What is it about Elvis Presley?

by Joy Fox - Posted January 9, 2003
           In an effort to answer that question the Herald turned to Big John Bina, on air radio personality for B101-RI's oldies station. Over the last year, Bina, who is also a Cranston resident, has grown particularly fond of the king of rock 'n' roll. He has worked on three Elvis projects since last May.
           On Wednesday "The King" would have celebrated his 67th birthday. In August Elvis's hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, hosted a 25th commemorative anniversary. He passed away Aug. 16, 1 977. People traveled in droves to Graceland then, and undoubtedly some die-hard fans will visit Memphis this week, too.
           But why?
           According to Bina, quite simply because Elvis's footprints are just about everywhere in the music world. Admittedly, he says he was never a huge fan of Elvis.
           "He was a little before my time. I was more the Beatles." Bina will turn 50 on Jan. 28.
           That said, the Elvis "life force" captured him last May. It started with a phone call from a friend. The message was that an Elvis movie/documentary was in production at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. The production was entitled Sighting in Graceland. The producer, Ron Dillard, who also acted in the film, recorded footage at Elvis's grave in Memphis. This footage would become the film's central feature.
           "There is a vision of Elvis's face on the grave," said Bina, while being interviewed in the B101 studios overlooking Route 95 in Providence.
           Realizing how ridiculous the claim sounded, Bina shrugged his shoulders in disbelief and said, "I know, I know, but all I can say is that it was there."
           Apparitions aside, Bina spent two days working on the film. He played himself, a disc jockey. In the film the main character, Dillard, has a dream that tells him to go to Graceland. The film mixes Elvis fact and fiction.
           "I was only involved in two days, but somehow I was hooked," said Bina. "There is so much to learn [about Elvis]."
           The proverbial snowball had started to roll. One night soon after the film experience, Bina says he awoke with a "really intense" feeling to write a song about Elvis. He claims to have heard The King's voice, and so began his second Elvis project. He had never written a song in his life.
           He got out of bed and started to compose the song. Not wanting to wake anyone in the house he called his office voicemail and hummed the melody so he could remember it the next day. The song was entitled, "Come on Home Elvis."
           "I just feel the guy was really lonely," said Bina, "and the gist of the song is come on home we love ya.'" Think about it, he says, the Beatles were four guys. He was only one. The song was eventually recorded and became part of the film.
           By this point Bina was immersed in an Elvis crash course. He decided to take his radio show on the road south to Memphis. This was his third and final project. "It was my first time to Memphis ­ a first time for everything [Elvis]," he said.
           He moved around the show five times over five days, hitting various points of Elvis interest. First, it was to meet with Bernard Lansky, Elvis's clothing designer, then to the Hollywood Casino in nearby Mississippi to talk with Ed Bonja, The King's official photographer. By Tuesday the show was at Elvis's first home at 1034 Audubon Drive.
           "It is just a normal house [not like Graceland]," he said. "Graceland was not a normal existence." Elvis moved to Audubon Drive after his hit "Heartbreak Hotel." The home is still a working home and its owners, Cindy Hazen and Mike Freeman, give the occasional tour.
           On Thursday and Friday (Aug. 15 and 16) the show was on Beale Street and in front of Graceland. Bina said he found the fans in Memphis to be polite and easy to talk to. "Not to be corny, but they fit Elvis's personality," he said.
           The trip was also interesting because Bina would run into people who actually knew Elvis.
           "There was none of the strange stuff you hear around the rest of the world [regarding Elvis]," he said. Bina says Elvis was genuinely liked and loved in Memphis. "He was the hometown boy."
           Did he find it all odd ­ the movie, the song, the Memphis pilgrimage with the radio show? Of course, last year at this time he wasn't a huge fan and now, in a way, he is. What seems to captivate Bina isn't the mythical rock 'n' roll figure of Elvis, but rather the historical musical mark he made.
           "He was the first in so many ways," said Bina. "John Lennon once said, 'Before Elvis there was nothing.'" According to Elvis.com, the official website of the Elvis name, it is estimated The King sold over one billion record units worldwide. He had 149 songs appear on Billboard's Hot 100 Pop Chart. He starred in 31 films. He consistently broke concert attendance records. He continues to receive awards posthumously, including the 2001 induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
           "Currently, there are over 625 active Elvis fan clubs worldwide," stated the site. "Elvis's popularity is at an all time highŠhalf of Graceland's attendance is under 35."
           "He is an extremely interesting subject," said Bina. He knew bits about him and liked some of his songs, but Bina never understood the depth of how he changed music, his contributions.
           While at Graceland, he visited Elvis's racquetball court, which is now a shrine to gold, platinum and silver records.
           "For me as a music professional, it took my breath away to see. A lot of musicians would just want one gold record, and he has thousands."
           Bina also said that once caught up in the Elvis momentum, creativity was stimulated.
           "You would put your hand for one thing and pull out five or six ideas," he said. Working on the projects was an intense, creative time, he says.
           Again he reiterated Elvis's "life force" quality. "One guy paved the way," he said..."

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