by Encyclopedia of Popular Music Copyright Muze UK Ltd. 1989 - 1998
Edited by Mark
was born Elvis Aaron Presley, 8 January 1935 in
Tupelo, Mississippi, USA. He died on 16 August 1977, in Memphis, Tennessee.
The most celebrated popular music phenomenon of his era and--for many-- the purest embodiment of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley's life and career have become part of rock legend.
The elder of twins, his
younger brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn, a tragedy that partly contributed to the
maternal solicitude dominating his childhood and teenage years. Presley's first
significant step towards a musical career took place at the age of eight when he won $5 in
a local song contest performing the lachrymose Red Foley ballad,
His earliest musical influence came from attending the Pentecostal Church and listening to the
psalms and gospel songs. He also had a strong grounding in country and blues and it was
the combination of these different styles that was to provide his unique musical identity.
the age of 13, Presley had moved with his family to Memphis, and during his later school
years began cultivating an outsider image, with long hair, spidery sideburns and
ostentatious clothes. After leaving school he took a job as a truck driver, a role in
keeping with his unconventional appearance.
In spite of his rebel posturing, Presley
remained studiously polite to his elders and was devoted to his mother. Indeed, it was his
filial affection that first prompted him to visit Sun Records, whose studios
offered the sophisticated equivalent of a fairground recording booth service. As a
birthday present to his mother, Gladys, Presley cut a version of the Ink Spots'' My
Happiness', backed with the Raskin/Brown/Fisher standard 'That's When Your Heartaches
The studio manager, Marion Keisker, noted Presley's unusual but distinctive vocal
style and informed Sun's owner/producer Sam Phillips of his potential. Phillips
nurtured the boy for almost a year before putting him together with country guitarist Scotty
Moore and bassist Bill Black. Their early sessions showed considerable promise,
especially when Presley began alternating his unorthodox low-key delivery with a
The amplified guitars of Moore and Black contributed strongly to the effect and
convinced Phillips that the singer was startlingly original. In Presley, Phillips saw
something that he had long dreamed of discovering: a white boy who sang like a negro.
Presley's debut disc on Sun was the extraordinary 'That's All Right (Mama)', a showcase
for his rich, multi-textured vocal dexterity, with sharp, solid backing from his
compatriots. The b-side, 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky', was a country song, but the arrangement
showed that Presley was threatening to slip into an entirely different genre, closer to
R&B. Local response to these strange-sounding performances was encouraging and
Phillips eventually shifted 20,000 copies of the disc.
For his second single, Presley recordedRoy Brown 's 'Good Rockin' Tonight'
backed by the zingy 'I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine'. The more roots-influenced
'Milkcow Blues Boogie' followed, while the b-side, 'You're A Heartbreaker', had some
strong tempo changes that neatly complemented Presley's quirky vocal.
'Baby Let's Play
House'/'I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone' continued the momentum and led to Presley
performing on the Grand Old Opry and Louisiana Hayride radio programs. A
series of live dates commenced in 1955 with drummer D.J. Fontana added to the ranks.
Presley toured clubs in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas billed as 'The King Of Western Bop'
and 'The Hillbilly Cat'. Audience reaction verged on the fanatical, which was hardly
surprising given Presley's semi-erotic performances.
His hip-swiveling routine, in which he cascaded across the stage and plunged to his
knees at dramatic moments in a song, was remarkable for the period and prompted
near-riotous fan mania. The final Sun single, a cover version of Junior Parker's
'Mystery Train', was later acclaimed by many as the definitive rock 'n' roll single, with
its chugging rhythm, soaring vocal and enticing lead guitar breaks. It established Presley
as an artist worthy of national attention and ushered in the next phase of his career,
which was dominated by the imposing figure of Colonel Tom Parker. The Colonel was a
former fairground huckster who managed several country artists including Hank Snow and
After relieving disc jockey Bob Neal of Presley's managership, Parker
persuaded Sam Phillips that his financial interests would be better served by releasing
the boy to a major label. RCA Records had already noted the commercial potential of
the phenomenon under offer and agreed to pay Sun Records a release fee of $35,000, an
incredible sum for the period.
The sheer diversity of Presley's musical heritage and his
remarkable ability as a vocalist and interpreter of material enabled him to escape the
cultural parochialism of his R&B-influenced predecessors. The attendant rock 'n' roll
explosion, in which Presley was both a creator and participant, ensured that he could
reach a mass audience, many of them newly affluent teenagers.
It was on 10 January 1956, a mere two days after his 21st birthday, that Presley
entered RCA's studios in Nashville to record his first tracks for a major label. His debut
session produced the epochal 'Heartbreak Hotel', one of the most striking pop records ever
released. Co-composed by Hoyt Axton 's mother Mae, the song evoked nothing less
than a vision of absolute funereal despair.
