Before Elvis, there was nothing.
- John Lennon
When I first heard Elvis' voice, I just knew that I wasn't going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss... Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.
- Bob Dylan
Elvis Presley was one of the greatest icons of the 20th Century. He didn't invent Rock 'n' Roll, but he did more than any other individual to popularise it. He died in 1977, but there are still many who would describe him as the greatest rock singer of all time, and there are still Elvis impersonators all over the world. More than one billion Elvis Presley records have been sold. He thrilled a generation, and his music continues to thrill millions of fans.
Yet his story contains much tragedy, as well as great glory.
Elvis' Early Days
In fact, tragedy attended Elvis' birth. On 8 January, 1935, Gladys Presley of Tupelo, Mississippi, USA, gave birth to identical twins. One was born dead. The other lived. Gladys and her husband Vernon named the stillborn twin Jessie Garon, and the survivor Elvis Aaron1.
As young Elvis grew up, he displayed a natural gift for singing. He sang in church - and then, at the age of ten, he made his first public appearance as a pop singer, in a talent contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He sang 'Old Shep', a mawkish ballad about a dead dog (which the adult Elvis would record in 1956). Elvis didn't win, but his father was impressed enough to buy him an acoustic guitar for his eleventh birthday.
Looking back, years later, Elvis admitted that he'd been disappointed with his birthday present. 'I wanted a bicycle', he recalled. Nevertheless, he taught himself to play a few chords, strumming along to blues and gospel songs.
The Presleys moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1949, just before Elvis entered high school. After leaving school, he became a truck driver, earning $1.25 per hour. Elvis' main ambition at this point was to become an electrician, and he started evening classes to try to gain the necessary skills.
Then one day in 1953, Elvis decided to make a record, mainly because he was curious to hear what his voice would sound like on record. Elvis paid a fee of around $4 to the Memphis Recording Service studio, home of the Sun Records label, and later to become far better known as Sun Studio. Presley recorded two songs: 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin'.
Elvis returned to the studio in January 1954 to make another demo recording, and this time he met the studio owner, Sam Phillips, who was to play a key role in the early part of his career.
That summer, Phillips found a song called 'Without You'2 that he felt might become a hit. At the suggestion of his assistant, Marion Keisker, Phillips asked Elvis into the studio to see what he could do with the song.
Elvis duly paid another visit to the studio, but his interpretation of 'Without You' did not meet with Phillips' approval. However, the studio boss was intrigued enough by this odd-looking young man to team Elvis up with two local musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
The trio made several attempts to cut a country record good enough for commercial release, but without success. Then, on 5 July, 1954, they tried out a speeded-up version of blues singer Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's song 'That's All Right'. It worked wonderfully, and Phillips released the song as Elvis' first single.
Initially, Phillips had some trouble getting radio airplay for 'That's All Right'. Racial segregation was then the norm in the southern states of America, in music as in other areas of life. Elvis broke the racial barriers simply by being a white singer with a vocal style hugely influenced by black artists. Phillips later remembered '...one (disc) jockey telling me that Elvis Presley was so country that he shouldn't be played after 5am, and others said he was too black for them.'
But DJs brave enough to air the new young singer's record found themselves inundated with requests for more. Presley, Moore and Black toured around the southern States, with Elvis billed as 'The Hillbilly Cat' or 'The King of Western Bop', and were a hit wherever they went. A new single, 'Good Rockin' Tonight', consolidated Elvis' success. He went down badly on the ultra-conservative country music TV show The Grand Ole Opry, but was given a residency on a rival show, The Louisiana Hayride.
The world had lost a promising young electrician, and gained one of its greatest-ever stars.
The King of Rock 'n' Roll
Enter a charismatic, cigar-chomping Dutchman with a background in the carnival trade. His real name was Andreas van Kuijk, but he preferred to be known as Colonel Tom Parker. He persuaded Presley to make him his manager, and he would have an immense influence on Presley for the rest of his life.
