Elvis Presley


Elvis Presley
Parents, childhood and youth
Elvis Aaron Presley
Musical roots
Voice characteristics
Sun recordings
Presley and his manager "Colonel" Tom Parker
Cultural impact
Presley and African American music
"A danger to American culture"
American icon
Military service
1960s film career
1968 comeback
The final years
Death and burial

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970

Background information

Birth name

Elvis Aron Presley


January 8, 1935
Tupelo, Mississippi, USA


August 16, 1977,Memphis, Tennessee, USA


Country, Gospel,Rock'n'Roll


Singer, Actor, American soldier


Guitar and Piano

Years active



Sun, (19531955), RCA Victor,(19561977)


1 Parents, childhood and youth

2 Musical roots

3 Voice characteristics

4 Sun recordings

5 Presley and his manager "Colonel" Tom Parker

6 Cultural impact

6.1 Presley and African American music

6.2 "A danger to American culture"

6.3 American icon

7 Military service

8 1960s film career

9 1968 comeback

10 The final years

11 Death and burial

21 Notes

Elvis Aron Presley (January 8, 1935August 16, 1977) often known simply as Elvis and also called "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" or simply "The King", was an American singer and actor. He is regarded by many to be the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. (Presley's birth certificate uses the spelling Aron, but his estate has designated Aaron as the official spelling of his middle name.)

Presley started as a singer of rockabilly, singing many songs from rhythm and blues (R&B), gospel and country. He was first billed as "The Hilbilly Cat". His combination of country music with bluesy vocals and a strong back beat marked a clear path toward rock & roll. He was the most commercially successful singer of rock and roll, but he also had success with ballads, country, gospel, blues, pop, folk and even semi-operatic and jazz standards. His voice, which developed into many voices as his career progressed, had always a unique tonality and an extraordinary unusual center of gravity, leading to his being able to tackle a range of songs and melodies which would be nearly impossible for most other popular singers to achieve. In a musical career of over two decades, Presley set many records, such as concert attendance, television ratings, and record sales, and became one of the best-selling artists in music history.

Elvis Presley is an icon of modern American pop culture. During the late 1960's and through a large portion of the 1970's, Presley re-emerged as a live performer of old and new hit songs, both on tour and in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was known for his on-stage highly energetic performances both vocally and physically, his sartorial jump-suits and capes adding to the drama. He attracted massive attendance figures. His concert performances were staggering in quantity, considering they numbered over 1,100 in 8 years. He continued to perform before sell-out audiences around the U.S. until his death in 1977.[1][2][3] His death was premature at 42, despite alarming concerns about his health. When he died on August 16, 1977, it was a huge shock to his fans. However, it soon became clear that a combination of over-work, obesity, depression, bad diet and severe abuse of prescription drugs, accelerated his premature departure. His popularity as a singer has survived his death.

Parents, childhood and youth

Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 at around 4:13 a.m. in a two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon Presley, a truck driver, and Gladys Love Smith, a sewing machine operator. Vernon Presley is described as a "taciturn to the point of sullenness," whereas his mother Gladys "was voluble, lively, full of spunk."[4] Priscilla Presley describes her as "a surreptitious drinker and alcoholic." When she was angry, "she cussed like a sailor".[5] Presley's twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn, thus leaving him to grow up as an only child. The surname Presley was Anglicized from the German name "Pressler" during the Civil War. His ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler emigrated to America in 1710. Presley was mostly of Scottish,[6]Native American, Irish, Jewish, and German roots.

Presley's parents were very protective of their only surviving child. The little boy "grew up a loved and precious child. He was, everyone agreed, unusually close to his mother."[7] His mother Gladys "worshipped him", said a neighbor, "from the day he was born." Elvis himself said, "My mama never let me out of her sight. I couldn't go down to the creek with the other kids."[8] In his teens he was still a very shy person, a "kid who had spent scarcely a night away from home in his nineteen years."[9] He was teased by his fellow classmates who threw "things at him - rotten fruit and stuff - because he was different, because he was quiet and he stuttered and he was a mama's boy."[10] Gladys was so proud of her son, that, years later, she "would get up early in the morning to run off the fans so Elvis could sleep".[11] She was frightened of Elvis being hurt: "She knew her boy, and she knew he could take care of himself, but what if some crazy man came after him with a gun? she said...tears streaming down her face."[12]

In 1938, when Presley was three years old, his father was convicted of forgery. Vernon, Gladys's brother Travis Smith, and Luther Gable went to prison for altering a check from Orville Bean, Vernon's boss, from $3 to $8 and then cashing it at a local bank. Vernon was sentenced to three years at Mississippi State Penitentiary.[13] Though Vernon was released after serving eight months, this event deeply influenced the life of the young family. During her husband's absence, Gladys lost the house and was forced to move in briefly with her in-laws next door. The Presley family lived just above the poverty line during their years in East Tupelo.

