Presley, Elvis (1935-1977)
Presley, Elvis (1935-1977)
It is no accident that Elvis Presley's rise to fame in the 1950s was in tandem with the rise of rock 'n' roll, for the man and the music are indelibly linked. Though not the first rock 'n' roll star, Presley was the most prominent prophet of the pioneering musical form. Moreover, with his daringly unique style, delivery, and sound, he symbolized the cultural shakeup that rumbled throughout the era. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and social historian David Halberstam proclaimed, "In cultural terms, [Elvis's] coming was nothing less than the start of a revolution."
Presley himself was as complex and as conflicted as the decade he has come to represent. Though shy and beguilingly sweet offstage, his early onstage persona was swaggering, even leering, with performances marked by frenzied bumping and grinding and seemingly gravity-defying bolts, leaps, and slides. To the sexually repressed young people of the day, he was an emblem of rebellious liberation. To the terrified adult establishment, parents especially, he was initially viewed as the devil incarnate. At the time, no one could have predicted that rock 'n' roll would "last," or that Presley's stardom would not only endure, but also grow to mythic proportions following his death in 1977.
Known the world over by his first name, the American legend had decidedly humble beginnings. Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in a two-room shack in Tupelo, Mississippi, following the stillborn birth of twin brother, Jesse Garon. The attending country doctor had to collect his fifteen-dollar fee through welfare. Scions of large, sharecropping families, Presley's parents were poor and uneducated. But Vernon and Gladys Presley indulged their precocious, tow-headed son, and Gladys went on to become a pivotal force in his early career. In fact, Presley was so devoted to her that he has often been depicted as a "mama's boy."
Drawn to music from early childhood, Presley was initially exposed to the gospel music that was inherent to the Deep South, and the Pentecostal church he attended in Tupelo. His musical horizons expanded in 1948 when he moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Street, home of the blues, was within walking distance of Lauderdale Courts, the public housing project that became home to the Presleys. Roadhouses were venues for hillbilly bands and cowboy singers. Churches and meeting halls echoed with spirituals. Local airwaves were also diverse. In defiance of the times, Presley avidly listened to so-called "race" stations, which played the music of African-American artists for their primarily African-American audience.
It was during high school that Presley began experimenting with his looks and dress style. At a time when others his age were wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans, he favored flashy "pimp"-type clothing. Colors not ordinarily worn by the era's males, including pink, were a Presley fashion favorite. His hair style was equally distinct. Though crewcuts were the rage, he wore his dark blond hair slicked back with rose oil. That "greaser" look would go on to become a "cool" statement in films and on television. But Presley was far from popular at school. Most students recoiled from the young man with the greasy-looking hair and the acne. His shyness, thick Mississippi accent, and a tendency to stutter, further hampered his status among both classmates and teachers, who were taken aback when he performed in a student show during his senior year. Most were unaware that he sang. But in fact, Presley was consumed by both music and ambition.
It was a July 1953 vanity recording, made just six weeks after high school graduation, that led to his introduction to Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. The blues-loving Phillips was known for recording "colored" artists, such as B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, and Big Ma Rainey. But what he was searching for, he used to say, was "a white man who can sing like a Negro." He sensed that Presley, with his wide-ranging voice, might be that person. Presley was working as a truck driver when Phillips teamed him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black. Their potent chemistry resulted in a sped-up, rhythmically charged version of "That's All Right (Mama)," their first Sun recording. Popular local disc jockey Dewey Phillips, no relation to Sam, played the song multiple times on the night of July 10, 1954. Later that month, as an extra added attraction at a local "hillbilly hoe-down," Presley subconsciously exhibited the gyrating body movements that he would eventually make a trademark.
