One of the iconic singers of the 20th century, Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977) was born in Tupelo, Mississippi to 18-year-old Vernon Elvis and 22-year-old Gladys Love Presley. His identical twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. As a young boy, he was often taunted as a “white trash” hillbilly from the wrong side of the Tupelo tracks— the local African-American neighborhood. Elvis was a fan of country radio station WELO in Tupelo, but when his family moved to Memphis in November of 1948, he fell under the spell of WDIA‘s rhythm and blues.
The Presleys moved into public housing in Memphis and Elvis became known as a shy boy at Humes High School. He learned some guitar from his neighbor, Jesse Lee Denson, and became musical friends with future rockabilly pioneers, Paul Burlison and the brothers, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. By 1953, his senior year, Elvis was greasing his hair, sporting sideburns, wearing flashy clothes from Lansky Brothers on Beale Street and performing in the school’s talent show.
Presley took a job driving a truck for Crown Electric company, but also auditioned for several music groups— and failed. Local Memphis music figure, Eddie Bond, told Elvis to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.” However, in August of 1953, the young man walked into Sun Records and payed to have his singing recorded on a two-sided acetate disc as a gift for his mother. The studio’s more-than-a-secretary, Marion Keisker, took note and recommended him to her boss, Sam Phillips. Phillips turned the singer over to guitarist, Scotty Moore, and bassist, Bill Black. All of them were unsure of Elvis’ singing ability until late in an unfruitful demo session, when he started clowning around with Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup‘s tune, “That’s All Right”. At that moment, Sam Phillips found what he had been looking for— “a white man who could sing black.”
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A test pressing was given to Phillip’s friend and WHBQ radio DJ, Dewey Phillips, who played it repeatedly on his Red, Hot, and Blue show. The program’s listeners overwhelmed the station with calls. Sam Phillips loaded copies of the single into the trunk of his car and tirelessly promoted it to radio stations in the region. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill increasingly performed in the area, opening for Slim Whitman at the Overton Park Bandshell. A local radio DJ, named Bob Neal, became their manager and soon had them booked on competing radio programs, The Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride. Scotty Moore remembered, “During the instrumental parts he would back off from the mic and be playing and shaking, and the crowd would just go wild”.
The Grand Old Opry spurned Elvis, but the Shreveport-based Louisiana Hayride radio program booked him for a year’s worth of popular weekend appearances. Elvis’ trio picked up the house drummer from the show, D. J. Fontana, and by 1955 the music act was a regional success, despite the radio industry finding Elvis “too black sounding for country stations, too hillbilly for R&B.” Sun records had released 10 singles on Elvis… among them “That’s All Right”, “Good Rocking Tonight”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, and “Mystery Train”. Colonel Tom Parker, who had worked with country stars Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow, became his manager, and RCA Victor offered Sun an unprecedented $40,000 for Elvis’ contract. Presley’s father had to sign on his behalf because, at age 20, Elvis was considered a minor.
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In 1956, recording began in RCA’s Nashville studio and included Elvis’ musicians, as well as Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, and Gordon Stoker of the gospel singing group The Jordanaires. “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single and Elvis’ self-titled RCA album became the first rock and roll album to top the Billboard chart— a position it held for 10 weeks. Parker began pitching Elvis to national television programs, pitting the variety shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan against each other. Sullivan had declared Elvis “unfit for family viewing” but the ratings for the singer’s appearances on his competitors’ shows forced Sullivan to change his mind. The show’s camera work attempted to conceal Elvis’ wild gyrations, but the studio audience screamed in a frenzy. That moment on The Ed Sullivan Show signaled Elvis’ breakthrough into national stardom.
Elvis’ music and stage movements created an outrage from television critics and authority figures. Ben Gross of the New York Daily News wrote that popular music had “reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” Crowds in Nashville and St. Louis burned Elvis in effigy, but larger and more frenzied crowds attended his live shows. The phenomenon had taken hold.
Elvis’ success afforded him the purchase of his mansion, Graceland, in Memphis where he housed his parents, but the late 1950s and early 1960s were the apex of his career and a number of management missteps from Colonel Parker and bad blood between crucial personnel lie ahead. Parker pushed Presley into a schedule of Las Vegas engagements and formulaic movies that were profitable and popular, but critically panned and a strain on his credibility. The publishing arrangement with the company Hill and Range Music, forced songwriters to give up a larger percentage of their profits for Elvis numbers. Songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had penned “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and a number of other Elvis hits, were eventually alienated. Scotty Moore and Bill Black, who had been Elvis’ band from the beginning, were grossly underpaid and shunned. Elvis’ mother Gladys died of hepatitis at the beginning of his two year stint in the army, devastating him and what had been an unusually close relationship. While in Germany during his military service, Elvis met, then 14-year-old, Priscilla Beaulieu, who he would marry seven years later.
