October 02 - Elvis In Poland – Interview with Mariusz Ogieglo

Mariusz Ogieglo may not be a familiar name to many fans outside Europe, but he founded the popular Elvis: Promised Land blog in 2011 and has written three books about Elvis. His most recent book is ‘Elvis: Wszystkie Plyty Krola 1966-1977’ (‘Elvis: All The King’s Records’). 

In a wide ranging and intriguing interview with Nigel Patterson from the >>> Elvis Information Network and Kees Mouwen, Mariusz discusses how Elvis has been viewed in Poland (during and after Communist rule in the country), how difficult it was to obtain Elvis records before Poland’s transition to democracy, the lengths some fans went to in order to listen to Elvis’ music, Polish media and Elvis, Elvis’ biggest selling record in Poland, Mariusz’s three books about Elvis, and more. 

EIN/EDBD: Mariusz, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us today. Firstly, please tell us a little about who Mariusz Ogiegło is, and how you became an Elvis fan? 

MO: At the beginning I'd like to thank you for this invitation, the opportunity to share my story with your readers and to talk about Elvis Presley who has been my passion for over 25 years. It's a great honor for me. 

I first encountered Elvis Presley's music in the primary school which I attended in my home village, Tomice. On one of school discos, a DJ played a mix of rock'n'roll hits. At this time, I didn't even know what kind of music it was, but I liked it very much. I asked him, “What's that” and he replied ”It's Rock 'n' Roll”. Back home, I read one of the magazines which belonged to my mother and found an article “The King of Rock 'n' Roll has been murdered” (it was about a book). I quickly joined the dots and came to conclusion that if this person was a king, he had to be the best. 

Next day I searched through my aunt's cassettes and found one which contained Elvis's greatest hits. Its title was ‘Love Me Tender’. I played it and... was utterly disappointed. This song was completely different than those which I had heard on the disco. Fortunately, the songs after that one, were ‘I Got a Woman’, ‘Mean Women Blues’ and ‘One Sided Love Affair’. That was it – this rhythm! This energy! It was at that moment when I became fascinated with those songs and the way they were sang. And twenty-five years later I still am. 

EIN/EDBD: How was Elvis introduced in Poland and was this any different to other (Eastern) European countries?

MO: Although it may be difficult to imagine, especially now in the age of easy and instant access to music, one must understand one thing. During the period of Elvis's greatest successes, that is in the 50s and 60s, his albums were not released in Poland. As Adam Kuligowski (a famous collector who sadly passed away) once said, there were no records “made in Poland”. It was a struggle just to obtain a record by Elvis. Usually, single songs were recorded from Radio Luxembourg (later they were played on the Polish radio as well). 

I remember a meeting in a fan club, when someone described how he and his friend looked for an elevated place in Cracow to get good sound quality on the radio. And then they listened. It was an experience those men still remember. Of course, sometimes you could come across an actual vinyl record in a shop (usually LPs or singles released in Germany). 

However, their prices were extremely high and not everyone could afford them. Another way in which records reached Poland were through sailors who bought them abroad and brought them to Poland. They could be obtained in port cities like Gdansk or Gdynia. 

Although Elvis songs were the ones most sought after, in those years young people were happy with any album they could get, be it Little Richard or The Platters. Only in the 60s did some of Elvis's songs start to be sold on cardboard records. Quite often their quality was poor but at least they were available. 

EIN/EDBD: In every country where Elvis’ music was released in the fifties, he won over the youth, but not so much the parents, Church or government officials. What was the reaction from the then communist Polish government to Elvis as there are even theories that Elvis was America’s secret weapon in the Cold War.

MO: Just like in other countries, adults in Poland didn't look favorably at the youth who became fascinated with Elvis and rock'n'roll. Moreover, the Polish government was also suspicious of it, especially in the 50s. People who possessed records with songs by Elvis or other American singers enjoyed popularity among their peers but also attracted attention from the communist authorities (until the 90s Poland was in the USSR's sphere of influence and the western culture was treated as a danger to the system) and could even end with their confiscation. 

Moreover, Elvis and his music were not promoted by the media. On the contrary, the journalists and foreign correspondents tried to show him in a bad light (of course not all of them did that) - “This boy with greasy hair is called Elvis Presley and it's said that he is able to sing and move in a way which causes hysterical shivers in teenage girls”. Somebody else called him “an idol of schoolgirls”. 
What's interesting, even Rajmund Czok, the only Polish journalist I'd heard about who had interviewed Elvis (in Germany in 1958) was apparently “disappointed” by him. 

