Elvis Aron Presley, also known as The King of Rock and Roll or The King, was an American singer and actor. Early in his career he was referred to as The Hillbilly Cat. Later, his friends referred to him as “E”.
Rolling Stone magazine said “Elvis Presley is rock ‘n’ roll” and called his body of work “acres of perfect material”. During an active recording career that lasted more than two decades, Presley set and broke many sales records with over 100 top 40 hit singles including 18 number ones.
Elvis Presley is widely credited with bringing rock and roll into mainstream culture. According to Rolling Stone magazine “it was Elvis who made rock ‘n’ roll the international language of pop”. A PBS documentary once described Presley as “an American music giant of the 20th century who singlehandedly changed the course of music and culture in the mid-1950s”. His recordings, dance moves, attitude and clothing came to be seen as embodiments of rock and roll. Presley sang both hard driving rockabilly and rock and roll dance songs and ballads, laying a commercial foundation upon which other rock and roll musicians would build. African-American performers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry came to national prominence after Presley’s acceptance among mass audiences of white teenagers. Singers like Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and others immediately followed in his wake, leading John Lennon to later observe, “Before Elvis, there was nothing”.
Teenagers came to Presley’s concerts in unprecedented numbers. When he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair in 1956 a hundred National Guardsmen surrounded the stage to control crowds of excited fans. When municipal politicians began denying permits for Presley appearances teens piled into cars and traveled elsewhere to see him perform. It seemed as if the more adults tried to stop it, the more teenagers across North America insisted on having what they wanted. When adult programmers announced they would not play Presley’s music on their radio stations the economic power of that generation became evident when they tuned in any radio station playing Elvis records. In an industry already shifting to all-music formats in reaction to television, profit-conscious radio station owners learned hard lessons when sponsors bought advertising time on new rock and roll stations
reaching enormous markets at night with clear channel signals from AM broadcasts.
During the 1950s post-WWII economic boom in the United States, many parents were able to give their teenaged children much higher weekly allowances, signalling a shift in the buying power and purchasing habits of teens. During the 1940s bobby soxers had idolized Frank Sinatra but the buyers of his records were mostly between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Presley triggered a juggernaut of demand for his records by near-teens and early teens aged ten, twelve, thirteen and up.
Presley’s overwhelming appeal was to girls. Many boys adapted his look to attract them. Along with Elvis’ ducktail haircut, the demand for black slacks and loose, open-necked shirts resulted in new lines of clothing for teenaged boys. In 1956 America, birthday and Christmas gifts were often music or even Elvis related. A girl might get a pink portable 45 rpm record player for her bedroom. Meanwhile American teenagers began buying newly available portable transistor radios and listened to rock ‘n’ roll on them. Teens were asserting more independence and Elvis Presley became a national symbol of their parents’ consternation.
Presley’s impact on the American youth consumer market was noted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on December 31, 1956 when future Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Louis M. Kohlmeier wrote, “Elvis Presley today is a business” and reported on the singer’s record and merchandise sales. Half a century later, historian Ian Brailsford commented, “The phenomenal success of Elvis Presley in 1956 convinced many doubters of the financial opportunities existing in the youth market”.
Birth & Childhood.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born in a two-room house in East Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Smith Presley. He was raised both in East Tupelo and later in Memphis, Tennessee, where his family moved when he was 13. Elvis had a twin brother who died at birth. In 1949 the family moved to Lauderdale Courts public housing development which was near musical and cultural influences like Beale Street, Ellis Auditorium and the Poplar Tunes record store along with the Sun Studio about a mile away.
In her book, Elvis and Gladys author Elaine Dundy wrote that those close to Elvis as a boy say he was a fan of comic book superhero Captain Marvel, Jr. and would later model his trademark hairstyle and some of his stage costumes on the comic book character.
Elvis took up the guitar at 11 and practiced in the basement laundry room at Lauderdale Courts. He played gigs in the malls and courtyards of the Courts with other musicians who lived there. After high school he worked at Precision Tool Company, then drove a truck for the Crown Electric Company.
The Sun recordings.
In the summer of 1953 Presley paid $4 to record the first of two double-sided demo acetates at Sun Studios, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” which were popular ballads at the time. While Presley claimed to have recorded the demo as a birthday present for his mother this is sometimes disputed since Gladys Presley’s birthday was in April and he recorded the acetate in July. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the discs and called him in June 1954 to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although that session was not productive, Sam Phillips put Elvis together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954 Elvis began singing a blues song written by Arthur Crudup called “That’s All Right”. Philips liked the resulting record and released it as a 78RPM single backed with Elvis’ hopped-up version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass song “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”. Memphis radio station WHBQ began airing it two days later, the record became a local hit and Elvis began a regular touring schedule which expanded his fame beyond Tennessee.
