Picks and Pans Review: Last Train to Memphis

updated 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Guralnick

Everyone knows about the sensational Elvis—the young punk whose hips were banned from TV, the aging drug-befuddled superstar who offered to become an FBI stooge, sleep-walked through his Vegas shows and shot out TV screens. In this first volume of a two-part Elvis bio, which ends with the death of Elvis's mother in 1958, noted music historian Peter Guralnick has accomplished the previously undone: He has humanized the icon. Guralnick gets behind the glitz and drugs to explore the psychology not only of Elvis but also of key friends and players in the development of Elvis's music and myth—among them Sam Phillips and Marion Keisker of Sun Records, who gave Elvis his first break, and Colonel Tom Parker, who molded the sensation into an enduring, if tarnished, star.

Then there are Elvis's early running buddies and sweet, chaste girlfriends, who shed much light on the private side of an extremely private person. They all open up to Guralnick, and the portrait of Elvis that emerges from this rich detail is far more plausible and rewarding than the psycho-cartoons of, say, Albert Goldman's 1981 Elvis. Last Train to Memphis gives Elvis back his humanity and marks him as a kind of American Dreamer worth understanding. In the process, it gives Elvis back to us. (Little, Brown, $24.95)

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