In 1941 Presley started school at the East Tupelo Consolidated. There he seems to have been an outsider. His few friends relate that he was separate from any crowd and did not belong to any "gang", but, according to his teachers, he was a sweet and average student, and he loved comic books. In 1943 Vernon moved to Memphis, where he found work and stayed throughout the war, coming home only on weekends.

In January 1945 Gladys took Elvis shopping for a birthday present at Tupelo hardware. And she bought him his first guitar, in lieu of a bike and rifle, for $12.75.

In 1946 Presley started at a new school, Milam, which went from grades 5 through 9, but in 1948 the family left Tupelo, moving 110 miles northwest to Memphis, Tennessee. Here too, the thirteen-year-old lived in the city's poorer section of town and attended a Pentecostal church. At this time, he was very much influenced by the Memphis blues music and the gospel sung at his church.

Presley entered Humes High School in Memphis taking up work at the school library and after school at Loew's State Theatre. In 1951 he enrolled in the school's ROTC unit, tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the high school football team (supposedly cut from the team by the coach for not trimming his sideburns and ducktail), spending his spare time around the African-American section of Memphis, especially on Beale Street. In 1953 he graduated from Humes, majoring in History, English, and Shop.

After graduation Presley worked first at Parker Machinists Shop, and then for the Precision Tool Company with his father, finally working for the Crown Electric Company driving a truck, where he began wearing his hair the trademarked pompadour style.

Musical roots

Elvis was very influenced by gospel acts, as well as acts such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The common story that the Presleys formed a popular gospel trio who sang in church and travelled about to various revival meetings is probably not true.[14] However, in 1945 Presley, just ten years old, entered a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Decked out in a cowboy outfit, he had to stand on a chair to reach the microphone singing Red Foley's "Old Shep." He won second place, a $5 prize and a free ticket to all the rides. On his birthday in January 1946 he received a guitar purchased from Tupelo Hardware Store. In his seventh-grade year at Milam he seems to have taken this guitar to school every day. Many of the other children denigrated him as a "trashy" kind of boy playing trashy "hillbilly" music. Over the next year, Vernon's brother Johnny Smith and Assembly of God pastor Frank Smith gave him basic guitar lessons.

Some years later, in Memphis, Tennessee, the young Presley "spent much of his spare time hanging around the black section of town, especially on Beale Street, where bluesmen like Furry Lewis and B.B. King performed".[15] B.B. King says that he "knew Elvis before he was popular. He used to come around and be around us a lot. There was a place we used to go and hang out on Beale Street".[16] Beale Street in Memphis was notorious for its bars, prostitutes and gambling establishments. Music producer Jim Dickinson called it "the center of all evil in the known universe".[17] But it was a place where young Presley could hear black music. In an interview with Ev Grimes, composer Philip Glass says, "Elvis Presley was really the guy that took black music and made it—well, popular is really the best word."[18] In similar terms, Elijah Wald writes that Presley has "listened carefully to Negro blues men and sanctified singers, swallowed all of that music and combined it with hillbilly sound."[19]

The opening chapter of Peter Guralnick's book Last Train To Memphis [8] deals with musical influence coming from birth exclusively through his family's attendance at the Assembly of God, a Pentecostal Holiness church. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that: "Gospel pervaded Elvis' character and was a defining and enduring influence all of his days."[20] The United States government mandatory personal examination of Presley as part of the approval process to make his Graceland home a National Historic Landmark wrote that Presley "clearly embraced African American music and culture and did so at a pivotal point of cultural change in American history" but that " Gospel music was his primary musical influence." The U.S. government historian stated that "In the early years of the twentieth century, the evangelical Pentecostal movement with its "vibrant worship style" became extremely popular with working-class Christians, black and white." The church services in which the Presley family participated was where people "jumped, shouted, danced, and fell out for Jesus, because, in a word, they acted "crazy, " they became a national laughingstock, the Holy Rollers of fable and cliché." According to the study, the family's move to Memphis expanded his musical horizons when he began to attend Sunday services at the East Trigg Baptist Church.[21]

Voice characteristics

Elvis Presley was a baritone whose voice had an extraordinary compass — the so-called register — and a very wide range of vocal color.[22] It covered two octaves and a third, from the baritone low-G to the tenor high B, with an upward extension in falsetto to at least a D flat. Presley's best octave was in the middle, D-flat to D-flat. In ballads and country songs he was able to belt out full-voiced high Gs and As, showing a remarkable ability to naturally assimilate styles.

