has become so widely known, so invested with cultural meaning, that it’s difficult to imagine American culture—nay, world culture—without him.
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis was exposed to African-American gospel music and blues there. His parents worked hard to get to Memphis and into the government housing projects that could help them socially and economically. At Lauderdale Courts, Elvis fell in with other upcoming musicians; he could walk to hear the white gospel of the Blackwood Brothers at nearby Ellis Auditorium and the black blues of nearby Beale Street. At home in Memphis, he could also tune in to Dewey Phillips, a genre-bashing disc jockey who revealed the spiritual core in songs and could play Hank Williams after Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Joe Turner and Harry James and make it all sound of a piece.
Elvis’s first commercial releases were for Sam Phillips on Sun Records, a label then known for its gritty and soulful African-American blues. Sam strove to push the envelope; he’d recorded “Rocket 88,” often cited as the first rock and roll song.
Elvis’s first Sun release was a blues song, “That’s All Right,” that he transformed to a sound soon to be named rock and roll.
The single’s other side was a bluegrass song converted to a jumping blues. Elvis was, in essence, compressing onto two sides of a disc everything he’d learned about the fluidity of music and the robust beauty produced by cross-pollinating the cultures. He was taking songs to places they’d not been designed to go, creating a sound, a look, an attitude.
His coming of artistic age coincided with the crest of a technological change: television. He performed in a style he’d seen both in his own Assembly of God church and in African-American clubs—a loose-limbed, energetic and very rhythmic, full bodied
movement. It was nothing he was ashamed of doing in front of his mother, but on national TV it was seen as vulgar, outlandish, and sexually provocative, making him publicly reviled, except by the millions of baby boomers born in the shadows of World War II.
After five singles, Sun Records sold Elvis’s contract in 1955 to RCA,a company suited to handle the major distribution that Elvis’s records demanded. He’d recently come under the management of Col. Tom Parker, who’d made a star of Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. Elvis’s first RCA song, 1956’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” largely affirmed his musical direction, bringing the sounds of black America to the white world. As his music reached into the living rooms where television now transfixed those young hearts, American attitudes toward race, politics, art, and just about everything else began to change. Music—Memphis music—had broken barriers that had long seemed impenetrable.
Elvis’s impact extended way beyond music.
In contradistinction to the racist, hierarchal society that dominated Memphis and the south, Elvis’s music unlocked minds, and it introduced notions of social equality with more effectiveness than the philosophers and the social scientists had been able to achieve.
Even as he became the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, he wanted to be a crooner like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Perry Como, whom he’d admired as a child. Later in 1956, with the release of the title song to his first Hollywood movie, “Love Me Tender,” he joined their ranks. His career was interrupted by military service, 1958-1960, and upon his release, guided by Col. Parker, he put an emphasis on movies, soon churning out three a year with most recording sessions dedicated to those soundtracks. It was financially rewarding but artistically frustrating.
He broke free of Hollywood with a Christmas special in 1968, commonly referred to as the ‘68 Comeback Special. His music expressed a renewed integrity and an intensity long missing. He resumed touring, punctuated by long stints in Las Vegas and other resorts. The documentary Elvis: That’s The Way It Is captures him preparing for and presenting a Vegas show; it’s a thrilling look at how Elvis developed his songs and shows, and at some of what being Elvis entailed. In 1973, Elvis made television history with his television special Elvis - Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite. The special was seen in 40 countries by over 1 billion people and was seen on television in more American homes than man’s first walk on the moon.
Throughout his career, Elvis always returned to Memphis in between shooting movies and touring. His home, Graceland, was a place he could relax and spend time with his family and friends. Memphis was home to Elvis and he loved the city. When asked after returning from the Army what he missed most about Memphis, he replied, “Everything.” Graceland continues to this day to be the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll pilgrimage for music fans from around the world. Elvis died at his Memphis home, Graceland, on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42.
Elvis Presley is an international icon—in music, in movies, philanthropy, race relations, public life, and the list goes on. Nearly everyone who knows about him knows where he’s from. Elvis put Memphis on the map.