Elvis Aron Presley (1935-1977), the "King of Rock 'n' Roll, " was the leading American singer for two decades and the most popular singer of the entire rock 'n' roll era.
Elvis Aron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, to Gladys and Vernon Presley. His twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, died shortly after birth. Elvis's singing ability was discovered when he was an elementary school student in Tupelo, and he participated in numerous talent contests there and in Memphis, Tennessee, where the family moved when Elvis was 13.
It was in 1953, after he graduated from L. C. Humes High School in Memphis, that Elvis, working as a truckdriver, began paying his own way into the Memphis Recording Services studio to cut his own records. Less than a year later he recorded "That's All Right Mama" for Sun Records. It became his first commercial release, selling 20, 000 copies.
Elvis reached the top of the country charts with "Mystery Train" in 1955. His first number one song on the so-called "Hot 100" was "Heartbreak Hotel" (1956), which held its position for seven of the 27 weeks it was on the chart. This song also reached the top of the country charts, and it became emblematic of his ability to combine country singing with rhythm and blues, as well as with the new rage that had grown out of rhythm and blues: rock 'n' roll. The rest of the 1950s brought Elvis "living legend" status with records that included "Hound Dog" (1956), "Don't Be Cruel" (1956), "Blue Suede Shoes" (1956), "Love Me Tender" (1956), "All Shook Up" (1957), and "Jailhouse Rock" (1957). He started the 1960s in similar fashion with "It's Now or Never" (1960) and "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (1960).
He was universally proclaimed the "King of Rock 'n' Roll" and led the new music from its beginnings in the 1950s to its heyday in the 1960s and on to its permanence in the music of the 1970s and the 1980s. His impact on American popular culture was second to none, as he seemed to affect manner of dress, hairstyles, and even behavior. John Lennon would later cite him as one of the most important influences on the Beatles. Even his gyrating hips became legendary as he continued his rock 'n' roll conquest to the extent of 136 gold records and ten platinum records. Ultimately he had the most records to make the rating charts and was the top recording artist for two straight decades, the 1950s and the 1960s.
Elvis was an instant success in television and movies as well. Millions watched his television appearances on The Steve Allen Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Toast of the Town, and a controversial appearance on the The Ed Sullivan Show, in which cameras were instructed to stay above the hips of "Elvis the Pelvis." He was an even bigger box office smash, beginning with Love Me Tender in 1956. Thirty-two movies later, Elvis had become the top box office draw for two decades, grossing over $150 million. Although few of his motion pictures received critical acclaim, they showcased his music and extended his image and fame. His movies included Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958), G. I. Blues (1960), Blue Hawaii (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), Viva Las Vegas (1964), and Spinout (1966). Wild in the Country (1961), based on the J. R. Salamanca novel The Lost Country, marked his debut in a straight dramatic role.
Elvis began a well-publicized stint in the army in 1958. That year, while he was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, his mother, to whom he was closely attached, died. The remainder of his military service was spent stationed in Germany, until his discharge in 1960. It was in Germany that he met Priscilla Beaulieu, his future wife.
Elvis's success in the entertainment industry was accompanied by numerous failures in his personal life. He arranged to have Priscilla, still a teenager, live at his new Memphis home, Graceland Mansion, while she finished high school there. He married her in 1967, and she bore him his only child, Lisa Marie Presley, in 1968. In 1973 he and Priscilla were divorced. During this time, and for his entire career, his personal manager, Col. Tom Parker, controlled his finances. As Elvis's millions grew, so too did the fiscal mismanagement of Parker, a known gambler. Parker was later prosecuted for his financial dealings, but he was acquitted. Elvis made an estimated $4.3 billion in earnings during his lifetime, but he never acquired a concept of financial responsibility. This caused frequent litigation during and after his lifetime among his management people and several record companies. Elvis had similar luck with his friendships, and frequently surrounded himself with an entourage of thugs to shield him from an adoring public.
A weight problem became evident in the late 1960s, and in private Elvis became increasingly dependent on drugs, particularly amphetamines and sedatives. His personal doctor, George Nichopoulos, would later be prosecuted, but acquitted, for prescribing and dispensing thousands of pills and narcotics to him.
Though his weight and his drug dependency were increasing, Elvis continued a steady flow of concert performances in sold-out arenas well into the 1970s. On August 16, 1977, the day before another concert tour was about to begin, Elvis was found dead in Graceland Mansion by his fiance, Ginger Alden. The official cause of death was heart disease, although the post-mortem revelations of his drug dependency created a media event. His death caused unparalleled scenes of mourning.
Elvis continued to be celebrated as superstar and legend as much in death as he was in life. Graceland Mansion, which he had purchased in 1957 for $102, 500, is the top tourist attraction in Memphis and has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from both America and around the world.
More than 200 books and countless periodical articles are available on Elvis Presley, exemplifying the intensity of his fandom. Many of the accounts are biased to an "Elvis could do no wrong" extreme. Other books merely capitalized on the sensationalism that surrounded his death. Paul Lichter's The Boy Who Dared To Rock: The Definitive Elvis (1978) is an excellent, though somewhat reverent, biography. The Elvis Presley Scrapbook (1977) by James Robert Parish is interesting. The best starting points for Presley facts are the references, particularly Wendy Sauers' Elvis Presley: A Complete Reference (1984) and Elvis Presley: Reference Guide and Discography (1981) by John A. Whisler. A personal account is Elvis and Me (1985) by his wife Priscilla Beaulieu Presley. □