Yeah they said you was high-classed
well, that was just a lie
– Elvis Presley, “Hound Dog”
Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-77) was an American rock and roll singer and guitarist, born in Tupelo, Mississippi. He is generally seen as the “King” of Rock and Roll.
Elvis got started singing in a church choir and taught himself how to play the guitar. Sun Records in Memphis soon discovered his talent.
By 1956 his unique combination of country/western and rhythm ‘n blues rocketed him to fame.
But Elvis wasn’t just sexy, charismatic and cool. He was the man of the hour, musically and culturally.
His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines that coincided with the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, made him enormously popular—and controversial.¹
Elvis made 45 rpm records selling in the millions, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “All Shook Up,” to name a few.
Elvis ventured into films with Love Me Tender (1956), Loving You (1957), King Creole (1958), GI Blues (1960) and Blue Hawaii (1961), among many others.
His movie roles were secondary to his music. Apparently film directors never gave him a chance to try a dramatically significant role. Story has it that Elvis wanted to become a serious actor.
Drafted by the Army in 1958-60, his stardom was intact when he returned to the US.
But it didn’t last long. The Beatles and the “British Invasion” swarmed the continent, and Elvis’ career hit the skids. He recorded his last hit single in 1969.
In the 1970s Elvis became a nightclub performer in Las Vegas and many of his tunes took a turn to gospel. During these years he kept a loyal following, but his fan base was much smaller than in his heyday. When I was a kid (born in 62) I remember watching a Vegas era show on TV with a kind of fascinated pathos, as if I was watching a living tragedy.
Soonafter Elvis got hooked on various prescription drugs, took to unhealthy eating habits and died of an apparent overdose in 1977.
Now a legend, the King of Rock and Roll’s twilight years look much better in retrospect.² His 1968 TV appearance was miles ahead of others who would follow “unplugged” in the 80s an 90s.
Like all the greats, Elvis’ star never really faded. He’s become a global icon and admirers make pilgrimages to his home at Graceland.
Behind Mickey Mouse and Jesus Christ, he’s been cited as the third most popular figure on the planet today.
² As an adult I appreciate and enjoy his gospel tunes but as a kid they seemed lame, signifying a dead career. Funny how one’s perspective changes over time.
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