s version.

The runaway victor was Young Elvis. It remains one of the most popular stamps of all time.
But these days, it seems like '70s Elvis -- also known as "Fat Elvis" -- was the ultimate winner, with common perceptions of the singer focused on the glittery, jumpsuited performer who became the template for a thousand Vegas impersonators: a self-parody.
    That's a shame, because the music of Elvis Aron Presley -- who would have turned 80 on Thursday -- remains as raw, direct and immediate as ever.
    "What's there is the warmth, the particularity of communication," says Peter Guralnick, whose two-volume Elvis biography -- "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love" -- remains the definitive chronicle of the singer. "It has to do with that unique talent for communication Elvis had from the very beginning, and that people recognized long before they ever saw him or had an image of him. It was something in his voice that proclaimed it's different."
    There's no question that early Elvis -- the pre-Army idol -- retains a primal, unclassifiable force. Songs such as "That's All Right, Mama," "Hound Dog" and "All Shook Up" don't fit into any formula; they still seem as fresh and electric as the day they were released.
    But even the later, more overly produced material -- "Suspicious Minds," "Kentucky Rain," "Way Down" -- demonstrate an artist who, simply, connected. (And it wasn't like the early Elvis wasn't equally polished. "Hound Dog," that minute-fifty of headlong fury, took 31 takes -- 31 takes! -- before Elvis was satisfied.)
    "I don't sound like nobody," he famously said, and it was true.
    Part of the tragedy of Elvis is that he never got a chance to recover from his 1970s decline, in which he was hobbled by drug use and weight problems. It's easy to forget that he was just 42 when he died in 1977. He seemed a generation older.
    Elvis' 80th isn't going unremarked, of course, and is being celebrated in 21st-century style. There's a new website, www.elvisthemusic.com, and Spotify has called on fans to nominate their favorite Elvis songs to create an "#Elvis80" playlist. Guralnick's books were recently released in an enhanced e-book format with multimedia additions.
    There's no reason an 80-year-old Elvis couldn't have stayed sharp, ready to be produced by a T-Bone Burnett or Rick Rubin. Willie Nelson turned 80 last year and released two albums; Tony Bennett, who's 88, collaborated with Lady Gaga and is up for a Grammy.
    Guralnick believes that, had Elvis lived, he would have returned to his first love: gospel.
    "He was so passionate about gospel music," he says. "I think he would have found enormous satisfaction in exploring gospel music, both traditional and progressive."
    We'll just have to make do with what we have: a rich body of work from a brilliant artist.
    "What you want to be open to is art. The immediacy of art. And I think that's what remains in Elvis' music," says Guralnick.
    That's one hell of a stamp.