Today is the birthday (1935) of Elvis Aaron Presley, often known simply as Elvis, the king of Rock and Roll, or just the King. Elvis is one of the cultural icons of the mid-20th century, and his music marked a fundamental shift in popular music in the late 1950s from crooners and other solo artists to guitar playing rock stars fronting bands with guitars and drums. Prior to Elvis, rock and roll in the US was the domain of African-American musicians, but Elvis brought the style into the White mainstream.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee with his family when he was 13 years old. His music career began there in 1954, recording at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips, who was the key person involved in bringing the sound of African-American music to a wider audience at the time. Presley, on rhythm acoustic guitar, and accompanied by lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, was a pioneer of rockabilly, an up-tempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues. In 1955, drummer D. J. Fontana joined to complete the lineup of Presley’s classic quartet and RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who would manage him for more than two decades. Presley’s first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released in January 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. With a series of successful network television appearances and chart-topping records, he became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines during a transformative era in race relations, made him enormously popular—and controversial.
In November 1956, Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender. He was drafted into military service in 1958, which the press made much about at the time, and then forgot him. He was intent on being a regular soldier rather than an entertainer in uniform, so he worked in a regular army unit, mostly in Germany. Meanwhile his handlers issued pre-recorded singles on a regular basis so that his music would have a continued presence even though the man himself was absent. In 1960 Presley was honorably discharged and relaunched his recording career with some of his most commercially successful work such as, “It’s Now or Never” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” He held few concerts however, and guided by Parker, proceeded to devote much of the 1960s to making Hollywood films and soundtrack albums, most of them critically derided. They were all completely formulaic, involving beaches, pretty women, and cookie-cutter songs.
In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed television comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley gave the first concert by a solo artist to be broadcast around the world, Aloha from Hawaii.
Years of prescription drug abuse severely compromised his health, and he died suddenly in 1977 at his Graceland estate at the age of 42. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest, but there is continuing controversy about how (or even whether) he died. He did have well documented cardiac problems, and he did overdose on amphetamines several times prior to his death. So it’s probably likely that bad eating habits, drug abuse, and a weakened heart were all contributory factors in his death.
Presley is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. He was commercially successful in many genres, including pop, country, blues, and gospel. He won three competitive Grammys, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame.
Now let’s consider those bad eating habits. Anyone who is my age can remember the slender, highly active Elvis of the 50s versus the overweight, sluggish Elvis of the 70s. His eating habits (and recipes) have been documented in several books. Here I will focus on the peanut butter and banana sandwich, or peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich, sometimes referred to as an Elvis sandwich or simply the Elvis, consisting of toasted bread slices with peanut butter, sliced or mashed banana, and sometimes bacon. Presley’s fondness for peanut butter and banana sandwiches is well established; however, bacon is not mentioned in all accounts. His mother, Gladys Presley, says, however, that on one occasion he had “sandwich after sandwich of his favorite—peanut butter, sliced bananas, and crisp bacon”. Another passage describes him talking “feverishly until dawn” while “wolfing” down the sandwiches (described in this instance as being made with mashed banana).
A news report suggests that, based on renditions of sandwiches named after him, Presley ate his with caramelized bananas and crispy bacon on grilled Hawaiian bread, and grilled by his mother or his cook in bacon fat. The Good, the Bad, and the Yummy describes it as consisting of half a banana and a piece of bacon per sandwich, browning the sandwiches in a frying pan with butter, cutting the sandwiches into wedges, and piling them high.
Elvis is also well documented as loving the Fool’s Gold Loaf, a sandwich made by the Colorado Mine Company, a restaurant in Denver, Colorado. The sandwich consists of a single warmed, hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with the contents of one jar of creamy peanut butter, one jar of grape jelly, and a pound of bacon. The sandwich’s connection to the singer Elvis Presley is the source of its legend and prolonged interest. According to The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley, Presley and his friends took his private jet from Graceland, purchased 30 of the sandwiches, and spent two hours eating them and drinking Perrier and champagne before flying home. The story became legend and the sandwich became the subject of continued media interest and part of numerous cookbooks, typically focused on Presley’s love of food.