One of Parker's first acts on Presley's behalf was to negotiate a new record deal for his young charge, with one of the world's biggest record companies - RCA Records. The most important difference this made was that RCA had the necessary influence to get Elvis exposure on nationally networked television.
The effect of Elvis' TV appearances on the youth of America was electric. No performer this raw and sensual had previously been allowed into the American nation's living rooms, via its TV screens.
The young, handsome Presley positively radiated sexuality, in the way he delivered a song and - especially - in the way he moved on stage. One appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show became famous because of a bizarre piece of censorship: Elvis was seen only from the waist up, because the show's producers felt that the way he moved his hips and pelvis was far too inflammatory for a mass audience.
The youth of America, however, took Elvis' hips to their hearts, along with his music. His first single for RCA, 'Heartbreak Hotel', was released on 27 January, 1956, and sold over 300,000 copies in its first three weeks on release, eventually selling more than a million and spending eight weeks at number one on the national charts.
The single was an astonishingly powerful performance of a song about absolute emotional desolation. It began a series of huge hits for Elvis which would sell by the million and still be enjoyed decades later. Few people in the Western world could have grown up in the 1950s or 1960s without hearing classic Elvis singles like 'Don't Be Cruel', 'Blue Suede Shoes', 'Teddy Bear' and 'Hound Dog'.
'Heartbreak Hotel' was rapidly followed by a hit album, simply titled Elvis Presley. Released on 13 March, 1956, it topped the Billboard chart for ten weeks. Elvis' next three albums, Elvis (1956) Loving You (1957) and Elvis' Christmas Album (1957) were also American chart-toppers.
Arguably, there were more creative performers involved in the birth of Rock 'n' Roll. Elvis relied on others to write the songs he performed, while others - Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, for instance - created their own idiosyncratic material. But Elvis' style and sex appeal had an impact that meant that for millions, he defined Rock 'n' Roll.
Elvis admitted in 1956:
I'm not kidding myself. My voice alone is just an ordinary voice. What people come to see is how I use it. If I stand still while I'm singing, I'm dead! Man, I might as well go back to driving a truck!
On 4 December, 1956, Elvis inadvertently became part of what might be termed Rock 'n' Roll's first-ever supergroup - even if it did only last for one day. He dropped into Sam Phillips' studio to find Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis already there, and joined in one of the most celebrated jam sessions in pop history.
The all-star quartet sang country and gospel songs, as well as some Rock 'n' Roll. During the session, Elvis not only sang, but also demonstrated his little-known skills as a piano player.
The next day, Elvis said:
I never had a better time than yesterday afternoon when I dropped into Sam Phillips' place. It was what you might call a barrelhouse of fun. Carl Perkins was in a recording session and he had one that's going to hit as hard as 'Blue Suede Shoes'. Johnny Cash dropped in. Jerry Lee Lewis was there too, and then I stopped by. The joint was really rocking before we got through.
Strangely, the results of the session were never officially released on record until 1990, when an album was issued bearing the name by which the famous foursome had come to be known by those who knew of the recording's existence: The Million Dollar Quartet.
Not everyone welcomed Elvis Presley as warmly as Perkins, Cash and Lewis did. When Elvis first came to prominence, his style of performance horrified the showbusiness establishment. Frank Sinatra disgustedly said of Elvis, 'His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac... It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people3.'
But throughout the late 1950s, Elvis' success was phenomenal. In the years 1956-59, he topped the Billboard pop singles chart 12 times. His commercial triumphs weren't confined to the musical arena, either. Colonel Parker wasted little time in launching his protégé as a movie star. Elvis made his debut as an actor in Love Me Tender (1956).
The story of Elvis' movie career is not a happy one. His desire to be a serious actor was constantly thwarted by the demands of Colonel Parker and of Hollywood. Jailhouse Rock (1957) did at least have a truly great title song, as did King Creole (1958). The latter, based on the Harold Robbins novel A Stone For Danny Fisher, is widely regarded as Elvis' best movie.
