Speculation lays blame on Parker
Fresh from the smash success of the "Elvis 30 #1 Hits" collection, which has sold more than 8 million copies to date worldwide, fans are imagining a 68-year-old Elvis Presley. He would have turned that age on Wednesday.
The question still remains: How did another image of "the King" - the ballooning waistline, a prisoner to prescription drugs - hold residence alongside the young, sleek rebel who changed the face of music in the '50s? In 1977, he died at the age of 42 in his Memphis mansion. The death certificate said heart attack. The tedium of a crushing routine would be nearer the truth.
It all started in the early '70s, when Elvis had taken on the beast of Las Vegas.
"His manager, the late Col. Tom Parker, was very afraid of security measures. That's why he started Elvis' comeback in Vegas, as opposed to going on tour. He wanted a secure environment, where he could control things," RCA Records historian Ernst Jorgensen said recently.
Mostly, Presley stayed put in his penthouse kingdom. The result was a profound inner loneliness, and Vegas turned into a slippery slope. Despite declining health, he maintained a full schedule of live appearances. When he made his final, awful descent, he was a compromised performer.
"It's a damn shame," band member Glen D. Hardin told Mojo magazine. "Things might have turned out differently for him if he'd been able to tour the world. I think he would've put himself in tip-top shape, and really enjoyed it, just to be in a different place, and have some different food, and meet some different people.
"What's crazy is that all of us worked with other people, and we were traveling all over the world, and he didn't. He couldn't. That was all wrong."
In his brusque manner, the colonel vetoed the notion of touring internationally time and again, citing obstacles such as tax problems, security issues and production details. And Parker, nee Andreas Cornelis van Kujik, hid the fact that he was an undocumented alien.
"But I sincerely doubt that America would have made any problem for its most famous artist's manager so he couldn't get back into the country. He'd been there since 1929. I don't think they would suddenly throw him out," Jorgensen said.
At the time, the colonel tried to do what he knew how to do. He had absolutely no experience in what it would require to take an entourage like Elvis' around the world. That would have been one stumbling block.
Traveling and crossing borders in the early '70s, when most musicians had some supply of something that they shouldn't have, may have also scared the colonel.
"And it could have been Elvis himself. There's a tendency to blame everything that was wrong with his career on the colonel, and everything that was great on Elvis," Jorgensen said. "That's a little too comfortable. I believe that if Elvis had really wanted it, it would have happened. He didn't want it enough to overrule the colonel and say, 'Well, this is what I need to do.' It wasn't that he couldn't stand up to the colonel. There were other instances where he definitely did so.
"We can't ask the colonel. And if we could have, he wouldn't have answered, anyway. Historians like to have that single simple explanation that cuts through everything, but I don't think it's here - it's a number of elements put together. Had Elvis lived for another 20 years, he probably would have toured abroad."
What else might Elvis be doing if he were alive today? He considered his singing career primarily as a means to an end. His real ambition was to be a movie star.
"Hopefully, he'd have been doing some incredible acting roles, which he had been pushing for," said "Diamond Joe" Esposito, one of Elvis' close confidants who spent 2002 plugging his "Elvis: His Best Friend Remembers" VHS and DVD.
"He really wanted to be a serious actor. His creative disappointment led to his unhappiness."
Because of studio pressures and Parker's greedy shortsightedness, Elvis made 33 mostly forgettable movies that left him largely thwarted in what he had hoped would be an important motion-picture career.
He recorded his fair share of lazy, thoughtless songs for them. Forty years ago this month, at a session in Hollywood, he cut not only "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car" but also "You Can't Say No in Acapulco."
So it is easy to overlook just how many great songs were originally written for Elvis' movies, from early classics like "Jailhouse Rock," "Teddy Bear," "Love Me Tender" and "Can't Help Falling in Love" through such later gems as "Viva Las Vegas" and "Wooden Heart."
Check out "Can't Help Falling in Love," a collection of Hollywood hits, one of four single-CDs to be reissued on Tuesday that chronicle key areas of Presley's career. The other genre-based titles are "Heart and Soul" (love songs), "Elvis 56" (seminal early tracks) and "Great Country Songs."