Presley's range, though impressive in its own right, did not in itself make his voice that remarkable, at least in terms of how it measured against musical notation. What made it extraordinary, was where its center of gravity lay. By that measure, and according to Gregory Sandows, Music Professor at Columbia University, Presley was at once a bass, a baritone, and a tenor, most unusual among singers in either classical or popular music.

Sun recordings

Main article: Elvis Presley's Sun recordings

On July 18, 1953 Presley paid $3.25 to record the first of two double-sided demos acetates at Sun Studios, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", which were popular ballads at the time. According to the official Presley website, Presley gave it to his mother as a much-belated birthday present. Presley returned to Sun Studios (706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee) on January 4, 1954. He again paid $8.25 to record a second demo, "I'll Never Stand in Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You" (master 0812).

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who had already recorded bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, B.B. King, Little Milton and Junior Parker [9], was looking for "a white man with a Negro sound and the Negro feel," with whom he "could make a billion dollars," because he thought black blues and boogie-woogie music might become tremendously popular among white people if presented in the right way.[23] The Sun Records producer felt that a black rhythm and blues act stood little chance at the time of gaining the broad exposure needed to achieve large-scale commercial success."[24]

Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the Presley discs and called him on June 26, 1954 to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although that session was not productive, Phillips put Presley together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954, Presley began singing a blues song written by Arthur Crudup called "That's All Right". Phillips liked the resulting record and on July 19, 1954 he released it as a 78-rpm single backed with Presley's hopped-up version of Bill Monroe's bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky". Memphis radio station WHBQ began playing it two days later, the record became a local hit and Presley began a regular touring schedule hoping to expand his fame beyond Tennessee.

However, Sam Phillips had difficulty persuading Southern white disc jockeys to play Presley's first recordings. The only place that played his records at first were in the Negro sections of Chicago and Detroit and in California. However, his music and style began to draw larger and larger audiences as he toured the South in 1955. Soon, demand by white teenagers that their local radio stations play his music overcame much of that resistance and as Rolling Stone magazine wrote years later in Presley's biography: "Overnight, it seemed, "race music," as the music industry had labeled the work of black artists, became a thing of the past, as did the pejorative "hillbilly" music. [10] Still, throughout 1955 and even well into 1956 when he had become a national phenomenon, Presley had to deal with an entrenched racism of die-hard segregationists and their continued labeling of his sound and style as vulgar "nigger music". Allegations of racism were made against Presley, possibly by those segregationist elements who hated what he was doing. Jet examined the issue and in its August 1, 1957 edition, the African American magazine concluded that: "To Elvis, people are people regardless of race, color or creed."[25]

Country music star Hank Snow arranged to have Presley perform at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and his performance was well received. Nonetheless, one of the show's executives was not impressed and hinted that Presley should give up his music.

Presley's second single, "Good Rockin' Tonight", with "I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine" on the B-side, was released on September 25, 1954. He then continued to tour the South. 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 the large audience. His releases began to reach the top of the country charts. Following this, Presley was signed to a one-year contract for a weekly performance, during which time he was introduced to Colonel Tom Parker.

National exposure began on January 28, 1956, when Presley, Moore, Black and drummer D.J. Fontana made their first National Television appearance on the Dorsey brothers' Stage Show. It was the first of six appearances on the show and the first of eight performances recorded and broadcast from CBS TV Studio 50 at 1697 Broadway, New York. After the success of their first appearance they were signed to five more in early 1956 (February 4, 11, 18 and March 17 and 24).

Presley and his manager "Colonel" Tom Parker

On August 15, 1955, Presley was signed by "Hank Snow Attractions", a management company jointly owned by singer Hank Snow and "Colonel" Tom Parker. Shortly thereafter, "Colonel" Parker took full control and recognizing the limitations of Sun Studios, negotiated a deal with RCA Victor Records to acquire Presley's Sun contract for $35,000 on November 21, 1955. Presley's first single for RCA "Heartbreak Hotel" quickly sold one million copies and within a year RCA would go on to sell ten million Presley singles.