But the films in which Presley starred generally tended to be shallow, formulaic musicals - predictable affairs in which Elvis would beat the baddies and get the girl, pausing only to sing a few songs. The critics were rarely impressed, but Elvis was a hit at the box office, and so the films kept on coming.
You're In the Army Now
In April 1957, Elvis moved into Graceland, a mansion in Memphis that would remain his home for the rest of his life. But he soon had to move out temporarily in order to take up residence in a succession of army barracks.
In December that year, Elvis received a draft notice ordering him to join the US Army for two years' service. Trying to avoid this legal obligation would have been a PR disaster, so Presley reported for duty, and was inducted into the Army on 24 March, 1958. The next day, his famous hairstyle and sideburns were cut into a uniform Army crop - an act that many saw as symbolic of the rebel rocker surrendering to conformity.
For many fans, this seemed like the beginning of the end for Elvis4. But Elvis dutifully got on with the job of being a soldier. He was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, and his parents moved to a temporary home near the army base.
Then tragedy struck Elvis again. His mother Gladys became seriously ill with acute hepatitis, and Elvis was granted emergency leave from the army to be with her. He did, therefore, at least have the small consolation of seeing her again before she died on 14 August, 1958.
Soon afterwards, the army gave Elvis a new posting in Friedberg, Germany. He arrived in Germany on 1 October, 1958. The army allowed him to maintain an off-base residence in Bad Nauheim, where he lived with his father, his grandmother, and some old friends from Memphis.
A much happier key event in Presley's personal life came towards the end of 1959. During a party at Elvis' home, he was introduced to 14-year-old Priscilla Ann Beaulieu, who would become his wife some years later.
Meanwhile, Colonel Parker kept the Elvis industry ticking over with new record releases. Major hits like '(Now And Then There's) A Fool Such As I' and 'One Night' ensured that, when Elvis was discharged from the army in 1960, he was still one of the world's biggest stars - the king of Rock 'n' Roll.
The Civilised Civilian
While Elvis Presley was in the army, his reputation as the world's greatest Rock 'n' Roll singer was maintained by the release of fiery singles like 'King Creole' and 'Hard Headed Woman'. But many of the records Presley made soon after he returned to civilian life suggested that army life might have knocked some of the rock out him.
After being officially discharged from the army on 5 March, 1960, Elvis increasingly turned to ballads like 'It's Now Or Never', 'Can't Help Falling In Love' and 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?'.
These records marked a dramatic shift in style from his earlier, rough-edged records. The operatic 'It's Now Or Never' was based on the old Italian ballad 'O Sole Mio', while 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' was an ancient tear-jerker that had been recorded by Al Jolson in 1927. Elvis also startled some of his fans by returning to the gospel singing of his childhood days for a religious album, His Hand In Mine, in 1961.
Elvis did still up the tempo from time to time, with songs like 'Return To Sender' and 'Mess Of Blues', but some of his early fans began to feel that Elvis was losing his edge. What was pretty well indisputable was that Presley was recording a great deal of mediocre material that had been written to order for the soundtracks of similarly undistinguished films.
Still, in terms of record sales, the early 1960s went wonderfully well for Elvis. These years represented the peak of his popularity in Britain: he topped the British singles chart ten times in the years 1960-63.
It was thus a little ironic that the force that ended Presley's predominance in the world of pop should come from Britain.
Fading Away and Fighting Back
On 7 February, 1964, The Beatles arrived in New York for their first visit to the USA. Just as Elvis had done a few years previously, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show - and their appearance had a similarly sensational impact. Beatlemania gripped America just as powerfully as it had gripped Britain the previous year. By the end of March 1964, Beatles records occupied all of the top five places in the Billboard singles chart. Other British bands enjoyed American success in the wake of The Beatles' triumph. Suddenly, in the eyes of many, Elvis Presley seemed a little old-fashioned.
