Elvis Aaron Presley Biography
His twin, Jesse Garon, was stillborn, a tragedy that contributed to the maternal influence dominating Presley’s youth. His first step towards a musical career came at age eight when he won $5 in a local song contest performing the ballad, “Old Shep.”
His earliest musical influence came from Pentecostal psalms and gospel songs. At 13, the Presley family to Memphis, and during his later school years began cultivating an outsider image, with long hair, sideburns and ostentatious clothes. After graduating he took a job as a truck driver.
In spite of his rebel posturing, Presley remained polite to his elders and devoted to his mother. As a birthday present to her, he visited Sun Records and cut a version of the Ink Spots’ “My Happiness,” backed with “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.”
The studio manager, Marion Keisker, noted Presley’s distinctive vocal style and informed Sun’s owner Sam Phillips of his potential. Phillips nurtured the boy for almost a year before putting him together with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
Presley’s debut disc on Sun was “That’s All Right (Mama),” a showcase for his rich voice. The B-side, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” was a country song, but the arrangement showed that Presley was closer to R&B. Local response to these strange-sounding performances was encouraging.
The momentum of early recordings like “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Milkcow Blues Boogie” led to Presley performing on the Grand Old Opry and Louisiana Hayride radio programs. Touring started in 1955 with drummer D.J. Fontana added to the ranks. Presley toured clubs in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas billed as The King Of Western Bop and The Hillbilly Cat.
His hip-swiveling routine, in which he cascaded across the stage and plunged to his knees at dramatic moments, was remarkable at the time and created near-riotous fan mania. The final Sun Records single, “Mystery Train,” was later acclaimed by many as the definitive rock ’n’ roll single and established Presley as an artist worthy of national attention.
The next phase of his career was dominated by the imposing figure of Colonel Tom Parker, a former fairground huckster who managed several country artists including Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold.
Parker took over and persuaded Sam Phillips to release Presley to a major label. RCA Records paid Sun Records a release fee of $35,000, an incredible sum for the period.
The sheer diversity of Presley’s musical heritage and his remarkable ability as a vocalist enabled him to escape the narrow sphere of his R&B-influenced predecessors. The rock ’n’ roll explosion, in which Presley was both a creator and participant, ensured he could reach a mass audience, many of them teenagers with spending money.
Two days after his 21st birthday, Presley entered RCA’s studios in Nashville to record his first tracks for a major label. His debut session produced “Heartbreak Hotel,” one of the most striking pop records ever released. Nothing in the pop charts of the period even hinted at the desolation described in the song. The startling originality entranced the American public and pushed the single to number 1. Whatever else he achieved, Presley was already assured a place in pop history for one of the greatest major label debut records ever released.
During the same month that “Heartbreak Hotel” was recorded, Presley made his national television debut. His sexually enticing moves bewildered and outraged the adult audience and led to him being televised only from the waist up in future shows. His debut album contained several songs he had previously recorded with Sam Phillips, including Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” and the R&B classic “I Got A Woman.”
After hitting number 1 for the second time with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Presley released what became the most commercially successful double-sided single in pop history, “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel.”
Presley’s movie debut “Love Me Tender” received mixed reviews but was a box-office smash, while the smoldering title track topped the US charts for five weeks.
The singles continued through 1957 and one of the biggest was “All Shook Up,” which the singer used as a cheeky comment on his by now legendary dance movements.
With rumors of an upcoming draft, RCA, Twentieth Century Fox and the Colonel stepped up the schedule. Three major films were completed in the next two-and-a-half years. “Loving You” was a somewhat autobiographical story with Presley playing a truck driver who becomes a pop star. The title track became the B-side of “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” another number 1 song.
“Jailhouse Rock” was Presley’s most successful movie to date. The title track was an instant classic that made pop history by entering the UK listings at number 1. “King Creole,” adapted from the Harold Robbins novel, A Stone For Danny Fisher, is considered Presley’s finest film and a firm indicator of his unfulfilled potential as a serious actor.
In 1958 Presley was drafted into the US Armed Forces and became a model soldier. A publicity photograph of the singer having his hair shorn symbolically commented on his approaching musical emasculation. Although rock ’n’ roll purists mourned the passing of the old Elvis, it seemed inevitable in the context of the ‘50s that he would move towards a broader base appeal and tone down his rebellious image. He served from 1958-60, mainly in Germany. There he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he married in 1967. Back in the States, the Colonel kept his absent star’s reputation intact by releasing a series of films, records and extensive merchandising.
By the time Presley reappeared, he was ready to assume the mantle of all-round entertainer. The change was immediately evident in the series of number 1 hits that he enjoyed in the early ‘60s. The enormously successful “It’s Now Or Never,” based on the Italian melody “O Sole Mio,” was far removed from his earlier raucous recordings. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” originally recorded by Al Jolson as early as 1927, allowed Presley to show his ham-acting ability with an overwrought vocal.
