From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Elvis in 1970
|Birth name||Elvis Aaron Presley|
|Also known as||Elvis|
|Born||January 8, 1935
Tupelo, Mississippi, USA
|Origin||Memphis, Tennessee, USA|
|Died||August 16, 1977 (aged 42)
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
|Genre(s)||Rockabilly, Rock and Roll, Gospel, Blues, Country|
|Instrument(s)||Vocals, Guitar, Piano|
|Label(s)||Sun, RCA Victor|
Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8, 1935–August 16, 1977), sometimes written Aron,a was an American singer, musician and actor. He is a cultural icon, often known as “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll“, or simply “The King“.
Presley began his career as one of the first performers of rockabilly, an uptempo fusion of country and rhythm and blues with a strong back beat. His novel versions of existing songs, mixing “black” and “white” sounds, made him popular—and controversial—as did his uninhibited stage and television performances. He recorded songs in the rock and roll genre, with tracks like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” later embodying the style. Presley had a versatile voice and had unusually wide success encompassing other genres, including gospel, blues, ballads and pop. To date, he is the only performer to have been inducted into four music halls of fame.
In the 1960s, Presley made the majority of his thirty-three movies—mainly poorly reviewed musicals. In 1968, he returned to live music in a television special and thereafter performed across the U.S., notably in Las Vegas. Throughout his career, he set records for concert attendance, television ratings and recordings sales. He is one of the best-selling and most influential artists in the history of popular music. Health problems plagued Presley in later life which, coupled with a punishing tour schedule and addiction to prescription medication, led to his premature death at age 42.
Elvis Presley was of German, Scottish, French, Jewish and Cherokee ancestry. Presley’s father, Vernon (April 10, 1916–June 26, 1979), had several low-paying jobs, including sharecropper and truck driver. His mother, Gladys Love Smith (April 25, 1912–August 14, 1958) worked as a sewing machine operator. They met in Tupelo, Mississippi, and eloped to Pontotoc County where they married on June 17, 1933.
Presley was born in a two room house, built by his father, in East Tupelo. He was the second of identical twins—his brother was stillborn and given the name Jesse Garon. He grew up as an only child and “was, everyone agreed, unusually close to his mother.” The family lived just above the poverty line and attended the Assembly of God church.b Vernon has been described as “a malingerer, always averse to work and responsibility.” In 1938, he was jailed for an eight dollar check forgery. During his absence, his wife, described as “voluble, lively, full of spunk”, lost the family home. Priscilla Presley recalls her as “a surreptitious drinker and alcoholic.”
Presley was bullied at school; classmates threw “things at him—rotten fruit and stuff—because he was different… quiet and he stuttered and he was a mama’s boy.”
At age ten, he made his first public performance in a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Dressed as a cowboy, the young Presley had to stand on a chair to reach the microphone and sang Red Foley’s “Old Shep.” He won second prize.
In 1946, Presley got his first guitar. In November 1948, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, allegedly because Vernon—in addition to needing work—had to escape the law for transporting bootleg liquor. In 1949, they lived at Lauderdale Courts, a public housing development in one of Memphis’ poorer sections. Presley practiced playing guitar in the laundry room and also played in a five-piece band with other tenants. Another resident, Johnny Burnette, recalled, “Wherever Elvis went he’d have his guitar slung across his back… [H]e’d go in to one of the cafes or bars… Then some folks would say: ‘Let’s hear you sing, boy.'” Presley attended L. C. Humes High School, but fellow students apparently viewed the young singer’s performing unfavorably: One recalled that he was “a sad, shy, not especially attractive boy” whose guitar playing was not likely to win any prizes. Many of the other children made fun of him as a ‘trashy’ kind of boy playing ‘trashy’ hillbilly music.”
Presley occasionally worked evenings to boost the family income. He began to grow his sideburns and dress in the wild, flashy clothes of Lansky Brothers on Beale Street. He stood out, especially in the conservative Deep South of the 1950s, and was mocked and bullied for it. Despite his unpopularity, he was a contestant in his school’s 1952 “Annual Minstrel Show” and won by receiving the most applause and thus an encore (he sang “Cold Cold Icy Fingers” and “Till I Waltz Again With You”).
After graduation, Presley was still rather shy, a “kid who had spent scarcely a night away from home”. His third job was driving a truck for the Crown Electric Company. He began wearing his hair longer with a “ducktail”—the style of truck drivers at that time.
Initial influences came through his family’s attendance at the Assembly of God, a Pentecostal Holiness church. Rolling Stone wrote: “Gospel pervaded Elvis’ character and was a defining and enduring influence all of his days.” During breaks at recording sessions or after concerts, Presley often joined in private with others for informal gospel music sessions.
The young Presley frequently listened to local radio; his first musical hero was family friend Mississippi Slim, a hillbilly singer with a radio show on Tupelo’s WELO. Presley performed occasionally on Slim’s Saturday morning show, Singin’ and Pickin’ Hillbilly. “He was crazy about music… That’s all he talked about,” recalls his sixth grade friend, James Ausborn, Slim’s younger brother. Before he was a teenager, music was already Presley’s “consuming passion”. J. R. Snow, son of 1940s country superstar Hank Snow, recalls that even as a young man Presley knew all of Hank Snow’s songs, “even the most obscure”.