There was nothing in the pop charts of the
period that even hinted at the degree of desolation described in the song. Presley's
reading was extraordinarily mature and moving, with a determined avoidance of any
histrionics in favor of a pained and resigned acceptance of loneliness as death. The
economical yet acutely emphatic piano work of Floyd Cramer enhanced the stark mood
of the piece, which was frozen in a suitably minimalist production.
The startling originality and intensity of 'Heartbreak Hotel' entranced the American
public and pushed the single to number 1 for an astonishing eight weeks. Whatever else he
achieved, Presley was already assured a place in pop history for one of the greatest major
label debut records ever released.
During the same month that 'Heartbreak Hotel' was
recorded, Presley made his national television debut displaying his sexually enticing
gyrations before a bewildered adult audience whose alleged outrage subsequently persuaded
producers to film the star exclusively from the waist upwards. Having outsold his former
Sun colleague Carl Perkins with 'Blue Suede Shoes', Presley released a debut album
that contained several of the songs he had previously recorded with Sam Phillips,
including Little Richard's 'Tutti Fruitti', the R&B classic 'I Got A Woman'
and an eerie, wailing version of Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart 's 'Blue
Moon', which emphasized his remarkable vocal range.
Since hitting number 2 in the UK lists with 'Heartbreak Hotel', Presley had been
virtually guaranteed European success and his profile was increased via a regular series
of releases as RCA took full advantage of their bulging back catalogue. Although there was
a danger of overkill, Presley's talent, reputation and immensely strong fanbase vindicated
the intense release schedule and the quality of the material ensured that the public was
not disappointed. After hitting number 1 for the second time with the slight ballad 'I
Want You, I Need You, I Love You', Presley released what was to become the most
commercially successful double-sided single in pop history, 'Hound Dog'/'Don't Be Cruel'.
The former was composed by the immortal rock 'n' roll songwriting team of Leiber And
Stoller, and presented Presley at his upbeat best with a novel lyric, complete with a
striking guitar solo and spirited handclapping from his backing group the Jordanaires. Otis Blackwell
's 'Don't Be Cruel' was equally effective with a striking melody
line and some clever and amusing vocal gymnastics from the hiccupping King of Western Bop,
who also received a co-writing credit. The single remained at number 1 in the USA for a
staggering 11 weeks and both sides of the record were massive hits in the UK.
Celluloid fame for Presley next beckoned with Love Me Tender, produced by David
Weisbert, who had previously worked on James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause.
Presley's movie debut received mixed reviews but was a box-office smash, while the smoldering, perfectly enunciated title track topped the US charts for five weeks.
spate of Presley singles continued in earnest through 1957 and one of the biggest was
another Otis Blackwell composition, 'All Shook Up', which the singer used as a cheekily
oblique comment on his by now legendary dance movements. By late 1956 it was rumored that
Presley would be drafted into the US Army and, as if to compensate for that irksome
eventuality, RCA, Twentieth Century Fox and the Colonel stepped up the work-rate and
release schedules. Incredibly, three major films were completed in the next two-and-a-half
Loving You boasted a quasi-autobiographical script with Presley playing a truck
driver who becomes a pop star. The title track became the b-side of '(Let Me Be Your)
Teddy Bear' which reigned at number 1 for seven weeks. The third movie, Jailhouse
Rock, was Presley's most successful to date with an excellent soundtrack and some
The Leiber and Stoller title track was an instant classic that
again topped the US charts for seven weeks and made pop history by entering the UK
listings at number 1. The fourth celluloid outing, King Creole (adapted from
the Harold Robbins novel, A Stone For Danny Fisher), is regarded by many as
Presley's finest film and a firm indicator of his sadly unfulfilled potential as a serious
actor. Once more the soundtrack album featured some surprisingly strong material such as
the haunting 'Crawfish' and the vibrant 'Dixieland Rock'.
By the time King Creole was released in 1958, Elvis had already been inducted
into the US Forces. A publicity photograph of the singer having his hair shorn
symbolically commented on his approaching musical emasculation. Although rock 'n' roll
purists mourned the passing of the old Elvis, it seemed inevitable in the context of the
50s that he would move towards a broader base appeal and tone down his rebellious image.
From 1958-60, Presley served in the US Armed Forces, spending much of his time in Germany
where he was regarded as a model soldier. It was during this period that he first met
14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he later married in 1967. Back in America, the
Colonel kept his absent star's reputation intact via a series of films, record releases
and extensive merchandising.
