As the “musician most responsible for popularizing rock & roll on an international level” AMG it could be argued that Elvis Presley is “the single most important figure in American 20th century popular music.” AMG While he wasn’t the first white man to sing R&B, he was “the first…to assertively fuse country and blues music into the style known as rockabilly.” AMG However, he didn’t stop there, also touching on “pop, gospel, and even some bits of bluegrass and operatic schmaltz” AMG during his 20+ year career.
From Birth to Sun
Elvis was born to a poor Mississippi family during the Depression. In his teens, he moved to Memphis where he absorbed the hybrid of musical tastes which would become rock and roll. In 1954, he recorded an Arthur Crudup blues tune, That’s All Right Mama, for Sun Records. Owner Sam Phillips had been seeking a white singer who could sing black and found his dream in Elvis. Some musical scholars consider Elvis’ recordings with Sun, including Blue Moon of Kentucky, Good Rockin’ Tonight, Baby Let’s Play House, and Mystery Train, to be the best rock and roll ever. AMG
By 1955, Elvis was gaining a country music following – and stirring controversy with his swiveling hips during live performances. I Forgot to Remember Forget hit #1 on the country charts. It was his last Sun single. RCA bought his contract for a then enormous $35,000.
RCA and Films
Elvis’ first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel, was a huge U.S. #1. That and a series of national television appearances made him a superstar. Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel became a double-whammy single which was one of the biggest sellers the industry had ever seen.
By 1956, Elvis tackles his first Hollywood movie, Love Me Tender. Numerous cinematic endeavors followed – of which Jailhouse Rock was the best. AMG However, most of his films, “while mostly profitable, had little going for them in the way of story, acting, or social value.” AMG He continued to produce monstrously successful singles – among them were Jailhouse Rock, All Shook Up, Too Much a – but schmaltzy fair like Loving You were marked by “exaggerated and stereotypical” AMG “vocal swoops.” AMG
In 1958, Elvis was inducted into the Army. However, he had enough music on reserve to keep the market busy during his two-year absence. Upon his return, he gave up live performance for nearly a decade, focusing on films. He ground out two or three a year and his music soon became dominated by those movies’ generally forgettable soundtracks. Disintested in spending much time in the studio, the soundtracks were sometimes fleshed out with outtakes which had sat around for years.
He continued to sell well and occasionally turned out rockier, well-received fare like Return to Sender, Little Sister, and (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame. Some attribute the downturn in Elvis’ musical quality to manager Colonel Tom Parker, but Elvis seemed more concerned with “holing up in his large mansion with a retinue of yes-men that protected their benefactor from much day-to-day contact with a fast-changing world.” AMG
A Brief Career Revival, the ‘70s, and the End
In 1968, Elvis experienced a career revival when he staged a well-received television special. Singles like Suspicious Minds and In the Ghetto showed a which had been missing from much of his ‘60s output. Elvis returned to live performance with a series of Las Vegas shows in 1969 and subsequent North American tours.
In the 1970s, Elvis’ material was pretty eclectic, jumping genres from country to blues to rock to gospel. 1972’s Burning Love was his last top 10 hit. His personal life became unstable – his marriage disintegrated, his weight fluctuated dramatically, and he developed dependence on prescription drugs. Other than tours, he rarely left Graceland, his Memphis mansion. On August 16, 1977, he was found dead at Graceland. Drugs likely played a part.
Millions of fans kept his image alive, be it through pilgrimages to Graceland, kitsch memorabilia, Elvis impersonators, or tabloid reports of Elvis sightings. RCA took to releasing haphazard collections of his recordings, not showing true reverence to his career until the CD era and thorough box sets separately covering his ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s material.
Last updated July 9, 2016.