There are many books on Elvis, from treatises on his sociopolitical influence to muckraking autobiographies by those on his payroll, but it’s rare to find one that understands his impact, yet takes the time to delve into the human being behind it. Gillian Gaar’s Return of the King does just that, using as her sources mainly interviews with musicians and others who worked with Elvis from just prior to his 1968 comeback TV show through his death in 1977. This is not a book that tells how a simple boy from Tupelo turned into a sex symbol and superstar; instead, this explains how the acknowledged King of Rock and Roll briefly took back his career and showed a jaded Sixties audience just why he was the King.
The arc of Elvis’ career is well known: hillbilly cat, Army service, movie star, Vegas act, bloated corpse on the bathroom floor. It’s in that gap between “movie star” and “Vegas Act” that Gaar begins, detailing Elvis’ dissatisfaction with his career and the music he was forced to record. Elvis was the very embodiment of the saying, “Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am,” combining unsettling sexuality with Southern politeness, and it was the latter quality that kept him from breaking free of people like Colonel Tom Parker, the manager who had guided his rise but had no interest in insuring his continued growth as a performer and artist. But eventually even Elvis had enough, and he supported TV auteur Steve Binder in the creation of a TV show that was much more than the Colonel’s intended simple “Christmas special.”
Gaar devotes her pages exclusively to what other biographers deal with only in passing: the creation of the music. There are riveting accounts of recording sessions from the musicians who played them, revealing the disheartening reality of Elvis’ career. This makes his moments of triumph all the more powerful, because he had to overcome the very machinery that supposedly created him in the first place. What comes through is both Elvis’ humanity, his kindness and decency to the players he worked with, and the loneliness that a man surrounded only by payroll sycophants can truly feel.
(One non-musical highlight is the account of Elvis’ meeting with then-president Richard Nixon, as related by members of Nixon’s staff and Elvis’ inner circle. What is often depicted as a possibly drug-addled adventure becomes clearly a moment of utter showing-off by the King, for a surprising reason.)
I’ve read a lot of books about Elvis, and this is one of the few that makes no apologies for either his accomplishments or his failures. Gaar does not pass judgment, and although she does imbue her tale with authorial sympathy, she doesn’t gloss over failures both musical and personal. If you’ve ever wondered why Elvis mattered, you’ll understand after reading Gaar’s book.