Hits such as 'Wear My Ring Around Your Neck', 'Hard Headed Woman', 'One Night', 'I Got
Stung', 'A Fool Such As I' and 'A Big Hunk O' Love' filled the long, two-year gap and by
the time Presley reappeared, he was ready to assume the mantle of all-round entertainer.
The change was immediately evident in the series of number 1 hits that he enjoyed in the
The enormously successful 'It's Now Or Never', based on the Italian melody 'O
Sole Mio', revealed the King as an operatic crooner, far removed from his earlier raucous
recordings. 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?', originally recorded by Al Jolson as early
as 1927, allowed Presley to quote some Shakespeare in the spoken-word middle section as
well as showing his ham-acting ability with an overwrought vocal. The new clean-cut
Presley was presented on celluloid in GI Blues. The movie played upon his recent
army exploits and saw him serenading a puppet on the charming chart-topper 'Wooden Heart',
which also allowed Elvis to show off his knowledge of German.
The grandiose 'surrender' completed this phase of big ballads in the old-fashioned
style. For the next few years Presley concentrated on an undemanding spree of films,
including Flaming Star, Wild In The Country, Blue Hawaii, Kid
Galahad, Girls! Girls! Girls!, Follow That Dream, Fun In Acapulco,
It Happened At The World's Fair, Kissin' Cousins, Viva Las Vegas, Roustabout,
Girl Happy, Tickle Me, Harem Scarem, Frankie And Johnny, Paradise
Hawaiian Style and Spinout. Not surprisingly, most of his album recordings were
hastily completed soundtracks with unadventurous commissioned songs.
For his singles, he relied increasingly on the formidable Doc Pomus/Mort
Shuman team who composed such hits as 'Mess Of Blues', 'Little Sister' and 'His Latest
Flame'. More and more, however, the hits were adapted from films and their chart positions
suffered accordingly. After the 1963 number 1 'Devil In Disguise', a bleak period followed
in which such minor songs as 'Bossa Nova Baby', 'Kiss Me Quick', 'Ain't That Lovin' You
Baby' and 'Blue Christmas' became the rule rather than the exception. Significantly, his
biggest success of the mid-60s, 'Crying In The Chapel', had been recorded five years
earlier, and part of its appeal came from the realization that it represented something
In the wake of the Beatles' rise to fame and the beat boom explosion, Presley
seemed a figure out of time. Nevertheless, in spite of the dated nature of many of his
recordings, he could still invest power and emotion into classic songs. The sassy 'Frankie
And Johnny' was expertly sung by Presley, as was his moving reading of Ketty Lester
His other significant 1966 release, 'If Everyday Was Like Christmas', was
a beautiful festive song unlike anything else in the charts of the period. By 1967,
however, it was clear to critics and even a large proportion of his devoted following that
Presley had seriously lost his way. He continued to grind out pointless movies such as
Double Trouble, Speedway, Clambake and Live A Little, Love A Little,
even though the box office returns were increasingly poor.
His capacity to register instant hits, irrespective of the material was also wearing
thin, as such lowly placed singles as 'You Gotta Stop' and 'Long Legged Woman'
demonstrated all too alarmingly. However, just as Elvis's career had reached its all-time
nadir he seemed to wake up, take stock, and break free from the artistic malaise in which
he found himself.
Two songs written by country guitarist Jerry Reed, 'Guitar Man'
and 'US Male', proved a spectacular return to form for Elvis in 1968, such was Presley's
conviction that the compositions almost seemed to be written specifically for him. During
the same year, Colonel Tom Parker had approached NBC-TV about the possibility of recording
a Presley Christmas special in which the singer would perform a selection of religious
songs similar in feel to his early 60s album His Hand In Mine.
executive producers of the show vetoed that concept in favor of a one-hour spectacular
designed to capture Elvis at his rock 'n' rollin' best. It was a remarkable challenge for
the singer, seemingly in the autumn of his career, and he responded to the idea with
The Elvis TV Special was broadcast in America on 3 December 1968 and has since
become legendary as one of the most celebrated moments in pop broadcasting history. The
show was not merely good but an absolute revelation, with the King emerging as if he had
been frozen in time for 10 years. His determination to recapture past glories oozed from
every movement and was discernible in every aside. With his leather jacket and acoustic
guitar strung casually round his neck, he resembled nothing less than the consummate pop
idol of the 50s who had entranced a generation. To add authenticity to the proceedings he
was accompanied by his old sidekicks Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana.
There was no sense of self-parody in the show as Presley joked about his famous surly
curled-lip movement and even heaped passing ridicule on his endless stream of bad movies.
The music concentrated heavily on his 50s classics but, significantly, there was a
startling finale courtesy of the passionate 'If I Can Dream' in which he seemed to sum up
the frustration of a decade in a few short lines.
