He was the undisputed King of Rock and Roll, and it’s hard to believe that it's 35 years since his untimely and early death in August 1977. ANDY FLEMING looks back at Elvis Presley’s remarkable music and movie career, and concludes that it is not surprising that he was called The King of Rock and Roll.
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. By the age of 13 his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he both played the guitar and sung, developing his own rockabilly style of music. His music was influenced heavily by the African-American neighbourhood in which he lived, although he also enjoyed country music, rhythm and blues, spirituals, and gospel music, all of which also helped him form his own unique style.
The first song that Elvis recorded was at Sun Records in 1953, ostensibly written and performed as a gift for his mother with whom he was very fond and with whom he had a very close relationship. His music rapidly started to gain serious attention and by 1954 his recording ofThat’s All Right was receiving radio airtime, and rapidly became a big hit.
RCA Victor acquired Elvis’s contract with Sun Records and in January 1956 he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, his first hit with his new label. Blue Suede Shoes soon followed as did many highly successful television appearances, including on The Ed Sullivan Show in September 1956, an interview that generated a gargantuan sixty million viewers. Later that year Elvis achieved his first number one hit Heartbreak Hotel, and signed up with Paramount Pictures to embark upon a career in acting.
Elvis outside his Graceland mansion at Memphis.
Hit after hit followed in 1956 including Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, and Love Me Tender, the latter (a cut from the soundtrack of his first blockbuster movie of the same name) selling over one million advance. The year also saw Elvis purchasing an eighteen room mansion called Graceland near Memphis for himself and his parents, to which fans still flock in their thousands to this day. (continued below...)
GO ON... TREAT YOURSELF TO A DVD OR CD FROM THE KING OF ROCK 'N' ROLL!
from Amazon, the name in movies and audio you know and trust!
1957 saw All Shook Up, Too Much, Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear and Jailhouse Rock top the charts and with a plethora of other huge hits that year Elvis had become a worldwide sensation both in his music and at the cinema box. In less than two years he had accumulated an unbelievable ten number one hits on the US Billboard pop charts, and had more songs in the Top One Hundred than any artist since the charts commenced.
In March 1958 Elvis was drafted into the US Army as a private and was sent to Germany where he met Priscilla Beaulieu, aged fourteen at the time, and who would eventually become his wife. Being stationed in Europe however wasn’t all beneficial for it was while in Germany that he was introduced to amphetamines, the precursor to a drug problem that would trouble him for the rest of his life.
While absent from his tours of duty, Elvis was able to give some performances for his fellow soldiers, and his record producers continued to release new songs he had recorded prior to his entering the service. By the time he left the army in 1960, he had accumulated another ten Top Forty songs.
He returned to America to resume his career performing his music and acting on the big screen. His conquest of the singles charts continued with more huge hits including Are You Lonesome Tonight? Can’t Help Falling in Love, It’s Now or Never, and Return to Sender. It was his Gospel singing however that led to his greatest accreditation in 1967: a Grammy Award for Best Sacred Performance.
Elvis Presley Family portrait. Left to right his wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie and Elvis himself.
In May 1967 Elvis married his long-time sweetheart Priscilla in a short ceremony in a private suite at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, and in early 1968 his new wife gave birth to their only child, Lisa Marie Presley. However, just after this Elvis began to grow increasingly dissatisfied with his career. His movies were no longer achieving great success at the cinema, and even his music was no longer courting the attention to which he had grown accustomed. At about this time Elvis tellingly achieved his last number one single on the Billboard charts his 1969 hit, the fantastic Suspicious Minds.
The 1970s continued to see Elvis touring which led to the release of several popular live albums, and he was also signed to MGM to produce a live performance film and a documentary. He also released several gospel and compilation albums of note and in 1972 his single Burning Love made the Billboard Top Ten, but his real glory days musically were over.
On a personal level too his life was starting to fall apart. His marriage to Priscilla was disintegrating and the couple filed for divorce in August 1973, however despite being involved in multiple relationships until his death, Elvis never remarried. Rumours of prescription drug abuse began to circulate in the media and the singer began to noticeably gain weight. Numerous physical ailments ensued including high blood pressure, liver damage, an enlarged colon, and glaucoma. He developed addictions to prescription drugs and painkillers and even had several instances of drug overdoses.
Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977, at the early age of 42, the news being announced to a totally stunned and shocked world. The official cause of his death was a heart attack, but speculation and controversy continues to this day concerning the role that the overuse of prescription medication may have played in his death. His funeral at Graceland turned out to be a huge media event: more than 80,000 people lined the processional route to the cemetery where Elvis was buried beside his mother. Later, both bodies were reburied within the grounds of his Graceland mansion.
It’s not surprising then, bearing in mind his immense contribution to and legacy in the music and movie worlds, that Elvis became known as the true King of Rock and Roll, a legacy that will endure forever. He also had a significant impact on the country music, gospel, and adult contemporary markets.
Nearly thirty five years after his death his home Graceland is still visited by thousands of fans each year many of whom are young people born decades after the singer’s death.
As a personal tribute to a superb singer whose music still generates a lump in my throat, I hope you’ll join me by listening to a specially prepared segue of my three favourite Elvis hits in the embedded YouTube video below: Jailhouse Rock, Suspicious Minds and The Wonder of You. It really is the very least I could do for someone who was and indeed is the King of Music in Every Respect.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Elvis Presley Biography Website