Elvis grew further out of step with the times as the 1960s continued, and Beatlemania was followed by psychedelia and flower power. He concentrated on making mediocre movies, while music moved on and new artists like Jimi Hendrix came to prominence.
His personal life was also going well. On 1 May, 1967, he married his long-time sweetheart Priscilla Beaulieu in Las Vegas, Nevada. Priscilla gave birth to their only child, Lisa Marie, nine months to the day after the wedding, on 1 February, 1968.
But by then, his career was in a sharp decline. Elvis was deeply unfashionable. His pop records were no longer automatic major hits, and his films were doing less and less well at the box office.
He responded by making a determined, and successful, attempt to get his musical life back on course. First he returned to the concert stage, playing his first live show in eight years at the International Hotel in Las Vegas on 31 July, 1968.
Then, given the chance to record a Christmas TV special, Elvis rejected Colonel Parker's plan for a bland festive special, and returned to his roots. He appeared dressed in an all-black leather outfit, jammed with two of his early sidemen, Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana, and suddenly seemed to have rediscovered all his old power and aggression. The show's powerful finale, 'If I Can Dream', seemed to sum up Presley's recent frustrations and hope for the future.
The triumphant TV special, simply titled Elvis, was followed by the release of Elvis' best records in years. He went into a Memphis studio in January 1969 for some highly-productive sessions during which he recorded enough material for two albums, From Elvis In Memphis and From Memphis To Vegas, From Vegas To Memphis. Both were released during 1969 to great acclaim, and From Elvis In Memphis in particular is still widely regarded as one of Presley's finest albums.
The results of the Memphis sessions included the magnificent 'In The Ghetto' - a dark tale of inner-city deprivation and desperation - and the dramatic ballad 'Suspicious Minds', which took Elvis back to the top of the US singles chart for the first time since 1962.
Viva Las Vegas
On 31 July, 1969, Elvis began a four-week residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas - a venue he would keep returning to for the rest of his life6. A number of shows were taped, and a live recording, 'The Wonder Of You', provided Presley with the last UK number one single that he would enjoy during his lifetime, topping the charts for six weeks during the summer.
In 1970, Presley announced his first nationwide tour since 1957, taking him to nine cities across the USA. Some of the dates from another run at the Las Vegas International, in August and September 1970, and the subsequent tour were filmed for a cinema documentary, Elvis - That's The Way It Is, which showed Presley both on and off stage during the tour, won critical acclaim for its surprisingly frank depiction of Elvis' insecurity and indecision.
On 21 December, 1970, Elvis visited the White House for a meeting with President Richard M Nixon. Elvis had written a letter to President Nixon in which he asked to be given the necessary accreditation to enable him to operate as an undercover narcotics cop. Nixon gave Elvis an honorary Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge - a presentation which, in the light of subsequent events, would come to seem bitterly ironic.
According to the official White House record of Presley's visit, part of Elvis' mission was to warn Nixon about what he saw as the malign influence of The Beatles. Previously, Elvis had appeared to think well of the Fab Four. He'd had an amicable meeting and a jam session with them at Graceland on 27 August, 1965, and had mentioned liking their music during his triumphant 1968 TV 'comeback' special.
However, the official record of the Nixon-Presley meeting reveals:
Presley indicated that he thought The Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. He said that The Beatles came to this country, made their money and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme. The President nodded in agreement and expressed some surprise7.
Presley continued to tour successfully during 1971 - but towards the end of that year, his marriage ran into trouble. Priscilla moved out of Graceland, taking Lisa Marie with her.
Elvis consoled himself by adopting a disastrous lifestyle, involving large amounts of prescription drugs and junk food. The slim figure seen in the 1968 TV special soon began to fill out dramatically. Elvis' health inevitably suffered - but for a time, success on record and on tour continued.
