Aug. 9-29, 2002
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American icon still shakes up students of music and culture

Stephan Prock

Photo by Rebecca Arrington
“Elvis Presley is a lens through which we can look at large musical and cultural forces,” says music professor and composer Stephan Prock, who teaches a course on the late, great entertainer, dead 25 years come Aug. 16.

By Lee Graves

Twenty-five years after his death, Elvis Presley still projects a riveting presence on the stage of American culture. Whether in tabloid headlines, sequined impersonators or recycled hits, the King commands attention.

“In an image-laden culture, he’s the quintessential American image,” says Stephan Prock, a lecturer and composer at U.Va.

Prock teaches a course on the King called “All Shook Up: Elvis in American Culture.” It examines the life, times, music and legacy of Presley and how they provide insights into the national character.

The 25th anniversary of Presley’s death on Aug. 16 gives Prock’s course special meaning and appeal this year. “I have a lot of kids signed up, the most ever for a summer course.”

The drawing power of Presley also is being felt on the music charts this summer. According to Billboard magazine, “A Little Less Conversation,” a refurbished Elvis song, became the No. 1 single in the United States on its sales charts in early July. The same tune had been No. 1 in England for weeks.

Prock suspects some students enrolled in his course thinking it would be no more demanding than a pop quiz. But “All Shook Up” takes an in-depth look at the conflicts that existed in the 1950s and how Presley embodied and exposed them. The country was yearning for a sense of stability in the wake of World War II, but the racial and sexual tensions that simmered in society bubbled to the surface in Presley’s performances and recordings.

“He is a lens through which we can look at large musical and cultural forces,” Prock said.

Musically, Presley merged black and white influences by blending gospel and blues with the country sounds of the Carter family and others. The success of his early songs, beginning with his 1954 cover version of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama,” challenged the racial divide by bringing black music to white kids.

“When white parents found their kids ‘acting’ black, it was very disturbing,” Prock said. “Presley was proving that what were perceived to be rigid racial boundaries were societal constructs.”

Those tensions flared in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, just as Presley’s hip-gyrating sexuality challenged the mores of the ’50s and presaged the free love to follow.

Prock sees Presley as the embodiment of many contradictions – white and black, wild child and mama’s boy, poor rural Southerner and Hollywood multimillionaire.
“That’s part of the appeal of Elvis. So much of what Elvis is, is so malleable. Elvis can mean so many different things to people,” Prock said. “No matter what you think about Elvis, everyone has an opinion.”

In addition to broad issues, Prock’s course looks at detailed moments in the Presley saga. Such as the 30-plus takes required to record “Hound Dog” (Presley, a perfectionist, kept pushing when others wanted to stop at No. 26). Such as Sam Phillips, the genius of Sun Studio, picking up on some noodling Presley did in the studio to hear the hook for a song.

And then there are the movies. Prock is including “Jailhouse Rock” and “Viva Las Vegas” from among Presley’s 33 movies to study in this summer’s session.

Prock divides the course into “three periods with a coda” – the ’50s, the ’60s up to Presley’s historic comeback performance in 1968, the years leading to his death in 1977, then the aftermath and his importance as an iconic figure of culture.

Prock started the course five years ago as an outgrowth of his own fascination with Presley. Born in Cleveland, Prock grew up in Mobile, Ala., listening to the radio, singing in Baptist churches and absorbing some of the same roots that influenced Presley.

For Prock, however, those led to a more classical path. In addition to lecturing in U.Va.’s music department, he directs the University’s New Music Ensemble and composes soundtracks and classical scores.

While he treats the subject of Presley seriously, Prock keeps the classes lively with his animated lectures. That, too, has a tie to the King.

“There’s a side of Elvis that’s not so serious, an element of crazy fun. And that’s a part of the American character as well.”


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