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Elvis Presley: Rock's First Icon

How the 'kid with the sideburns' became the King and changed the rules of rock & roll

September 22, 1977
Elvis Presley on the cover of Rolling Stone
Elvis Presley on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Have You Heard The News? . . . There's Good Rockin' Tonight. – Elvis Presley, 1955

Elvis Aron Presley died August 16th at his home, Graceland mansion, in Memphis. The victim of a heart attack, he was 42. He was born January 8th, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, the son of a truck driver and a sewing-machine operator. He showed an early interest in music and got his first guitar at 11. He enjoyed singing in the church choir.

The family moved to Memphis when Elvis was 13. After graduating from high school in 1953 he got a job driving a truck for a local electrical-parts company. One day that summer he walked into Sun Records to cut a demo. Eight months and a couple of demos later, Sam Phillips, the president of the company, was looking for a singer to record a song he liked. "What about the kid with the sideburns?" asked Marion Keisker. That was the beginning.

Phillips gave the kid with the sideburns his first professional singing chance. His first single, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right, Mama," was released in August 1954. It was a regional hit, although many radio stations wouldn't play it because they thought he was either a black man playing country or a white man playing blues.

100 Greatest Singers: Elvis Presley

Older listeners were taken aback, or at least perplexed. Younger audiences, especially teenage women, were mesmerized and, before long, frenzied. The stage presence: the curling lip, the hooded eyes, the outrageous hair, the pink-and-black wardrobe – coupled with his sheer kinetic energy – were more than his audiences could take. And the records kept on selling.

In 1955 Presley met Colonel Tom Parker, who soon became his manager and signed him to RCA Records. On July 5th, 1956, Elvis went into the RCA studios in Nashville and recorded "Heartbreak Hotel." Within weeks of its release, it was the nation's Number One song. National television appearances enhanced his fame and notoriety. The Ed Sullivan Show screened him only from the waist up.

By the time Elvis was drafted into the Army in March 1958, 12 of his songs had reached the Top Ten. Eight made Number One. Seven more Top Ten singles were released during his two-year hitch. The string continued through the Sixties, with record sales estimated as high as 250 million. During much of this period and into the early Seventies, he made 31 movies, all box-office successes.

After nearly eight years without giving a public performance, Elvis did a 1968 NBC TV special that included an electrifying half-hour in front of a live audience. It was, in a sense, a "comeback," but it was also an announcement that the King had lost none of his powers. He began regular concert appearances again in 1970, for the most part in Las Vegas, and was always ecstatically received.

After he turned 40 it was quite apparent that Presley had weight problems (he actually split his pants during a concert not long ago) and it was subsequently reported that he had health problems as well. Critics regarded some of his recent concerts as lackluster; on the other hand, the adulation continued unabated.

Elvis Presley didn't invent rock & roll, but he forged a style and tone that was echoed by almost every singer and group that followed. He was also rock's first and most important icon. He became that same catalytic force the Beatles would become almost a decade later, showing young people that they had their own music and their own lifestyles.

Elvis Presley Through the Years

How will Elvis Presley the singer be judged in the years to come? Here's a clue from Henry Pleasant's excellent book, The Great American Popular Singers (Simon & Schuster, 1974), in which he contrasts the singing contributions of Elvis and Louis Armstrong:

"Elvis' contribution has been, in some respects, the more remarkable of the two. Louis documented the black musician's importance and won him status in the evolving new Afro-American idiom. But he was outstanding among many – Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, King Oliver, Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, to name only a few. And Louis was black. Elvis introduced young white America to the music that had been fermenting in the black subculture since Louis' prime. He stimulated in an enormous, young white public an appetite and a readiness for the real thing."

This story is from the September 22nd, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone. 

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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