Elvis Presley is the undisputed King of Rock and Roll. He rose from humble circumstances to launch the rock and roll revolution with his commanding voice and charismatic stage presence. In the words of the historical marker that stands outside the house where he was born: “Presley’s career as a singer and entertainer redefined popular music.”
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, and grew up surrounded by gospel music of the Pentecostal church. In 1948 the family moved to Memphis, where he was exposed to blues and jazz on Beale Street. After graduating from high school in 1953, an 18-year-old Presley visited the Memphis Recording Service - also the home of Sun Records - to record his voice. Owner/producer Sam Phillips was struck by the plaintive emotion in Presley’s vocals and subsequently teamed him with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. In July 1954 the trio worked up “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” - blues and country songs, respectively - in a crackling, uptempo style that stands as the blueprint for rock and roll.
After five groundbreaking singles, Presley’s contract was sold to RCA Records and his career quickly took off. “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” - his last single for Sun and first for RCA - went to #1 on the country charts. “Heartbreak Hotel,” a haunting ballad, became his first across-the-board hit, holding down the top spot for eight weeks. Presley’s hip-shaking performances on a series of TV variety shows, including Ed Sullivan’s, generated hysteria and controversy. From blistering rockers to aching balladry, Presley captivated and liberated the teenage audience. His historic string of hits in 1956 and ‘57 included “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender,” “All Shook Up” and “Jailhouse Rock.”
Presley’s career momentum was interrupted by a two-year Army stint in Germany, where he met his future wife, Priscilla. For much of the Sixties, he occupied himself with movie-making and soundtrack-recording. His albums of sacred songs, such as How Great Thou Art, stand out from this otherwise fallow period. Presley’s standing as a rock and roller was rekindled with an electrifying TV special, simply titled Elvis and broadcast on December 3, 1968. He followed this mid-career renaissance with some of the most mature and satisfying work of his career. Recording in Memphis, he cut such classic tracks as “In the Ghetto, “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain” with the soulful, down-home musicians at American Studio.
If the Fifties were devoted to rock and roll and the Sixties to movies, the Seventies represent the performing chapter in Presley’s career. He toured constantly, performing to capacity crowds around the country until his death. Presley died of a heart attack at Graceland, his Memphis mansion, on August 16, 1977. He was 42 years old. How big was Elvis?
Statistically, he holds records for the most Top 40 hits (104), the most Top 10 hits (38) and the most weeks at Number One (80). As far as his stature as a cultural icon, which continues to grow even in death, writer Lester Bangs said it best: “I can guarantee you one thing - we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”