Long Live the King's Brother
That's All Right, Mama: The Unauthorized Life of Elvis' Twin
by Gerald Duff
Baskerville, $21 hard
There has been a legend told, over and over. A story of twins, one good and one bad, separated at birth. The good twin is left to live a life of obscurity, while the bad twin, the one of weaker character, achieves the successes and fame which, looking back, he or she didn't quite deserve. The legend of The Man in the Iron Mask was one of the first (and best) to convey this tale of siblings. Gerald Duff's That's All Right, Mama: The Unauthorized Life of Elvis' Twin continues that tradition. That's All Right, Mama is the story of Elvis Aron Presley and his twin, Jesse Garon Presley. The latter, history has it, was the victim of childbirth complications, and died soon after entering the world. Elvis, consciously or subconsciously, felt the loss and so, says the myth, all dependence on others, on junk food, and on drugs can be read as a playing out of that loss.
But as the book begins, Professor Duff is in a bar, The Green Parrot, researching and watching a parade of Elvis impersonators go by, one by one, on stage. He is approached by a man, wearing large glasses and a white suit, who introduces himself as Lance Lee. From first meeting, Lee looks like just another Elvis impersonator waiting his turn. But Lance Lee's story is different, and he wants to tell it to Gerald Duff, Ph.D., professor and Elvis Scholar. The year is 1986 and the man who introduces himself as Lance Lee is really the brother that Elvis could never forget -- Jesse Garon Presley, alive and performing.
Jesse was the first of the twins to be born. He was healthier and stronger, and, if one had a crystal ball, one might have picked Jesse to be the future king of rock & roll. But Gladys, their mother, had thoughts of her own, thoughts that most likely she did not fully understand. The better twin, Jesse, is sent to the next town to live with relatives and is raised as a cousin of Elvis'. The secret is never kept from Elvis or Jesse. Elvis, fittingly, is treated like a prince preparing to take over the throne, and Jesse is left to his own resources and becomes the stronger of the two.
It is not long before Gladys begins to see a need for Jesse. Elvis, as a young school boy, starts dreading his days. Bullies in his class have gotten the best of him. It is Jesse, playing the role of his twin Elvis for the first of many times to come, who saves the day, giving Elvis his own tough reputation. And, later, when Elvis wants to go down to Beale Street to "listen to some music and eat some ribs," it is Jesse who steps in as a tour guide. But even as Jesse does more for Elvis, the family's alienation stays the same.
The impersonations continue as Lance Lee tells the classic story of Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the first recordings of Elvis. But as Lance tells the story, it is himself, Jesse Garon Presley, who had made the famous recording -- the recording that was to be the start of a great career. Sam Phillips had called the Presleys, but Gladys had handed the phone to the wrong Presley boy. Elvis begins a life of recording and fame, and Jesse Garon settles into a job as mechanic. Over the years, Elvis again turns to Jesse to act as his stand-in. First, during the infamous, above-the-waist appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, then the dance sequence in the best movie Elvis ever made, Jailhouse Rock, and finally the comeback special in 1968. Some of the greatest Presley moments, including the rekindling of romance with Priscilla, were really compliments of the forgotten brother -- Jesse Garon Presley.
Gerald Duff, who was raised on the Texas Gulf Coast, has rewritten history, providing a story that is both insightful and full of humor. For example, when Elvis invites his friends from Humes High School to join him in a place that he is renting in L.A., Lance describes seeing Elvis --"...Like always, there were more overweight and under-brained people around the place than ticks on a hound pup in Arkansas." Throughout the rest of the story, Lee refers to Elvis' classmates only by the titles given to them during their time in school: The Most Likely Boy, Mr. Senior Class President, and so on. Duff, with his novel That's All Right, Mama, has created a character, Lance Lee aka Jesse Garon Presley, who is interesting, and worth listening to, and, in many ways, more appealing than his real-life twin.