Alternative tales of super stardom: a look at biographies that give a different slant on fame
From horses to hairdressing, two books on Elvis Presley and The Beatles take a look at a fluffier side of stardom
Whenit comes to documenting the life of Elvis Presley, no aspect is too niche. We’ve had 1992’s Are You Hungry Tonight?: Elvis’s Favourite Recipes, 1987’s Elvis After Life: Unusual Psychic Experiences Surrounding the Death of a Superstar, and even 1993’s The Elvis Sightings, a book whose basic premise was that Presley was alive and well some 16 years after his death from a heart attack in 1977.
Timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Elvis’s passing, Kimberly Gatto and Victoria Racimo’s All The King’s Horses: The Equestrian Life Of Elvis Presley (Regnery History) also ventures where other biographers fear to tread. Or should that be trot?
Well researched and featuring some fabulous shots of Presley looking suitably regal atop Rising Sun, the handsome Palomino he taught to drink Pepsi from a can, it’s a one-stop shop for all your Elvis and horse-related needs.
As Gatto and Racimo tell us repeatedly in slightly different ways, riding was a safety-valve activity for Presley; an escape from the pressures and sometime disappointments of his unprecedented fame.
The many horses he owned and rode – first in the grounds of his Graceland mansion, and later at his Circle G Ranch in Horn Lake, Mississippi – were clearly hugely important to him. “It’s surprising how much you can look forward to [in] the morning when there’s a horse waiting on you”, runs one Elvis quote here.
Having started riding in 1955, when he and his then-girlfriend June Juanico were on vacation in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, Presley later took on various film roles which required him to saddle-up.
He was thus able to develop his horsemanship to a high standard under trainers working alongside him on Westerns such as Love Me Tender (1956) and Flaming Star (1960).
It was during down-time on the set of the latter film, Gatto and Racimo record, that Elvis almost decapitated himself when a runaway horse he was sat upon galloped through a low-barred gate.
Such real-life drama offers sharp contrast to 1965’s fabulously kitsch comedy Tickle Me, one YouTube scene from which we must thank All The King’s Horses for flagging-up. As Elvis, who is surrounded by beautiful women and pitching hay in a stable, sings Dirty, Dirty Feeling, one of the horses behind him appears to join in at the end.
As the list of horses owned by Presley in the book’s Appendix A reminds us, the singer lavished a great deal of time, money and affection on the steeds he bought for himself, family, friends and even comparative strangers.
He gifted his daughter Lisa Marie a Shetland pony named Moriah and wife Priscilla a black Quarter horse named Domino. He also had a horseshoe-shaped, diamond-encrusted ring commissioned at one point – for himself.
From his saddle sores to current plans to restore Elvis’s Circle G Ranch to its former glory, to Breyer Animal Creations’ miniature models of Presley’s favourite steeds Rising Sun and Bear, All The King’s Horses leaves no equine-and-Elvis-related stone unturned.
It is a pleasant-enough and informative read, but it lacks any real meat or fresh insight into the great man’s life.
The foreword for All The King’s Horses is by Presley’s former hairstylist, Larry Geller, but the book is thoroughly upstaged by a new memoir by Leslie Cavendish, another coiffeur to the ridiculously famous.
The Cutting Edge: The Story of the Beatles’ Hairdresser Who Defined an Era (Alma Books) really does shed new light on its titular stars; not least because Cavendish was a scissor-wielding Zelig figure of hip 1960s London.
Having won The Beatles’ trust by styling Paul McCartney’s hair and binning, rather than selling-on the much-coveted cuttings, Cavendish is invited to the recording session for She’s Leaving Home. He also gets to try on Macca’s famed Sgt Pepper jacket, smuggles various Beatles around London in his Mini, and is eventually treated to his own swish, state-of-the-art salon courtesy of the band’s utopian but ill-starred business division, Apple Corps.
The star-studded and richly-detailed story Cavendish has waited 50 years to tell starts with his apprenticeship under famed hairdresser Vidal Sassoon at 171 Bond Street, London.
He paints an entertainingly indiscreet, yet-chivalrous picture of his time there. While snipping, he encounters the likes of Hollywood bombshell Jane Mansfield, The Who’s Keith Moon, and Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, the two young women caught up in 1963’s infamous Profumo affair.
We learn that George Harrison had the thickest head of hair in The Beatles, and that John Lennon was a terrible fidgeter when being sheared and would almost certainly be bald were he alive today.
Cavendish is also candid about Lennon’s fearsome temper, as witnessed during the author’s time as a passenger on the bus trip filmed for The Beatles’ 1967 surrealist comedy film, Magical Mystery Tour.
If the “Hairdresser Who Defined an Era” part of the book’s subtitle smacks of overreach – Cavendish makes a convoluted and presumably tongue-in-cheek case for the headline-grabbing, short-back-and-sides cut he gave McCartney in 1966 influencing the creation of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the author is careful to acknowledge another Beatles’ ‘hairdresser’, notably photographer Astrid Kirchherr. It’s important that Cavendish does so, too, because if any Beatles hairstyle defined an era, it was the mop-top cut former Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe was given by his German girlfriend in 1960.
It was that look, after all – copied by Kirchherr from a style prevalent in Hamburg at the time, and quickly adopted by all four Beatles – which led toymakers to manufacture hundreds of thousands of Beatles wigs.
The author’s account of corruption and mismanagement at Apple Corps and the various tensions that led to the break-up of The Beatles is particularly good, as is his take on the flower-power era’s petals turning black.
And given that Cavendish almost attended the August 1969 party in Los Angeles at which actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by members of The Manson Family commune, he is well-placed to do so.
Cavendish closed his hairdressing business in 1972 and lost touch with McCartney in 1973, by which time Macca was in Wings, the new band he formed with his wife Linda.
The book tells of the author’s somewhat forced retreat from the high life, and of his mother throwing out the beautiful crushed-velvet barber’s chair that had seated so many stars at her son’s celebrated salon (she simply hadn’t realised its pricelessness as a piece of Beatles ‘Swinging London’ memorabilia).
At the end of the book, when Cavendish is briefly united with McCartney at a special 2012 screening of the BBC documentary The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour Revisited, it is extraordinarily touching.
It would be unfair of me to reveal what is said during their warm-hearted exchange, but suffice to say it has something to do with McCartney treating Cavendish to a one-on-one rendition of When I’m Sixty-Four months before The Beatles recorded it in December 1966.
Updated: August 22, 2017 11:29 AM