Nevertheless, it must be said that neither repressions by the government nor opinions in the press prevented young people from learning about and becoming fascinated with Elvis. They longed for new music from the “free world”, met in houses and listened to the records they managed to obtain. 

EIN/EDBD: What impact did Elvis have in Poland with his music and movies? Did they reach the Polish youth?

MO: Of course. Elvis's music had big influence on young people in Poland. Especially in the 50s and 60s. A lot of currently popular artists began their careers singing his songs – e.g. Wojciech Gassowski who still remembers that the first song he sang was ‘Love Me Tender’. Others who had Elvis's songs in their repertoire were Krzysztof Krawczyk, Wojciech Korda and Bogusław Wyrobek. 

During the Cold War, when Poland was ruled by the communists, everyone knew that inviting American rock'n'roll stars to the country was out of the question (although there were some exceptions like The Platters who performed in Poland in the late 50s). Because of that, the only way to listen to live performance of his songs and to feel the atmosphere was during concerts of Polish singers who sang them. 

On the other hand, I must say that even today there are people fascinated with Elvis. Of course, the scale is different, but you just need to watch a talent show on TV or see a concert of young singers to see them. Among the most popular songs chosen by such artists are ballads like ‘Can't Help Falling In Love’, ‘Always On My Mind’ or ‘Love Me Tender’. 

There's even a group of young musicians from Cracow called ELVIS '56. Their inspiration are early Elvis's records. On concerts they masterfully recreate the atmosphere of the originals. Their work was also appreciated by the public in Bad Nauheim where the band won the competition for the best performance of Elvis's songs. 

EIN/EDBD: You have stated that in Poland, Elvis has not been as popular as in other countries. Do you have an idea why? Did he differ from other popular (Western) artists? Or did he simply make the wrong kind of music? 

MO: I think the fact that Elvis is not as popular in our country as abroad is caused by the past events which I described earlier and the current perception of Elvis among the public. Unfortunately, Elvis has not “existed” in Poland for many years. I mean he was quite popular among the young people - I even think the more the government tried to suppress his popularity, the greater it was. However, he didn't exist in the media - he personified everything that was considered “an American life-style” and was presented in the negative light because of that. 

The government tried to discourage teenagers from listening to him. Later, in the 60s, when the authorities became a bit more tolerant, the Beatles, Rolling Stones and other bands gained popularity in Poland. Elvis, as we know, played different music at that time. Of course, some of his songs like ‘Little Sister’ or ‘(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame’ were still popular. Paradoxically, the image of Elvis hasn't changed much in the media (not all of them, I want to emphasize) or among the general public. 

I won't hide that I was not only disgusted but also horrified by the reaction to Baz Luhrmann's film. The majority of gossip websites had articles about Elvis's drug addiction, alleged pedophilia, his numerous lovers, but none about his musical achievements, contributions to the popular music genre or charity work. While reading those websites it came to my mind that I wouldn't have become fascinated with Elvis if all I had were such articles. I understand that sensationalism is important for modern media because it attracts readers, but how are articles like those supposed to convince anyone to learn more about Elvis or listen to his music? 

Of course, I don't want you to think that there is no professional journalism in Poland. We have a lot of great journalists (e.g. Wojciech Mann to name one of them), who create fantastic texts, radio or TV programs. People whose passion is music and for whom facts and music matters more than cheap sensation. 

EIN/EDBD: Did the fall of the communist regime change make it easier for Polish fans to access Elvis’ records and films?

MO: Yes. Transition from communism to democracy and capitalism changed much. First of all, fans could buy records and find information about their idol more easily. You must understand that before the 90s one of the very few available books about Elvis was Albert Goldman's (!) work which was published in the magazine 'Literatura'. 

The first real biography written by a Polish author was the book ELVIS’ by Leszek C. Strzeszewski in 1986. Even today this little yellow book is like a bible for fans in Poland (although everyone knows it's not free from errors, they are understandable since it was written in such times). Now, with the Internet available everything got easier. If you have money you can get whatever you want – books or records. 

EIN/EDBD: You are involved with the Polish Promised Land Elvis Presley fan club. Please tell us about today's Elvis scene in Poland?

MO: Nowadays in Poland there are several fan clubs and groups of people who like Elvis. The most active ones are located in Cracow, Poznan (if I'm not mistaken the first official Elvis fan club was created in this city in the 70s), Torun and Warsaw. Every year, on the anniversaries of the birth and death of Elvis there are meetings, concerts, and panel discussions. 

EIN/EDBD: In 2011, you started your Elvis: Promised Land blog/website. What will fans find on it.

