Who was Elvis Presley?
Read about the King of Rock and Roll, his life, his loves and his musicSmitten gals, music lovers and anyone with a soft spot for genuine swagger gravitates to one legend in particular. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame declares him the undisputed King of Rock ‘n’ Roll - his songs changed music history and, yes, still get the hips swaying.
But who was Elvis Presley?
His is an authentic rags-to-riches story that begins on January 8, 1935, with his birth in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. His close-knit, working class family, the blues-playing men of his neighborhood, and the music and preaching of his church all make a deep impact. He holds his first guitar at the age of 11 and moves to Memphis when he’s 13.
If you’ve made the pilgrimage to Graceland mansion in Memphis, hopefully you also paid a visit to the city’s famed Beale Street. As a teen, Presley absorbs everything around him and continues to embrace the blues and gospel.
The year Elvis graduates high school, age 18, he stops by the Memphis Recording Service to record an acetate of “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” for his mother. Sam Phillips, owner of Memphis Recording Service, eventually calls Elvis in to sing a couple of songs at the urging of his assistant, Marion Keisker, in 1954.
Sam is impressed enough to team Elvis up with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see if they together can come up with something. Nothing truly clicks with the trio until July 5, when during a break the group breaks into a sped-up version of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right." This song, backed with “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” becomes the first of five singles released on the Sun label.
The answers to “Who was Elvis Presley?” and “What’s rockabilly?” go hand-in-hand. For the simplest answer, listen to his music and feel what he wanted you to feel. Start with his 1956 self-titled debut album or create the world’s best playlist with songs like “That’s All Right,” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “My Baby Left Me.”
Incorporating elements of country, blues and rock and roll, Presley’s distinct sound is known as rockabilly. This music style rises to popularity in the early 1950’s and quickly blends with fashion and classic cars; it defines a lifestyle.
Be warned, a few minutes in Graceland and suddenly you realize what’s missing from your life: Elvis everything. Around 1956, merchandise featuring the king’s handsome face feeds the frenzy and never really stops. From clothing and jewelry, to kerchiefs, stationary and huggable hound dogs, the high demand for such souvenirs reflects both the extent of his popularity and loyalty of his fandom.
In 1956, these souvenirs gross $22 million and Elvis starts working as a film actor. The following year he purchases Graceland.
Most of the 33 movies Elvis stars in are good time musicals (“King Creole” is considered his best and will give you a powerful hankering for crawfish) that actually resulted in some of his most well-known songs - “Jailhouse Rock,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (from “Blue Hawaii”) and “Viva Las Vegas.”
The time Elvis spent in the Army reminds us that this superstar was also a man with a draft number. In 1958, at the height of his stardom, he was inducted into the U.S. Army. He sits under the barber’s buzzer and becomes a soldier who refuses special privileges.
The late 1960’s marks the king’s big comeback, beginning with what’s now referred to as the “Comeback Special.” This TV special reintroduces the world to Presley’s commanding stage presence with new versions of older hits. The special leaves an impression on a whole new generation.
The scope of Elvis Presley’s legacy is enormous. He wore many hats, adapted and responded to critical moments in social history and he did it with style.
It’s easy to forget he was also a son, a husband and a dad. Until you return to his music and hear the love, hear where he came from and what he believed in; you feel it, too.
Should there be a pop quiz on who was Elvis Presley, here’s a cheat sheet:
- Faith was central to his life and music. He belonged to the Assembly of God Church.
- He met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, while he was stationed in Germany. Their daughter, Lisa Marie, was born in 1968.
- He rocked a jumpsuit and cape like nobody’s business.
- His music influenced greatness, including The Beatles, Cher and contemporary bands like Volbeat.
- Music accomplishments: 18 number 1 singles; 14 Grammy nominations and 3 wins; inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- He’s on a Forever Stamp.
The Graceland estate and museum, a National Historical Landmark in Memphis, is the final resting place for him and family members. After touring his home and seeing many of his famous jumpsuits and guitars, fans can pay their respects or simply thank him, thank him very much.
(with editorial contributions from Aurora LaJambre)