Elvis Presley at the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair, 1956

Parker was a master promoter who wasted no time in furthering Presley's image, licensing everything from guitars to cookware. Parker's first major coup was to market Presley on television. First, he had Presley booked in six of the Dorsey Shows (CBS). Presley appeared on the show on January 28, 1956, then on February 4, 11 & 18, 1956, with two more appearances on March 17 & 24, 1956. In March, he was able to obtain a lucrative deal with Milton Berle (NBC), for two appearances: The first appearance on April 3, 1956. The second appearance was controversial pertaining to Presley's performance of "Hound Dog" on the June 5, 1956. It sparked a storm over his "gyrations" while singing. The controversy lasted through the rest of the 50's. However, that show drew such huge ratings that Steve Allen (ABC) booked him for one appearance, which took place early on July 1, 1956. That night, Allen had for the first time beaten The Ed Sullivan Show in the Sunday night ratings, prompting Sullivan (CBS) to book Presley for three appearances: September 9, and October 28, 1956 as well as January 6, 1957, for an unprecedented fee of $50,000. On September 9, 1956, at his first of three appearances on the Sullivan show, Presley drew an estimated 82.5% percent of the television audience, calculated at between 55-60 million viewers.

Parker eventually negotiated a multi-picture seven-year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer that shifted Presley's focus from music to films. Under the terms of his contract, Presley earned a fee for performing plus a percentage of the profits on the films, most of which were huge moneymakers. These were usually musicals based around Presley performances, and marked the beginning of his transition from rebellious rock and roller to all-round family entertainer. Presley was praised by all his directors, including the highly respected Michael Curtiz, as unfailingly polite and extremely hardworking.

Presley began his movie career with Love Me Tender (opened on November 15, 1956). The movies Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) are regarded as among his best early films.

Parker's success led to Presley expanding the "Colonel's" management contract to an even 50/50 split. Over the years, much has been written about "Colonel" Parker, most of it critical. Marty Lacker, a lifelong friend and a member of the Memphis Mafia, says he thought of Parker as a "hustler and scam artist" who abused Presley's reliance on him. Priscilla Presley admits that "Elvis detested the business side of his career. He would sign a contract without even reading it."[26] This would explain the strong influence the Colonel had on Presley. Nonetheless, Lacker acknowledged that Parker was a master promoter.[27]

Cultural impact

Presley and African American music

Even in the 1950s era of blantant racism, Presley would publicly cite his debt to African American music, pointing to artists such as B. B. King, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Jackie Wilson, Ivory Joe Hunter, and Fats Domino. The reporter who conducted Presley's first interview in New York City in 1956 noted that he named blues singers who "obviously meant a lot to him. I was very surprised to hear him talk about the black performers down there and about how he tried to carry on their music."[citation needed] Later that year in Charlotte, North Carolina, Presley was quoted as saying: "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin' now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw."[28] Little Richard said of Presley: "He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music."[29] B. B. King said he began to respect Presley after he did Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup material and that after he met him, he thought the singer really was something else and was someone whose music was growing all the time right up to his death.[30]

Up to the mid 1950s black artists had sold miniscule amounts of their recorded music relative to the national market potential. Black songwriters had mostly limited horizons and could only eke out a living. But after Presley purchased the music of African American Otis Blackwell and had his "Gladys Music" company hire talented black songwriter Claude Demetrius, the industry underwent a dramatic change. In the spring of 1957 Presley invited African American performer Ivory Joe Hunter to visit Graceland and the two spent the day together, singing "I Almost Lost My Mind" and other songs. Of Presley, Hunter commented, "He showed me every courtesy, and I think he's one of the greatest."[31]

However, certain elements in American society began to simply dismiss Presley as no more than a racist Southerner who stole black music. However, in the words of Black R&B artist Jackie Wilson, "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis." "Racists attacked rock and roll because of the mingling of black and white people it implied and achieved, and because of what they saw as black music's power to corrupt through vulgar and animalistic rhythms. ... The popularity of Elvis Presley was similarly founded on his transgressive position with respect to racial and sexual boundaries. ... White cover versions of hits by black musicians ... often outsold the originals; it seems that many Americans wanted black music without the black people in it,"[32] and Elvis had undoubtedly "derived his style from the Negro rhythm-and-blues performers of the late 1940's."[33] "Many White people would be surprised to learn that Elvis Presley's hit 'Hound Dog' was first popularized by a Black woman, Big Mama Thornton, (but it was written by the white songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). Elvis and his music live on the collective memory of Whites, yet Little Richard, some of whose work Elvis borrowed, has been forgotten."[34] A southern background combined with a performing style largely associated with African Americans had let to "bitter criticism by those who feel he stole a good thing," as Tan magazine surmised.[35] No wonder that Elvis became "a symbol of all that was oppressive to the black experience in the Western Hemisphere".[36] What is more, Presley was widely believed to have said, "The only thing black people can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records."[37] It was claimed that the alleged comment was been made either in Boston or on Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person.[38] A black southerner in the late 1980s even captured that sentiment: "To talk to Presley about blacks was like talking to Adolph Hitler about the Jews."[39]