For the next year and a half, Presley and musicians Moore and Black, who were now Sun Records artists, were on an extended road trip. Traveling throughout east and west Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, they played high school auditoriums, Future Farmers of America halls, and backwater honky-tonks. One show found Presley performing atop a flat-bed truck parked at the second base of a baseball diamond. As his regional celebrity grew, disc jockeys and promoters alternately labeled him "the hillbilly cat," the "Memphis flash," a "bebop Western star," and even a "folk music fireball." But if his music was difficult to label, there was unanimity that Presley was one of a kind. Recalling the sensational impact of the early Presley, country music singer Bob Luman once related, "This cat came out in red pants and a green coat and a pink shirt and socks, and he had this sneer on his face and he stood behind the mike for five minutes, I'll bet, before he made a move. Then he hit his guitar a lick, and he broke two strings.… So there he was, these two strings dangling, and he hadn't done anything yet, and these high school girls were screaming and fainting and running up to the stage, and then he started to move his hips real slow like he had a thing for his guitar. That was Elvis Presley when he was about 19, playing Kilgore, Texas. He made chills run up my back, man, like when your hair starts grabbing at your collar."
Radio was a pivotal force in Presley's early career. Via the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show, his music reached listeners in thirteen states. His sensual, electric performances increasingly drew young women. When he wrapped an act in Jacksonville, Florida, by drawling "Girls, I'll see y'all backstage," hundreds of female attendees took him at his word. The May 1955 incident marked the first riot of his career.
His ascendancy caught the attention of manager-promoter Colonel Tom Parker. The former carnival man had received his honorary "Colonel" title in the 1940s, from hillbilly singer-turned-Louisiana governor Jimmy Davis. As shrewd as he was colorful, the Colonel was managing the Grand Ole Opry's Hank Snow when he first heard about the young man from Memphis. He signed Presley to a contract in late summer 1955, and then promptly negotiated the singer's move from the regional Sun Records to the nationally prominent RCA Records.
Even before the move to RCA, Presley proved surprisingly astute about stardom and its demands. From his own office in Memphis, he saw to it that fan mail was answered, and photo requests were filled. Aware that he was becoming the music world's equivalent of James Dean and Marlon Brando, the image-savvy Presley refused to smile for a Parade magazine photographer during a late 1955 session, explaining, "I know that you can't be sexy if you smile. You can't be a rebel if you grin." After asking if he could pose himself, Presley casually stripped off his shirt, and stared soulfully at the lens.
A momentous year for Presley, 1956 saw his first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel," top the charts and become his first gold record. His first album, Elvis Presley, likewise went gold. "Don't Be Cruel" and "Hound Dog" were top ten hits. TV appearances followed, along with a lucrative film contract, and, in a triumphant homecoming, several now-legendary performances at the Tupelo fairgrounds. Presley's name and likeness also adorned a myriad of products, ranging from charm bracelets to stuffed hound dogs. During their first fifteen months on the shelves, Presley merchandise accounted for $40 million in sales.
There was, after all, a new and burgeoning market: the American teenager. The country's approximately thirteen million teenagers had annual earnings, including allowances, of more than $7 billion. Teen paychecks, the emergence of the 45 rpm record, and the popularity of the jukebox were integral to Presley's meteoric rise.
But not everyone applauded his pervasive presence. Originally, it was "race" artists such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry who spread the startling sound called "rock 'n' roll," which merged elements of gospel, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues. When white artists performed the music, it became more accessible. As performed by Presley, it became a volatile force. Denounced from pulpits, as well as by educators, the music was targeted for suppression by communities from coast to coast. As moral indignation grew, Presley became a whipping boy. The national boiling point followed his sexually charged performance of "Hound Dog" on The Milton Berle Show. Critics railed, calling him "lewd," "obscene," and "suggestive." A reprieve came with his third and final appearance on America's premiere variety show, The Ed Sullivan Show. Following Presley's performance of January 1957, the respected host assured his audience that Presley was a "real decent, fine boy."
Fame brought changes to Presley's personal life. He moved his family into their new home, the Memphis estate named Graceland. He indulged in cosmetic alterations, including capped teeth, a nose-job, and skin treatments. He dyed his hair black, in the belief that black hair made a subject more striking for the cameras.
