The Elvis Phenomenon

The Elvis Phenomenon

Lee Smith
The New York Times Magazine
December 5, 1999

The Time Capsule
At the end of the 20th century, the magazine created a time capsule filled with artifacts to give people living in the year 3000 some idea of who we were and how we lived.

Come with me to Hog Day in Hillsborough, N.C. It’s June 19, 1999, and hot! But that doesn’t stop anybody from coming. Old and young, black, white and Hispanic, people throng the homemade fairway carrying babies, eating curly fries and “bloomin’ onions” and settling on folding chairs to see the Spam-carving and tobacco-spitting contests.

Despite a 2 p.m., 95 degree heat, the sunny hillside behind us is filling up fast. Sweating bodies have soon covered every foot of grass.

A sudden ripple runs through the crowd. People hoist kids up on their shoulders so they can see. The band breaks into the majestic them from “2001,” the crowd parts like the Read Sea and here comes Elvis down the hill, bodyguards on each side. He’s turning, waving, grinning, all those sequins on his starry blue satin bell-bottom suit flashing in the sun. His necklaces gleam; his black hair glistens. He bounds up on the stage to thunderous applause, adopts a wide-legged, thrusting stance and launches into “That’s All Right,” singing straight down into the microphone. Everybody goes crazy. He’s so good.

He sounds just like Elvis, the way his voice goes way down on “Please release me, let me go”; he looks just like Elvis, the way he lunges forward on “Caught in a trap,” the way he moves to “Hunka hunka burning love.” … Oh, Lord! The way he moves.

“No folks, I’m not Elvis, I’m Keith Henderson, from right down the road here – hey, darling’! No one can replace Elvis – I’m here to keep him alive. I call my show ‘Illusions of the King,’ and I’ve been doing it for 21 years. Now you’ve gotta stand right for this one –” Henderson takes a clenched-fist, profile lunge into his signature song, “Hurt,” his mama’s favorite. When she stands up in the audience – her name is Mary Edna – he moves to kiss her. The crowd goes crazy. His 90-year-old grandmother, Geneva, still makes all his outfits, and his mother does all the stud work. His wife, Sarah, works the sound; his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, sings; and his son, Chad, 15, is a roadie. Keith’s “scarf man” today is his daddy, Shelton Henderson, who stands behind him in a tunic-style baby blue satin shirt, draping an endless series of scarves around his son’s neck as they are needed, one by one.

He leans down to drape a red scarf around a white-haired woman’s skinny neck; he kisses a teenage girl, who bursts into tears. He sings “Polk Salad Annie,” cranking it up; his father anoints his with another scarf.

All over the hill now, women and girls and kids and a few guys are getting up to go forward, picking their way through the people, pushing closer and closer until the crowd around the stage is four or five deep.

“Now, folks, I’m not Elvis. I’m Keith, just Keith, from right down the road here,” Henderson says over and over as he kneels to give out the scarves, the kisses, to touch the upraised hands. “I’m just Keith.”

Yet he is more than Keith, clearly, in this ritual that was enacted at county fairs, class reunions, company picnics and community celebrations of every kind, all over America, here at the end of the 20th century. Everybody alive on Aug. 16, 1977, can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news Elvis had died. I was standing in line at a convenience store on Pawleys Island, S.C.; the newspaper headline was three inches high. The man in front of me stumbled outside to collapse in the sand. “This is the end of my youth,” he said.

What did Elvis represent to him, to so many of us? Personal freedom, I think, at a time (the 1950’s) when that was hard to come by – and yes, the possibility of a transformation. For his was a transforming gift: he made people feel good. He made them happy, just as Keith Henderson is making us happy here at Hog Day.