In Memphis, Presley went to record stores that had jukeboxes and listening booths, playing old records and new releases for hours. He was an audience member at the all-night black and white “gospel sings” downtown. Memphis Symphony Orchestra concerts at Overton Park were another Presley favorite, along with the Metropolitan Opera. His small record collection included Mario Lanza and Dean Martin. Presley later said, “I just loved music. Music period.”
Memphis had a strong tradition of blues music and Presley went to blues as well as hillbilly venues. Many of his future recordings were inspired by local African American composers and recording artists, including Arthur Crudup, Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. King says that he “knew Elvis before he was popular. He used to come around and be around us a lot … on Beale Street.”
Presley “was an untrained musician who played entirely by ear. ‘I don’t read music,’ he confessed, ‘but I know what I like.’ … Because he was not a songwriter, Presley rarely had material prepared for recording sessions…” When he, as a young singer, “ventured into the recording studio he was heavily influenced by the songs he had heard on the jukebox and radio.”
First recordings and performances
On July 18, 1953, Presley went to Sun Records’ Memphis Recording Service to record “My Happiness” with “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”, supposedly a present for his mother. On January 4, 1954, he cut a second acetate. Sun Records boss Sam Phillips was on the lookout for someone who could deliver a blend of black blues and boogie-woogie music; he thought it would be very popular among white people. Assistant Marion Keisker called Presley on June 26, 1954. After an inauspicious session, Phillips invited local musicians Winfield “Scotty” Moore and Bill Black to audition Presley. Though not overly impressed, a studio session was planned.
During a recording break, Presley began “acting the fool” first with Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)”. Phillips got them all to restart and began taping. This was the sound he had been looking for. The group recorded other songs, including Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”. “That’s All Right” was aired on July 8, 1954, by DJ Dewey Phillips.d After its release, both sides of “That’s All Right”/”Blue Moon of Kentucky” began to chart across the South.
Moore and Black began playing regularly with Presley. They gave a few performances in July 1954 to promote the Sun single at the Bon Air, a rowdy music club where the band was not well-received. On July 30 the trio, billed as The Blue Moon Boys, made their first appearance at the Overton Park Shell, with Slim Whitman headlining. A nervous Presley’s legs were said to have shaken uncontrollably during this show: his wide-legged pants emphasized his leg movements, apparently causing females in the audience to go “crazy”.e Presley consciously incorporated similar movements into future shows.
DJ and promoter Bob Neal became the trio’s manager (replacing Scotty Moore). Moore and Black left their band, the Starlite Wranglers and, from August through October 1954, appeared with Presley at The Eagle’s Nest. Presley debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on October 2; Hank Snow introduced Presley on stage. He performed “Blue Moon of Kentucky” but received only a polite response. Afterwards, the singer was allegedly told: “Boy, you’d better keep driving that truck.”fgh
Country music promoter and manager Tillman Franks booked Presley for the Louisiana Hayride on October 16. Before Franks saw Presley, he referred to him as “that new black singer with the funny name”. During Presley’s first set, the reaction was muted; for the second, Franks advised Presley to “Let it all go!” As house drummer D.J. Fontana (who had worked in strip clubs) complemented Presley’s movements with accented beats and Bill Black engaged in his usual stage antics, the crowd was more responsive.i According to one source, “Audiences had never before heard [such] music… [or] seen anyone who performed like Presley either. The shy, polite, mumbling boy gained self-confidence with every appearance… People watching the show were astounded and shocked, both by the ferocity of his performance, and the crowd’s reaction to it… Roy Orbison saw Presley for the first time in Odessa, Texas: ‘His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing… I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.'” Sam Phillips said Presley “put every ounce of emotion … into every song, almost as if he was incapable of holding back.”
Presley’s sound proved hard to categorize; he was billed or labeled in the media as “The King of Western Bop”, “The Hillbilly Cat” and “The Memphis Flash”.
On August 15, 1955, “Colonel” Tom Parker became Presley’s manager. By August 1955, Sun Studios had released ten sides credited to “Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill”, all typical of the developing Presley style. Several major record labels had shown interest in signing Presley. On November 21, 1955, Parker and Phillips negotiated a deal with RCA Victor Records to acquire Presley’s Sun contract for an unprecedented $35,000.
To increase the singer’s exposure, Parker finally brought Presley to television (In March 1955, Presley had failed an audition for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts). He booked six Dorsey Brothers‘ Stage Show appearances (CBS), beginning January 28, 1956, when Presley was introduced by Cleveland DJ Bill Randle. Parker also obtained a lucrative two-show deal with Milton Berle (NBC).
On January 27, Presley’s first RCA Victor single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was released. By April it hit number one in the U.S., and sold one million copies. On March 23, RCA Victor released Elvis Presley, his first album. Like the Sun recordings, the majority of the tracks were country songs.
From April 23, he had two weeks at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip—billed this time as “the Atomic Powered Singer”. His shows were badly received, by critics and the conservative guests. Presley saw Freddie Bell and the Bellboys live in Vegas, and liked their version of Leiber and Stoller‘s “Hound Dog”. By May 16, he had added the song to his own act.