The inveterate moviegoer had dreamed of becoming a serious actor. But producers did not want Presley to dramatically emote; they wanted him to sing. Thus, anachronistic musical numbers found their way into Presley's 1956 film debut, the bittersweet Civil War romance, Love Me Tender, for which he was critically reviled. He fared better in 1957 with the back-to-back, somewhat autobiographical entries Loving You and Jailhouse Rock. The latter is significant for his surly performance, and the stunning title song musical sequence. His follow-up film, the gritty King Creole, boasted his most promising work. Then came his induction into the U.S. Army.
The Memphis Selective Service Commission's 1958 decision to draft Presley prompted congratulatory letters from parents, along with death threats from teenage girls. For many, his haircut by U.S. Army barbers was a powerful and welcome sign that a rebellious era was ending.
The military stint proved significant for Presley. While stationed in Germany he began seriously popping barbiturates in an effort to keep longer hours. In the wake of his mother's death, which left him devastated, he also formed a close relationship with the fourteen-year-old daughter of an Air Force captain. He later had the teenage Priscilla Beaulieu brought to Memphis, to surreptitiously live at Graceland.
Returning from the service in 1960, Presley headed to Hollywood where he and his entourage became renowned for their womanizing and wild parties. Presley's inner circle, which came to be known as the Memphis Mafia, provided a buffer for the star, who increasingly kept his private life private.
His first post-Army film, the formulaic G.I. Blues, triggered a series of lightweight romantic musicals set against exotic settings, co-starring myriad pretty girls. Presley cynically referred to them as "travelogues." Still, films such as Blue Hawaii and Fun in Acapulco were huge moneymakers. And he found his match, in talent and charisma, opposite real life romantic interest Ann-Margret in the 1964 title, Viva Las Vegas.
Musically, the post-Army Presley concentrated on ballads. Signifying his shift from rock 'n' roll was "Are You Lonesome Tonight?," as well as "It's Now or Never," which featured Presley in a crooning mode. There were also frothy songs from his movies, and religious entries including "Crying in the Chapel." To young people, it appeared Presley was stagnating. He himself worried that he was being eclipsed by the "British invasion." In desperation, he agreed to star in an NBC-TV special. The resulting Elvis, which aired in December 1968, stands as one of the great show business comebacks. Looking slim and sexy, clad in tight-fitting black leather, Presley performed before a live audience in jam session-style. When he returned to TV five years later, Presley was likewise a mesmerizing figure, in white jumpsuit and an American eagle-emblazoned cape. Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii—Via Satellite, was beamed to countries around the world, to a record-breaking audience of as many as 1.5 billion.
Enshrined as "The King," the Presley of the early 1970s was the top headliner of Las Vegas, where he was under contract to the Hilton International Hotel. He also played to sold-out crowds in concert arenas across the country. With the revitalization of his career came a tone of playful self-mockery, as evidenced by the inclusion of Richard Strauss's monumental "Also Sprake Zarathustra" as the opening music for his concerts.
But Presley's professional triumphs were marred by escalating personal woes. His relationship with Beaulieu, who he had married in May 1967, unraveled shortly after the 1968 birth of daughter Lisa Marie. The couple divorced in 1973. His health also suffered. From late 1973 until his death, Presley was in and out of hospitals, "officially" for treatment of pneumonia, exhaustion, and other ailments. In truth, he was battling a long term dependence on prescription drugs, as well as weight problems. During 1975 and 1976 his performances were increasingly erratic. One Las Vegas engagement was canceled when he collapsed, in tears, on stage.
Despite the warning signs, the world was stunned when Presley died at his Graceland home at age forty-two, on August 16, 1977. President Jimmy Carter observed the passing with a statement saluting the man who symbolized America's "vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor." An estimated 80,000 people lined the streets of Memphis to watch the funeral procession.