MO: In 2011 when I started my blog >>> Elvis: Promised Land, internet forums were quite popular in Poland. I was a member of one of them, a forum created and ran by D.J. Maciek. It was there where I published my first articles and even had my own section (which was a great success for a young person and a beginner. “Write what you want there because what you're doing is good” the administrator told me). One of the disadvantages (if it's a correct word) of those forums was that access to parts of them was restricted. In order to read them you had to work hard, e.g. publish a set number of posts, take part in discussions etcetera. Unfortunately, not everyone had knowledge which would allow them to take part in the discussions with “experts”. 

You know, people just wanted to open a website and read about their idol, but they couldn't do that. That's what inspired me to start a blog. At the beginning it contained news about recently released records and books, my articles or even interviews with people who had known Elvis. I wanted this website to be available to everyone who became interested in Elvis, e.g. after they had listened to a song in the radio. They could open the blog and find some interesting materials. 

To my great surprise and even greater satisfaction, that idea worked, and I have received a lot of messages from the readers which confirm that. And this group has become quite large since the blog started. The age of the visitors is varied too, there are fans who remember Elvis but also young people (much younger than me, I'm 38) who – and I'm proud to say that – call Elvis: Promised Land “our blog” and emphasize that they discovered Elvis thanks to it. Such comments are the biggest and the most beautiful reward which I have received during 10 years of my blog's existence. 

EIN/EDBD: Mariusz, that is indeed a great reward!

EIN/EDBD: In 2018 Elvis received a star at the Avenue of Stars in Kraków. If we’re correct, it was unveiled in the presence of his ex-wife, Priscilla. What does that say about the current perspective on, or popularity of, Elvis?

MO: The unveiling of the Elvis star took place in June 2018 and coincided with Priscilla Presley's arrival to Poland to take part in the concert ‘If I can Dream’ in the Tauron Arena concert hall in Cracow (this event promoted the two symphonic albums by Elvis, ‘If I Can Dream' and ‘The Wonder of You’). She wasn't present at the unveiling ceremony though. 

I think it's worth pointing out that the star isn't the only object in Cracow which commemorates Elvis. Besides it, there is an alley and a monument. Both are worth a visit. I visited them with my friend just before the 45th anniversary of Elvis's death. The concert itself was a very important experience for Polish fans (not only a musical one) and, similarly to an earlier visit by Elvis's musicians who played a concert in Poland (while on a tour in Europe organized by Arjan Deelen) made us hope that such events would finally stop avoiding Poland. 

As it turned out that's what happened. A few years later, thanks to my friend Marcin Zyczynski from the Elvis Lives association, Ed Bonja, Terry Blackwood with the Imperials and even the members of TCB Band came to Poland. Before that we could only see such bands on the internet or if they visited a neighboring country (e.g. Germany). 

EIN/EDBD: What have been Elvis’ best-selling singles and albums in Poland?  And what seems to be his most popular movie?

MO: The best-selling Elvis album is a compilation ‘ELVIS 30#HITS’. So far it's the first and only Elvis record to receive golden status in our country. 

EIN/EDBD: What are the really collectable Polish releases Elvis fans should look for? 

MO: A few interesting promo samplers have been released in Poland (one of the most sought after was the record promoting compilation ‘2nd To None’ created by the Polish division of BMG with a different back cover). Sometimes CDs have been released for special occasions (e.g. added to newspapers before Christmas). Both could be an interesting if exotic addition to a collection for foreign fans. 

EIN/EDBD: Have you seen the recent 'ELVIS' biopic and if yes, what did you think about it?

MO: Of course. I saw this film twice and I liked it very much. When I went to the cinema for the first time, I promised myself that I wouldn't judge it like a fan who had already seen dozens of documentaries about Elvis and had read dozens of books (and had written a few himself) but I would just watch it and be entertained. And that's what happened. 

The spectacle created by Baz Luhrmann, whose films I enjoy much, had me hooked from the first minute to the last one (when the film ended I, probably like everyone else, shed a tear listening to the epic performance of 'Unchained Melody' from June 1977). The way it was filmed, the dynamics, the way camera worked. You know, it makes you feel not like a passive viewer who just sits, drinks cola and eats popcorn, but a person participating in the events on screen. 

OK. Now someone could ask “What about all those errors and inaccuracies? Didn't they put you off?” Of course, they did, but only when I watched the trailers. I remember I was annoyed when I saw that Elvis, played by Austin Butler, sang ‘Trouble’ during a concert in 1956. I even thought this film would be a disaster. And today I cannot imagine this scene with any other song. Even if it's not what really happened. 

