Elvis Presley was rock & roll’s first real star, not to mention one of the most important cultural forces in history, a hip-shaking symbol of liberation for the staid America of the 1950s. A white Southerner singing blues laced with country, and country laced with gospel, he brought together American music from both sides of the color line and performed it with a natural sexuality that made him a teen idol and role model for generations of cool rebels. He was repeatedly dismissed as vulgar, incompetent, and a bad influence, but the force of his music and his image was no mere merchandising feat. Presley signaled to mainstream culture that it was time to let go. Four decades after his death, Presley’s image and influence remain undiminished. While certainly other artists preceded him to the alter of rock & roll, he is indisputably The King.
As a recording artist, Presley’s accomplishments are unparalleled. He is believed to have sold more than one billion records worldwide, about 40 percent of those outside the U.S. Though the figures are controversial due to the methods of computation by the Recording Industry Association of America, Presley still appears to hold the largest number of gold, platinum, and multiplatinum certifications of any artist in history; as of While certainly other artists preceded him to the alter of rock & roll, he is indisputably its king.'2010, 151 different albums and singles. He remained an unmatched chart performer from the Seventies until the first decade of the 21st Century when, as the population of record buyers increased, the chart numbers of top sellers like Mariah Carey and Madonna began to challenge his. According to Billboard, Elvis had 149 charting pop singles: 114 Top 40, 40 Top Ten, and 18 Number Ones.
Born January 8, 1935 in East Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley was the son of Gladys and Vernon Presley, a sewing-machine operator and a truck driver. Elvis’ twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn, and Elvis grew up an only child. When he was three, his father served an eight-month prison term for writing bad checks, and afterward Vernon Presley’s employment was erratic, keeping the family just above poverty level. The Presleys attended the First Assembly of God Church, and its Pentecostal services always involved singing.
In 1945 Presley won second prize at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Diary Show for his rendition of Red Foley’s “Old Shep.” The following January he received a guitar for his birthday. In 1948 the family moved to Memphis, and while attending L.C. Humes High School there, 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.
Upon graduation in June 1953, Presley worked at the Precision Tool Company and then drove a truck for Crown Electric. He planned to become a truck driver and had begun to wear his long hair pompadoured, the current truck-driver style. That summer he recorded “My Happiness” and “That’s Where Your Heartaches Begin” at the Memphis Recording Service, a sideline Sam Phillips had established in his Sun Records studios where anyone could record a 10-inch acetate for four dollars.
Presley was reportedly curious to know what he sounded like and gravely disappointed by what he heard. But he returned to the Recording Service again on January 4, 1954, and recorded “Casual Love Affair” and “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way.” This time he met Phillips, who called him later that spring to record a song that Phillips had received on a demo, “Without You.” Despite numerous takes, Presley failed miserably and at Phillips’ request just began singing songs in the studio. Phillips then began to believe that he had finally found what he had been looking for: “a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel.”
Phillips enlisted lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, both of whom were then playing country & western music in Doug Poindexter’s Starlight Wranglers. Though some sources cite the date of their first meeting as July 4, 1954, the three had actually rehearsed for several months, and on July 5, 1954, they recorded three songs: “I Love You Because,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and the A-side of Presley’s eventual debut, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right.”
Two days later Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) played the song on his Red Hot and Blue show on radio station WHBQ. Audience response was overwhelming, and that night Presley came to the studio for his first interview. Scotty Moore became Presley’s manager, and “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky” became his first local hit. After playing local shows, Presley made his first — and last — appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on September 25. Legend has it that after his performance he was advised by the Opry’s talent coordinator to go back to driving trucks.
By October Presley had debuted on The Louisiana Hayride, a popular radio program on which he appeared regularly through 1955. He made his television debut on a local television version of Hayride in March 1955. Meanwhile, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” b/w “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine” were hits in the Memphis area.
In early 1955 Moore stopped managing Presley, although he would continue to play in Presley’s band for several years. Presley’s new manager was Memphis disc jockey Bob Neal. Colonel Thomas Parker first entered Presley’s career when he helped Neal make some tour arrangements. Presley, still considered a country act, continued to perform locally, and in April he traveled to New York City, where he auditioned unsuccessfully for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts program. But on May 13 his performance in Jacksonville, Florida, started a riot, Presley’s first. “Baby, Let’s Play House” b/w “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” was released and hit Number Ten on the national C&W chart in July.
