Rock Through the Ages: Elvis Presley

"I don't know anything about music, In my line you don't have to." - Elvis

Elvis Presley, in his early years. Elvis Presley is featured in Rock through the Pages at Michael Arnold Art

Elvis Presley was the first real rock & roll star. A white Southerner singing blues laced with country, and country laced with gospel, Elvis Presley brought together American music from both sides of the color line and performed it with a natural hip-swiveling sexuality that made him a teen idol and a role model for generations of cool rebels. Elvis Presley 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. Long after  his death, Elvis Presley’s image and influence remain undiminished. While certainly other artists preceded him and he by no means “invented” rock & roll, Elvis Presley is indisputably its king.

Aaron Presley was born on 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. Elvis Presley was deeply devoted to his parents, especially his mother Gladys, and was raised to have a strong faith in God. Presley attended the Assembly of God Church with his parents where the gospel music became an important influence on him. On October 3, 1945, at age ten, Elvis made his first public performance in a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show at the suggestion of his teacher Mrs. J.C. Grimes. Dressed as a cowboy, the young Presley had to stand on a chair to reach the microphone and sang Red Foley's "Old Shep." He came fifth, winning $5 and a free ticket to all the Fair rides. The following year Elvis received his first guitar as a birthday gift from his parents. Over the following year, Vernon's brother, Vester, gave Elvis basic guitar lessons. 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.

After graduating in 1953,Elvis Presley worked a number of jobs while pursuing his musical dream. He cut his first demo record at what later became known as Sun Studio that year, and before long, Sam Phillips, the record label owner, decided to take the young performer under his wing. “That’s All Right” was Presley’s first single in 1954. Presley began touring and recording, trying to get his first big break. Elvis began to develop a following with fans being drawn to his unusual musical style, provocative gyrating hips, and good looks. In 1955, he signed with RCA Records, a deal worked out by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.  Presley became a national star in 1956. He and Parker traveled to Nashville, where Presley cut his first records for RCA, 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. Teenage girls became hysterical over his blatantly sexual gyrations, particularly the one that got him nicknamed "Elvis the Pelvis". TV cameras were not permitted to film Elvis below his waist. Soon Presley appeared to be everywhere—on the radio, television, and on screen. His first film, Love Me Tender (1956), was a box office hit. Elvis Presley's 12 hit singles that year were all certified gold; they included “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Blue Suede Shoes”,  “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Don’t Be Cruel” “Hound Dog”, “My Baby Left Me”,  and “Love Me Tender.” 

Elvis the Pelvis, smiling Elvis Presley photoBy early 1957 Elvis Presley was the idol of millions of teens and the perfect target for the wrath of critics, teachers, clergy, and even other entertainers. In March 1957 Presley purchased Graceland, a former church that had been converted into a 23-room mansion. Graceland, with it's colonial columns, sets on over 13 acres of land and was purchased for privacy and security reasons. After purchasing the property Presley carried out extensive modifications to suit his needs and tastes, including: a fieldstone wall surrounding the grounds, a wrought-iron music styled gate, a swimming pool, a racquetball court, and the famous "Jungle Room" which features an indoor waterfall, among other modifications. One of Presley's better known modifications was the addition of the Meditation Gardens, where he, his parents, and grandmother are buried. There is also a small stone placed to remember Elvis' twin brother, Jesse Garon who died at birth.

Even a stint in the U.S. military couldn’t put a damper on Presley’s thriving career. He received his draft notice in 1957 and was inducted into the army the following March. He eventually served in Germany about a year and a half. Shortly before Presley left for Europe, his beloved mother died. He was granted a leave and returned to Memphis for the funeral where, 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. Deeply saddened by her death, he returned to duty. While in Germany, his spirits lifted a bit when he met a young teenager named Priscilla Beaulieu. 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 “Hard Headed Woman”, “Don’t Ask Me Why”, “One Night”,  “I Got Stung”, “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I”, “A Big Hunk o’ Love”, and “My Wish Came True”. In 1958 alone, Presley earned over $2 million. After leaving the army in 1960, Presley resumed his career and soon rose right back to the top of the charts with the soundtrack for his film GI Blues. During the Christmas holidays in 1960, Priscilla 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 a total of 33 B movies.

On May 1, 1967, Elvis and Priscilla were wed in Las Vegas and on February 1, 1968, their only child, Lisa Marie, was born. Proving he was still the king of rock and rock, Elvis did his first television special in 1968, which is often referred to as the ’68 Comeback. He wowed audiences with his performance, which showcased his talents as a singer and a musician. 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. In the early 1970's Presley’s personal life became the subject of countless tabloid headlines. Priscilla and Elvis separated in 1972, 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. 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 e-bodyguards. The book came out on August 12, and on August 16, 1977, Presley was discovered dead on the bathroom floor at Graceland.

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Elvis Presley
Rock n Roll Musician
American singer whose songs include "Blue Suede Shoes" Heartbreak Hotel" “A Big Hunk o’ Love” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Don’t Be Cruel” “Hound Dog”, “My Baby Left Me”,  and “Love Me Tender.”