In his scholarly work Race, Rock, and Elvis,[40] Tennessee State University professor Michael T. Bertrand examined the relationship between popular culture and social change in America and these allegations against Presley. Professor Bertrand postulated that Presley's rock and roll music brought an unprecedented access to African American culture that challenged that 1950s segregated generation to reassess ingrained segregationist stereotypes. The American Historical Review wrote that the author "convincingly argues that the black-and-white character of the sound, as well as Presley's own persona, helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement." The U.S. government report stated: "Presley has been accused of "stealing" black rhythm and blues, but such accusations indicate little knowledge of his many musical influences." "However much Elvis may have 'borrowed' from black blues performers (e.g., 'Big Boy' Crudup, 'Big Mama' Thornton), he borrowed no less from white country stars (e.g., Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe) and white pop singers (e.g., Mario Lanza, Dean Martin)," and most of his borrowings came from the church; its gospel music was his primary musical influence and foundation."

"A danger to American culture"

By the spring of 1956, Presley was fast becoming a national phenomenon[41] and teenagers came to his concerts in unprecedented numbers. When he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair in 1956, 100 National Guardsmen surrounded the stage to control crowds of excited fans. The singer was considered to represent a threat to the moral well-being of young American women. The Roman Catholic Church denounced him in its weekly magazine in an article headlined "Beware Elvis Presley."[42]

In an interview with PBS television, social historian Eric Lott said, "all the citizens' councils in the South called Elvis 'nigger music' and were terribly afraid that Elvis, white as he was, being ambiguously raced just by being working-class, was going to corrupt the youth of America."[43] Robert Kaiser says he was the first who gave the people "a music that hit them where they lived, deep in their emotions, yes, even below their belts. Other singers had been doing this for generations, but they were black."[44] Therefore, his performance style was frequently criticized. Social guardians blasted anyone responsible for exposing impressionable teenagers to his "gyrating figure and suggestive gestures." The Louisville chief of police, for instance, called for a no-wiggle rule to halt "any lewd, lascivious contortions that would excite the crowd."[45] Even Priscilla Presley confirms that "his performances were labeled obscene. My mother stated emphatically that he was 'a bad influence for teenage girls. He arouses things in them that shouldn't be aroused.'"[46]

According to rhythm and blues artist Hank Ballard, "In white society, the movement of the butt, the shaking of the leg, all that was considered obscene. Now here's this white boy that's grinding and rolling his belly and shaking that notorious leg. I hadn't even seen the black dudes doing that."[47] Presley complained bitterly in a June 27, 1956, interview about being singled out as “obscene”.[48] Due to his controversial style of song and stage performances, municipal politicians began denying permits for Presley appearances. This caused teens to pile into cars and travel elsewhere to see him perform. Adult programmers announced they would not play Presley's music on their radio stations due to religious convictions that his music was "devil music" and to racist beliefs that it was "nigger music." Many of Presley's records were condemned as wicked by Pentecostal preachers, 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.") However, the economic power of Presley's fans became evident when they tuned in alternative radio stations playing his records. In an era when radio stations were shifting to an all-music format, in reaction to competition from television, profit-conscious radio station owners learned quickly when sponsors bought more advertising time on new all "rock and roll" stations, some of which reached enormous markets at night with clear channel signals from AM broadcasts.

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 (during which he performed the spiritual number "Peace in the Valley"), when he was filmed only from the waist up.

American icon

According to Rolling Stone magazine, "it was Elvis who made rock 'n' roll the international language of pop." A PBS documentary described Presley as "an American music giant of the 20th century who singlehandedly changed the course of music and culture in the mid-1950s."[49] His recordings, dance moves, attitude and clothing came to be seen as embodiments of rock and roll. His music was heavily influenced by African-American blues, Christian gospel, and Southern country.

Presley sang both hard driving rockabilly, rock and roll dance songs and ballads, laying a commercial foundation upon which other rock musicians would build their careers. 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. The Beatles superstar John Lennon later observed, "Before Elvis, there was nothing."

