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Long Live the King

06/20/2018

By Dean Lunt

"Long Live the King" first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Summer 2018.


When my daughters Emily and Eliza were young and we were driving along the highway, I would randomly yell out during a quiet moment: “Who is the King?”
They always snapped back, “Elvis!”
“King of what?”
“King of rock ’n’ roll!”
My girls were learning the musical landscape at an age when they were still confined to car seats. It was not by accident. I only hoped they would remember.
Elvis Presley was a childhood music idol by the time I was old enough and dexterous enough to snap plastic centers into 45 rpm records to play them on my parents’ record player—which doubled as a large piece of wooden furniture. In essence, Elvis was a founding father of a childhood during which I absorbed musical influences I don’t even remember hearing. For a stretch of time I was so addicted to music that I rarely went anywhere without radio in hand—a passion seemingly inherited by both girls who are rarely without playlists queued up on their iPhones. And Eliza’s first move upon driving a new car is always to sync her music.
Elvis not only stood at the center of my preteen musical education, but in the summer of 1977, when I was 11, he proved the source of my greatest musical disappointment. That August, my Aunt Mabel and my cousin Patty came to the annual Frenchboro Lobster Festival (Mabel, my grandfather’s sister, was raised on the island). Patty surprised me with tickets for the August 17 Elvis concert—the first stop of a new tour—at the new Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. I drove home with them to Westbrook to await the grand event.
It never came.
Just hours before his flight to Maine, Elvis died at Graceland. The next day, the headlines screamed news of the shocking death, while many radio stations switched to nonstop Elvis music. I remember watching grief-stricken fans sobbing on television. I collected the newspapers of the day (we didn’t keep the actual tickets, but I did save photocopies). It was a gut punch, no question, although I wonder if perhaps it was best I did not actually see him in those final Vegas-inspired sequin-and-white jumpsuit days—in my youthful mind I’m sure I still saw him as the hip-shaking rebel from Tupelo.
Still, as they say, rock ’n’ roll never dies.
Because I was eight miles to sea living in a tiny island village, my influences were largely my parents’ records and whatever older relatives like my Uncle John were playing. It was mostly country. The media options were limited—three television stations, maybe, and a few country radio stations. I can still recite the weekly set pieces from Hee Haw—“Gloom, despair, and agony on me”—which everyone watched, while Bob Kingsley’s American Country Countdown was a weekend staple.
But I was ever curious and, two decades after rock ’n’ roll exploded, I explored its roots on my own timeline. I played my dad’s 45s, I played his albums. I found his old reel-to-reel machine in the attic and listened to recordings of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. Saturday nights, on my small transistor radio, I listened to the static-filled sounds of Jim Sands’ Saturday Night Oldies Show on Boston’s WHDH. In the 1970s, our summer gang played the American Graffiti soundtrack so much we wore it out. This was, after all, the Happy Days era.
While working or playing in the yard, I blared music (when the Red Sox broadcast was not on) from the radio or cassette player. While hauling lobster traps in my small skiff and outboard, I perched a radio in the bow.
I remember listening to legends like Cash and Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard and being exposed to the modern country of the time. What fascinates me is not what I remember, but what I absorbed without knowing. Why could I, decades later, recite Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” recognize the groundbreaking chords of Mother Maybelle Carter on “Wildwood Flower,” and sing along with Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins? To my knowledge, I never played a Hank Snow record—ever—but years later when I heard “Ninety Miles an Hour,” I knew nearly every line. It was all the soundtrack of my youth—whether I knew it or not.
It set the stage for a lifetime of music. I’ve been lucky enough to watch performers ranging from Willie Nelson to Bruce Springsteen to Guns & Roses, and from U2 to Elton John to Tanya Tucker to Blake Shelton. You can even throw in Meat Loaf and The Monkees.
But not Elvis.
After reaching middle age, I grew ever more interested in the roots and cultural importance of American music such as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams and the significance of such things as the Bristol Sessions and Sun Records. I explored the influences of gospel, hillbilly, and blues as they converged and exploded as rock ’n’ roll in the American South. And I’ve been known to edit this magazine while listening to great country storytellers like Merle Haggard and Don Williams. I no doubt owe that to Elvis and my parents. For some reason, I always think of my grandmother when I hear Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and my dad when Ernest Tubb is “Walkin’ the Floor Over You.”
When Emily graduated from college in Missouri last May, I took advantage of our drive home to visit Memphis and finally pay my respects to both Elvis (Graceland!) and Sam Phillips’ Sun Records (706 Union Avenue!) and spend a couple of days in glorious Nashville.
It was a wonderful side trip and somewhere east of Nashville as we were starting to swing north before reaching the Great Smoky Mountains, the rain pouring down along a stretch of Interstate 40, I looked over and watched Emily singing along with a Johnny Cash song on the radio. Influences, indeed. Long live the King!

Dean Lunt is the editor-in-chief of Islandport Magazine and the founder of Islandport Press. He is a graduate of Syracuse University, a former newspaper reporter, and has written two books, Hauling by Hand and Here for Generations.