Coincidentally, Presley died shortly after the publication of Elvis: What Happened?, a lurid exposé penned by former aides. The dark side of his life consequently became fodder for tabloid writers and biographers. Among them was Albert Goldman, whose 1981 book, Elvis, is infamous for its cruel tone. Because of the tell-alls, some Presley associates, including the Mafia members and personal physician Dr. George Nichopolous, became familiar names. And there was heightened skepticism over the exact cause of Presley's death. When he died, his system contained traces of ten different drugs, including morphine and codeine. But the medical examiner had determined that "hypertensive heart disease" had caused the death. Autopsy results were reexamined in 1994, and it was concluded that Presley had died of a heart attack. Yet drugs and gluttony certainly contributed to his downward spiral. Presley stands as a preeminent example of the dangers of excess.
But Presley also personifies the American Dream. He ranks as a preeminent musical influence of the twentieth century. At the time of his death, he had sold more than 500 million records. His vast catalog, encompassing blues, rockabilly, country, gospel, rock 'n' roll, and more, is unsurpassed. In revolutionizing popular music, he spawned countless imitators, including the pompadoured rock 'n' rollers who climbed the charts in his aftermath. He also influenced two generations of performers and musicians, professionally and personally.
With his penchant for pink Cadillacs, jewel-encrusted rings, and other audacious trappings, Presley embodied the concept of the superstar as conspicuous consumer. By buying his mother a house, he set a rock-world precedent. By cleverly reinventing himself to suit changing times and tastes, he set a pattern since emulated by rock stars ranging from Elton John to Michael Jackson, from Madonna to Courtney Love. But unlike his successors, his varying images went beyond promotional angles to become cultural benchmarks. When the U.S. Postal Service issued a twenty-nine cent Presley stamp in 1993, the public voted for the image to illustrate the young Fifties-era Elvis. Within the merchandising arena, Elvises of all eras abound, on products ranging from alarm clocks to dolls, from designer ties to doormats. Closely guarding the name, likeness, and image of the entertainer is Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., a multimillion dollar business owned by Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, and overseen by Priscilla Presley. It was Priscilla who salvaged the Presley estate, which was mismanaged during Presley's lifetime due to business dealings balanced in favor of Colonel Parker. The empire's crown jewel is Graceland, which is visited annually by some 750,000 people, making it the second most-toured residence following the White House.
Presley was himself a visitor to the White House, albeit an uninvited one, when he showed up in December 1970 and asked to be part of the country's war on drugs. Unaware of the rock star's own drug dependency, President Richard M. Nixon made Presley an honorary narcotics agent. Their meeting, one of the oddest political summits, ever, typified the surreal, unsurpassed nature of Presley's stardom. That bizarre quality continued into the 1990s, as personified by Elvis cults, Elvis "sightings," Elvis impersonators, and even Lisa Marie Presley's brief marriage to pop superstar Michael Jackson.
So rife is the Elvis Presley influence that the mere mention of certain foods, such as the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, a Presley favorite, summon up his memory. Certain clothing attire, including blue suede shoes, immediately suggest Presley. He is the subject of a thriving cottage publishing industry, has been scrutinized in movies and TV shows, and even shows up as a "character" in movies and on TV. His appeal spans all social strata; studied and analyzed in universities, he remains a frequent tabloid subject. The Presley concert closing announcement, that "Elvis has left the building!," has even become part of the lexicon. But Presley hasn't really left. He lives in the collective conscience. In the parlance of Presley fans, Elvis is eternal.
—Pat H. Broeske
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Goldman, Albert. Elvis. New York, Avon, 1981.
Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. Boston, Little, Brown, 1994.
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York, Villard Books, 1993.
Shearer, Lloyd. "I Remember Elvis." Parade. January 29, 1978, 4-9.
Torgoff, Martin, editor. The Complete Elvis. New York, Delilah Books, 1982.
West, Red, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler, as told to Steve Dunleavy. Elvis: What Happened? New York, Ballantine Books, 1977.