That September, Presley had his first Number One country record, a version of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” b/w “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.” By this time Colonel Parker, despite Presley’s agreement with Neal, had become increasingly involved in his career. When RCA purchased Presley’s contract from Sun for a then unheard-of $35,000, Hill and Range, a music publisher with which Parker had some connections, purchased Sam Phillips’ Hi-Lo Music for another $15,000. In addition, Presley received a $5,000 advance, with which he bought his mother a pink Cadillac. (It remains among his possessions preserved at Graceland.)
Presley became a national star in 1956. He and Parker traveled to Nashville, where Presley cut his first records for RCA (including “I Got a Woman,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “I Was the One”), and on January 28, 1956, the singer made his national television debut on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show, followed by six consecutive appearances. In March, Parker signed Presley to a managerial agreement for which he would receive 25 percent of Presley’s earnings. The contract would last through Presley’s lifetime and beyond.
Presley performed on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan television shows. The Colonel arranged Presley’s debut at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas that April, but the two-week engagement was canceled after one week due to poor audience response. In August he began filming his first movie, Love Me Tender, which was released three months later and recouped its $1 million cost in three days. Elvis’ hit singles that year were all certified gold; they included “Heartbreak Hotel” (Number One), “I Was the One” (Number 19), “Blue Suede Shoes” (Number 20), “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” (Number One), “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog” (Number One), “My Baby Left Me” (Number 31), “Love Me Tender” (Number One), “Anyway You Want Me (That’s How I Will Be)” (Number 20), “Love Me” (Number Two), and “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold” (Number 19). By early 1957 he was the idol of millions of teens and the perfect target for the wrath of critics, teachers, clergy, and even other entertainers (including many country performers), all of whom saw his style as too suggestive; he was nicknamed Elvis the Pelvis by one writer. Presley repeatedly claimed not to understand what all the criticism was about. On January 6, 1957, when Presley made the last of his three appearances on Ed Sullivan’s show, he was shown only from the waist up.
In March 1957 Presley purchased Graceland, a former church that had been converted into a 23-room mansion; the next month “All Shook Up” began an eight-week run at Number One. It was preceded in 1957 by “Poor Boy” (Number 24), “Too Much” (Number One), and “Playing for Keeps” (Number 21). Presley’s next single was his first gospel release, “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (For Me)”; it went to Number 25.
Presley was also the first rock star to cross over into films with consistently commercial, if not critical, success. His second film, Loving You, was released in July 1957, and “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” from the soundtrack hit Number One on the pop, country, and R&B charts, as did “All Shook Up,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” the title song from Presley’s next movie, which featured Lieber and Stoller songs. Other hit singles from 1957 were “Loving You” (Number 20) and “Treat Me Nice” (Number 18).
That December Presley received his draft notice but was granted a 60-day deferment to complete filming King Creole, a drama based on the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher, costarring Carolyn Jones and Walter Mattau. These first four feature films are considered to be his best. Early in the game, Presley truly intended to be taken seriously as an actor. Unfortunately, once he left the service, the choice of roles was left entirely up to Colonel Parker, and the results were rarely satisfactory for either the audience or Presley. However, since Presley would not tour again until the early Seventies, it was through the films that most fans saw him. Despite anything that might be said of these films, that reason alone accounts for their massive success.
On March 24, 1958, Presley entered the army. The preceding months brought two hits: “Don’t” (Number One, 1958) and “I Beg of You” (Number Eight, 1958). He took leave a few months later to be with his mother; Gladys Presley died the day after his arrival home in Memphis, on August 14, 1958. In later interviews Presley would call her death the great tragedy of his life. In the years since his death, much has been written about his relationship with his mother and her impact on him. She was without question the most important person in his life. At her funeral, he cried out, “You know how much I lived my whole life just for you,” words that were both true in the moment and prophetic, for the absence of Gladys, and his love for her, seemed to have never really left his mind. He was shipped to Bremerhaven, West Germany, and in January 1960 was promoted to sergeant. He was discharged that March.