Presley was booked on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry but in a bitter disappointment his performance was not well received. He continued to tour the U. S. South and on October 16, 1954 he made his first appearance on Louisiana Hayride, a radio broadcast of live country music in Shreveport, Louisiana and was a hit with a large audience accustomed to mostly pure country music sounds. Following this Presley was signed to a one-year contract for a weekly performance and he was soon introduced to Colonel Tom Parker.
The influence of Colonel Tom Parker.
Parker took over Presley’s career by contract on August 18, 1955. The colonel established two recording companies for Presley and demanded that composers share their royalties with the singer. He wasted no time in marketing his new product to the hilt, pushing Elvis buttons and trinkets, and even lipstick and cookware. According to Marty Lacker, a member of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis had no business savvy or skills and he relied on his manager Parker for anything to do with contracts and deals. Lacker says he thought of Parker as a “hustler and scam artist” who abused Elvis’s reliance on him”.If Parker ever thought Elvis was going to be around somebody who would him, Parker did his utmost to end that relationship”. At Parker’s urging Presley also shifted his focus from music to Hollywood. For instance, under his manager’s influence Elvis was forced to take the chief part in some low-budget standard musical comedies. With money seemingly being at the forefront of all decisions made by the Colonel, his management contract with Elvis was even renegotiated to an even 50/50 split between the two.
On August 15, 1955 Elvis Presley was signed by Hank Snow Attractions, a management company jointly owned by singer Hank Snow and Colonel Parker, who negotitated Presley’s signing with RCA Records on November 21, 1955. On January 27, 1956 Elvis’ sixth single and his first on RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel” / “I Was the One”, was released and made the pop charts. The next day Presley’s national television debut on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show marked the beginning of his transition into a teen idol. On June 5, 1956 Presley scandalized the audience of the The Milton Berle Show with suggestive hip movements while performing his second RCA single “Hound Dog”. Television critics across the country slammed the performance for its “appalling lack of musicality” “vulgarity” and “animalism”. The reaction was so severe, Presley was obliged to explain himself on a local New York City TV show. Shortly thereafter he appeared on The Steve Allen Show dressed in a tuxedo, billed as “the new Elvis Presley” and singing “Hound Dog” to a basset hound, an experience Presley later said he found humiliating.
After a string of other TV appearances Presley made his first performance on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, earning the broadcast a record 52 – 60 million viewers. By the time of his second Sullivan appearance on October 28 Presley had dyed his sandy blond hair jet black. Opposition gathered against him and even more so against his gyrations on stage. The December 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine described Presley as behaving like “a sex maniac in public”. On his third and final Sullivan appearance Sullivan bowed to pressure from “moralists” and ordered that Presley be televised from the waist up to avoid showing his controversial hip movements. Meanwhile the press had taken to calling him Elvis the Pelvis, a nickname he is said to have thoroughly disliked.
“Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” topped the pop, black and country charts in 1956 and many more hit records followed. Over the next twenty-one years Elvis had 146 Hot 100 hits, 112 top 40 hits, 72 top 20 hits and 40 top 10 hits, an achievement that has never been matched by any solo artist.
Ironically, for all the controversy surrounding his early career, Elvis Presley’s roots in religious music ran deep. In Tupelo, Mississippi Vernon and Gladys Presley were what was disparagingly referred to as poor white trash from the “wrong side of the tracks” at the east end of town. Their Depression-era home was a two-room shack on one of several dirt tracks forming a small community off Old Saltillo Road. They belonged to a local Assembly of God Pentecostal church which played an important role in their lives. For Elvis Presley it provided an environment from which he would instinctively adopt the music, sound and accompanying body movements in his later rock and roll singing performances. The African American form of music that became known as Rhythm & Blues was also a part of Presley’s childhood world and he probably heard it on a regular basis in the black section of Tupelo known as “Shakerag” . The church is said to have brought the Presleys, along with the rest of its desperately poor congregation, a message of hope wrapped around “Hell, fire, and brimstone” sermons. For nearly a quarter century the Pentecostal movement was interracial and during the 1930s and 1940s many of these poor churches did not adopt the growing policy of racial segregation.
