Week in Rock History: Elvis Dies at Graceland

Plus, Woodstock takes place and Stevie Wonder releases his first single

August 15, 2011 11:05 AM ET
Elvis Presley performs in 1977.
Elvis Presley performs in 1977.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

This week in rock history, "Little" Stevie Wonder released his debut single, the Woodstock Festival invaded upstate New York, Diana Ross gave birth to her love child with Berry Gordy, Elvis Presley was discovered dead and Michael Jackson bought the Beatles’ catalog of songs.

August 16, 1962: "Little" Stevie Wonder releases his first single
The name was not a misnomer: "Little" Stevie Wonder was signed to Motown subset Tamla Records at the age of 11. Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins, he earned his formative stage name from producer Clarence Paul, who remarked, "We can't keep calling him the eighth wonder of the world!"

Wonder’s career began swiftly. At age 12, he released his first single, "I Call It Pretty Music But the Old People Call It the Blues." The single charted modestly and roused enough public interest in the perky young R&B prodigy that Tamla released two Wonder records, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie and Tribute to Uncle Ray, in 1962. The polished R&B pieces hinted at the flashier, wizened soul that would emerge in Wonder’s next recordings, beginning with his breakthrough 1963 single, "Fingertips - Pt. 2," a fiery live call-and-response taped at a Motortown Revue concert in Chicago.

Ever since, Wonder’s distinguished career has never strayed far from his roots – he still records for Motown Records.

August 15, 1969: Woodstock Festival is held in Bethel, New York
The original Woodstock Festival is an indelible moment in American pop culture – although the three-day event was actually held in Bethel, NY, not its namesake town.

An estimated 500,000 music fans attended the bohemian gathering, and 32 musical acts performed. Headliners were Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie on Friday, Jefferson Airplane and the Who on Saturday and Sha-Na-Na and Jimi Hendrix on Sunday (although the performances spilled well into Monday morning). Janis Joplin, Santana and the Grateful Dead also delivered climactic sets. Hendrix’s 2-hour finale, and especially his incandescent rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," cemented his legend and remains an iconic moment of the festival and of the entire decade.

Woodstock spawned countless imitating festivals, including the disastrous Woodstock ’99, but the original remains a widely adored symbol of peaceful, optimistic artistry and community.

August 14, 1971: Diana Ross gives birth to her first child; the father is Motown Records founder Berry Gordy
Even the publicity mastermind of Motown Records couldn’t hide his love child forever. The label’s most successful female artist, Diana Ross, gave birth to her first child several months after she married her music business manager, Robert Ellis Silberstein – but her daughter had been fathered by married Motown founder Berry Gordy, with whom Ross had an affair for several years in the 1960s.

Many years later, Gordy told interviewer Barbara Walters that he and Ross reconciled briefly after their 1970 breakup, and she became pregnant unbeknownst to him. Gordy maintained that he did not know the child was his for many years; he and Ross told their daughter her true paternity when she was a teenager. Rhonda Ross Kendrick is now a successful actress.

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

More Song Stories entries »