A few days after an April 3 appearance for The Milton Berle Show in San Diego, a near-fatal flight taking Presley’s band to Nashville for a recording session left all three badly shaken. After more hectic touring, Presley returned to The Milton Berle Show on June 5 and performed “Hound Dog” (without his guitar). Singing it uptempo, he then began a slower version. His exaggerated, straight-legged shuffle around the microphone stand stirred the audience—as did his vigorous leg shaking and hip thrusts in time to the beat. Presley’s “gyrations” created a storm of controversy—even eclipsing the ‘communist threat’ headlines prevalent at the time. The press described his performance as “vulgar” and “obscene”. Presley was obliged to explain himself on the local New York City TV show Hy Gardner Calling: “Rock and roll music, if you like it, and you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I have to move around. I can’t stand still. I’ve tried it, and I can’t do it.”
The Berle shows drew such huge ratings that Steve Allen (NBC), not a fan of rock and roll, booked him for one appearance in New York. Allen wanted “to do a show the whole family can watch” and introduced a “new Elvis” in white bow tie and black tails. Presley sang “Hound Dog” for less than a minute to a Basset Hound in a top hat. According to one author, “Allen thought Presley was talentless and absurd… [he] set things up so that Presley would show his contrition…” The day after (July 2), the single “Hound Dog” was recorded and Scotty Moore said they were “all angry about their treatment the previous night”. (Presley often referred to the Allen show as the most ridiculous performance of his career.) A few days later, Presley made a “triumphant” outdoor appearance in Memphis at which he announced: “You know, those people in New York are not gonna change me none. I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.”
Country vocalists The Jordanaires accompanied Presley on The Steve Allen Show and their first recording session together produced “Any Way You Want Me”, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog”. The Jordanaires would work with the singer through the 1960s.
Though Presley had been unhappy, Allen’s show had, for the first time, beaten The Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings, causing a critical Sullivan (CBS) to book Presley for three appearances for an unprecedented $50,000.
Presley’s first Ed Sullivan appearance (September 9, 1956) was seen by some 55–60 million viewers. “Compared to moments on the Dorsey shows and on the Berle show, it was ice cream.” On the third Sullivan show, Presley sang only slow paced ballads and a gospel song. The fact that Presley was only shown from the waist up and “stepped out in the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl” during this last broadcast has led to claims that Sullivan had “censored” or even “buried” the singer, or that Colonel Parker had orchestrated the episode to generate publicity. In spite of any misgivings about the controversial nature of his performing style, Sullivan declared at the end of the third appearance that Presley was “a real decent, fine boy” and that they had never had “a pleasanter experience” on the show.
When “That’s All Right” was played, many listeners were sure Presley must be black, and most white disc-jockeys wouldn’t play his Sun singles. However, black disc-jockeys didn’t want anything to do with a record made by a white man. To some, Presley had undoubtedly “stolen” or at least “derived his style from the Negro rhythm-and-blues performers of the late 1940s.” Some black entertainers, notably Jackie Wilson, countered, “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man’s music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis.”j
By the spring of 1956, Presley was becoming popular nationwide and teenagers flocked to his concerts. Scotty Moore recalled: “He’d start out, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog,’ and they’d just go to pieces. They’d always react the same way. There’d be a riot every time.” Bob Neal wrote: “It was almost frightening, the reaction… from teenage boys. So many of them, through some sort of jealousy, would practically hate him.” In Lubbock, Texas, a teenage gang fire-bombed Presley’s car. Some performers became resentful (or resigned to the fact) that Presley going on stage before them would “kill” their own act; he thus rose quickly to top billing. At the two concerts he performed at the 1956 Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, one hundred National Guardsmen were on hand to prevent crowd trouble.
To many adults, the singer was “the first rock symbol of teenage rebellion. … they did not like him, and condemned him as depraved. Anti-Negro prejudice doubtless figured in adult antagonism. Regardless of whether parents were aware of the Negro sexual origins of the phrase ‘rock ‘n’ roll’, Presley impressed them as the visual and aural embodiment of sex.” In 1956, a critic for the New York Daily News wrote that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley” and the Jesuits denounced him in its weekly magazine, America. Even Frank Sinatra opined: “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.”
Presley was even seen as a “definite danger to the security of the United States.” His actions and motions were called “a strip-tease with clothes on” or “sexual self-gratification on stage.” They were compared with “masturbation or riding a microphone.” Some saw the singer as a sexual pervert, and psychologists feared that teenaged girls and boys could easily be “aroused to sexual indulgence and perversion by certain types of motions and hysteria—the type that was exhibited at the Presley show.” In August 1956, a Florida judge called Presley a “savage” and threatened to arrest him if he shook his body while performing in Jacksonville. The judge declared that Presley’s music was undermining the youth of America. Throughout the performance (which was filmed by police), he kept still as ordered, except for wiggling a finger in mockery at the ruling.k (Presley recalls this incident during the ’68 Comeback Special.)