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By the time he returned from military service in 1960, he had accumulated ten Top 40 hits in the course of his 2 year absence. From 1960 to 1964, three of Elvis’ soundtrack albums charted at number one, but from 1964 to 1968 there was only one hit— “Crying in the Chapel”, which had been recorded back in 1960. Elvis’ manager and record label were slow to realize the problems. In the midst of a failing career, Elvis married Priscilla in Las Vegas during 1967. Lisa Marie was born in 1968.
Parker made a deal with NBC to broadcast a Christmas television special in 1968 that was intended to be full of holiday music, but Elvis and Steve Binder, the director of the show, conspired to make it something better. What would later be called Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Special featured a relaxed and engaged Elvis, strumming his guitar in the midst of a live audience. It became the network’s highest rated show that season and the soundtrack album made it into the Top Ten. A reinvigorated Elvis was guided by radio DJ and studio owner, Marty Lacker, to record his next album with Chips Moman at his American Sound Studio, which was producing hits for The Box Tops, Neil Diamond and Dusty Springfield. The result was 1969’s Elvis From Memphis album, which featured the hits “In the Ghetto”, “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds”. The last two years of the decade were a triumphant comeback, without a doubt, but continually mismanaged business affairs and the unraveling of Presley’s personal life would haunt him and drag him down. Chips Moman was not given credit or any royalties on the Memphis album.
The next decade would be one of spangled jumpsuits and metal-framed sunglasses, Las Vegas shows, weight gain and drug abuse for Elvis. The image of Presley posing with then-President Richard Nixon and taking an anti-drug stance, while increasingly abusing prescription drugs acquired from Memphis physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, was jarringly indicative of a celebrity becoming unhinged— out of control. Priscilla and Elvis were divorced in 1972 and he twice overdosed on barbiturates in 1973, once remaining in a coma for three days. There were some successes— a concert at Madison Square Garden, the satellite broadcast Aloha From Hawaii, and his single “Burning Love”, which was the last to reach near the top of the pop charts. Elvis, however, was performing concerts in a drug-induced stupor, barely intelligible, and with shortened stage time and cancellations. He spiraled into a world of drug-fueled paranoia, karate and firearms. When his retinue of bodyguards, the “Memphis Mafia”, were taken off of the payroll, they retaliated with a tell-all book, Elvis: What Happened? Presley unsuccessfully tried to stop its release. Tony Scherman wrote, “Elvis Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self. Hugely overweight, his mind dulled by the pharmacopoeia he daily ingested, he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.”
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On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, Elvis’ girlfriend, Ginger Alden, found him unconscious on his bathroom floor. Attempts to revive him failed and his death was officially pronounced at 3:30 pm at Baptist Memorial Hospital. Lab tests revealed “fourteen drugs in Elvis’ system, ten in significant quantity.” Presley’s physician, Dr. Nichopoulos, escaped criminal liability but eventually had his medical license permanently suspended. After an attempt to steal the body from Forest Hill Cemetery, the remains of Elvis and his mother were moved to Graceland, which became a tourist destination and pilgrimage for Elvis fans.
An editor of the New York Times once wrote:
“For those too young to have experienced Elvis Presley in his prime, [his commemoration] must seem peculiar. All the talentless impersonators and appalling black velvet paintings on display can make him seem little more than a perverse and distant memory. But before Elvis was camp, he was its opposite: a genuine cultural force. He was, famously, the white boy from Tupelo, Miss., who sang like a black boy and who shocked refined sensibilities by moving, as Time magazine observed in 1956, ‘as if he had swallowed a jackhammer.’
Elvis’ reputation lost some of its luster during the disintegration he underwent in his final years— the pill-popping, the weight gain, the disorientation on stage. But he was less a victim of his failures than of his success. Elvis’ breakthroughs are underappreciated because in this rock-and-roll age, his hard-rocking music and sultry style have triumphed so completely.”
image credits: Ben Heine; Keith Haring; RCA; Debbie Crawford; Peter Mars; Tim Mount; John Wayne Gacy; Dan Dalton