Elvis Presley: The King of Rock and Roll
Elvis Presley was an American singer and actor, who is regarded as one of the most important cultural icons of the 20th century.
He is widely known as the King of Rock and Roll and is considered one of the most influential artists in history.
During a transformative period in race relations in America, Elvis’ songs and performance style, combined with a mix of influences across color lines, led him to success and superstardom.
Elvis Presley was born on 8th January 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Love Presley. His identical twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was born stillborn just thirty-five minutes before him.
The family lived in a two-room shotgun house that Elvis’ father had built. They attended an Assembly of God Church, which was where Elvis first found musical inspiration from Gospel music. Gospel music would go on to play an important part in his future career.
Elvis’ father did not show much ambition and frequently moved from one odd job to another. Due to this, the family often had to rely on help from neighbors, relatives, and government food assistance.
In 1938, Elvis’ father was found guilty of altering a check written by his landowner and some-time employer. He was put in jail for eight months and the family lost their home. Gladys and Elvis were forced to move in with relatives.
In 1941, Elvis Presley, aged 6, entered first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated. He was considered to be an average student by his teachers.
In October 1945, Elvis, aged 10, sang at a contest held at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, after being persuaded by his schoolteacher. He performed a rendition of Red Foley’s country song Old Shep and stood 5th in the contest.
During this period, Elvis received a guitar for his birthday, even though he wished for something else. He would later remark that he learned to play the guitar a little bit from two of his uncles and a pastor at the family’s church, but he never sang in public as he was too shy.
Early Interest in Music
In September 1946, Elvis Presley, aged 11, enrolled at a new school, Milam, for his sixth grade. There he was mostly considered a loner, usually remaining aloof from the others.
By the following year, he began bringing his guitar to school daily, often playing and singing during lunchtime. Some students teased him for playing hillbilly music and even called him a trashy kid.
Elvis was addicted to hillbilly singer Mississippi Slim’s radio show on the Tupelo radio station WELO. Slim’s younger brother, who was Elvis’ classmate, often took Elvis to the radio station. He described Elvis as being crazy about music.
Mississippi Slim showed Elvis some basic chord techniques, and, a year later, when Elvis was 12, Slim scheduled him for two on-air performances. For the first performance, Elvis was overcome by stage fright and did not perform. But he succeeded in performing the following week.
In November 1948, the Presley family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. For almost a year they lived in rooming houses. Later they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex known as the Lauderdale Courts.
The same year, Elvis Presley, aged 13, enrolled at the L.C. Humes High School for his eighth grade.
Elvis received a ‘C’ in music and his music teacher told him that he had no aptitude for singing. To prove her wrong, he brought his guitar the next day and sang a recent hit, Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me.
But his teacher did not appreciate his kind of singing and songs both.
Elvis was still too shy to perform in public. He was also bullied sometimes by his classmates, who called him a mama’s boy.
In 1950, Elvis, aged 15, began practicing guitar regularly under the tutelage of rockabilly singer-songwriter Jesse Lee Denson, who was his neighbor and two and a half years older than him.
Elvis and Denson formed a loose musical group along with three other boys, two of whom, brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, would go on to become pioneers of rockabilly. The five of them performed frequently around the Lauderdale Courts.
During this period, Elvis began working as an usher at Loew’s State Theater.
Birth of a Performer
In April 1953, Elvis Presley, aged 18, competed in Humes’ Annual Minstrel show. He sang and played guitar, opening with Till I Waltz Again with You, a recent hit by Teresa Brewer.
Presley was not popular in school and no one knew that he could sing. But after his performance, his reputation grew, suddenly making him popular in school.
Early Musical Influences
Elvis Presley never had any formal musical training. He usually studied and played by ear. He also frequently visited record stores that had jukeboxes and listening booths for customers.
Elvis knew and loved records by country singers such as Ted Daffan, Hank Snow, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, and Ernest Tubb. He was also influenced by the southern gospel singer Jake Hess, who was one of his favorite performers. Hess’ singing influenced Elvis’ ballad-singing style.
Elvis was greatly influenced by African-American spiritual music, and he adored the gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Many of his future recordings were inspired by local African-American musicians such as Rufus Thomas and Arthur Crudup.