I can even say that after watching this film I have an impression (maybe a wrong one) that Luhrmann intentionally made certain scenes more powerful. He made their tone stronger. He made us, the viewers, understand the phenomenon of Elvis by showing us contrasting scenes from his life. 

He shows us Hank Snow singing ‘Your Cheatin' Heart’ which almost causes the viewers to fall asleep (although we know it was different in reality) and then throws us in the middle of a crowd of hysterical teenagers listening to Elvis Presley. It's like showing a church choir and Marilyn Manson in a single minute. Even modern teenagers who find Elvis's phenomenon difficult to understand based on records from the SUN Studio, will understand who Elvis was for young people in the 50s. 

The scene which made the biggest impression on me was the one in which Elvis sings ‘If I Can Dream’ while staring at the beautiful but trashy Christmas decoration. A leftover from Parker's idea of an NBC show. You know, I can't even imagine that Baz Luhrmann didn't know the history of this legendary program and what it looked like, but showing it in the way it was done in the movie really triggered the imagination. It did show the chasm separating two visions, the brave one of Steve Binder which allowed Elvis, overwhelmed by starring in films, to fulfill his dream of returning on stage, and old-fashioned Colonel Parker's ways. Just think how Elvis's career would have developed if he had been on the other side, where Christmas decorations were, and instead of the Comeback Special, NBC had transmitted carols. 

EIN/EDBD: According to Box Office Mojo, the biopic has grossed over US$2million in Poland. Does that indicate it has been a hit in your country?  

MO: It can be said that the film was quite popular in Poland. Especially given the fact that it was played during holidays (when a lot of people were abroad, on vacations, etcetera). When I saw it first time, one or two days after its premiere, there were 5 people in the cinema (!). But a few weeks later when I saw it for the second time, the cinema was full. Fans from other parts of the country told me it had been the same everywhere. And again, there were older persons but also a lot of young ones. I think – even hope – that the number of Elvis's fans in Poland will increase. 

EIN/EDBD: Mariusz, let’s turn to your Elvis books. So far, you have written three books about Elvis. The first was ‘Elvis. Czlowiek, Ktorego Nigdy Nie Zapomnisz’, published in 2016. Please tell us about it.

MO: That's right. ‘Elvis. Czlowiek, Ktorego Nigdy Nie Zapomnisz’ (‘Elvis. The Man You Will Not Forget’) was my first book. Actually, it was a collection of 26 interviews which (with a big help of Arjan Deelen, who wrote a beautiful introduction, and the late Ted Hutchens). I had the privilege to conduct with the people who had known Elvis – they either worked with him or met him backstage during the concerts. 

The interviews were first meant to appear on my blog but then one of my friends suggested to publish them in a book, so that they wouldn't disappear in the net. “You have a treasure worth more than all the money”, I heard. You see, the book was published in 2016, that is 39 years after the death of Elvis, the first work of this kind in Poland. 

When interviews with such people appeared regularly in foreign fan magazines or websites, nobody in Poland tried to get in touch with them, collect their precious memories of Elvis and publish them in a book. I'm not talking about it to brag but to show how important those interviews were for Polish fans and where the sentence about “treasure worth more than money” came from. 

On the other hand, it's difficult not to agree with that statement when you have people like Gleen Spreen, Dick Grob, Ginger Holladay or Ed Hill talking about your idol – the people who created history with him. It was like a magical travel in time! 

You see, sometimes people ask me “which interview was the most important for you”. And I reply, “All of them”. I don't have one more or less favorite person or interview. I'm grateful for each chance to talk with people who were close with Elvis and I consider it to be a privilege. For me it's like being close to Elvis himself for a short moment of time. Each time I have an opportunity to do an interview I try to be professional but sometimes emotions are stronger. Nevertheless, I hope that I'm able to share at least some of those emotions with the readers of my first book. 

EIN/EDBD: Mariusz, thanks. That is interesting. Coincidentally, EIN will be reviewing Arjan’s latest book in the next week or so. ‘Elvis The Man You Will Never Forget’ is currently out of print. Is there any possibility it will be re-issued?

MO: Recently, a lot of people have asked me if it's still possible to buy my first book. I won't hide the fact that those questions made me think about a reprint. But I don't want to promise anything yet. 

EIN/EDBD: Your second book, ‘Elvis. Wszystkie Plyty Krola 1956-1966’ (‘Elvis All the King's Records 1956-1966’), was published in 2020 as the first of a two-volumes set about Elvis’ record releases in Poland. However, we understand it is not a standard discography. Please tell us about it and why you moved beyond it being a standard discography.

