Presley, Elvis Aron

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PRESLEY, Elvis Aron

(b. 8 January 1935 in East Tupelo, Mississippi; d. 16 August 1977 in Memphis, Tennessee), the "King of Rock and Roll," the symbol of youthful rebellion in the 1950s, and one of the most commercially successful singers and movie stars of the 1960s.

Presley was the son of Vernon Presley, a truck driver, and Gladys Smith, a homemaker. His twin brother was stillborn. The family moved to Memphis in 1948, where Presley graduated from L. C. Humes High School in 1953. Blending country, blues, gospel, and bluegrass music, Presley made his first recordings in 1954 for Sun Records. Some of his early songs were regional hits. In 1955 Presley's new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, negotiated a recording contract with RCA Records. With "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," and other number-one hits the following year, Presley became an international figure and the first major rock-and-roll star.

Presley's career was at its peak when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958. While he served in West Germany, RCA regularly released songs that he had recorded before his induction. Discharged in March 1960, Presley wondered, as did both fans and critics, whether he would maintain his popularity. He did. His first nationwide appearance after his discharge came that year on a Frank Sinatra television special that drew a 67 percent share of the viewing audience. His first new single, "Stuck on You," was a number-one hit in April. "It's Now or Never," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," and "Surrender" all reached number one on the charts over the next year. "It's Now or Never," adapted from a 1916 recording of "O Sole Mio," by the operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, reflected Presley's musical eclecticism and desire to experiment with new styles.

Despite his continued success, Presley soon turned in a new direction. He made two successful films, G. I. Blues and Flaming Star, in 1960. After a concert in March 1961, he gave up doing live performances to concentrate on movies. For most of the rest of the decade, films, in which he typically appeared as a bland, unthreatening hero, drove his career. These movies—known as "Elvis films" and a genre unto themselves—appeared to embrace the very mainstream culture that Presley's musical performances had supposedly once threatened. In 1962 U.S. motion-picture exhibitors ranked him the fifth most popular star. Presley was soon earning $500,000 per film plus 50 percent of the profits. By 1964 he was regularly making three pictures a year and was probably the highest-paid performer in Hollywood. Among Presley's twenty-seven films of the 1960s were Blue Hawaii (1961), Follow That Dream (1962), Kid Galahad (1962), Viva Las Vegas (1964), and Frankie andJohnny (1966). Made quickly and on tight budgets, the films were usually profitable, although not distinguished. Each movie produced a soundtrack album. Nine were gold records, but Presley's singles, which were taken from the soundtracks, were less successful. Twenty-five Presley singles appeared on the Billboard pop charts from 1963 through 1968, but only three of them reached the top ten.

Presley married Priscilla Beaulieu on 1 May 1967. A daughter, Lisa Marie, was born on 1 February 1968. In 1968 Presley taped a television special that included his first performances before a live audience in seven years. Airing in December, it was the top-rated show of the year and helped revitalize Presley's recording career. "In the Ghetto"—an atypical (for Presley) song of social conscience—reached number three in the summer of 1969. "Suspicious Minds," Presley's last number-one song, topped the pop chart in November. He was the only performer to have number-one songs in both the first and last years of the 1960s. According to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, Presley's chart success in the 1960s was second only to that of the Beatles.

The triumphant television special, especially Presley's energetic performance before a live audience, pointed the way to a new phase in his career. After a decade making movies, in which the public was increasingly less interested, he turned to concerts. His month-long engagement in Las Vegas in July 1969 earned him more than $1 million. Presley made no movies after 1969, except for two concert documentaries. One of them, Elvis on Tour (1972), won a Golden Globe Award for best documentary. During the 1970s Presley's career was marked by frequent public performances and increasing reclusiveness. He and Beaulieu separated in 1972 and divorced the next year. Presley died at Graceland, his Memphis home, as a result of various physical ailments, including obesity and heart disease, which had been exacerbated by drug abuse. Although he avoided hard drugs, he had taken large quantities of prescribed pills for years. Presley is buried at Graceland.

To say, as many critics do, that Presley's cultural significance waned in the 1960s says as much about one's standards for cultural significance as it does about Presley's achievements. It is more precise to say that his cultural significance changed with the times. In the 1950s, as the first great rock star, Presley and his music suggested rebellion against blandness and conformity. In the 1960s he seemed increasingly irrelevant to those who wanted to push cultural boundaries further and to use music as a form of political protest. Yet mainstream and conservative America—to which Presley's music and movies often appealed—was as much a part of the 1960s as the counter-culture. Presley himself recognized and, to an extent, embraced his new cultural position. He took pride in his selection by the Junior Chambers of Commerce (Jaycees) in 1970 as one of the ten most outstanding young men in America.

Meeting with President Richard M. Nixon that same year, Presley expressed his aversion to hippies, drugs, and the radical groups Students for a Democratic Society and Black Panthers. He affirmed his patriotism and his support of the president, and volunteered to become an undercover narcotics agent for the U.S. government. Presley's most influential period came in the mid-1950s, when he, more than any single performer, helped make rock and roll the most popular form of music of the latter half of the twentieth century. The Elvis of the 1960s demonstrated how thoroughly this supposedly dangerous music, and its greatest star, could be absorbed by mainstream culture.

The first volume of Peter Guralnick's definitive biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994), covers Presley's early years. On Presley's life in the 1960s and 1970s, see Peter Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999). Ernst Jorgensen, Elvis Presley: A Life in Music (1998), has an exhaustive discussion of Presley's recorded music. Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, available in several editions, provides information on Presley's charted singles. For information on Presley's films, consult Steve and Boris Zmijewsky, Elvis: The Films and Career of Elvis Presley (1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (17 Aug. 1977).

Fred Nielsen

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