During the post-WWII economic boom of the 1950s, many parents were able to give their teenaged children much higher weekly allowances, signalling a shift in the buying power and purchasing habits of American 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 and up. Along with Presley's "ducktail" haircut, the demand for black slacks and loose, open-necked shirts resulted in new lines of clothing for teenaged boys whereas a girl might get a pink portable 45 rpm record player for her bedroom. Meanwhile American teenagers began buying newly available portable transistor radios[50] 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 Presley became a national symbol of their parents' consternation.

Presley in 1957

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 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 (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."[51]

Military service

On December 20, 1957, at the peak of his career, Presley received his draft board notice for his mandatory service in the United States Army. He was worried that his absence in the public eye for 2 years, while serving in the Army, might end his career. Even more worried were Hal Wallis and Paramount who already spent $350,000 on pre-production of Presley's latest film King Creole and they feared of suspending the project or worse canceling it. Fortunately, the Memphis Draft Board granted Wallis and Colonel Parker a deferment until March 20 so Presley could complete his film project.[52] On 24 March 1958, Presley joined his unit, 1st Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment and was posted to Germany.

While serving in Germany, Presley met his wife-to-be - the then 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu; noted International Herald Tribune correspondent and humorist Art Buchwald; future US Secretary of State Colin Powell (then a lieutenant with the Third Army Division in Germany); and Walter Alden, the father of Presley's fiancee Ginger Alden who inducted Presley into the Army.

His rankings and dates of promotions were as follows: Private (upon draft March 24, 1958), Private First Class (November 27, 1958), Specialist Fourth Class (June 1, 1959), Sergeant (January 20, 1960). While in the Army, he earned sharpshooter badges for both the .45 pistol and the M1 rifle, and a marksman badge for the M2 carbine, as well as a Good Conduct Medal.[53]

Presley returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant (E-5) on March 5.[54]

After serving his duty in the military, he became more mature and lost his raw and rebellious edge.[55] However, he gained respect from older and more conservative crowds who initially disliked him before he entered the Army.

1960s film career

Presley admired James Dean and Tony Curtis style and returned from the military eager to make a career as a movie star. Although "he was definitely not the most talented actor around.",[56] he "became a film genre of his own."[57] Pop film staples of the early sixties, such as the Presley musicals and the AlP beach movies were mainly produced for a teenage audience and called by film critics a "pantheon of bad taste"[58] In the sixties, at Colonel Parker's command, Presley withdrew from concerts and television appearances, after his final appearance with Frank Sinatra on NBC entitled "Welcome Home Elvis" where he sang "Witchcraft/Love Me Tender" with Sinatra, in order to make these movies. "He blamed his fading popularity on his humdrum movies," Priscilla Presley recalled in her 1985 autobiography, Elvis and Me. "He loathed their stock plots and short shooting schedules. He could have demanded better, more substantial scripts but he didn't." According to most critics, the scripts of the movies "were all the same, the songs progressively worse."[59] The latter were "written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll."[60] For Blue Hawaii and its soundtrack LP, "fourteen songs were cut in just three days."[61] Julie Parrish, starring in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, says that Presley hated such songs and that he "couldn't stop laughing while he was recording" one of them.[62]

Although some film critics chastised these movies for their lack of depth, the fans turned out and they were enormously profitable. According to Jerry Hopkins's book, Elvis in Hawaii, Presley's "pretty-as-a-postcard movies" even "boosted the new state's (Hawaii) tourism. Some of his most enduring and popular songs came from those movies."[63] Altogether, Presley had made 27 movies during the 1960s, "which had grossed about $130 million, and he had sold a hundred million records, which had made $150 million."[64] Overall, he was one of the highest paid Hollywood actors during the 1960s. However, during the later sixties, "the Elvis Presley film was becoming passé. Young people were tuning in, dropping out and doing acid. Musical acts like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, the Doors, Janis Joplin and many others were dominating the airwaves. Elvis Presley was not considered as cool as he once was."[65]

1968 comeback

Presley's star had faded slightly over the 1960s as he made his movies and America was struck by changing styles and tastes after the "British Invasion" spearheaded by the Beatles.