Elvis had also probably attended blues venues and religiously listened to the regional radio station that played blues, modern, and spiritual music.
B.B. King would later remark that he knew Elvis before he became popular when they used to frequent Beale Street, the center of Memphis’ thriving blues scene.
When Elvis graduated from high school in June 1953, he knew that his future was in music.
In August 1953, Elvis Presley, aged 18, visited the offices of Sun Records and paid for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc with the songs That’s When Your Heartaches Begin and My Happiness. He probably decided to do this in the hope of being discovered by the label.
After he was done recording, the label’s boss, Sam Phillips, asked the receptionist to note down his name. The receptionist did so along with her own comment ‘Good ballad singer. Hold.’ But this led to nowhere.
In January 1954, Elvis, aged 19, recorded another two-sided acetate disc at Sun Records, with the songs I’ll Never Stand in Your Way and It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You. But again, nothing came of it.
In April 1954, Elvis Presley began working as a truck driver for the Crown Electric Company.
During this period, he faced many rejections. He failed at an audition for a local vocal quartet called The Songfellows. They rejected him saying that he could not sing.
After playing a few local gigs with Elvis, his friend informed him that there was an opening for a vocalist in his professional band. He suggested that Elvis contact the rockabilly singer and guitarist Eddie Bond, who was the leader of the band.
Elvis auditioned for Eddie but was rejected by him. Eddie advised him to stick to truck driving, saying that he would never make it as a singer.
In June of 1954, Sam Phillips of Sun Records acquired a demo recording by Jimmy Sweeney of a ballad called Without You. Phillips thought that the ballad might suit Elvis Presley instead, so he invited Elvis to record the song.
Even though Elvis failed to impress Phillips with his rendition of the song, Phillips asked him to perform as many songs as he knew. Elvis did as he was asked and Phillips was impressed enough to invite two local musicians, bass player Bill Black, and guitarist Winfield ‘Scotty’ Moore, for a recording session with Elvis.
The session was not fruitful until very late in the night, just when everyone was about to give up and go home. Elvis picked up his guitar and began singing the blues number That’s All Right by Arthur Crudup. Looking at Elvis singing and jumping around, Bill Black joined him with the bass and Scotty Moore with the guitar.
Hearing the trio perform the song, Phillips immediately began taping, as it was exactly the sound he had been looking for all night.
Three days later, the popular Memphis DJ, Dewey Phillips, played the trio’s rendition of That’s All Right on his Red, Hot, and Blue Show.
The song became a hit and listeners began calling the label to find out who the singer was. The song became so popular that Phillips played the record repeatedly for the remaining two hours of his show.
Due to Elvis’ singing style and voice, many callers assumed he was black.
In the next few days, the trio recorded Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky in a distinctive style, employing a jury-rigged echo effect.
Soon a single was released with That’s All Right on the A-side and Blue Moon of Kentucky on the reverse.
First Live Performances
The newly-formed trio performed in public for the first time on 17th July at the Bon Air Club.
Elvis’ provocative shaking movements on stage and his strong response to rhythm made the audience go wild. Young women screamed at his sight.
The trio began touring regularly. Black and Moore left their old band to play and record with Elvis. And the promoter Bob Neal became their manager.
As they increased the number of live performances, Elvis grew more confident on stage.
Shows, Commercials, and First Television performance
In November 1954, Elvis Presley, aged 19, performed at the Louisiana Hayride radio show, which was broadcast to 198 radio stations in 28 states.
After the show, Hayride made Elvis an offer to perform on Saturday nights for a year. Elvis gladly accepted the offer and he finally traded his old guitar for a new one.
During this period, Elvis made his first and only product endorsement commercial for Louisiana Hayride sponsor, Southern Maid Donuts. He recorded a radio jingle for the company, but it was never released.
Elvis also made his first television appearance on the KSLA-TV television broadcast of Louisiana Hayride.
By 1955, Elvis Presley had become a regional star due to his constant touring, frequent record releases, and weekly Hayride appearances.