In 1957, Presley was alleged to have said: “The only thing Negro people can do for me is to buy my records and shine my shoes.” The singer always denied saying, or ever wanting to say, such a racist remark. Jet magazine, run by and for African Americans, subsequently investigated the story and found no basis to the claim. However, the Jet journalist did find plenty of testimony that Presley judged people “regardless of race, color or creed”.
His parents moved home in Memphis, but the singer lived there briefly. With increased concerns over privacy and security, Graceland was bought in 1957, a mansion with several acres of land. This was Presley’s primary residence until his death.
Presley’s record sales grew quickly throughout the late 1950s, with hits like “All Shook Up”, “(Let me Be Your) Teddy Bear” and “Too Much”.
Military service and mother’s death
On December 20, 1957, Presley received his draft notice. Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures had already spent $350,000 on the film King Creole, and did not want to suspend or cancel the project. The Memphis Draft Board granted Presley a deferment to finish it. On March 24, 1958, he was inducted as US Army private #53310761 and completed basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, before being posted to Friedberg, Germany with the 3rd Armored Division.
Presley had chosen not to join ‘Special Services’, which would have allowed him to avoid certain duties and maintain his public profile. He continued to receive massive media coverage, with much speculation echoing Presley’s own concerns about his enforced absence damaging his career. However, early in 1958, RCA Victor producer Steve Sholes and Hill and Range “song searcher” Freddy Bienstock had both pushed for recording sessions and strong song material, the aim being to release regular hit singles during Presley’s two-year hiatus. The hit singles—and six albums—duly followed during that period.
In Germany, “[a] sergeant had introduced [Presley] to amphetamines when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr… it seemed like half the guys in the company were taking them.” Friends around Presley also began taking them, “if only to keep up with Elvis, who was practically evangelical about their benefits.”
The army also introduced Presley to karate—something which he studied seriously, even including it in his later live performances.l
As Presley’s fame grew, his mother continued to drink excessively and began to gain weight. She had wanted her son to succeed, “but… [the] hysteria of the crowd frightened her.” In early August 1958, doctors had diagnosed hepatitis and her condition worsened. Presley was granted emergency leave to visit her, arriving in Memphis on August 12. Two days later, Gladys Presley died of heart failure, aged forty-six. Presley was distraught, “grieving almost constantly” for days.
Presley returned to the U.S. on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant on March 5. Recording sessions in March and April yielded some of his best-selling songs—including “It’s Now or Never”. Although some tracks were uptempo, none could be described as “rock and roll”. Most found their way on to an album—Elvis is Back!—described by one critic as “a triumph on every level… It was as if Elvis had… broken down the barriers of genre and prejudice to express everything he heard in all the kinds of music he loved”. The album was also notable because of Homer Boots Randolph’s acclaimed saxophone solo during the blues standard “Reconsider Baby“.
- See also: Elvis Presley filmography
In 1956, Presley launched his career as a film actor, beginning with the musical western, Love Me Tender. It was panned by the critics but did well at the box office. The original title—The Reno Brothers—was changed because of the advanced sales of the song “Love Me Tender”. The majority of Presley’s films were musical comedies made to “sell records and produce high revenues.” He also appeared in more dramatic films, like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole. To maintain box office success, he even “shifted into beefcake formula comedy mode for a few years.” He also made one non-musical western, Charro!.
In the Army, Presley said on many occasions that “more than anything, he wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.” His manager, with an eye on long-term earnings, negotiated a multi-picture seven-year contract with Hal Wallis.
The singer withdrew from performing, except for The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis (1960) and three charity concerts (two in Memphis and one in Pearl Harbor, 1961). Although Presley was praised by directors, like Michael Curtiz, as polite and hardworking (and as having an exceptional memory), “he was definitely not the most talented actor around.” The Presley vehicles and the AIP beach movies (mainly made for an early sixties teenage audience) were generally criticized as a “pantheon of bad taste.” The scripts of his movies “were all the same, the songs progressively worse.” Sight and Sound wrote that in his movies “Elvis Presley, aggressively bisexual in appeal, knowingly erotic, [was] acting like a crucified houri and singing with a kind of machine-made surrealism.” Others noted that the songs seemed to be “written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll.” For Blue Hawaii, “fourteen songs were cut in just three days.” Julie Parrish, who appeared in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, says that Presley hated such songs and that he “couldn’t stop laughing while he was recording” one of them. Critics would later claim that “No major star suffered through more bad movies than Elvis Presley.”
Presley movies were nevertheless popular, and he “became a film genre of his own.” Elvis on celluloid was the only chance to see him in the absence of live appearances, especially outside of the U.S. (the only time he toured outside of the U.S. was in Canada in 1957). His Blue Hawaii even “boosted the new state’s tourism. Some of his most enduring and popular songs came from those [kind of] movies,” like “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “Return to Sender” and “Viva Las Vegas.” His 1960s films and soundtracks grossed some $280 million.
In 1964, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole had starred in Hal Wallis’ Becket. Wallis admitted to the press that the financing of such quality productions was only possible by making a series of profitable B-movies starring Presley. He branded Wallis “a double-dealing sonofabitch” (and he thought little better of Tom Parker), realizing there had never been any intention to let him develop into a serious actor.