Colonel Parker, meanwhile, had continued to release singles Presley had recorded before his departure, ensuring that while Elvis was gone, he would not be forgotten. He scored a number of hits in absentia, including “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck” (Number Two, 1958), “Don’tcha Think It’s Time” (Number 15, 1958), “Hard Headed Woman” (Number One, 1958), “Don’t Ask Me Why” (Number 25, 1958), “One Night” (Number Four, 1958), “I Got Stung” (Number Eight, 1958), “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” (Number Two, 1959), “I Need Your Love Tonight” (Number Four, 1959), “A Big Hunk o’ Love” (Number One, 1959), and “My Wish Came True” (Number 12, 1959). In 1958 alone, Presley earned over $2 million. Shortly after returning to civilian life, Presley made his first stereo record, “Stuck on You” (Number One), and in late March 1960, he taped a TV program with Frank Sinatra, The Frank Sinatra-Timex Special.
In July, Presely’s father remarried. Vernon Presley’s second wife, Davada “Dee” Stanley, and her three sons would later write Elvis: We Love You Tender, one of dozens of insiders’ tell-all biographies that were published following his death. Also at this time, Presley gathered more closely around him the friends, employees, and hangers-on who would become known as the Memphis Mafia and would accompany him almost constantly until his death. Presley’s world became increasingly insular.
The films G.I. Blues and Flaming Star were released in 1960, and “It’s Now or Never” hit Number One in both the U.K. and the U.S. Presley had five Number One U.S. hits: “Stuck on You,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (1960); “Surrender” (1961); and “Good Luck Charm” (1962). Other Top 10 singles included “I Feel So Bad” (Number Five, 1961), “Little Sister” (Number Five, 1961), “(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame” (Number Four, 1961), “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Number Two, 1961), “She’s Not You” (Number Five, 1962), “Return to Sender” (Number Two, 1962), “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” (Number Three, 1963), and “Bossa Nova Baby” (Number Eight, 1963). Meanwhile, over Christmas 1960, Priscilla Beaulieu, the teenage daughter of an army officer whom Elvis met in Germany, visited Graceland. In early 1961 she moved in to live, it was said, under the supervision of Presley’s father and stepmother. Interestingly, the press largely went along with the spin Colonel Parker put on the story, and few seemed troubled that the King of Rock & Roll shared his domain with his teenage girlfriend.
After a live performance on March 25, 1961, at a benefit for the USS Arizona, Presley left the concert stage. He spent the next eight years making B movies: Wild in the Country; Blue Hawaii (1961); Follow That Dream; Kid Galahad; Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962); It Happened at the World’s Fair; Fun in Acapulco (1963); Kissin’ Cousins; Viva Las Vegas; Roustabout (1964); Girl Happy; Tickle Me; Harum Scarum (1965); Frankie and Johnny; Paradise, Hawaiian Style; Spinout (1966); Easy Come, Easy Go; Double Trouble; Clambake (1967); Stay Away Joe; Speedway; Live a Little, Love a Little (1968); Charro!; The Trouble with Girls (and How to Get Into It); Change of Habit (1969). With a few exceptions, the soundtrack music was generally poor. But by the mid-Sixties Presley was earning $1 million per movie plus a large percentage of the gross. Most of the movies had a concurrently released soundtrack LP. Four of them hit Number One (Loving You, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, Roustabout), and an additional seven were Top 10. Presley often made his displeasure with these films known to friends and associates, but Colonel Parker would not relent in his insistence that his sole client stick with a winning formula. Years later, in 1974, Parker’s shortsightedness as a manager resulted in his refusing Barbra Streisand’s offer to have Presley costar with her in what became a hit remake of A Star Is Born. Parker felt Streisand didn’t deserve equal billing with Presley.
Meanwhile, the younger rock audience heard Presley disciples like the Beatles more often than they heard Presley himself. But Presley did not disappear and he was not, like most American rockers, swept away by the British Invasion, though the Top 10 became increasingly beyond his reach, with only “Crying in the Chapel” (which he recorded in 1960) at Number Three (1965) making the cut. Presley turned increasingly inward, focusing on his family. On May 1, 1967, Elvis and Priscilla were wed in Las Vegas; on February 1, 1968, their only child, Lisa Marie, was born. Fearing he had been forgotten, Presley made a last-gasp bid to regain his footing. He defied Colonel Parker and followed the advice of director Steve Binder for his “comeback” television special. (Parker had wanted it to be a Christmas show.) Over the summer Presley taped the surprisingly raw, powerful Elvis television special that was broadcast on December 3 to high ratings. Its soundtrack reached Number Eight. It included his first performance before an audience in over seven years (though many portions were taped without an audience). It also spun off his first Top 15 single since 1965, the socially conscious “If I Can Dream” (Number 12, 1968). The importance of this moment in Presley’s life cannot be overestimated. Years later, the ’68 comeback special still stands as one of the most powerful performances in rock history.
