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Channeling Elvis: How Television Saved the King of Rock ‘n Roll, by Allen J. Wiener

Earlier this year, author Allen J. Wiener asked me to read his manuscript on Elvis Presley’s television career, and to provide a cover blurb if I liked the book.  I am neither an authority on Elvis nor on television history, but I said, “sure.” I was not only a fan of Elvis’s music, but, as a college disc jockey during the 60s and 70s, I played his music, even when his better songs of the period (e.g., the Jerry Reed penned songs U.S. Male and Guitar Man, 1967-68) missed the Top 40 and were considered particularly unfashionable in psychedelic San Francisco.

I found Wiener’s book to be a very remarkable study. The blurb I submitted ran 340 words long because I could not stop gushing. Of course only a relatively few words made it to the cover blurb.  I let Allen Wiener edit me down last spring, but, now that the book (Channeling Elvis, Create Space, 2014, $17.95) is available on Amazon, I thought I’d share with you my reaction to the book.  For Elvis fans and students of television and this vibrant musical period, Channeling Elvis is a must.

Here’s the review:

Elvis Presley’s rollercoaster life and career have been presented in countless books, but Channeling Elvis is the first to exclusively focus on his television performances. Allen J. Wiener (The Beatles: Ultimate Performing Guide; Crockett in Congress: The Rise and Fall of the Poor Man’s Friend), an author who knows his way around icons, ably makes the case that TV transformed the greatest recording artist of the early rock ‘n’roll era into a unique cultural phenomenon. He argues equally effectively that it was Elvis who made rock’n’roll a programming force to be reckoned with by the television industry, against that medium’s masters’ most fervent wishes. Wiener walks the reader through the difficult negotiations that preceded virtually every one of the King’s televised appearances—from the Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan shows, to the 1968 Elvis comeback special, the groundbreaking Aloha From Hawaii satellite program, and the revealing Elvis in Concert documentary broadcast after the singer’s early death—and explains how some of TV’s best producers effectively captured and broadcast into America’s living rooms the charismatic and unpredictable “King.”

Even though Presley too often allowed others to control or shape his destiny, the Elvises that emerge in Wiener’s account always command the spotlight. From the young, explosive force of nature, whose utter decency disarmed some (not all) of his fiercest critics, to the fully engaged and energized comeback artist whose televised brilliance made his rockabilly glory unexpectedly relevant in the psychedelic era, and on to the prematurely aging, drug-and-booze-addled performer of the late 70s, no longer caring to create, content to be a demigod among his adoring fans, Elvis was, from first to last, “must-see TV.” Wiener mines the usual published sources, but the gold is found in his revealing interviews with those who worked on camera and behind the scenes with Presley to create his various TV appearances.