In January of 1955, Bob Neal signed a formal management contract with Elvis and got him into touch with Tom Parker, who was one of the best promoters in the music business.
Even though Elvis was becoming more and more popular from Tenessee to West Texas, he found it difficult to find radio airplay for his music. This was mainly because of the curious blend of musical styles in which he recorded and performed.
Many Country music DJs did not play his songs as he sounded too much like a black artist. And many Rhythm and Blues stations did not play his music as they thought he sounded too much like a hillbilly.
This blend in Elvis’ style came to be known as rockabilly.
Contract with RCA Victor
In November 1955, Elvis Presley was voted the year’s most promising male artist at the Country Disc Jockey Convention.
Several record companies showed interest in signing him. Parker and Phillips struck a deal with the record label, RCA Victor, to acquire Elvis’ Sun contract for a whopping $40,000, an unprecedented amount for the time.
Elvis was growing so popular that songwriters were asked to forgo one-third of their customary royalties in exchange for having him perform their compositions.
Extending the Band and First National TV Appearances
On 10th January 1956, Elvis Presley made his first recordings for RCA Victor in Nashville. His backup band was extended to include a drummer, pianist, three background singers, and guitarist Chet Atkins.
The session produced one of Elvis’ most popular songs, Heartbreak Hotel, released as a single on 27th January. The next day, Elvis made his first appearance on national television. He was booked on CBS’s Stage Show for six appearances over two months.
After his first appearance, he stayed back to record eight songs at the RCA Victor New York Studio. One of the songs included a cover of Carl Perkin’s Blue Suede Shoes.
In February, Elvis’s I Forgot to Remember to Forget reached the top of the Billboard Country chart.
On 13th March 1956, RCA Victor released Elvis’ debut album titled Elvis Presley.
Well-known songs on the album include Blue Suede Shoes, I Got a Woman, Money Honey, and I Love You Because.
The album spent ten weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums Chart in 1956. It was the first-ever rock and roll album to reach No. 1 on the charts and the first million-selling album of the rock and roll genre.
The album was the first RCA Victor pop album to earn more than $1,000,000 and sell over one million copies.
The same year, the album was released in the UK as Elvis Presley Rock n’ Roll.
Elvis the Pelvis
On 5th June 1956, Elvis Presley made his second appearance at the Milton Berle Show at NBC’s Hollywood studio. Berle convinced Elvis to go on stage and perform without his guitar.
While he was performing an uptempo rendition of the song Hound Dog, he abruptly halted the performance and went into a slow, grinding version accentuated by energetic and exaggerated body movements.
Elvis’ gyrations resulted in great uproar and controversy among critics, television hosts, and conservative viewers. Many condemned his actions and deemed him unfit for family viewing.
Elvis was also nicknamed and referred to as Elvis the Pelvis, an expression he despised.
The Ed Sullivan Show
When Elvis Presley performed on the Steve Allen Show, the ratings of the show beat the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time.
Seeing Elvis’ impact on the ratings, Ed Sullivan, despite condemning Elvis previously, booked him for three appearances for an unprecedented $50,000.
Elvis’ first performance was viewed by approximately 60 million viewers (a record 82.6% of the television audience) instantly making Elvis a national celebrity.
Elvis also performed his forthcoming single Love Me Tender on the show, which prompted a million advance orders.
Pioneering a Cultural Shift
As Elvis’ fame steadily rose, making him a household name across America, he inspired and pioneered a major cultural shift in American society.
Elvis Presley became the symbol of this shift, turning him into an important cultural icon.
He had single-handedly begun the biggest pop craze since Frank Sinatra and had made rock and roll a mainstream of popular culture. He led the musical trend of the time, setting the artistic pace, while countless new artists began copying and following him.
Elvis made the young generation believe in themselves as a unified, distinct, and integrated generation.
In the first half of 1957, three singles by Elvis Presley were released, All Shook Up, Too Much, and (Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear. All three went to No. 1.
By now, Elvis had become an international star, even though he had never performed overseas. He had fans and admirers even in places where his music was not officially released.
On 19th March 1957, Elvis, aged 22, purchased an 18-room mansion that he named Graceland.