: In fact, it was on the day when I started the blog 
>>> Elvis: Promised Land when I set myself a goal to allow Polish readers to learn more about Elvis's music. However, the idea to write about it in a book was born much later, around 2016, and the inspiration to write it were discussions with my work colleagues. It's worth mentioning that often they were younger than me. We listened to the radio at work and they often asked questions about the Elvis's song which were being played. “What's it's title?”, “Do you know when it was recorded?”, “Do you know any story about this song?”, etcetera. 

I thought then, that if my colleagues ask all those questions, then maybe there are more young people in Poland who'd like to ask them too and learn more about Elvis and his heritage. And that's how the idea to write the book ‘Elvis. Wszystkie Płyty Króla’ (‘Elvis. All the King's Records’) was born. 

You see, I didn't want to create something which would be interesting only for connoisseurs. For fans who, like my dad jokes, know Elvis's life better than their own. 

I didn't want to describe each version of particular records, with different covers, etcetera. There are already a lot of such publications the authors of which did it better than me. What mattered for me was to write a book accessible for everyone, both long term fans of Elvis and people who have just started listening to him. That's why I included interesting stories of how a particular record was created, anecdotes from the recording studio, memories of the people involved in their creation. Everything which could show people the work of Elvis in an interesting and accessible way. 

EIN/EDBD: Your recent release, ‘Elvis Wszystkie Plyty Krola 1966-1977’ (‘Elvis, All The King's Records 1966 -1977’), concludes the set. With your interviews for the book, did they reveal any difference in views about Elvis’ releases in 1956-1966 compared to those in 1966-1977?

MO: Work on my second book allowed me to rediscover and better understand Elvis's career in the 70s. It's a period which often isn't valued enough (it's often associated only with his concerts in Las Vegas and his tragic end). It's a paradox that it's undervalued now and was then, when he was still alive. Especially in the last stage of his career, when the older albums (e.g. ‘A Legendary Performer’) sold better than the newly released records. 

While examining those statistics to add them to the book, I was wondering what Elvis must had felt when he had seen fans choosing his decade old songs over the new ones... Of course, his attitude towards recording in a studio changed at that time, which was mentioned by the people I interviewed. “Elvis lost the motivation to record music”, as Gleen Spreen said. 

Nevertheless, when he entered the studio he could still create brilliant songs. Mature, with great lyrics (while writing the book, I paid more attention to the text of the songs) and filled with emotions so much that it's difficult to describe it with words. And his voice. It was a completely different Elvis than in the 50s or 60s. 

EIN/EDBD: Your two-volumes set comprises more than 800 pages of information. That is an impressive output. How long did it take you to research and write them?

MO: Thank you. The idea to write this book was born in 2016, shortly before the premiere of my first publication ‘Elvis. The Man You Will Not Forget’. I finished the second part this year, so I can say that it took me 6 years to write both. 

EIN/EDBD: What were your greatest challenges in writing the books?

MO: The biggest challenge? You see, just like you I'm a huge fan of Elvis and his music. I like almost all albums from his discography (there are days when I even enjoy listening to his film songs). And that's the problem. How to describe all those albums professionally and in an objective way and to show good and bad moments in Elvis's career instead of praising everything all the time. That's why I let the reviewers speak, both modern and those who lived in the past. 

EIN/EDBD: Do you have a favorite among your three releases and if yes, why?

MO: I like all three books evenly. I gave a fragment of my life to each of them. All three allowed me to rediscover Elvis. ‘Elvis. The Man You Will Not Forget’ thanks to fantastic interviews. 

Both parts of ‘Elvis. All The King's Records’ because of beautiful songs from the 50s, 60s and 70s. While writing this book I was listening to a lot of music, not just Elvis but also other songs from those years, the songs which inspired Elvis and the artists who created musical history with him. It was a fantastic journey. 

EIN/EDBD: In many countries there is a niche group of Elvis collectors with an interest in Elvis releases in non-English speaking countries. Your books are written in Polish. Have you considered an English language edition for any or all of them?

MO: Of course, I'd love to see this book translated and published abroad one day. It's one of my biggest dreams. However, I cannot afford the cost with the budget I have now. Maybe one day... 

EIN/EDBD: How can fans buy your latest two books?

MO: Both parts of the book ‘Elvis. All The King's Records’ can be bought on the websites >>> MyBook.pl or >>> Empik.com

EIN/EDBD: Do you any plans for another Elvis book?

MO: I have some ideas for the next book, but I'd prefer not to disclose them now. 

EIN/EDBD: Mariusz, is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

MO: Thank you very much for this discussion and the possibility to talk about my passion and books. Best wishes to all readers of Elvis Information Network and Elvis Day By Day.

Read the review of >>> 'All the King's Records' (released April 2022).