Presley, Elvis (1935–1977)

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Elvis Presley (1935–1977)

Back in the mid-1950s, a new kind of music was winning the hearts and shaking the hips of America's teenagers. That music was rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3). The new style of music was controversial for several reasons. It was loud. It was unruly. Its sounds were rooted in the rhythm and blues (R&B; see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3) of black America. In a reflection of the times, some white middle-class parents viewed rock and roll as nothing less than a communist plot, a scheme to enslave the minds of their naive, easily led children.

Coming to the rescue of rock and roll was Elvis Presley, a good-natured white boy from Memphis, Tennessee (and born in Tupelo, Mississippi). Presley's outward surliness and hip-shaking sex appeal while performing made him an instant twentieth-century cultural phenomenon. Elvis may have been white, but he sure sounded black and authentic as he thrilled teens with songs like "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock," "Don't Be Cruel," and other million-selling hits. He immediately transferred his star appeal to the big screen, appearing in a series of wildly popular box-office hits. From his debut in Love Me Tender (1956), an otherwise average Western (see entry under 1930s—Film and Theater in volume 2) set during the Civil War (1861–65) era, his charismatic screen presence was undeniable.

Though black performers like Chuck Berry (1926–), Little Richard (1935–), and Fats Domino (1928–) may have invented the form, it was Elvis Presley who transformed rock and roll into a musical form for mass audiences. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Elvis was truly the biggest celebrity in America. Although his career had several downturns, especially when he lost touch with youthful audiences and begin singing easy-listening pop music in the mid-1960s, Elvis remained a star. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, he increasingly performed in Las Vegas, Nevada, and in lavish arena concerts. By the mid-1970s, however, the "King of Rock 'n' Roll" was battling drug abuse and weight problems as his personal life fell apart.

Presley died of a heart attack in 1977, at the age of forty-two, but he has truly lived on in American culture. His Nashville, Tennessee, home "Graceland" is a shrine for his many fans; the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in 1993; and his albums continue to sell well. Amid a small core of Elvis fanatics whose reports of Elvis sightings appear in tabloids, the rumor persists: "Elvis Lives!"

—Rob Edelman and Tom Pendergast

For More Information

Daily, Robert. Elvis Presley: TheKing of Rock 'n' Roll. New York: Franklin Watts, 1996.

Gentry, Tony. Elvis Presley. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.

Harms, Valerie. Tryin' to Get toYou: The Story of Elvis Presley. New York: Atheneum, 2000.

Rubel, David. Elvis Presley: The Rise of Rock and Roll. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1991.

Woog, Adam. Elvis Presley. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1997.

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Presley, Elvis (1935–1977)

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