A global phenomenon even more popular and more lucrative in death than in his 42 incredible years in our midst, Elvis Aaron Presley, The King of Rock and Roll, bridged generations of music fans while topping the pop, R&B and country charts simultaneously. A rock pioneer, Vegas showman and all around larger than life personality, Elvis was a multi-faceted performer whose career spanned several decades and phases.
Elvis Presley was the sole survivor of twin boys, Jesse Garon and Elvis Aaron, born to dirt-poor newly-weds Vernon and Gladys Presley in Tupelo, MI on January 8, 1935. Because of the stillbirth of Jesse, Gladys Presley was fiercely protective of her remaining son. The family moved to Memphis, TN in search of better work for Vernon in 1948 when Elvis was thirteen. His musical influences were the pop and country music of the time heard on radio, the gospel music he sang in church, the all-night gospel sings he frequently attended, and the black R&B he later absorbed on historic Beale Street as a Memphis teenager.
He had already won a local song contest with a rendition of Red Foley's maudlin "Ol' Shep," when in 1954, he inadvertently began his singing career at the legendary Sun Records studios in Memphis. As a birthday present for his mother, Presley paid a few dollars and cut a version of the Ink Spots "My Happiness."
After hearing Elvis' unique voice, studio owner and producer Sam Phillips nurtured him for almost a year before putting him together with country guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. In Presley, Phillips had seen and heard something that he had long dreamed of discovering: a white boy who sang like a black blues singer.
Presley's debut disc on Sun was a rocked-up rendition of bluesman Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's "That's All Right (Mama)," a showcase for Elvis' rich, multi-textured vocal dexterity with its blues overtones, and sharp, solid instrumental and vocal backing from his compatriots. Local response to the punchy, rocking tune was more than encouraging and Phillips eventually shipped 20,000 copies.
In late 1955, Sam sold Elvis' recording contract to RCA Victor, and former carney sideshow operator Colonel Tom Parker arrived on the scene and became his lifelong manager.
With the tough, sly and manipulative Parker at the wheel, by 1956 Elvis was an international sensation. With a sound and style that uniquely combined his diverse musical influences and blurred and challenged the social and racial barriers of the time, he ushered in a whole new era of American music and popular culture.
The sheer diversity of Presley's musical heritage and his remarkable ability as a vocalist and interpreter of material enabled him to escape the cultural parochialism of his R&B-influenced predecessors.
The attendant rock 'n' roll explosion, of which Presley was both a creator and participant, ensured that he could reach a new target market, the worldwide mass audience of newly affluent teenagers.
It was on January 10, 1956, a mere two days after his 21st birthday, that Presley entered RCA's studios in Nashville to record his first tracks for a major label. His debut session produced the epochal "Heartbreak Hotel", written by Mae Boren Axton (mother of Hoyt), and one of the most striking pop records ever released. The follow-up, "Hound Dog/Don't Be Cruel" was to become the most commercially successful double-sided single in pop history. The rest is literally, both rock and American cultural history.
Overcoming the initial cultural shock of his hip-shaking performances by way of numerous television appearances in mainstream variety shows, Elvis came across as likeable and respectful, while still retaining a smoldering, sensual quality.
In a further erosion of his rebellious image, Elvis joined the U.S. Army in 1960, shipped to Germany, where he met and later married Priscilla Beaulieu on May 1, 1967 in Las Vegas, after they had lived together for five years. Daughter Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months later, on February 1, 1968.
When he was discharged from the Army, Elvis went Hollywood, making 33 films in all, among the better of them Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, in which Presley showed surprising skill as a dramatic actor.
Determined to head off any ambitions of the acting kind, the Colonel made sure that future scripts were nothing but innocuous vehicles for Elvis' sex appeal and increasingly banal repertoire. Despite this, the soundtrack albums sold very well.
Elvis reached a career crisis in 1969, after a run of 33 mostly nonsensical movies. He opted to try a one-night stand in Vegas. The night after his stupendously successful sell-out 1969 show, he was signed to a five-year deal with the International Hotel, and settled into the Vegas lifestyle, rapidly becoming bored and heavily addicted to prescription drugs.
He succumbed to rampant paranoia, his weight increased, and periods of lucidity grew further and further apart. When not appearing in Vegas, his isolated himself at Graceland and his behavior grew alarming to those close to him. Priscilla took Lisa Marie and left in 1972, and the couple divorced in October 1973.
From there on the decline was rapid and dramatic, as Elvis' health and will to live failed, and the end came in 1977. Elvis died at his beloved Graceland, on August 16, 1977, a result of continual abuse of prescription drugs which caused heart failure. He was 42 years old. His mother Gladys had died on August 14, 1958, almost exactly 19 years earlier.
Globally, he has sold over one billion records, more than any other artist. His American sales have earned him gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards for 140 different albums and singles, far more than any other artist. Among his many awards and accolades were 14 Grammy nominations (three wins) and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Graceland remains a popular year-round tourist destination and a museum to the Elvis Presley legacy. As a place of rock pilgrimage, it also inspired the title of Paul Simon's 1986 recording of the same name. Every year on the anniversary of Elvis' death thousands of fans from all over the world come to Graceland to memorialize him and take part in a candlelight vigil.
Ultimately, Elvis' talent, good looks, sensuality, charisma, and good humor continue to endear him to millions, as did the humility and human kindness he demonstrated throughout his life.