Presley was one of the highest paid actors during the 1960s, but times were changing. “[The] Elvis Presley film was becoming passé. Young people were tuning in, dropping out and doing acid. Musical acts like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, The Doors, Janis Joplin and many others were dominating the airwaves. Elvis Presley was not considered cool as he once was.” Priscilla Presley recalls: “He blamed his fading popularity on his humdrum movies” and “… loathed their stock plots and short shooting schedules.” She also notes: “He could have demanded better, more substantial scripts, but he didn’t.”
Presley’s final movie role was in Change of Habit (1969). His last two films were concert documentaries in the early 1970s, though Presley was keen to consider dramatic movie roles.m
As well as the formulaic movie songs of the 1960s, Presley did make noteworthy studio recordings, including “Suspicion,” “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” and “It Hurts Me.” In 1966 he recorded a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” (which RCA Victor relegated to a bonus track on the soundtrack album for Spinout). He also produced two gospel albums: His Hand in Mine (1960) and How Great Thou Art (1966). In 1967, he recorded some well-received singles in collaboration with songwriter/guitar player Jerry Reed, including Reed’s “Guitar Man.” However, “during the Beatles era (1963-70), only six Elvis singles reached number ten or better. ‘Suspicious Minds’ was the lone number one.”
Presley’s sexual attraction and photogenic looks have been acknowledged: Steve Binder recalled from the ’68 Comeback Special: “I’m straight as an arrow and I got to tell you, you stop, whether you’re male or female, to look at him. He was that good looking. And if you never knew he was a superstar, it wouldn’t make any difference; if he’d walked in the room, you’d know somebody special was in your presence.”
Accounts of Presley’s numerous sexual conquests may be exaggerated Cybill Shepherd reveals that Presley kissed her all over her naked body – but refused to have oral sex with her.. Byron Raphael and Alanna Nash have stated that the star “would never put himself inside one of these girls…”p Girlfriends Judy Spreckels and June Juanico had no sexual relationships with Presley. Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira”) says she knew Presley for only one night, but all they did was talk. Peggy Lipton claims that he was “virtually impotent” with her (She attributed this to his boyishness and drug misuse).q Guralnick concurs with others, “he wasn’t really interested”, preferring to lie in bed, watch television and talk.
Ann-Margret (Presley’s co-star in Viva Las Vegas) refers to Presley as her “soulmate” but has revealed little else. A publicity campaign about Presley and Margret’s romance was launched during the filming of Viva Las Vegas, which helped to increase Margret’s popularity.s Indeed, Presley dated many female co-stars for publicity purposes. Lori Williams dated him for a while in 1964. She says their “courtship was not some bizarre story. It was very sweet and Elvis was the perfect gentleman.”
- Main articles: Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie Presley
Priscilla Beaulieu Presley had stayed with Presley during the 1960s (they had first met in Germany, when she was only fourteen). They married on May 1, 1967, in Las Vegas. A daughter, Lisa Marie, was born nine months later. Even Priscilla has claimed that the singer was not overly active sexually during their five-year marriage.
Influence of Colonel Parker and others
- Main articles: Colonel Tom Parker, Memphis Mafia
By 1967, Colonel Tom Parker had negotiated a contract that gave him 50% of Presley’s earnings. Much has been written about the suspect nature of Parker’s business practices. His dubious origins and gambling addictions in particular—and the subsequent need to keep Presley ‘commercial’—may well have adversely affected the course of Presley’s career.t It has been claimed that Presley’s original band was fired because Parker wanted to isolate the singer from anyone who might offer him a better management deal.
Marty Lacker, one of a coterie of Presley’s trusted friends known as the “Memphis Mafia”, regarded Colonel Parker as a “hustler and scam artist” who abused Presley’s trust, but Lacker acknowledged that Parker was a master promoter. Priscilla Presley noted that “Elvis detested the business side of his career. He would sign a contract without even reading it.”
Presley’s father distrusted the members of the “Memphis Mafia”; he thought they collectively exercised an unhealthy influence over his son. “[I]t was no wonder” that as the singer “slid into addiction and torpor, no one raised the alarm: to them, Elvis was the bank, and it had to remain open.” Musician Tony Brown noted the urgent need to reverse Presley’s declining health as the singer toured in the mid-1970s. “But we all knew it was hopeless because Elvis was surrounded by that little circle of people… all those so-called friends and… bodyguards.”
Larry Geller became Presley’s hairdresser in 1964. Unlike Presley’s generally down-to-earth buddies, Geller was interested in ‘spiritual studies’. From their first conversation, Geller recalls how Presley revealed his secret thoughts and anxieties, how “there’s got to be a reason… why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley.'” He then poured out his heart in “an almost painful rush of words and emotions,” telling Geller about his mother and the hollowness of his Hollywood life, things he could not share with anyone around him. Thereafter, Presley voraciously read books Geller supplied, on religion and mysticism. Perhaps most tellingly, he revealed to Geller: “I swear to God, no one knows how lonely I get and how empty I really feel.” Presley would be preoccupied by such matters for much of his life, taking trunkloads of books with him on tour.