1972 brought some of the best late-period Elvis singles. He proved that he could still rock with the upbeat 'Burning Love' (a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic), and also scored major successes with 'American Trilogy' and 'Always On My Mind'.
On 14 January, 1973, Elvis scored the last major success of his life. His TV special Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii - Via Satellite brought an Elvis concert at the Honolulu International Center Arena live to countries including Australia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines and South Vietnam - but not to America, which had to wait until April for a recording of the show to be screened.
Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii - Via Satellite was also seen (though not live) in around 30 European countries, and the total global TV audience for the show was estimated to be in excess of one billion - a bigger audience than that for mankind's first walk on the moon. The soundtrack album from the show, released in May, gave Elvis his first US number one album since 1964.
The Bitter End
October, 1973 was a nightmarish month for Elvis. On 9 October, he and Priscilla were divorced. The following week, Elvis was hospitalised, suffering from a frightening list of serious ailments: pneumonia, pleurisy, an enlarged colon, and hepatitis. Remarkably, he somehow recovered sufficiently to be back in the studio in December.
For the next three years, Presley continued to tour and record, regularly returning for residencies in Las Vegas. But his health continued to decline, and his bloated appearance was the subject of much unkind comment. He was hospitalised twice more in 1975.
Despite his failing health, Presley kept on touring. He appeared at the Las Vegas Hilton International Hotel for the last time in December 1976. He toured extensively in the first half of 1977, despite continuing ill-health that compelled him to spend five days in hospital in April.
Elvis played the last concert of his life at the Market Square Arena, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA on 26 June, 1977. From then until mid-August, he rested in Memphis. On 15 August, he made a late-night visit to his dentist, and then returned to Graceland. He was due to fly to Portland, Maine on the evening of 16 August, to begin another tour with a show there.
He stayed up until about 7am, and then went to bed. That afternoon, his girlfriend Ginger Alden found Elvis lying unconscious in the bathroom. He was rushed to the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, but it was too late. At around 3.30pm on 16 August, 1977, Elvis Presley was pronounced dead.
The official cause of death was heart failure, but a post-mortem examination strongly suggested that Elvis' drug intake had probably been one of the main causes of his death. The examination revealed that Elvis had an enlarged liver when he died, and detected traces of drugs including butabarbital, codeine, morphine, pentobarbital, placidyl, quaalude, valium and valmid in his system. It was a sad and sordid end to an astonishing life.
The news of Elvis' death sent shock waves around the world. One predictable effect was a sudden upsurge in the sales of his records. More than 20 million Elvis Presley records were reportedly sold on the day after his death, and his then-current single 'Way Down' became a posthumous UK chart-topper.
Among the many who paid tribute in the days after Presley's death was the then US President Jimmy Carter, whose comments neatly summed up Elvis' significance:
Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique, irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equalled. 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 humour of this country.
Of course, the end of Elvis' life didn't mean the end of the Elvis legend - or the Elvis industry. All these years later, the name 'Elvis' is still known all over the world. He is exploited in death just as he was in life: Graceland remains a popular tourist attraction. Death hasn't prevented Elvis from touring: it's still sometimes possible to see a bizarre form of entertainment called 'Elvis - The Concert', officially sanctioned by the Elvis Presley estate, at which live musicians play along with recordings of Elvis' voice while film footage of real Presley shows is displayed on a screen.
It's tempting to imagine what Elvis might have achieved given better guidance - if he hadn't wasted so much of his prodigious talent on inferior material and pointless movie projects. But what he actually did achieve was unique and astounding. Elvis Presley thrilled millions of people, and played a huge part in establishing Rock 'n' Roll as the most popular music of the 20th century.
Nothing can ever take that away.
More Elvis Online
The Official Elvis Presley Website is an excellent resource, offering detailed information and a virtual tour of Graceland. The biographical section is admirably frank about Elvis' failures and foibles.