With that success behind him, Presley turned to performing in Las Vegas. His monthlong debut at the International Hotel in Las Vegas began on July 26, 1969, and set the course for all of Presley’s future performances. His fee for the four weeks was over $1 million. Riding the crest of his comeback, Presley released a series of top singles, including “In the Ghetto” (Number Three, 1969), “Suspicious Minds” (Number One, 1969 — his first chart-topper in over seven years), “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Number Six, 1969), and “The Wonder of You” (Number Nine, 1970). He toured the country annually, selling out showrooms, auditoriums, and arenas, frequently breaking box-office records. Until his death, he performed a total of nearly 1,100 concerts. There were two on-tour documentaries released, Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972), the latter of which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Doucmentary.
Presley was honored with countless Elvis Presley Days in cities across the country, and the U.S. Jaycees named him one of the 10 most outstanding young men in America in 1970. His birthplace in Tupelo was opened to the public, and on January 18, 1972, the portion of Highway 51 South that runs in front of Graceland was renamed Elvis Presley Boulevard. That October, Presley had his last Top 10 hit with “Burning Love” (Number Two).
Meanwhile, Presley’s personal life became the subject of countless tabloid headlines. Priscilla, from whom Presley had been separated since February 1972, refused to return to Graceland, and on his birthday in 1973 he filed for divorce. Less than a week later the TV special Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii was broadcast via satellite to over a billion viewers in 40 countries, an indication of his international appeal, although (with the exception of three dates in Canada in 1957 and an impromptu performance while on leave in Paris in 1959) Presley never performed outside the U.S. The special’s soundtrack album became his last Number One album in 1973.
Outwardly, Presley appeared to have been given a second chance. He was more popular than ever, and the fan worship that would blossom into one of the biggest personality cults in modern history was taking hold. Offstage, however, Presley was plagued by self-doubt, poor management, and a basic dissatisfaction with his life. He repeatedly threatened to quit show business, but debts and his financial obligations to his large extended family, employees, and assorted hangers-on made that impossible. Unbeknownst to the public until after his death, Presley turned to drugs. Soon after he left the army, he became increasingly wary of the public and would often rent whole movie theaters and amusement parks to visit at night. By the late Sixties he was nearly a total recluse. Among the many books written by Presley by those who knew him, Priscilla’s account, Elvis and Me, goes so far as to suggest that he might have suffered a total nervous breakdown. Although it now seems clear that Presley was taking drugs — namely amphetamines — while in the service (and perhaps even before), his abuse of prescription drugs, including barbiturates, tranquilizers, and amphetamines, increased during the last years of his life. Several painful physical conditions may have initiated this trend. Ironically, he remained devoutly spiritual, never drank alcohol, and publicly denounced the use of recreational drugs. In one of his few unplanned excursions from Graceland, he actually showed up at the White House in 1970 to meet President Richard M. Nixon and received an honorary Drug Enforcement Administration agent’s badge. Days later he was given a special tour of FBI headquarters, where according to FBI files made public after Presley’s death, the singer offered to provide information on persons he believed were a bad influence on American youth.
Toward the end of his life, however, his onstage presence began to deteriorate. He would babble incoherently and rip his pants, having grown quite obese, and on at least one occasion he collapsed. Despite his clearly worsening health, he maintained a frantic tour schedule. This was due to the fact that in 1973 Colonel Parker had negotiated a complex deal whereby Presley sold back to RCA the rights to many of his masters in exchange for a lump-sum payment of which only $2.8 million came to him. Essentially, after 1973 Parker was earning nearly 50 percent commission (as opposed to the 10 percent industry standard). Worse, however, Presley was not earning any more royalties on sides recorded before 1973, although they continued to sell in the millions year after year. Parker’s need to satisfy personal gambling debts was said to be the reason for the self-serving deal. On top of it all, Presley opposed tax shelters on principle; he naively relied on his father for business advice; and he gave away expensive gifts and cash heedlessly. The result, by the mid-Seventies, was near-certain financial disaster.