Although Vernon Presley’s family was Pentecostal and his sister Nash Presley became a minister, his wife Gladys was Elvis’s devoutly religious parent. Her uncle Gains Mansell was also a Pentecostal preacher in East Tupelo whose interracial church services began with revival meetings held in a tent. Pentecostal church services started, centered and ended with music and everyone was encouraged to “make a joyous noise unto the Lord”. According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Gladys Presley said that by the age of two her son was already trying to sing along in the church. A Pentecostal preacher would typically lead the congregation in prayer and both singing and prayer were accompanied by the waving of hands, the swaying of bodies and dancing about in the Holy Spirit. As it almost always did in those settings, “when the Spirit strikes” the body would jerk as though hit by a bolt of lightning and frequently the worshipper would fall to the floor, rolling around and praying aloud. For instrumentation, these church services used a guitar, a tambourine or two and if they could afford one, a well-worn piano and perhaps a used piano accordion. Church services lasting three hours and held several times a week were filled with music as Pentecostals gyrated their hips, shook their legs, clapped and waved their arms while belting out pounding, rhythmic songs such as Down By the Riverside, When The Saints Go Marching In and Standing On The Promises. There were also more serene songs sung with great emotion like Old Rugged Cross and Softly and Tenderly.
In 1948 the Presley family left Tupelo, moving 110 miles northwest to Memphis, Tennessee. Here too, thirteen-year-old Elvis lived in the city’s slums and attended a Pentecostal church where he could not have escaped the influence of the Memphis blues.
While Elvis Presley was a teen cataclysm with millions of American girls screaming at the sight of him, his own church viewed Presley’s gyrations on stage as an affront, labelling it the Devil’s work and a mocking of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Presley records were condemned as wicked and Pentecostal preachers thumped their pulpits with Bibles, warning congregations to keep heathen rock and roll music out of their homes and away from their children’s ears. People who decades later would be considered part of the religious right spoke out vigorously against Presley including Cardinal Spellman. In its weekly periodical, the Roman Catholic Church added to the criticism in an article titled “Beware Elvis Presley”.
In August, 1956 in Jacksonville, Florida a local Juvenile Court judge called Presley a “savage” and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing at Jacksonville’s Florida Theatre, justifying the restrictions by saying his music was undermining the youth of America. Throughout the performance Presley stood still as ordered but poked fun at the judge by wiggling a finger. Similar attempts to stop his “sinful gyrations” continued for more than a year and included his often noted January 6, 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was seen only from the waist up.
His Hand In Mine was the title of Elvis’ first gospel album. During his ’68 Comeback Special Elvis said his music came from gospel. Despite his church’s attitude, gospel music was a prominent part of Presley’s repertoire throughout his life. From 1971 to his death in 1977 Presley employed the Stamps Quartet, a gospel group, for his backup vocals. He recorded several gospel albums, earning three Grammy Awards for his gospel music. In his later years Presley’s live stage performances almost always included a rendition of “How Great Thou Art” the 19th century gospel song made famous by George Beverly Shea. More than forty-five years later the Gospel Music Association finally inducted him into their Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
On December 20, 1957, Presley received his draft notice for the then compulsory 2-year service with the United States Army. On March 24, 1958, he was inducted into the Army at the Memphis Draft Board. He received no special treatment and was widely praised for not doing what many wealthy and influential people did to avoid service or to serve part time in easy domestic positions such as the Special Services where he could have sung and continued to maintain a public profile. His military service received massive media coverage with much speculation whether or not two years out of the limelight at the height of his popularity would do irreparable damage to his career. Presley sailed to Europe on the USS General George M. Randall, and served in Germany as an ordinary soldier.
Elvis Presley returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged on March 5th. While in the army, he received a black belt in Kempo and attained the rank of Sergeant.
The musical Bye Bye Birdie satirizes the events of the draft of Elvis Presley, placing fictional superstar Conrad Birdie in the position of Elvis.
Many observers later claimed that following Presley’s return from military service the quality of his recorded output dropped, although others thought he was still capable of creating records equal to his best. Presley himself became deeply dissatisfied with the direction his career would take over the ensuing seven years, notably the film contract with a demanding schedule that eliminated creative recording and giving public concerts. In 1960 the album Elvis is Back was recorded. This, like his first two albums, Elvis Presley and Elvis, are considered by many of his fans to be his best work. With this drop-off, and in the face of the social upheaval of the 1960s and the British Invasion spearheaded by The Beatles, Presley’s star faded slightly before a triumphant televised performance later dubbed the Comeback Special. Aired on the NBC network on December 3, 1968, the show saw him return to his rock and roll roots. His 1969 return to live performances, first in Las Vegas and then across the country, was noted for the constant stream of sold-out shows, with many setting attendance records in the venues where he performed.
Death and burial.
Elvis died at his home Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee on August 16, 1977. He was found on the floor of his bedroom’s bathroom ensuite by girlfriend Ginger Alden who had been asleep in his bed. He was transported to Baptist Memorial Hospital where doctors pronounced him dead at 3.30pm. He was 42 years old.
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