Elvis was, in my opinion, one of the most significant cultural icons of the mid-20th Century. Love his music or not, it is hard to deny his influence on a whole generation of people – adults as well as children. Incredibly, August 16 marked the 40th anniversary of his untimely death.
To this day, he is still commonly referred to as “The King of Rock ‘n Roll” or, simply, “The King.” Furthermore, he was one of those rare people who is so famous that he is referred to by only his first name. Mention “Elvis,” and everyone will know to whom you are referring. To be sure, many other persons share that distinction, for example, Madonna, Cher, Bono, Oprah, and Liberace, to name a few, but it is a small, exclusive group.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. He had a twin brother who was stillborn and buried in an unmarked grave. After he became famous, Elvis tried to locate the grave, but despite his considerable resources he was unable to do so.
The Presley family was very poor, even for that area of rural Mississippi. Elvis’ father, Vernon, was not very ambitious and moved from one odd job to another. They relied on government assistance and handouts from friends and neighbors.
Young Elvis was no better than an average student, but he demonstrated a musical bent at an early age. His mother was fond of recalling that at age two he would scramble up to the stage and attempt to sing gospel with the church choir. At 10, he entered a singing contest, his first public appearance. He finished fifth. Undoubtedly, after Elvis became famous, the four children who beat him enjoyed beaucoup bragging rights.
For his next birthday, among his gifts was a guitar. (Later, he recalled he had wanted a bicycle or a rifle instead.) Regardless, he was interested enough to take lessons from his uncles and the local pastor. Ironically, Elvis recalled he never wanted to sing in public. “I was very shy about it.”
Generally, Elvis was a loner, but he would bring his guitar to school and sing during lunch and recess. Reportedly, the other kids did not think much of him or his music. They referred to him derisively as a “mama’s boy” and the “trashy” kid who played “hillbilly” music. Eventually, Elvis got over his shyness. By 12, he was performing on the radio.
When Elvis was 13 the family moved to Memphis, and coincidentally or not, Elvis began to come out of his shell. He began to spend his free time at Memphis’ “blues scene” and wear the flashy clothes with which we are all familiar.
In 1953, 18 year-old Elvis Presley simply walked into Sun Records’ offices in Memphis seeking to purchase studio time make a record of two songs called “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” They were to be a birthday gift to his mother. At the time, Elvis was a truck driver who “fooled around” with music on the side. There was no indication that he was seriously attempting to become a recording star. Sun Records was a struggling, nondescript record label that was even having trouble paying its bills. Not exactly a magical combination.
Nevertheless, as a result of those recordings Sun booked Elvis for a follow-up recording session, which took place in July, 1954. Sam Phillips, Sun’s founder and owner, recalled that Elvis was “probably, the most introverted man he had ever seen,” and he was far from impressed with Elvis’ recording session. Elvis was playing ballads, which, as we all know, was not his forte. As the story, or, perhaps, legend, goes, Elvis and his backup players took a break, and during it they began fiddling around, doing “nothing in particular.” Elvis was playing blues songs, but at a fast, lively pace. Almost magically, his voice became “euphoric.” Phillips asked them what they were doing. They replied they “didn’t know.” Phillips told them to “back it up and do it again.” They did. Two nights later, the song, “That’s All Right,” was being played on local radio stations, and Elvis and rock ‘n roll were on their way. Tiny, nondescript, struggling Sun Records had discovered arguably the most significant and influential music talent of the mid 20th Century. Sadly for Phillips, later that year he sold Elvis’ contract to RCA for a mere $35,000, quite possibly the worst business transaction in music history.
Elvis came along at just the right time. In the mid 1950s American teens and pre-teens were searching for their own sound. Other musicians, such as Chuck Berry and Sam Perkins were trying to develop that sound. Presley filled that void. Some contemporaries said, not unkindly, that he was a “white man playing black music.” Whatever, it worked. A large part of his appeal, especially to girls, was his gyrations on stage. This was not intentional. The genesis of that was his nervousness, especially before large crowds. Nevertheless, the girls loved it, and their screaming in delight became part of Elvis’ appeal. As a result of the conservative mores of the 1950’s, whenever Elvis appeared on tv, producers instructed their cameramen not to film below his waist, so as not to offend certain fans, not to mention the network censors. This only increased the fervor of his female fans.
Elvis became a huge breakout star. He became very popular not only among teens but their parents as well. Over his career he produced dozens of “hit” singles and albums. In addition, he starred in several feature length movies, was in huge demand in Las Vegas and other nightclubs, and made countless appearances on tv.
In 1958, at the height of his popularity, Elvis was inducted into the Army. He went willingly and did not seek special treatment because of his notoriety. His attitude was he “did not want to be treated any differently from anyone else.” Of course, his induction, created a media circus. When he received his honorable discharge in 1960 the train carrying him home was mobbed by fans as well. Can you imagine if he had lived in the internet/social media age?
As successful as his professional life was, that’s how disastrous his personal life was, especially after his divorce in 1973. He overdosed on barbiturates on two occasions. One of those occurrences was so serious that he was in a coma for three days. At one point, he was hospitalized due to his addiction to pethidine, a powerful and highly addictive opioid, which, in excessive doses, can cause respiratory distress or even death, especially when taken in conjunction with alcohol. Over the next few years, he continued to tour, and his health continued to decline. In early 1977 journalist Tony Scherman described him as a “grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self.” Due to his excessive weight and excessive doses of drugs he was barely able to drag himself through the concerts on his final tour. He was virtually incoherent in one, and had to cancel another. Finally, he was forced to cancel the entire remainder of the tour. A very sad ending to a brilliant career.
As I mentioned above, Elvis died on August 16, 1977. Out of respect, I will omit the somewhat lurid details of his death. Suffice to say, the massive amounts of drugs he had taken for years finally caught up to him. By one account, at the end he had some 14 different drugs in his system, many of them in “massive” quantities. Although his inner circle probably saw it coming, most of us were shocked. He was only 42.
Thousands of fans descended on Graceland to view the open casket. President Jimmy Carter opined that Elvis had “permanently changed the face of American popular culture.” I should denote that, to his credit, despite his Southern upbringing and the “Jim Crow” attitudes prevalent in the 1950s, throughout his career Elvis evinced great respect for African American performers.
Elvis’ fame and notoriety have not diminished since his death. Over the years, conspiracy buffs have insisted that Elvis faked his death, and there have been many “Elvis sightings.” Furthermore, Elvis impersonators are everywhere, and many entertainers have built their act around it.
Elvis has been inducted into five music halls of fame – Rock ‘n Roll, Country, Gospel, Rockabilly and Memphis Music HOF.
Yes, he truly was “The King.”