In 1969, record producer Chips Moman of American Studios, Memphis, was particularly critical of the song choices and staff of Hill and Range, Presley’s main music publisher. Moman could only get the best out of Presley when he got the “aggravating” publishing personnel out of the studio. RCA Victor executive Joan Deary was later full of praise for the superior results of Moman’s work but despite this, no producer was to override Hill and Range’s control again.
By mid-1968, Presley’s recording career was floundering; he had become deeply unhappy with his career. In the summer, he made a Christmas telecast on NBC. Later dubbed the ‘68 Comeback Special, and airing on December 3, 1968, the show featured lavishly staged productions, but also saw Elvis clad in black leather, performing live in an uninhibited style reminiscent of his rock and roll days. Rolling Stone called it “a performance of emotional grandeur and historical resonance.” Its success was helped by director and co-producer, Steve Binder, who worked hard to reassure the nervous singern and to produce a show that was not just an hour of Christmas songs, as Col. Parker had originally planned.w
Buoyed by the experience, Presley engaged in the prolific series of recording sessions at American Studios, which lead to the acclaimed From Elvis in Memphis (Chips Moman was its uncredited producer). It was followed by From Memphis To Vegas/From Vegas To Memphis, a double-album.
The same sessions lead to the hit singles “In the Ghetto”, “Suspicious Minds”, “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy”.
In 1969, Presley made record-breaking appearances in Las Vegas.x He then toured across the U.S. up to his death, with many of the 1,145 concerts setting venue attendance records. He also had hit singles in many countries. Presley’s song repertoire was criticized, indicating he was still distant from trends within contemporary music.
On December 21, 1970, Presley met with President Richard Nixon at the White House (Presley arrived with a gift—a handgun. It was accepted but not presented for security reasons). Presley was somewhat bizarrely wanting to express his patriotism, his contempt for the hippie drug culture and his wish to be appointed a “Federal Agent at Large”. He also wished to obtain a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge to add to similar items he had begun collecting. He offered to “infiltrate hippie groups” and claimed that The Beatles had “made their money, then gone back to England where they fomented anti-American feeling.” Nixon was uncertain and bemused by their encounter, and twice expressed concern that Presley needed to “retain his credibility”.
MGM filmed him in Las Vegas for a 1970 documentary: Elvis: That’s The Way It Is. As he toured, more gold record awards followed. MGM filmed other shows for Elvis On Tour, which won a Golden Globe for Best Documentary, 1972. A fourteen-date tour started with an unprecedented four consecutive sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, New York. After the tour, Presley released the 1972 single “Burning Love”—his last top ten hit in the U.S. charts.
In 1973, Presley had two January shows in Hawaii. The second was broadcast live, globally. The “Aloha from Hawaii” concert was the first satellite broadcast, reaching at least a billion viewers. The show’s album went to number one and spent a year in the charts.
Off stage, Presley had continuing problems. In spite of his own infidelity, Presley was furious that Priscilla was having an affair with a mutual acquaintance—Mike Stone, a karate instructor. He raged obsessively: “There’s too much pain in me… Stone [must] die.” A bodyguard, Red West, felt compelled to get a price for a contract killing and was relieved when Presley decided: “Aw hell… Maybe it’s a bit heavy…” The Presleys separated on February 23, 1972, agreeing to share custody of their daughter.
After his divorce in 1973, Presley became increasingly isolated and overweight, with prescription drugs affecting his health, mood and his stage act.v Despite this, his “thundering” live version of “How Great Thou Art” won him a Grammy award in 1974 and he continued to play to sell-out crowds. A 1975 tour ended with a concert in Michigan, attended by over 62,000 fans.
By now Presley had “no motivation to lose his extra poundage… he became self-conscious… his self-confidence before the audience declined. Now, Elvis weighed just over 250 pounds, and was grossly overweight. Headlines such as ‘Elvis Battles Middle Age’ and ‘Time Makes Listless Machine of Elvis’ were not uncommon.” According to Marjorie Garber, when Presley made his later appearances in Las Vegas, he appeared “heavier, in pancake makeup… with an elaborate jeweled belt and cape, crooning pop songs to a microphone … [He] had become Liberace. Even his fans were now middle-aged matrons and blue-haired grandmothers, who praised him as a good son who loved his mother; Mother’s Day became a special holiday for Elvis’ fans.”
Almost throughout the 1970s, RCA Victor had been increasingly concerned about making money from Presley material: they often had to rely on live recordings because of problems getting him to attend studio sessions. RCA Victor’s mobile studio was occasionally sent to Graceland in the hope of capturing an inspired vocal performance. Once in a studio, he could lack interest or be easily distracted; often this was linked to his health and drug problems.
Final year and death
Presley’s decline continued. A journalist recalled: “Elvis Presley had become a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self… he was barely able to pull himself through his abbreviated concerts.” In Alexandria, Louisiana, the singer was on stage for less than an hour and “was impossible to understand.” In Baton Rouge, Presley failed to appear. He was unable to get out of his hotel bed, and the rest of the tour was cancelled.