Until the late sixties Presley continued to star in many B-movies, featuring soundtracks that were of increasingly lower quality. He had become deeply dissatisfied with the direction his career had taken over the ensuing seven years, most notably the film contracts with a demanding schedule that eliminated creative recording and giving public concerts. This lead to a triumphant televised performance later dubbed the '68 Comeback Special, aired on the NBC television network on December 3, 1968 and released as an album by RCA. In a special that saw him return to his rock and roll roots, Rolling Stone magazine called it "a performance of emotional grandeur and historical resonance". [11]

The comeback of 1968 was followed by a 1969 return to live performances, first in Las Vegas and then across the United States. The return concerts were noted for the constant stream of sold-out shows, with many setting attendance records in the venues where he performed.

Two concert films were also released: Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972).

The final years

After seven years off the top of the charts, Presley's song "Suspicious Minds" hit number one on the Billboard music charts on November 1, 1969.[66] He also reached number one on charts elsewhere: "In the Ghetto" did so in West Germany in 1969 and "The Wonder of You" did so in the UK in 1970.

The "Aloha from Hawaii" concert in January 1973 was the first of its kind to be broadcast worldwide via satellite and was seen by at least one billion viewers worldwide. The RCA soundtrack album to the show reached number-one in the charts.

Presley recorded a number of country hits in his final years. Way Down was languishing in the American Country Music chart shortly before his death in 1977, and reached number one the week after his death. It also topped the UK pop charts at the same time.

Between 1969 and 1977 Presley gave over 1,000 sold-out performances in Las Vegas and on tour. He was the first artist to have four shows in a row sold to capacity crowds at New York's Madison Square Garden.

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 his live stage performances almost always included a rendition of How Great Thou Art, the 19th century gospel song made famous by George Beverly Shea. Although some critics say that the singer travestied, commercialized and soft-soaped gospel "to the point where it became nauseating.",[67] twenty-four years after his death, the Gospel Music Association inducted him into its Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001).

After his divorce in 1973 Presley became increasingly isolated, overweight, and battling an addiction to prescription drugs which took a heavy toll on his appearance, health, and performances. He made his last live concert appearance in Indianapolis at the Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977.

Death and burial

On August 16, 1977, at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, Presley was found lying on the floor of his bedroom's bathroom by his fiancee, Ginger Alden, who had been asleep. A stain on the bathroom carpeting was found that indicated "where Elvis had thrown up after being stricken, apparently while seated on the toilet. It looked to the medical investigator as if he had 'stumbled or crawled several feet before he died.' "[68] He was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 3:30 P.M. Presley was 42 years old.

Elvis Presley funeral procession.

At a press conference following his death, one of the medical examiners declared that he had died of a cardiac arrhythmia from a intake of a large amount of drugs.

Rolling Stone magazine devoted an entire issue to Presley (RS 248) and his funeral was a national media event. [12] Hundreds of thousands of Presley fans, the press, and celebrities lined the street to witness Presley's funeral and Jackie Kahane gave the eulogy.

Presley was originally buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis next to his mother. After an attempted theft of the body, his remains and his mother's remains were moved to Graceland to the "meditation gardens."

Following Presley's death in 1977, US President Jimmy Carter said, "Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country."[69]


  1. ^ "Fans Of Elvis Pay a Lot to See Little" by Damien Jaques, The Milwaukee Journal, April 28, 1977, retrieved October 22, 2006

  2. ^ "They Screamed For Elvis 'All it took was a shake of a finger'" by Paul Betit, Kennebec Journal, May 25, 1977, retrieved October 22, 2006

  3. ^ "There's no doubt about it -Elvis is still 'king'" by Jeri Gulbransen, Rapid City Journal, June 22, 1977, retrieved October 22, 2006

  4. ^ Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, p.12.

  5. ^ Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me, p.172

  6. ^ "Elvis roots 'lead to Scotland'"; a 23 March 2004 BBC story that cites Allan Morrison, the author of the then-unpublished book The Presley Prophecy.

  7. ^ Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, p.13.

  8. ^ Guralnick, p.13.

  9. ^ Guralnick, p.149

  10. ^ Guralnick, p.36, referring to an account by singer Barbara Pittman and Patrick Humphries, Elvis The #1 Hits: The Secret History of the Classics, p.117.

  11. ^ Guralnick, p.280.

  12. ^ Guralnick, p.346.

  13. ^ Elvis Presley. history-of-rock.com. Retrieved on 2006-08-27.

  14. ^ Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis, p.17.

  15. ^ Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, p. 783

  16. ^ B.B. King, quoted in David Szatmary, A Time to Rock (1996), p. 35

  17. ^ James Dickerson, Goin’ Back to Memphis (1996), p. 27

  18. ^ Richard Kostelanetz and Robert Flemming, Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism (University of California Press, 1999), p.15.

