Elvis Aaron Presley was born on 8 January 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi in a shotgun house built by his father Vernon. He had a twin brother called Jesse who was 35 minutes older than he but unfortunately was stillborn.
Elvis’s mother, Gladys, who was of Scots-Irish descent, had eloped with Vernon when she was 21. She was four years older than Vernon when they were married in 1933 and the young couple did the best they could to cope but often had to turn to handouts from family members and also sometimes had to take advantage of government food assistance.
In 1938, Vernon was jailed for 8 months after altering a cheque. This resulted in the family losing their home and so Elvis and his mother moved in with relatives.
Elvis’ first experience of music came when one of his teachers at the East Tupelo Consolidated school he attended suggested that he enter a singing contest. Consequently, Elvis Presley’s first public performance was on 3 October 1945 at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He placed fifth after singing “Old Shep” whilst dressed as a cowboy. A few months later he was given his first guitar although he recalled later that he would have preferred a bicycle or a rifle. Although at first, he was shy of singing in public, he started to learn the basics of the guitar and would over time become ‘crazy about music’.
In 1948, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis attended L. C. Humes High School where he managed to attain a ‘C’ grade in music in the 8th grade. By the time he graduated though, in June 1953, Elvis had already decided that he wanted a career in music.
He began recording with Sun Records in Memphis with producer Sam Phillips at just nineteen years old in 1954. This was at a time of immense racial tension and legal racism caused by segregation in America. Sam Phillips wanted African American music to have a wider audience, and Elvis was the man for the job. As no music style is ever completely unique, rock and roll music has its roots in rhythm and blues or R&B.
Rock and roll took the same elements but created an up-tempo combination of R&B and country music that was backbeat-driven. The particular style of rock and roll that Presley created was called rockabilly.
After a few false starts, Elvis stumbled across a song that worked and was the sort of thing that Sam was looking for. The song was called “That’s All Right” and after a popular Memphis DJ called Dewey Phillips played it on his show, people started asking who this new singer was.
In 1956 Elvis started to make recordings with RCA in Nashville and on 27 January 1956 his first single, “Heartbreak Hotel” was released, and it quickly rose to the top of the charts in the United States. But his voice was not the only thing people were interested in. He was very successful in a number of television appearances which helped him to also become the face of rock and roll.
It has been said of Elvis’ musical style that it was more than just a mix of black, white, pop, and country. One of the things that made him different was that at a time when most singers created music for adults, he was appealing to a younger generation. Teenagers were one of his biggest audiences, and at a time when portable radios were becoming popular, he found it relatively easy to get his music to them, increasing his popularity even more. His incredible energetic and provocative performances of songs made him hugely popular – and controversial.
In many of his live performances, he would perform with African American backing singers in front of a mostly white audience. His career also allowed for African American performers to become more mainstream with white audiences because the style was in such demand. Elvis’ performances were also noted for being somewhat raunchy with screaming fans being wowed by the way he used his body, especially the gyrating movements he made with his hips when performing on stage, resulting in him being referred to as ‘Elvis the Pelvis’, a term which Presley himself did not like.
A letter sent to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover by the local Catholic diocese after a performance in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1956 warned that “Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States…. [His] actions and motions were such to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth.” In August of the same year, a judge in Jacksonville, Florida ordered Presley to “tame his act”, and Ed Sullivan who hosted the most popular variety show on television at the time said that Elvis was “unfit for family viewing”. Despite this declaration, when Elvis appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show in September 1956, over 82 per cent of the TV viewing public, 60 million people, watched the show. His performance of ‘Love Me Tender’, his forthcoming single prompted over 1 million pre-orders, shattering previous records.
Apart from being the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis was also noted for his attitude when he was drafted into the Army in March 1958. Presley announced that he was looking forward to serving his country, saying that he didn’t want to be treated any differently from anyone else. “The Army can do anything it wants with me”, he said. The men he served with said that this was his true attitude. He was very generous and bought television sets for the base, gave his military pay away to charity, and even purchased extra uniforms for his deployment group.
Sadly though, during this time his mother who had contracted hepatitis, experienced a rapid deterioration in her condition. Elvis was granted emergency leave to visit her, and two days later on 14 August 1958, she died of heart failure at the age of only 46. Elvis worshipped his mother and they had enjoyed an extremely close relationship, even into his adulthood and throughout his rise to stardom, and he was devastated by her death.
Following his mother’s death, a sergeant that Elvis served with introduced him to amphetamines. Biographer Peter Guralnick said that he was “practically evangelical about their benefits”. He enjoyed the energy and strength they gave him, as well as the benefit of weight loss, and many others joined him in taking them. This was unfortunately common at the time and many did not know the addictive power of drugs. Drug use affected him throughout his life after that, much as it did many other high-profile people at the time.
After he was honourably discharged from the army in 1960, Elvis continued to make music and films. Although his films were described as a “pantheon of bad taste” by critic Andrew Caine, they were virtually all profitable, following a modestly budgeted musical comedy formula. His film career at one point had him making three films in one year due to the heavy schedule put together by Tom Parker, Elvis’ Manager.
Whilst serving with the 3rd Armoured Division in Friedberg, Germany Elvis had met a fourteen-year-old girl named Priscilla Beaulieu. Although he was ten years her senior, she made a huge impression on him and after over seven years of courtship in 1966, the two were married at the Aladdin hotel in Las Vegas. They had a daughter together, Lisa Marie Presley, who was born on 1 February 1968, but they would divorce only five years later. According to some, the failure of his marriage was a blow from which Elvis would never recover. By this time Elvis was in extremely bad health. He overdosed on barbiturates twice, including one so severe it left him comatose for three days.
During the mid-1970s recording became difficult for him, even though at one-point RCA sent a mobile recording studio to his Graceland home. He recorded 18 songs during a session in 1973, but in 1974 he didn’t enter the studio at all and again only once in 1975. Even so, during this period, he ended up recording the content of what would become six albums, three of which went to number one in the country music charts.
His live performances were affected even more by his daily intake of drugs. A performance in Alexandria, Louisiana in 1977 saw him on stage for less than an hour, and for most of the time he was on stage, the audience couldn’t understand him. On 31 March, he was unable to even get out of bed and so his show in Baton Rouge had to be cancelled. On 6 June, Elvis released ‘Way Down’, his final single and his final live performance took place at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis on 26 June.
On 16 August 1977, Elvis was supposed to fly to Memphis for the start of another tour, but his then fiancée, Ginger Alden found him on their bathroom floor. All attempts to revive him failed and he was pronounced dead at Baptist Memorial Hospital at 3.30 pm. The funeral was conducted at Graceland on 18 August and tens of thousands of people lined the processional route to the cemetery where he was laid to rest at the side of his mother.
Elvis was not only a rock and roll icon but was also very successful in many other genres including country, blues, gospel, and pop. He remains the best selling solo artist in the history of recorded music. In 2010, he achieved his highest annual income since his death – $60 million. In 2017 he still managed to bring in $35 million. John Lennon once said of him, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” He has been inducted into five different music halls of fame and in 2018 was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Donald Trump.