According to Guralnick, fans “were becoming increasingly voluble about their disappointment, but it all seemed to go right past Elvis, whose world was now confined almost entirely to his room and his [spiritualism] books.” In Knoxville, Tennessee on May 20, “there was no longer any pretense of keeping up appearances… The idea was simply to get Elvis out on stage and keep him upright for the hour he was scheduled to perform.” Thereafter, Presley struggled through every show. Despite his obvious problems, shows in Omaha, Nebraska and Rapid City, South Dakota were recorded for an album and a CBS-TV special: Elvis In Concert.
In Rapid City, “he was so nervous on stage that he could hardly talk… He was undoubtedly painfully aware of how he looked, and he knew that in his condition, he could not perform any significant movement A cousin, Billy Smith, recalled how Presley would sit in his room and chat, recounting things like his favourite Monty Python sketches and past japes, but “mostly there was a grim obsessiveness… a paranoia about people, germs… future events”, that reminded Smith of Howard Hughes.
A book was published—the first exposé to detail Presley’s years of drug misuse. Written with input from three of Presley’s “Memphis Mafia”, the book was the authors’ revenge for them being sacked and a plea to get Presley to face up to reality. The singer “was devastated by the book. Here were his close friends who had written serious stuff that would affect his life. He felt betrayed.”
Presley’s final performance was in Indianapolis at the Market Square Arena, on June 26, 1977.
Another tour was scheduled to begin August 17, 1977, but at Graceland the day before, Presley was found on the floor of his bathroom by fiancée, Ginger Alden. According to the medical investigator, Presley had “stumbled or crawled several feet before he died.”y He was officially pronounced dead at 3:30 pm at the Baptist Memorial Hospital.
At his funeral, hundreds of thousands of fans, the press and celebrities line the streets and many hoped to see the open casket in Graceland. Among the mourners were Ann-Margret (who had remained close to Presley) and his ex-wife.z U.S. President Jimmy Carter issued a statement.
Presley was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, Memphis, next to his mother. After an attempt to steal the body, his—and his mother’s—remains were reburied at Graceland in the Meditation Gardens.
Presley had developed many health problems, some of them chronic.  Presley first took drugs in the army, taking amphetamines to stay awake, though there are claims that pills of some form were first given to him by Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips. In Elvis and Me, Priscilla Presley writes that by 1962, he was taking placidyls to combat severe insomnia in ever-increasing doses and later took Dexedrine to counter the sleeping pills’ after-effects. She later saw “problems in Elvis’ life, all magnified by taking prescribed drugs.” Presley’s physician, Dr. George C. Nichopoulos, has said: “[Elvis] felt that by getting [pills] from a doctor, he wasn’t the common everyday junkie getting something off the street. He… thought that as far as medications and drugs went, there was something for everything.”
According to Guralnick: “[D]rug use was heavily implicated… no one ruled out the possibility of anaphylactic shock brought on by the codeine pills…to which he was known to have had a mild allergy.” In two lab reports filed two months later, each indicated “a strong belief that the primary cause of death was polypharmacy,” with one report “indicating the detection of fourteen drugs in Elvis’ system, ten in significant quantity.”
The medical profession has been seriously questioned. Medical Examiner Dr. Jerry Francisco had offered a cause of death while the autopsy was still being performed and before toxicology results were known. Dr. Francisco dubiously stated that cardiac arrhythmia was the cause of death, a condition that can only be determined in a living person—not post mortem. Many doctors had been flattered to be associated with Presley (or had been bribed with gifts) and supplied him with pills which simply fed his addictions. The singer allegedly spent at least $1 million per year on drugs and doctors’ fees or inducements. Although Dr. Nichopoulos was exonerated with regard to Presley’s death, “In the first eight months of 1977 alone, he had [prescribed] more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics: all in Elvis’ name. On January 20, 1980, the board found [against] him… but decided that he was not unethical [because he claimed he’d been trying to wean the singer off the drugs].” His license was suspended. In July 1995, it was permanently revoked after it was found he had improperly dispensed drugs to several patients.
In 1994, the autopsy into Presley’s death was re-opened. Coroner Dr. Joseph Davis declared: “There is nothing in any of the data that supports a death from drugs [i.e. drug overdose]. In fact, everything points to a sudden, violent heart attack.” However, there is little doubt that long-term drug misuse caused his premature death.
- Further information: Cultural depictions of Elvis Presley; Cultural impact of Elvis Presley; Elvis Presley phenomenon
Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.
– President Jimmy Carter, 1977-08-17, 
Author Samuel Roy has written: “Elvis’ death did occur at a time when it could only help his reputation. Just before his death, Elvis had been forgotten by society.”
Biographer Ernst Jorgensen has observed that when Presley died, it was as if all perspective on his musical career had been lost. His latter-day song choices had been seen as poor; many who disliked Presley had long been dismissive because he did not write his own songs. Others complained—incorrectly—that he could not play musical instruments. Such criticism of Presley continues.aa The tabloids had ridiculed his obesity and his kitschy, jump-suited performances. His film career was mocked. (In 1980, John Lennon said: “[Elvis] died when he went into the army. That’s when they killed him, that’s when they castrated him.”) Acknowledgment of his vocal style had been reduced to mocking the hiccuping, vocalese tricks that he had used on some early recordings—and the way he said “Thankyouverymuch” after songs during live shows. This was only countered by the uncritical adulation of die-hard fans, who had even denied that he looked “fat” before he died.ab Any wish to understand Elvis Presley—his genuine abilities and his real influence—”seemed almost totally obscured.”
