Rock-'n'-roll icon Elvis Presley is well-known for his pink Cadillac, but his penchant for giving the luxury car to others is a deep cut from his legend.
So musician Rex Fowler, of Aztec Two-Step, decided to chronicle Presley's automotive altruism in the 2004 documentary "200 Cadillacs." Among Fowler's first discoveries: It was actually 200 luxury cars Elvis gave away, maybe 100 of which were Cadillacs, Fowler said.
The point remains: Elvis gave them away.
"What I tried to do is accent the fact that in the film, this is a very generous guy. He had a great heart," Fowler said Wednesday. "If you got a Cadillac car, that's what made him the most happy."
Fowler, who conceived and co-produced the film, will present it Jan. 10 at Auburn Public Theater, just two days removed from "The King's" 80th birthday, which is today. Following the screening will be a Q-and-A and a performance of Elvis' early hits by Fowler and his Rockabilly Kings trio.
I spoke to Fowler about the inspiration for the film, his favorite story from it, and preserving Elvis' legacy:
Q. When did your fascination with Elvis and his habit of giving people Cadillacs begin?
A. I was just old enough to have heard Elvis on the radio for the first time. It was "Heartbreak Hotel." And it really was startling, even for the 9-year-old sitting in the back of his parents' Buick Roadster. The song it replaced on the no. 1 Billboard charts was Perry Cuomo's "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)." It was a very typical kind of whimsical number that you would hear on the radio. ... And along comes Elvis, emoting, weeping into the microphone, and it completely kicked a hole in the dam that is known as rock and roll. The music changed, the culture changed — it was a phenomenon that nobody had ever seen or heard. And he was young and gorgeous and extraordinarily talented. Of course, like everyone else, I watched him slowly turn into this parody of himself, with the jumpsuit, the Vegas, being overweight, strung out on drugs — it was obvious to everyone. He became the laughing stock, the ridicule in the media. ... What got lost through all of this was that he was perhaps the most original, innovative artist of his time.
Elvis passed on in 1977 and he turns 80 on (Jan. 8). And somewhere along the line I had read or heard that Elvis gave away 200 Cadillacs. And I thought that would make a good documentary, to track down the recipients. ... Also, there was a film called "200 Motels" by Frank Zappa, a parody of being on the road — it kind of fed into that. I was able to talk to a guy who made films and I pitched it. A year later, we put together a crew and it took about a year to make the movie. I went to California, Colorado, New Hampshire — where they had (one of Elvis' gift cars) being refurbished in the state prison there. We went to Graceland — we were the first film crew to be able to film in the car museum there. We were sanctioned by Elvis Presley Enterprises to use the images of him we had, all that stuff. It came out in 2003, and it made a little bit of noise, but not much. ... For the most part, it came and went. Then, because it's his 80th birthday year, I wanted to do something in celebration of that, so I'mm resurrecting the film and I have a three-piece rockabilly band called the Rockabilly Kings — it's kind of a play on my name, which is Latin for king, and Elvis being the king of rock and roll. We do his early Sun and RCA recordings. That's the music I love that he made.
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Q. So when you started the movie, did you have a hypothesis about Elvis — were you trying to capture something about him? Or did you just want to tell the stories of the cars?
A. It was specifically about the generosity, and I didn't realize how many other items he gave away. People oftentimes received other things — houses, jewelry, fur coats for their girlfriends, and his girlfriends — (gifts) for some of the singers in his band, as well as his inner mafia, the Memphis Mafia, the good old boys on his payroll. All of this kind of came out as I interviewed people — the depth and breadth of his generosity. We'd heard stories. Everyone had heard about him giving cars to complete strangers. ... For the most part, it was all done anonymously. If you happened to be at a dealership when he was there, he just might buy you a car — especially if you were a good-looking woman.
Q. What's your favorite story, of all the people you tracked down?
A. A newscaster up in Denver — Don Kinney. Elvis was up in Aspen that week on vacation and word got out that he bought 12 Cadillacs and was giving him away. So they signed off this segment of their show by reporting it — a human interest thing. And this guy, Don Kinney, his co-anchor signed off by saying, "Elvis, if you're watching, I'd love to have a Cadillac, too." And Don admonished her on-air, "That's the most inappropriate thing I've ever heard on this TV show." Well, Elvis was watching with his friend Ron Pietrafeso in the hotel room. And he cracked up and he said to Ron, "Who was that guy?" And he said, "Call him up, I want to give him a car." So Ron calls the news station right there, and asks to speak to Don Kinney. Don gets on and says hello and Elvis says, "Hello, this is Elvis. I just saw the newscast. I want to buy you a Cadillac." Don thinks it's a hoax. So he goes, "Come on, who is this?" He says, "This is Elvis." Don says "You're pulling my leg." So Elvis hands the phone back to Ron and says, "Tell him it's me." And Ron goes, "Don, this is Pietrafuso. Goddamn it, this is Elvis, he wants to buy you a car." It's a really fun story and it turns out he did get the car after much angst, and he put it into the car museum up in Denver. I interviewed him standing next to the cute little blue Cadillac.
Q. The first I ever heard about Elvis' habit of giving away Cadillacs was from a comedian named Bill Hicks, who had a bit about it. And he suggested that giving away so many cars was why Elvis had such trouble financially — was that the case?
A. Yeah, like probably every entertainer, every rock star — everybody lives over their head, and it probably was one of the underlying things that caused his death. It was before the Betty Ford Clinic. Everybody was kind of going by the seat of their pants. And he had a major pill addiction that he was in denial about and it was slowly killing him. Because he constantly had to tour to keep up with his expenses, it probably led to the fact that he wasn't taking care of himself and he died at a very young age. He was only 42. If he had been able to hang on another year or so, (rehab) was becoming part of the nation's fabric. But Elvis, unfortunately, his addiction killed him. I think when he died, he was pretty much penniless — in spite of the fact he sold hundreds of millions of records.
Q. I'm not sure if you saw recently how Paul McCartney recorded a song with Kanye West, and it became a minor news story when so many people reacted to the news by asking who McCartney was. Is that kind of thing on your mind with these events — making younger generations aware of Elvis and his influence?
A. I conceived the film, went out and solicited people to be involved, so I have a vested interest in the film being recognized as something that is important in the sense it shows a positive aspect of Elvis' life. So I would very much like to see a resurgence of some sort, an awareness of his life. ... So yeah, I would love it if this, in some small way, turns the light on for a few people about Elvis Presley. I think that's my own grandiose thinking — Elvis doesn't need Rex Fowler or this film, his legacy is well-established. But in doing just the music side of it, that's my focus: Don't forget, this guy is a genius, not the fat clown guy in Las Vegas. This guy was a riveting, original genius that absolutely turned the whole direction of youth and culture. Women were cutting their hair off to look like him, guys were walking around growing their hair out. People were dressing differently, acting differently. He just absolutely changed the whole thing.