Elvis Presley

(1935 – 1977)

Hailed as the “King of Rock and Roll," Elvis Presley is one of the most important cultural icons of the 20th century and is universally credited with breaking Roll and Roll music into the mainstream.

Born in Tupelo, Miss., in 1935 and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis was a product of the musical culture of the American South — from the Gospel he heard in church, the Country music he heard on the radio to the black Blues and R&B he heard on Beale Street as a Memphis teenager, Elvis absorbed it all.

He began his singing career with Sam Phillip's Sun Records label in Memphis in 1954. Phillips had long sought to bring the sounds of black R&B to a wide (i.e. white) audience, with a “white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel.” And in Elvis – whom Phillips discovered when Presley came in to patronize his custom recording service, paying two dollars to record a pair of songs — he found it, along with a combination of raw charisma, energy and good looks. Elvis’ first single for the label, on which he was backed by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, combined the Blues song "That's All Right" and the Country/Bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky,” done in a crackling, uptempo style that was not quite like anything heard previously. When the single was released in 1954, many who heard it on the radio assumed Presley was black.

After Phillips sold Elvis’ recording contract to RCA Records in 1955, singles such as "All Shook Up" "Jailhouse Rock," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog" – one smash hit after another — helped launch Elvis from a regional star to international phenomenon. While beloved by millions, Elvis is controversial as well: the pelvic gyrations and other stage moves that send young audiences – females especially – into a frenzy are condemned as degrading and dangerous by elders unsettled by the arrival of Rock and Roll and what they see as its corrupting influence on America’s youth. Through it all, Elvis maintains a certain duality, his rebellious sneer, wild stage moves and pink suits standing in sharp contrast to the quiet, respectful humility he exhibits offstage.

At the peak of his popularity, in 1958, Elvis entered the army; he is stationed in Germany. After his discharge in 1960 he resumes his recording career, but is attention increasingly turned toward movies; he starred in several dozen low-budget films through the 1960s, from “Blue Hawaii” to “Girl Happy” to “Viva Las Vegas.” By the late 1960s, the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Summer of Love had hit and Elvis’ popularity was in decline. He career got a major boost, though, with a 1968 television broadcast that became known as the “Comeback Special,” which featured Presley, in a black leather suit, playing with a band in front of a small audience. The following year he has his first No. 1 hit in seven years, with “Suspicious Minds.”

Presley continued recording and performing through the 1970s; his health began to decline in part due to drug use, however, and he became increasingly bloated in appearance and reclusive offstage. Elvis collapsed and died in August 1977 in his Memphis mansion, Graceland – cardiac arrhythmia is listed as the cause of death. Mourners flock to Graceland to mourn the death of “the King,” who leaves behind a legacy as the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music, with a staggering 104 Top 40 Hits — an international record.

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