The critical plaudits heaped upon Elvis
in the wake of his television special prompted the singer to undertake his most
significant recordings in years. With producer Chips Moman overseeing the sessions in
January 1969, Presley recorded enough material to cover two highly praised albums, From
Elvis In Memphis and From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis. The former
was particularly strong with such distinctive tracks as the eerie 'Long Black Limousine'
and the engagingly melodic 'Any Day Now'.
On the singles front, Presley was back in top form and finally coming to terms with
contemporary issues, most notably on the socially aware 'In The Ghetto', which hit number
2 in the UK and number 3 in the USA. The glorious 'suspicious Minds', a wonderful song of
marital jealousy, with cascading tempo changes and an exceptional vocal arrangement, gave
him his first US chart-topper since 'Good Luck Charm' back in 1962. Subsequent hits such
as the maudlin 'Don't Cry Daddy', which dealt with the death of a marriage, ably
demonstrated Presley's ability to read a song. Even his final few films seemed less
disastrous than expected.
In 1969's Charro, he grew a beard for the first time in his portrayal of a moody
cowboy, while A Change Of Habit dealt with more serious subject matter than usual.
More importantly, Presley returned as a live performer at Las Vegas, with a strong backing
group including guitarist James Burton and pianist Glen D. Hardin.
In common with
John Lennon, who also returned to the stage that same year with the Plastic Ono
Band, Presley opened his set with Carl Perkins' 'Blue Suede Shoes'. His comeback was
well received and one of the live songs, 'The Wonder Of You', stayed at number 1 in
Britain for six weeks during the summer of 1970. There was also a revealing documentary
film of the tour - That's The Way It Is - and a companion
album that included contemporary cover versions, such as Tony Joe White
Salad Annie', Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Proud Mary' and Neil Diamond
's 'sweet Caroline'.
During the early 70s Presley continued his live performances, but soon fell victim to
the same artistic atrophy that had bedeviled his celluloid career. Rather than
re-entering the studio to record fresh material he relied on a slew of patchy live albums
that saturated the marketplace. What had been innovative and exciting in 1969 swiftly
became a tedious routine and an exercise in misdirected potential. The backdrop to
Presley's final years was a sordid slump into drug dependency, reinforced by the pervasive
unreality of a pampered lifestyle in his fantasy home, Gracelands.
The dissolution of his marriage in 1973 coincided with a further decline and an
alarming tendency to put on weight. Remarkably, he continued to undertake live
appearances, covering up his bloated frame with brightly colored jump suits and an
enormous, ostentatiously jeweled belt. He collapsed onstage on a couple of occasions and
finally on 16 August 1977 his tired, burnt-out body expired. The official cause of death
was a heart attack, undoubtedly brought on by barbiturate usage over a long period. In the
weeks following his demise, his record sales predictably rocketed and 'Way Down' proved a
fittingly final UK number 1.
The importance of Presley in the history of rock 'n' roll and popular music remains
incalculable. In spite of his iconographic status, the Elvis image was never captured in a
single moment of time like that of Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, or even Chuck
Berry. Presley, in spite of his apparent creative inertia, was not a one-dimensional
artist clinging to history but a multi-faceted performer whose career spanned several
decades and phases. For purists and rockabilly enthusiasts it is the early Presley that
remains of greatest importance and there is no doubting that his personal fusion of black
and white musical influences, incorporating R&B and country, produced some of the
finest and most durable recordings of the century.
Beyond Elvis 'The Hillbilly Cat', however, there was the face that launched a thousand
imitators, that black-haired, smiling or smoldering presence who stared from the front
covers of numerous EPs, albums and film posters of the late 50s and early 60s. It was that
well-groomed, immaculate pop star who inspired a generation of performers and second-rate
imitators in the 60s. There was also Elvis the Las Vegas performer, vibrant and vulgar,
yet still distant and increasingly appealing to a later generation brought up on the
excesses of 70s rock and glam ephemera.
Finally, there was the bloated Presley who bestrode the stage in the last months of his
career. For many, he has come to symbolize the decadence and loss of dignity that is all
too often heir to pop idolatry. It is no wonder that Presley's remarkable career so
sharply divides those who testify to his ultimate greatness and those who bemoan the gifts
that he seemingly squandered along the way.
In a sense, the contrasting images of Elvis
have come to represent everything positive and everything destructive about the music
industry. Twenty years after his death, in August 1997, there was no waning of his power
and appeal. Television, radio, newspapers and magazines all over the world still found
that, whatever was happening elsewhere, little could compare to this anniversary.
by Encyclopedia of Popular Music Copyright Muze UK Ltd. 1989 - 1998
Edited by Mark
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