Friday, June 13, 2008

From Memphis to Hollywood

Imagine sweat streaming down the small of your back and gathering in heavy pools at your waistband. Also, imagine the reason for this is you're about to join Elvis Presley on stage in one of the studios of NBC on June 27, 1968.

One who experienced this for real was former Memphis Mafia member Alan Fortas. He was asked to be on stage when Elvis taped his two “Sit down” shows for his first television special. He describes this episode in the beginning of his book Elvis From Memphis to Hollywood, cowritten with Alanna Nash. This book was originally released in 1992 (Fortas died the same year) and recently re-issued.

I just finished reading it, and what I liked most about it is that you get an understanding of how it was to be around Elvis Presley and work for him. Fortas, a football player and university drop-out, met Elvis at Graceland in 1957 through George Klein. They hit it of, talking a lot of - yeah, you guessed it – football, and from then on he started to hang out at Graceland, Elvis liking his humor.

Alan Fortas ended up spending nearly 12 years with Elvis, taking care of his cars och helping him buy his clothes, among other things. "Mainly, though, my job was just to hang around and keep Elvis company, and to keep him amused. Sometimes I was pretty good at it," he writes.

The strength with this book, to me at least, is getting to know how it was to be living with Elvis. Alan Fortas writes openly about his experiences, how Elvis couldn't stand to be alone, and how his personality was "so quicksilvery that you knew you could tease him, but not too much."

And unlike Jerry Schillings in his recent book Me and a guy named Elvis, Fortas doesn't flinch when it comes to Elvis's drug use, describing how he popped megadoses of stay-awake and sleeping pills, and "could be extremely complex, especially when his chemistry was altered by drinking or drugs."

The book focuses mainly on the 60's and the Hollywood years, or the "orgy years," as Fortas calls them. Aside from some wild partying, Elvis and his Memphis Mafia spent a lot of time on movie sets during this period, and it's funny reading about Fortas desire to be an extra in the movies. In Girls! Girls! Girls! he got to play a deckhand and writes that the film "may have been one of the low points in Elvis's movie career, but it was the high point of mine."

I also have to mention a handwritten letter Alan Fortas received from Elvis while he was stationed in Germany. In it, Elvis writes about how he longs to be out of the service and can start singing and making movies again. Apparently Fortas needed Elvis Presley Enterprises "kind permission" to reproduce it, despite the fact that he owns it himself!

All in all, I found Elvis From Memphis to Hollywood an enjoyable read, although at times it felt like the really interesting passages had been supplemented with the usual stories about Elvis Presley, already told a hundred times. But I guess that’s Alanna Nash way of tying the story together.

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