Presley’s last live performance was on June 25, 1977, in Indianapolis. He was reportedly horrified at the impending publication of Elvis: What Happened?, the tell-all written by three of his ex-bodyguards and Memphis Mafiosi that was the first printed account of his drug abuse and obsession with firearms, to name just two headline-grabbing revelations. The book came out on August 12. On August 16, 1977 — the day before his next scheduled concert — Presley was discovered by girlfriend Ginger Alden dead in his bathroom at Graceland. Although his death was at first attributed to congestive heart failure (an autopsy also revealed advance arteriosclerosis and an enlarged liver), later investigation revealed evidence that drug abuse may have been at least part of the cause of death. Because the family was allowed to keep the official autopsy report private, additional speculation regarding contributing factors in Presley’s death has run wild. Through the years, several insiders have insisted that he was suffering from bone cancer, to name just one unsubstantiated claim. In September 1979 Presley’s private physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, was charged by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners with “indiscriminately prescribing 5,300 pills and vials for Elvis in the seven months before his death.” He was later acquitted.
Thousands gathered at Graceland, where Presley lay in state before he was buried in a mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. After attempts were made to break into the mausoleum, Presley’s body and that of his mother were moved to the Meditation Garden behind Graceland. Nearly two years later, his father, Vernon, died and was also buried there. With Vernon dead, all of Presley’s estate passed on to Lisa Marie.
Court battles over the estate ended in June 1983 after 21 months of litigation with a settlement that ended four lawsuits. One of the terms of the agreement called for Parker to turn over most of his interest in Presley’s audio and video recordings to RCA and the Presley family in return for a large monetary settlement. Lisa Marie’s court-appointed guardian ad litem, Blanchard Tual, wrote in his report on Presley’s financial affairs that Parker had “handled affairs not in Elvis’ but in his own best interest.” Parker died of a stroke in February 1997 at the age of 87. Priscilla Presley assumed control of the estate and through a number of business moves made the Presley estate many times more valuable than it had ever been during Elvis’ lifetime. The cornerstone of the Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc. (EPE) financial empire is the Tennessee state law Priscilla Presley pushed for that guarantees to heirs the commercial rights to a deceased celebrity’s image and likeness. As a result, the name Elvis Presley is, technically speaking, a trademark, and anyone selling Presley-related merchandise in the U.S. must pay EPE an advance fee plus a royalty on every item sold.
Claiming the funds were needed to maintain the property (the estate was valued at only $5 million in 1979 and the costs to maintain Graceland are estimated at nearly half a million dollars annually), Priscilla Presley opened Graceland to the public in the fall of 1982. Although it is not preserved in exactly the way Elvis Presley left it, and the second floor, where his bedroom is located, remains off-limits to the public, millions have come from all over the world to pay homage to the King of Rock & Roll. In 1991 Graceland was added to the National Register of Historic Places. At last count, around 600,000 people visit Graceland annually. In the mid-Nineties, the Presley estate was estimated to have been worth over $100 million. At the turn of the century, it was estimated that the presence of Graceland was responsible for bringing $100 million into the local Memphis economy. The Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation was created in 1985 by EPE to support various causes.
Presley’s sole heir, Lisa Marie, married a fellow Scientology follower, Danny Keough, in 1988. They had two children: Danielle and Benjamin Storm. In 1993 they were divorced, and in May 1994 she married Michael Jackson. They divorced in 1996, after 18 months of marriage. In August 2005, Lisa Marie sold 85 percent of her share of the Presley estate to CKX Inc., which also owns 19 Entertainment, the company responsible for the American Idol TV show. Lisa Marie kept the Graceland property and most of its belongings. In February 2006, CKX announced its plan to increase Graceland’s tourist-destination profile.
Hundreds of books about Presley have been published in the U.S. alone. His enduring power as a cultural force is beyond the scope of this biography, but it has been examined by a number of authors, including Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Peter Guralnick, to name a few. Guralnick’s award winning two-volume biography — Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994) and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1999) — is perhaps the closest to a definitive account of his life yet written. In 1986 Presley was among the first 10 performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2002, Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation,” from the Roustabout soundtrack (1968), was remixed by JXL (a.k.a. Junkie XL — the DJ-producer allowed his name to be truncated for the remix) and became a Number One U.K. hit, helping propel a new compilation, 30 Number1 Hits, to healthy sales worldwide. (It reached Number One itself in the U.S.) 30 Number One Hits was later followed by 2nd to None (Number Three, 2003), both of which were folded into a three-disc box titled Hitstory. Elvis' albums and songs have been reissued and repackaged with extra tracks countless times since his death, and in 2010, to celebrate his 75th birthday, RCA released yet another collection, the 100-song box set Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this story.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus