January 8, 1935
August 16, 1977
Even now, an aura of mystery surrounds Elvis Presley. He never gave an in-depth interview, possibly because of astute media handling but more likely because he found it impossible to account for all that had happened to him.
A Musical Melting Pot
Though Presley was indisputably the most influential individual performer in the history of rock & roll, his roots were in country music, and he was a strong influence on country music and a force on the country charts for his entire career.
Elvis Aron Presley, who was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935, but lived in Memphis beginning in November 1948, developed a true diversity of taste. The generally accepted notion that he fused country and R&B is essentially true, but he embraced Black and white gospel music, mainstream popular music, light opera, and more. Memphis was a good place to hear it all, and when Presley—at the time working as a delivery truck driver—first went to Sun Studio to cut a commercial record in July 1954, he had more or less found his style.
Presley was successful in the country market surprisingly quickly: the music of established country artists such as Webb Pierce and Carl Smith was adult in content and execution, and Presley gave younger country fans something of their own. Much of its verve came from R&B, but it was marketed as country music, and the best exposure Presley got in 1954 and 1955 was on the Louisiana Hayride and from country disc jockeys.
Indeed, the one factor usually overlooked in discussions of Presley is that he came from the country market and, in a sense, had a more powerful and lasting impact on country music than preeminent country stars such as Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers. The consensus around Nashville in the mid-to-late 1950s was that Presley was very bad for country music, that he had, in fact, almost killed it; in truth, he was very good for a younger generation of country musicians, giving them potential access to broader media exposure than their predecessors had enjoyed. Until Presley’s arrival, country music had been considered regional, and only a few artists, such as Eddy Arnold, had shaken off this stigma, but Presley opened the door for younger country singers, such as Marty Robbins, Sonny James, and Johnny Cash, to reach a wider market.
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Finding a Wider Market
Presley was already starting to show signs of breaking out of the country market when his Sun contract was sold to RCA in November 1955, a deal masterminded by Presley’s new manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker persuaded RCA to pay an unprecedentedly high $35,000 for Presley, a singer of virtually untested appeal outside the country market. RCA, though, was able to catapult him into the national marketplace via television and concentrated promotion.
By the end of March 1956, Presley’s first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” had sold one million copies. In a way that Bill Haley never could, Presley became both a figurehead for rock & roll and a lightning rod for all those who despised it. In his dress, his stage moves, and his few stage-managed interviews, he projected an image that was at once threatening and vulnerable.
Presley’s variety of taste and innate conservatism quickly became apparent in his career direction. He wanted to do movies, Christmas albums, gospel albums, and pop ballads. Perhaps he, too, saw rock & roll as something that might blow over, and he wanted a broad-based career in case it did.
A stint in the Army from March 1958 until March 1960 helped Presley’s transition. He made four movies before he went into the military (Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole), and movies rather than concerts or television became the medium by which Presley met his public during the 1960s. There were twenty-seven of them in ten years, most of them frothy and inconsequential: Presley followed G.I. Blues with two quasi-serious dramatic roles in Flaming Star and Wild in the Country, but when the latter two flopped, he reestablished the pattern with Blue Hawaii, a box-office smash. Follow That Dream; Kid Galahad; Girls! Girls! Girls!; It Happened at the World’s Fair; Fun in Acapulco; Kissin’ Cousins; Viva Las Vegas; Roustabout; Girl Happy; Tickle Me; Harum Scarum; Frankie and Johnny; Paradise, Hawaiian Style; Spinout; Easy Come Easy Go; Double Trouble; Clambake; Stay Away, Joe; Speedway; Live a Little, Love a Little; Charro!; The Trouble with Girls; and Change of Habit all followed.
The consensus around Nashville in the mid-to-late 1950s was that Elvis Presley was very bad for country music; in truth, he was very good for a younger generation of country musicians, giving them potential access to broader media exposure than their predecessors had enjoyed.
By the late 1960s, Presley’s career was in serious trouble. The movies and their accompanying soundtracks had almost destroyed his reputation. He hadn’t appeared live since March 1961, and so it must have been with some trepidation that he made a live appearance at NBC’s studios in Burbank in June 1968 for the taping of a television special that did much to restore his credibility.
Apparently reinvigorated, Presley put more effort into song choice and returned to the upper reaches of the charts with “If I Can Dream,” “In the Ghetto,” and “Suspicious Minds.” Some have attributed the new career direction to his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu on May 1, 1967, although financial pressures and a desire to escape from the stagnant pattern he had established were probably more important.
Presley began performing again in Las Vegas in July 1969, and his two remaining films were performance-based (Elvis: That’s the Way It Is and Elvis on Tour). He continued performing live until his death eight years later.
For an artist of his stature, Presley seemed to encounter problems in acquiring the best new material, and many of his 1970s recordings were of older songs (“The Wonder of You,” “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “Promised Land”). It also became clear that Presley was starting to suffer from debilitating medical problems—most of them, it was later revealed, stemming from prescription drug abuse. Several posthumous biographies recounted an almost impossible level of drug ingestion. Priscilla divorced Elvis on October 11, 1973, and the last years of his life were tragic indeed as he wrestled with failing health and a career that once again appeared to stultify him.
Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press