01/07/2015 01:55 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

The Elvis of Our Dreams

Fotos International via Getty Images

It's a funny thing how fame works sometimes. You'd think the best way for a pop artist to promote his or her music would be to do so in person. But it can happen sometimes that the best thing -- from a strictly business point of view -- is for the artist to be gone. This is precisely what has happened in the posthumous careers of Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. The images of both were in decline in their later years, yet after each died he became bigger in death than he had been in life -- or at least less complicated. In the case of Elvis, his last couple of years were plagued by a weight problem; this image of the no-longer-young singer became so much a part of his image in the mid-70s that there were cartoons in the newspapers portraying him splitting the pants of his famous jumpsuits during performances. In some quarters, he had become a laughing stock. After his death, however, the Elvis Presley marketing machine lost no time in ratcheting up: gone were the recent images of a paunchy middle-aged Elvis, replaced by the younger, sexy and slim Elvis of the '50s, '60s, and early '70s. It is this "ideal Elvis" that fans love and venerate. And it's an image that would likely have considerably less force if Elvis were still alive. As brutal as it sounds, it's probably true that in some cases the best thing a star can do to a sustain a career is to get out of his or her own way. The Elvis who fans love now -- the Elvis of our dreams -- is somehow better than the real thing. I'm sure Bono would have something to say about this.

Part of Elvis's enduring appeal, however, is certainly due to his wonderful performances. And it was with those performances, along with a series of classic recordings, that Elvis Presley played a pivotal role in the early rise of rock and roll. Listen to almost any of his records from the 1950s and you can hear a singer with a masterful command of a wide palette of vocal sounds and gestures. Elvis knew how to shape a compelling performance, and he chose songs on the basis of which best fit his voice and approach. Though some may imagine that Elvis was a naïve pawn of his manager Tom Parker, this was not true as far as the music was concerned. Elvis retained control over everything he recorded; if he didn't approve it, that recording could not be released. He fought RCA over the release of "Heartbreak Hotel," which the label thought had no commercial appeal as a single; Elvis knew better. Elvis's live performances may have seemed effortless and natural, but the singer had very precise ideas about how he wanted his music to sound. He shaped his music in the recording studio as carefully and precisely as any creative artist would, then he made it look easy onstage.

The Elvis films of the late '50s and early '60s are not typically considered the singer's best moments. Elvis felt trapped in roles he thought were poorly written and shallow, and which did not give him a chance to act at the artistic level he believed he was capable of achieving. But for his many fans, those often limiting roles were nevertheless a chance to enjoy the charismatic singer, who always got the girl and sang a few songs in the process. When Elvis completed his film contract, he was eager to get back to being the kind of dynamic and dangerous figure he has been at the start of his career. With his Comeback Special television show of 1968, Elvis revitalized his career with a set of fiery and passionate performances broadcast on network television in December. Clad in a black leather outfit and looking fit and tan, Elvis demonstrated that the power of his earlier music had been no accident. At about the same time as the Beatles released The White Album and the Rolling Stones brought out Beggars Banquet, their hero Elvis was back and in fine form. What can a poor boy do indeed.

Elvis began his run of shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969, and many consider this era of shows to be "classic Elvis." The army of Elvis impersonators that has emerged since the mid 70s has most often chosen this version of Presley's career as their model, complete with the white jumpsuit with sequined images and cape, dramatic song arrangements, and karate moves. It's worth noting that capturing the essence of the earlier Elvis is considerably more challenging, and far fewer tribute performers attempt to imitate that. For many fans, however, the Vegas Elvis also marks the beginning of the decline, as what was once rebellious and edgy starts to become a bit more show biz and perhaps even corny. The January 1973 broadcast of Aloha from Hawaii provides a representative concert by the late Elvis before his health began to fail. Love it or hate it, there is no denying that this late-career image is just as iconic as the earlier ones -- another face of the Elvis of our dreams.

The last years of Elvis's life were clearly troubled, and this really began to show towards the very end. But in spite of personal and health problems, Elvis continued to perform, as if those moments onstage washed away everything else and gave him respite from his daily life. It is sometimes the case that a performer is only ever truly himself while onstage in front of an audience, and only ever relaxed when performing. Maybe this is how it was for Elvis, especially in the final couple of years. When news of the singer's death came in August of 1977, the entire world seemed to stop and mourn. It was clear to many of us who experienced those days that, no matter what you thought of Elvis and his music, a performer of historical significance had left the building. And then, almost immediately and as described above, the image of Elvis we now know was created. Even today, Elvis the icon is everywhere, hip swiveling or leather clad or tossing out scarves -- bigger in death, it sometimes seems, that he was in life. He was, however, very, very big in life. So as we mark the singer's 80th birthday, let's remember not only the Elvis of our dreams, but also the Elvis of history, whose recordings and performances changed popular music forever.