However, in the late 1960s, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had remarked: “Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution… the 60’s comes from it.”
It has been claimed that his early music and live performances helped to lay a commercial foundation which allowed other established performers of the 1950s to be recognised. African American acts, like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, came to national prominence after Presley’s acceptance among White American teenagers.ac Little Richard commented: “He was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.” It has also been claimed that Presley’s sound and persona helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement.
Presley’s recorded voice is seen by many as his enduring legacy. Henry Pleasants writes: “Elvis Presley has been described variously as a baritone and a tenor. An extraordinary compass… and a very wide range of vocal color have something to do with this divergence of opinion. The voice covers two octaves and a third… Moreover, he has not been confined to one type of vocal production. In ballads and country songs he belts out full-voiced high G’s and A’s that an opera baritone might envy. He is a naturally assimilative stylist with a multiplicity of voices—in fact, Elvis’ is an extraordinary voice, or many voices.”ad
Gospel tenor Shawn Nielsen, who sang backing vocals for Presley, said: “He could sing anything. I’ve never seen such versatility… He had such great soul. He had the ability to make everyone in the audience think that he was singing directly to them. He just had a way with communication that was totally unique.”ae
Other celebrated pop and rock musicians have acknowledged that the young Presley inspired them. The Beatles were all big Presley fans. John Lennon said: “Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn’t been an Elvis, there wouldn’t have been a Beatles.” Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan said: “For a young singer he was an absolute inspiration. I soaked up what he did like blotting paper… you learn by copying the maestro.” Rod Stewart declared: “People like myself, Mick Jagger and all the others only followed in his footsteps.” Cher recalls from seeing Presley live in 1956 that he made her “realize the tremendous effect a performer could have on an audience.”
By 1958, singers obviously adopting Presley’s style, like Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard (the so-called “British Elvis”), were rising to prominence in the UK. Elsewhere, France’s Johnny Hallyday and the Italians Adriano Celentano and Bobby Solo were also heavily influenced by Presley.
The singer continues to be imitated—and parodied—outside the main music industry. Presley songs remain very popular on the karaoke circuit, and many from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds work as Elvis impersonators (“the raw 1950s Elvis and the kitschy 1970s Elvis are the favorites.”)
Presley’s informal jamming in front of a small audience in the ’68 Comeback Special is regarded as a forerunner of the so-called ‘Unplugged’ concept, later popularized by MTV.
In 2002, The New York Times observed: “For those too young to have experienced Elvis Presley in his prime, today’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of his death must seem peculiar. All the talentless impersonators and appalling black velvet paintings on display can make him seem little more than a perverse and distant memory. But before Elvis was camp, he was its opposite: a genuine cultural force… Elvis’s breakthroughs are underappreciated because in this rock-and-roll age, his hard-rocking music and sultry style have triumphed so completely.”
Awards and recognition
In 1971, Presley was named ‘One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation’ by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce (The Jaycees). That summer, the City of Memphis named part of Highway 51 South “Elvis Presley Boulevard”, and he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the organization that presents Grammy awards).
Presley won three competitive Grammy awards for his gospel recordings: How Great Thou Art (album and live recording of the title track) and for the album He Touched Me. He had fourteen nominations during his career. However, “Elvis has never been adequately appreciated by those who give the Grammies.”
He is the only performer to have been inducted into four music ‘Halls of Fame’: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Rockabilly Hall of Fame (1997), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001). In 1984, he received the W. C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation and the Academy of Country Music’s first Golden Hat Award. In 1987, he received the American Music Awards’ first posthumous presentation of the Award of Merit.
Presley has featured prominently in a variety of polls and surveys designed to measure popularity and influence.ag However, rock ‘n’ roll expert Philip Ennis writes: “Perhaps it is an error of enthusiasm to freight Elvis Presley with too heavy a historical load”, as, according to a public opinion poll among high school students in 1957, Pat Boone was “the nearly two-to-one favorite over Elvis Presley among boys and preferred almost three-to-one by girls…”
In 1994, the 40th anniversary of Presley’s “That’s All Right” was recognized with its re-release, which made the charts worldwide, making top three in the UK.
During the 2002 World Cup a Junkie XL remix of his “A Little Less Conversation” (credited as “Elvis Vs JXL”) topped the charts in over twenty countries and was included in a compilation of Presley’s U.S. and UK number one hits, Elv1s: 30.
In the UK charts (January 2005), three re-issued singles again went to number one (“Jailhouse Rock”, “One Night”/”I Got Stung” and “It’s Now or Never”). Throughout the year, twenty singles were re-issued—all making top five.
In the same year, Forbes magazine named Presley, for the fifth straight year, the top-earning deceased celebrity, grossing US$45 million for the Presley estate during the preceding year. In mid-2006, top place was taken by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain after the sale of his song catalogue, but Presley reclaimed the top spot in 2007.