Elvis Aron Presley (January 8, 1935 - August 16,
1977), 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
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 (some because God told them it was sexually suggestive Devil
music, others saying it was southern "nigger" music) 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 (helping to propel that fledgling
industry from an estimated 100,000 units sold in 1955 to 5,000,000 units
by the end of 1958). 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 (this may have been the first time a journalist
described an entertainer as a business). Half a century later, historian
Ian Brailsford (University of Auckland, New Zealand) 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 (which merged with Tupelo in 1948) and later in
Memphis, Tennessee, where his family moved when he was 13. Elvis had
a twin brother (Jesse Garon Presley) 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
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
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 (influence) 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 (see "Movies" section below). 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 (it reached #1 in April). 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 (Hy Gardner Calling). 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 (82.6% of the viewership that night).
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 (January
6, 1957) 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 (until his death in 1977) 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 (where Elvis was born in 1935) 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 (which also evolved from gospel songs) 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" (which
was between Tupelo and East Tupelo, and was demolished in the 1960s as
part of an urban renewal project). 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 (this is why outsiders referred to church members as "Holy
Rollers" and their services as a "religious frenzy").
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 (Jesus
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 (especially the music of "that
backslidden Pentecostal pup, Elvis Presley"). 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
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 (1960) 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 (and twenty-four years after his death) 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
Many observers (including John Lennon) 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 (and did so on the infrequent occasions where he was presented
with "decent" material at his movie recording sessions). 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.