'Before Elvis', Beatles vocalist and rhythm guitarist John Lennon once said, 'there was nothing'. Lennon exaggerated -- but not by much. By the late 1950s, Elvis Aaron Presley had emerged as 'The King' -- Hollywood star, top-selling recording artist and cultural icon. His first and perhaps most lasting achievement, though, was introducing the rhythm-and-blues music pioneered by African Americans to a white audience. Elvis fused what then often was known as 'black music' with the 'country' sound prevalent in the South. The result was called 'rockabilly', but subsequent generations -- John Lennon included -- heard the beginning of rock 'n' roll.
Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, in what has been described as a 'two-room shotgun house' in East Tupelo, Mississippi. (A 'shotgun house' typically refers to a narrow one-story dwelling without halls, each room placed single file behind the other; so named because in theory a shotgun fired through the front door would pass through each room and out the back door.)
In 1953, Presley made his first demo recording for producer Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records. Phillips believed that a white artist capable of making that music accessible to a white audience—'a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel' -- would enjoy great commercial success. Elvis frankly acknowledged his debt to his African-American predecessors: 'The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know', he said on one occasion'.They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up. I got it from them'. Presley's success in turn helped early black rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard sell records to white teenagers.
Between 1953 and 1955, Presley recorded a number of regional hits for Sun. Some were country-flavored, while others were remakes, or 'covers', of African-American blues. In November 1955, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker arranged the purchase of Presley's contract by the much larger RCA Records.
For Elvis Presley, 1956 was a year like no other. In January, he was a regional sensation, but by year’s end he had become a national and international phenomenon. He made his first two albums for RCA (both milion selers), appeared on national television 11 times, signed a seven- year contract with Paramount Pictures, and stared in his first movie, Love Me Tender. Elvis' appearances on national television were pivotal events for America because his unconventional appearance and performing style caused nationwide controversy. Presley outraged adults, mesmerized the teenagers of the new youth generation, and soon became the leader of the cultural revolution sweeping across the country.
Major hit records followed: classics like Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, and Love Me Tender in 1956 alone. These hits fused a number of American musical traditions: blues, bluegrass, R&B, hillbilly boogie and more. Elvis made two movies in 1957, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock, + recorded soundtracks for both.
'Jailhouse Rock' included a production number of the title song that was the prototype for the music video, a recording industry format that became a standard feature with the advent of MTV in the early 1980s.
In March 1958, Presley was inducted into the United States Army for a two-year stint. Thousands of fans wrote pleading letters, begging that their hero not be drafted. Thousands more (female) fans reportedly wept when their hero's locks were sheared in a regulation military crew cut. But Elvis returned to civilian life two years later, and more hit records and movies followed.
Elvis continued to enjoy commercial success during the 1960s, although changing tastes brought artists associated with Motown and the 'British Invasion' more to the fore with younger listeners. Elvis' audience aged with him, and for many, Presley symbolized the America of their youth.
The December 3, 1968, broadcast of his television special, Elvis, turned his career around by introducing him to hipper recording material and new directions.
Starting January 13, 1969, in Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis recorded at Chips Moman's American Sound Studios... In twelve days, he cut thirty-six sides. Four of them were singles - 'In the Ghetto', 'Suspicious Minds', 'Don't Cry Daddy', and 'Kentucky Rain', and all but the last were gold, even though Kentucky Rain was a substantial hit. And the two albums that came out of it [From Elvis in Memphis and From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis] went platinum. Read more.
When Elvis returned to the live stage after the success of his 1968 television special and the wrap-up of his Hollywood movie contract obligations, he opened at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the summer of 1969 for a 4-week, 57-show engagement that broke all existing Las Vegas attendance records. He returned to the International a few months later in early 1970, during the slow winter season in Vegas, and broke his own attendance record. Right after that came a record-breaking six-show engagement at the Astrodome in Houston, where Elvis played to a total of 207,494 people.
During his 'concert years' from 1969 to 1977, Elvis gave nearly 1,100 concert performances.
Elvis Presley's three network television specials - Elvis (1968), Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite (1973), and Elvis in Concert (1977) - stand among the most highly rated specials of their time. Elvis - Aloha from Hawaii, via Satellite, was seen in 40 countries by 1 billion to 1.5 billion people and made television history. It was seen on television in more American homes than man's first walk on the moon.
His talent, good looks, sensuality, charisma, and good humor endeared him to millions, as did the humility and human kindness he demonstrated throughout his life. Known the world over by his first name, he is regarded as one of the most important figures of twentieth century popular culture.
His music, personality and verve touched millions, from the American teens of the 1950s to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and U.S. Presedent George Bush who paid their respects in June 2007 as just two of the 750,000 annual visitors to Graceland. (See related article.)
Among his many awards and accolades were 14 Grammy nominations (3 wins) from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which he received at age 36, and his being named One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation for 1970 by the United States Jaycees.
Elvis' greatest legacy, though, is the music, and the rockers and other musicians who built on it. When Presley died, superstar Bruce Springsteen said: 'It was like he whispered his dream in all our ears and then we dreamed it'. It has been estimated that The King has sold more than 1 billion recordings.
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