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598-page encyclopedia covers a whole lot of Elvis

by BY ROBERT K. ELDER MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS | January 22, 2009 at 3:59 a.m.

— Elvis Presley lives on not only in music, but on paper.

The latest book, Adam Victor's 598-page The Elvis Encyclopedia ($65, Overlook Press), isn't as thick as DK Publishing's 608-page photo book Elvis: A Celebration (2002). And it isn't as chronologically obsessive as Elvis: Day by Day (1999). But it is an engaging, often insightful and frequently maddening work.

First, the maddening: The Elvis Encyclopedia offers no index. Even regular encyclopedias have indexes so, say, you could look up every time "Chicago" or even "Mitt Romney" shows up in the volume. (Romney is mentioned at least once: The politician used Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" during his 2008 presidential bid.)

The omission of an index will be frustrating for those wishing to cross-reference and find names in multiple entries. For example, the entry for "girlfriends" forcesthe reader to scan through three pages of small type before finding the paramour of interest.

Now, the engaging. After many entries, quotations from Presley's associates and fans are printed. For example, after Sun Records' founder Sam Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA, he thought his former star's first single with the label, "Heartbreak Hotel," was a "morbid mess."

That bit is included in the body text, but directly after the entry, Victor includes a quotation from famed British radio disc jockey John Peel about the song: "It might sound pretty safe now, but in the context of what was happening in the 1950s, hearing 'Heartbreak Hotel' was as shocking as if someone was dancing naked in your living room."

Unfortunately, Victor does not tell his readers who Peel was and doesn't include an entry for him and many of the speakers, so context is lost.

Though this isn't a photo book, Victor includes 420 images. They include most of Presley's iconic photographs, including his famous portrait with President Richard Nixon in 1970 and various publicity shots. Slightly out-of-focus shots of Presley with family and friends create a blurred sense of intimacy.

Also, check out his photo ID from when he drove a truck for an electrical contractor (Page 100).

Because this isn't a narrative account of Presley's life, it's difficult to get a cohesive sense of his career, talents and magnetism. It's not designed to do that. Butthe individual entries are captivating, colorful and gleefully geeky.

Victor, whose previous work includes The Marilyn Encyclopedia, notes in his Elvis volume under the Marilyn Monroe entry that although the two sex symbols never met, Monroe sings "Specialization" in the movie Let's Make Love, with lyrics about Presley. (Victor's book does not, however, point out that the Presley lyrics are sung by her co-star Frankie Vaughan in the duet.)

Even without an index, The Elvis Encyclopedia is a jewel in the king's crown for aficionados,academics and casual fans.

DID YOU KNOW?

Elvis Presley was a rabid Monty Python fan, often reciting the troupe's comedy routines from memory. His favorite sketch: "Nudge nudge."

When Presley bought Graceland, it was already named Graceland - for Grace Toof, the daughter of a previous owner.

Actor Kurt Russell has had a long association with Presley in movies: At age 11, he appeared with Presley in 1963's It Happened at the World's Fair, played Presley in the TV bio-pic Elvis: The Movie (1979), provided thevoice of Presley in Forrest Gump (1994) and portrayed a Presley impersonator in 3,000 Miles to Graceland (2001).

He dyed his hair. Elvis was a natural dirty blond but dyed his locks jet-black because he thought it would look better in movies.

Presley met Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife, when she was 14 and he was 24.

In the midst of a "spiritual quest," Elvis took LSD with Priscilla and friends in 1965.

Barbra Streisand lobbied fruitlessly for Elvis to play the male lead in her remake of A Star Is Born (1976).

Style, Pages 32 on 01/22/2009

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