The same year, Elvis’ second and third films, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock were released. The soundtrack to both films went straight to the No. 1 spot on the album charts, and the track Jailhouse Rock went to No. 1 too.
Elvis’ Christmas Album, released in October 1957, also reached the No. 1 spot and became the best-selling Christmas album ever in America.
On 20th December, Elvis received his draft notice but was granted a deferment to finish his forthcoming movie, King Creole.
On 24th March 1958, Elvis Presley was drafted into the US Army as a private at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Elvis’ arrival at the swearing-in ceremony became a major media event, with hundreds of photographers accompanying him into the fort.
Shortly thereafter, he began basic training at Fort Hood, Texas.
In early August, Elvis’ mother was diagnosed with Hepatitis, after which her condition grew worse. He was given emergency leave to visit her and arrived in Memphis on 12th August. On the 14th, she died of heart failure, aged 46.
Once his training was completed, Elvis joined the 3rd Armored Division in Friedberg, Germany.
It was here in the Army that Elvis was first introduced to Karate, training under Jurgen Seydel, who is regarded as the father of Karate in Germany. Karate would go on to become a lifelong interest for him.
Elvis wished to be treated as an ordinary soldier and even donated his Army pay to charity. He also bought TV sets for his base and extra sets of fatigues for everyone in his outfit.
While in Friedberg, Elvis met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he would go on to marry after a seven-and-a-half-year courtship.
During his two-year stint in the Army, RCA Victor kept releasing Elvis’ unreleased material, which all went on to be hits.
Elvis ended up having ten top 40 hits including songs such as Hard Headed Woman, One Night, and A Big Hunk o’ Love.
RCA Victor also released four compilation albums during this period.
Returning From Military Service
On 2nd March 1960, Elvis Presley returned to America and was discharged three days later with the rank of Sergeant.
Soon upon his return, Elvis began recording songs for a new album titled Elvis Is Back. The songs Stuck On You, It’s Now or Never, and Are You Lonesome Tonight? all became best-selling singles.
The album was released on 8th April 1960 and reached No. 2 on the Album chart.
The following month, Elvis returned to television as a guest on The Frank Sinatra Timex Special. The broadcast attracted enormous viewership and high ratings.
Through the 1960s, Parker had adjusted Elvis Presley to a very heavy and packed film-making schedule. The films were all modestly budgeted and followed more or less the same formula.
Elvis was slowly growing tired of these films and insisted on opportunities for more serious, demanding, and higher roles.
Two of his films, Flaming Star (1960) and Wild in the Country (1961), which were more serious and dramatic, were not commercially successful. The failure of these two films forced Elvis to revert to his formulaic films.
Elvis made 27 films in the 1960s, most of which were universally panned and criticized, even though they were all hugely profitable.
In late 1966, Elvis Presley proposed to Priscilla Beaulieu.
On 1st May 1967, the couple got married in a brief ceremony in their suite at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas.
Unhappy with Career Direction
Between January 1967 and May 1968, only two out of eight of Elvis’ singles entered the top 40 on the charts, none of which reached higher than No. 28.
Elvis’ next album, Speedway, ranked No. 82 on the Billboard chart. He was unhappy with his film career too, which was in slow decline.
Elvis grew deeply unhappy and frustrated with the direction in which his career was heading.
Parker decided to focus on television again in order to rebuild Elvis’ popularity. He made a deal with NBC for a theatrical feature and a broadcast for a Christmas Special.
68 Comeback Special
The Special, initially called Elvis, was recorded in late June and aired on 3rd December 1968. Later, the show came to be known as the 68 Comeback Special.
The Special featured lavishly staged studio productions and songs performed with a band in front of a small, intimate audience. This was Elvis’ first live performance since 1961 and it attracted 42% of the total viewing audience, becoming NBC’s highest-rated show that season.
The Special was praised and became hugely popular, and Elvis’ popularity soared once again.
After the success of the Comeback Special, offers poured in from around the world for Elvis Presley to come and perform.
Elvis was keen to get back to touring and to begin performing live again.
In May 1969, the brand-new International Hotel in Las Vegas announced that it had booked Elvis for 57 shows over a period of four weeks.
