Ali & Elvis, together again

Elvis : In the washroom with no towels.
Elvis : In the washroom with no towels.
Posted: March 20, 2011

When Muhammad Ali was training for a fight in Deer Lake, Pa., in the 1970s, the boxer was visited at his Schuylkill County compound by one of the few people in the world as famous as he.

"A few years ago, Elvis came to see me at my training camp, stayed two weeks," Ali told TV Guide in 1979. "I said, 'Elvis, do me a favor. I got a guitar.' "

The Greatest wanted The King to help him stir up a little trouble. He persuaded Presley to come with him to a bar in nearby Pottsville, "this little redneck place called Spoonies," where the duo sneaked in the back way. In Ali's telling, Presley went to the microphone with a towel on his head, then pulled it off, and sang, 'You ain't nothin' but a hound dog, cryin' all the time."

"Then we flew out the door again," Ali told writer Dick Russell. "Can you imagine bein' in a little one-horse town and Elvis Presley runs on stage? . . . Elvis said, 'Champ, I've never done that before in my life.' "

The story is retold in "Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon," the career-spanning photography show at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown that is running concurrently with Alfred Wertheimer's "Elvis at 21" in a dynamic "Ali and Elvis: American Icons" one-two punch until May 15.

It's an instructive tale not only because it demonstrates that the Michener - which is the only institution where the two traveling exhibitions have been paired - is not the first place in Pennsylvania where the two towering Southerners spent meaningful time together.

They really were friends, or at least simpatico acquaintances, with a mind-blowing degree of fame in common, along with similar underprivileged backgrounds, physical grace, limitless charisma, and a talent for becoming lightning rods for controversy.

Ali and Presley also shared a fondness for physical combat - though Elvis preferred the martial arts arena to the boxing ring, no doubt attracted by the long, flowing robes he wore while earning his black belt in karate. In 1973, before Ali fought Ken Norton - a fight in which Ali's jaw was broken - Elvis gave him a robe designed by his own personal jumpsuit maker, Gene Doucette. (It was supposed to read "The People's Champion," but a production error rendered it "The People's Choice." Ali wore it anyway.)

The Elvis and Ali in Schuylkill County story also seems in character because it depicts Ali as the mischievous puppet master, a sort of Col. Tom Parker with a sense of humor orchestrating a gag that the guileless King is happy to go along with.

That sense of Ali as the man in control, the entertainer who formulated his own image and pulled his own strings, is present throughout the multi-photographer "Making of an Icon."

It doesn't matter if it's Art Shay's picture of a brash, on-the-rise Cassius Clay in a locker room in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., in 1964 (with his mother, Odessa, close by) or John Rooney's shot of the fighter standing menacingly over a fallen Sonny Liston in their 1965 title rematch (his first after changing his name) or Annie Leibovitz's photo of the Parkinson's-stricken retired champion in repose, easing back on a red carpeted staircase. In each case, you get the sense that it's Ali who's the auteur, a photographer's dream subject who knows exactly what image he wants to convey.

While the Ali exhibition surveys its subject's career through the lenses of many photographers, "Elvis at 21" takes a black-and-white focus on one crucial moment by just one shooter. In 1956, Alfred Wertheimer was hired by RCA to make publicity photos of the label's newly signed star on his first trip to New York to perform on the Dorsey brothers' television show.

The young freelancer found his subject so enthralling and accessible that he stayed on. He followed Presley to a two-night stand at a Richmond, Va., club called the Mosque, where he caught the singer stealing a kiss with a fan in a stairwell. He chronicled the New York session where "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" were recorded, snapped Elvis at home in Memphis with mother Gladys and father Vernon, and captured the performance on The Steve Allen Show in which the smug host did his best to belittle the dangerous young rock-and-roll star by having him sing "Hound Dog" to a basset hound in a top hat.

It would be disingenuous to call the Presley photos entirely guileless: With his swept-back pompadour and EP initial ring, this was a 21-year-old with a carefully constructed look. But Wertheimer's photos - displayed in gorgeous, gleaming oversized prints at the Michener - portray an unguarded future King with a sweetness and innocence that would be hard to come by once unimaginable fame built a protective wall around him.

Besides being two of the most photographed people of their time - a time before we all carried cameras with us in our pockets, everywhere - Presley and Ali were both racially polarizing figures.

Presley was the electrifying performer who channeled his deep affection for African American blues and R&B into a sexually explosive powder keg that detonated a pop-culture explosion. He scared the daylights out of mainstream America then, and is now often and unjustly demonized as a mere cultural appropriator.

Ali was the incandescent, gregarious black athlete whose lack of fear about speaking his mind shocked white America when he joined the Nation of Islam and became an outspoken and early opponent of the Vietnam War. The transformations Ali went through - from irrepressibly charming young gladiator to Black Power icon to seasoned champion to wounded saint - renders "Making of an Icon" the more richly varied of these two excellent shows.

The final similarity that they convey is how each of the paired superstars was done in by his own greatness. In photos of the aging Ali, now 69 - the most effervescently engaging and lovably loquacious modern athlete - we see him portrayed with dignity but cruelly silenced by too much prolonged punishment in the ring.

Presley, who died at 42 in 1977, does not age before our eyes at the Michener. But the image of his bloated last years is there in our mind's eye, reminding us of the physical price he would pay for fully satisfying the ambitions so vividly expressed in Wertheimer's heartbreakingly beautiful photos.


Dan DeLuca at South by Southwest

Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca is attending the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas. See his dispatches, including photographs and videos, at his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/ blogs/inthemix.


Elvis and Ali in Photographs

"Ali and Elvis: American Icons" comprising two photography exhibitions: "Elvis at 21" and "Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon" through May 15 at James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission $12.50, seniors $11.50, college students with valid ID $9.50, ages 6-18 $6, children under 6 free. Information: 215-340-9800 or michenermuseum.org.

Illustrated lecture by guest curator Michael Ezra, author of Muhammad Ali:The Making of an Icon, 3 p.m. Sunday. $10 members, $20 nonmembers; includes museum admission.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at ddeluca@phillynews.com or 215-854-5628 Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix/

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