The new clean-cut Presley was presented on film in “GI Blues.” The movie played upon his recent army exploits and saw him serenading a puppet on the charming chart-topper “Wooden Heart,” which also allowed Elvis to show off his knowledge of German.
For the next few years Presley concentrated on a spree of films, including “Blue Hawaii,” “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” “Kissin’ Cousins,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and “Frankie And Johnny.” Not surprisingly, most of his album recordings were hastily completed soundtracks with unadventurous commissioned songs.
Significantly, his biggest success of the mid-‘60s, “Crying In The Chapel,” had been recorded five years earlier, and part of its appeal came from the realization that it represented something lost.
After Beatlemania, Presley seemed a figure out of time. By 1967, it was clear to critics and even a large proportion of his devoted following that Presley had seriously lost his way. He continued to grind out pointless movies such as “Clambake” even though the box office returns were increasingly poor.
His capacity to make instant hits was also wearing thin. However, just as Elvis’s career had reached its all-time low he seemed to break free from his artistic malaise. Two songs written by country guitarist Jerry Reed, “Guitar Man” and “US Male,” were a spectacular return to form.
The Elvis TV special was broadcast in the States on December 3, 1968, and has since become legendary as one of the most celebrated moments in pop broadcasting history. With his leather jacket and acoustic guitar strung casually round his neck, The King was nothing less than the pop idol of the ‘50s who had entranced a generation. He was accompanied by his old sidekicks Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana.
Presley joked about his famous surly curled-lip movement and even heaped passing ridicule on his endless stream of bad movies. The music concentrated heavily on his ‘50s classics but, significantly, there was a startling finale with the passionate “If I Can Dream.” The critical praise after the television special prompted the singer to undertake his most significant recordings in years. In January 1969 Presley recorded enough material to cover two highly praised albums, “From Elvis In Memphis” and “From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis.”
On the singles front, Presley was back in top form and finally coming to terms with contemporary issues, most notably on the socially aware “In The Ghetto.” “Suspicious Minds” gave him his first US chart-topper since “Good Luck Charm” back in 1962. Subsequent hits such as the maudlin “Don’t Cry Daddy,” which dealt with the death of a marriage, ably demonstrated Presley’s ability to read a song.
Even his final few films seemed less disastrous than expected. In 1969’s “Charro,” he grew a beard for the first time to play a moody cowboy. More importantly, Presley returned as a live performer at Las Vegas, with a strong backing group. He opened his set with Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” His comeback was well received and one of the live songs, “The Wonder Of You,” stayed at number 1 in Britain for six weeks during the summer of 1970. There was also a revealing documentary film of the tour, “That’s The Way It Is,” and a companion album that included contemporary cover versions, such as Tony Joe White’s “Polk Salad Annie,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
During the early ‘70s Presley continued his live performances, but soon fell victim to the same artistic atrophy that had plagued his film career. Rather than re-entering the studio to record fresh material he relied on patchy live albums that saturated the marketplace. What had been innovative 1969 swiftly became tedious. Presley’s final years were a sordid slump into drug dependency, reinforced by the unreality of a pampered lifestyle in his fantasy home, Graceland.
His 1973 divorce coincided with a further decline and an alarming tendency to put on weight. Remarkably, he continued to perform live, covering up his bloated frame with brightly coloured jump suits and an enormous, ostentatiously jeweled belt. On a couple occasions he collapsed onstage.
Presley’s importance in the history of rock ’n’ roll and popular music remains incalculable. His image was never captured in a single moment of time like that of Bill Haley, Buddy Holly or even Chuck Berry. Presley, in spite of his apparent creative inertia, was not a one-dimensional artist clinging to history but a multi-faceted performer whose career spanned several decades and phases. For purists it is the early Presley who remains of greatest importance and there is no doubting that his personal fusion of black and white musical influences, incorporating R&B and country, produced some of the finest and most durable recordings of the century.
Beyond Elvis The Hillbilly Cat, however, there was the face that launched a thousand imitators, that black-haired, smoldering presence staring from the covers of numerous EPs, albums and film posters of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was that pop star who inspired a generation of performers and second-rate imitators in the ‘60s. There was also Elvis the Las Vegas performer, vibrant and vulgar, yet still distant and increasingly appealing to a later generation brought up on the excesses of ‘70s rock and glam ephemera.
Finally, there was the bloated Presley in the last months of his career. For many, he symbolizes the decadence and loss of dignity that is all too often heir to pop idolatry. Presley’s remarkable career sharply divides those who testify to his ultimate greatness and those who bemoan the gifts that he seemingly squandered along the way. In a sense, the contrasting images of Elvis have come to represent everything positive and everything destructive about the music industry.
He went into seclusion on August 16, 1977, in Memphis, Tennessee, USA.
Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Popular Music Copyright Muze UK Ltd. 1989-1998.