For the performances, Elvis assembled a new group with guitarist James Burton and two gospel groups, Sweet Inspirations and The Imperials. A new stage look was created for Elvis, inspired by his passion for Karate.
On his first show, Elvis performed in front of an audience of 2,200, including many celebrities. He was greeted with a standing ovation before and after his performance, and a third one followed his encore of Can’t Help Falling in Love.
The shows were a huge hit and resulted in a 5-year contract for Elvis to play each February and August at an annual salary of one million dollars.
Elvis had now resurrected his career and popularity, remaining the superstar he was.
During the 1970s, Elvis Presley and his wife had increasingly grown apart.
In 1971, Elvis had an affair with Joyce Bova, which resulted in pregnancy and abortion.
Priscilla too began an affair with her Karate instructor, Mike Stone, whom Elvis himself had recommended to her. Upon learning of their affair, Elvis and Priscilla separated. A few months later, Elvis’ new girlfriend, Linda Thompson, a songwriter, and former Memphis beauty queen, moved in with him.
On 18th August 1972, Elvis and Priscilla filed for divorce. And on 9th October 1973, the divorce was finalized and they officially separated.
By the time his divorce from Priscilla was finalized, Elvis’ health was failing. He was in poor condition and had twice overdosed on barbiturates (a drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant), spending three days in a coma after the first incident.
Toward late 1973, he was hospitalized due to the effects of pethidine (a synthetic opioid pain medication) addiction.
Despite his failing health, Elvis continued to maintain a busy schedule, touring extensively through the early and mid-70s.
In November 1976, Elvis Presley and Linda Thompson split up. His new girlfriend, Ginger Alden, moved in with him.
Barely two months after meeting Ginger, Elvis proposed to her and gave her an engagement ring.
Elvis’ health continued to deteriorate. He was overweight by now and his mind was dulled by the pharmacopeia he ingested daily.
In spite of this, Elvis stuck to his scheduled performances, missing one on rare occasions. The audience at his performances began expressing their disappointment more openly as he slurred the words to his songs, which could barely be understood by the audience.
But this did not affect Elvis and he would continue to perform.
During this period, Elvis was mostly confined to his room, where he read spiritual books and spent time with his team.
Elvis’ last concert was held in Indianapolis at Market Square Arena on 26th June 1977. By then he was suffering from glaucoma, liver damage, hypertension, and an enlarged colon, mostly due to his drug abuse.
On the afternoon of 16th August 1977, Ginger Alden found Elvis Presley in an unresponsive state on the bathroom floor. His entire body was frozen in a seated position while using the toilet and had fallen forward onto the floor.
Attempts to revive him failed. At 3:30 pm, he was officially pronounced dead at the Baptist Memorial Hospital.
Thousands gathered outside Graceland to view his body.
On 18th August, Elvis’s funeral was held at Graceland and he was interred at the Forest Hill Cemetery next to his mother. Around 80,000 people lined the processional route to the cemetery.
Through his life and music, Elvis Presley completely changed the face of American popular culture forever.
He was a catalyst and pioneer for a cultural revolution that took place in the wake of rock and roll, making it a significant part of youth culture across color lines.
Elvis epitomized the rebellious attitude of the youth, thereby defining the attitude of a whole generation of youth in America.
Elvis’ music, which was a mixture of black, white, and gospel music played an important role in integrating the youth of America. By bringing rock and roll into mainstream American culture, he opened the door for black music and facilitated an acceptance and appreciation of black music and culture.
No other artist before Elvis was able to achieve such a great feat. Other great musicians such as Al Green and Little Richard have also acknowledged his importance and influence.
The name Elvis Presley is now a household name. His face, voice, and image are globally recognized. And perhaps no other artist has ever inspired such a great legion of impersonators as Elvis has.
Elvis’ music and style have had a great impact on subsequent artists such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Elton John, and countless others.
As of today, Elvis continues to remain the best-selling solo music artist according to Guinness World Records, with sales of up to 500 million.
Without a doubt, Elvis Presley was the greatest cultural force in 20th-century America, and one of the most important and influential musical artists of all time. He was truly the King of Rock and Roll.