  19. ^ Elijah Wald, Josh White: Society Blues (2002), p.264.

  20. ^ Rolling Stone biography on Elvis Presley [1]

  21. ^ United States Department of the Interior re Graceland National Historic Landmark Nomination report prepared by Jody Cook, Architectural Historian with detailed references: [2]

  22. ^ Henry Pleasants, The Great American Popular Singers.

  23. ^ See James Miller, Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 (1999), p. 71

  24. ^ Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis, p.27.

  25. ^ Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, p.426.

  26. ^ Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me, p. 188.

  27. ^ Marty Lacker, Lamar Fike, and Billy Smith, Elvis Aron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia (1995). A detailed biography of Parker was written by Alanna Nash and published in 2003.

  28. ^ "Elvis Rocks. But He's Not the First" by Christopher John Farley, TIME, July 6, 2004, retrieved October 22, 2006

  29. ^ United States Department of the Interior re Graceland National Historic Landmark Nomination report prepared by Jody Cook, Architectural Historian with detailed references: [3]

  30. ^ PBS television interview [4]

  31. ^ Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, p.426.

  32. ^ Robert Walser, "The rock and roll era", in The Cambridge History of American Music (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p.358.

  33. ^ Martha Bayles (ed.), Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p.22.

  34. ^ Carol Tator, Winston Matthis, Frances Henry, Challenging Racism in the Arts (University of Toronto Press, 1998), p.134.

  35. ^ Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2000), p.222.

  36. ^ Bertrand, p.27.

  37. ^ A variant: "I've only two uses for niggers – they can buy my records and they can shine my shoes." Quoted in Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age Is in Us: Journeys and Encounters, 1987-1994, p.17.

  38. ^ Bertrand, p.221.

  39. ^ Bertrand, p.200. The author adds, "One journalist wrote upon the singer's death that African Americans refused to participate in the numerous eulogies dedicated to him."

  40. ^ See University of Illinois Press website.

  41. ^ [5]

  42. ^ [6]

  43. ^ [7]

  44. ^ Quoted in Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (University of Illinois Press, 2000), p.223.

  45. ^ Bertrand, p.223.

  46. ^ Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me, p.8.

  47. ^ Quoted in Bertrand, p.223

  48. ^ Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook, Ben Saunders, Rock Over the Edge (Duke University Press, 2002), p.100.

  49. ^ "Elvis Presley": a page at pbs.org with a single paragraph, attributed to palmpictures.com.

  50. ^ Rich Gordon, "How Transistor Radios and Web (and Newspapers and Hi-Fi radio) are Alike", "Reprinted, with permission, from The Cole Papers, June 22, 2005."

  51. ^ Ian Brailsford, "History repeating itself: Were postwar American teenagers ripe for harvest?" (NB Microsoft Word format): transcript of a paper delivered at "Youth Marketing Reaches Forty", 17 May 2001.

  52. ^ Elvis in the Army

  53. ^ Sergeant Elvis Aaron Presley

  54. ^ www.army.mil/CMH/faq/elvis.htm.

  55. ^ Biography of Elvis Presley - Elvis Army Days

  56. ^ Leo Verswijver, Movies Were Always Magical: Interviews with 19 Actors, Directors, and Producers from the Hollywood of the 1930s through the 1950s (2002), p.129.

  57. ^ Tom Lisanti, Fantasy Femmes of 60's Cinema: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Biker, Beach, and Elvis Movies (2000), p.18.

  58. ^ Andrew Caine, Interpreting Rock Movies: The Pop Film and Its Critics in Britain, p. 21.

  59. ^ Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream (1999), p.67.

  60. ^ Jerry Hopkins, Elvis in Hawaii (2002), p.32.

  61. ^ Hopkins, p.31

  62. ^ Tom Lisanti, Fantasy Femmes of 60's Cinema, p.19, 136.

  63. ^ Hopkins, Elvis in Hawaii, p. vii

  64. ^ Magdalena Alagna, Elvis Presley (2002)

  65. ^ Tom Lisanti, Fantasy Femmes of 60's Cinema: Interviews with 20 Actresses from Biker, Beach, and Elvis Movies, p.19.

  66. ^ This was the last time any song by Presley reached number one on the Hot 100, although "Burning Love" reached two in September 1972, and "A Little Less Conversation" topped the Hot Singles Sales chart in 2002.

  67. ^ Albert Goldman, Elvis: The Last 24 Hours, p.187.

  68. ^ Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, p.651.

  69. ^ "Death of Elvis Presley Statement by the President." by John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, retrieved October 22, 2006
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