Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was delivered in the home of the Presley’s, a two room “shotgun” house built by his father, Vernon, in preparation for Elvis’s birth. Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s identical twin brother, was delivered stillborn 35 minutes before him. Being an only child, Elvis became very close to both of his parents, particularly his mother who he formed an extremely close bond with. The Presley’s regularly attended church, where Elvis himself found his musical inspiration.
The Presley’s survived the F5 tornado that occurred in Tupelo during the 1936 Tupelo-Gainesville tornado outbreak. In 1938, when Elvis was three, his family lost their home after Vernon, his father, was found guilty of check kiting, and spent eight months in jail. During that time, Elvis and his mother, Gladys, moved in with family relatives.
In 1941, Elvis enrolled in first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated. It was at that school where he was encouraged to enter a singing contest, after he had impressed one of his teachers by singing a version of the song, “Old Shep”. The contest, held at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945, was Elvis’s first public performance – Elvis, then ten, had to stand on a chair to reach the microphone. He sang “Old Shep”, and recalled placing fifth.
When Elvis turned eleven, he received a guitar for his birthday. He had actually hoped for a different present, usually said to be either a bicycle or a rifle. He then started taking guitar lessons from his uncles and a pastor at his family’s church. Presley himself said later on, “I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it.”
After his family moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis enrolled in L. C. Humes High School. While he was in high school, he received only a C grade in music. His teacher told Elvis that he had no reason to sing, and in an effort to prove different, he brought his guitar into school the very next day. Singing “Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me”, Elvis failed to impress. Elvis later said to a classmate that the teacher didn’t appreciate Elvis’s kind of singing. The teacher herself agreed with him.
During the junior year of Elvis’s high school life, he grew out his hair and his sideburns, which would later become his trademark. He performed in another school talent show in April of 1953. He performed the song “Till I Waltz with You Again”, and he did well. He said it ended up helping his image around school. “I wasn’t popular in school…I failed music—only thing I ever failed. And then they entered me in this talent show…when I came onstage I heard people kind of rumbling and whispering and so forth, ’cause nobody knew I even sang. It was amazing how popular I became after that.”
In August 1953, Elvis Presley first walked into Sun Records. He was intent on cutting a record as a birthday present for his mother. The receptionist in that day, Marion Keisker, asked the young Presley what he sang. “I sing all kinds.” She then asked him who he sounded like – “I don’t sound like nobody.” After Elvis had recorded, Sam Phillips, the Sun boss, asked Keisker to write down Presley’s name. He was soon called back.
On the night of July 5, 1954, Elvis Presley finally got his big break. After a recording session that produced very little, Elvis started jamming out a blues tune called “That’s All Right, Mama”. Sam Phillips overheard them and suggested they restart the song and record it. It soon became Presley’s first hit smash. Only a few days after it was recorded, it received a large amount of airtime on Dewey Phillip’s radio station. Callers repeatedly asked the record be played again, over and over. Phillip’s brought in Presley for a radio interview, to clear up questions about Presley’s race – many had thought he was African-American, because of his sound. In 1956, Presley’s first album had been released – “Elvis Presley”, with a now iconic image of Presley in concert, taken during a July 31, 1955 performance in Tampa.
Elvis soon started appearing on national television. His most controversial moment came when he appeared on The Milton Berle Show. During a performance of “Hound Dog”, Presley stopped the tune and soon started a slow-tempo version of the generally energetic beat. He accompanied the beat with body movements that soon caused a worldwide controversy. He soon became known as “Elvis the Pelvis”, to which Presley called, “one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.” The controversy caused an enormous amount of media attention, which led to Presley appearing on The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, respectively.
Around this time, Elvis started to get attention from movie studios. Elvis’s main ambition was to actually become an actor. His debut film was called “Love Me Tender”, to which he had a hit song of the same name. It would be the first out of thirty-three films filmed in his lifetime, among “Jailhouse Rock”, “It Happened at The World’s Fair”, “Viva Las Vegas”, “Change of Habit”, “That’s The Way It Is”, and “Elvis on Tour”, the latter two being concert documentaries, filmed in 1970 and 1972.
In December 1957, Elvis received his draft notice. He was granted deferment to film “King Creole”, as the studio had already begun principal photography and filming on the movie.
On March 24th, 1958, Elvis Presley was formally inducted into the United States Army, and underwent basic training at Fort Hood. Elvis announced he did not want to be treated different than any other soldier, being quoted as saying “The Army can do anything it wants with me.” A huge downfall to the induction of Elvis into the Army was that he was introduced to amphetamines, which led to problems with prescription medication later in Presley’s life, which ultimately led to his untimely death. During his Army stay, he was also introduced to karate, which he took very seriously, and became an 8th degree black belt. He would later incorporate karate moves into his 1970’s on stage show.
While stationed in Germany, Presley met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu. After seven and a half years, they would marry. RCA was prepared for Elvis’s musical hiatus – they released many new songs that had been recorded and pieced together into albums. In fact, during Elvis’s time in the Army he had ten top 40 hits.
Presley returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and with the rank of sergeant was honorably discharged three days later. His first album recorded after the army was appropriately titled “Elvis is Back!” Elvis made an appearance with Frank Sinatra (who had ironically scorned Presley at the beginning of his superstardom). This was known as the “Welcome Home Elvis” special. Presley gave a benefit concert in Pearl Harbor in March 1961 (recorded live, and released over 20 years after Presley’s death, titled “Such A Night”). He gave two Memphis concerts earlier in February, the Pearl Harbor show being his last for almost a decade.
Elvis starred in 27 films during the 1960’s, many of which he detested. He longed to be taken seriously as an actor, but Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager, kept pushing him into during musical films, many of which had mediocre and ill-received reviews. By 1966, Elvis had become a practical cultural dinosaur. He felt sick when reading some scripts for films, and when a 1967 soundtrack album was released, sales for Presley music was at an all-time low. “By then, of course, the damage had been done”, said historians Connie Kirchberg and Marc Hendrickx. “Elvis was viewed as a joke by serious music lovers and a has-been to all but his most loyal fans.”
On February 1, 1968, Elvis’s only child, Lisa Marie was born, at a time when Presley was deeply unhappy with how his career had ended up. Soon, the idea of a TV special came along. What better way to reintroduce Elvis? An hour of primetime on NBC, just the way Elvis wanted. Clad in black leather, the hour long special captured 42% of the viewing audience, unprecedented numbers for a music special. Soon, plans for Elvis to play concerts and tour again surfaced. He signed a contract to perform a month-long stand at the Las Vegas International Hotel in July 1969. He sold out all 57 shows he performed in 1969 at the International. Audience and soundboard recordings of these shows (the July 31st, 1969 Opening Show has never been released, and no one knows if there is an actual recording of it. The earliest known recording of Elvis’s comeback is a concert RCA recorded on August 3rd, 1969) have surfaced, showing Presley with great voice and obviously nervous, but energetic. This is perhaps the most critically acclaimed period of Elvis’s life.
Elvis was filmed at the International in August 1970 by MGM for the film “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is”, which showcased Presley, now performing in jumpsuits, in the best shape of his career and was wildly successful at the box office. However, Elvis soon started dealing with a number of personal and professional problems. After only a year, he had grown bored of his performances at the International, and he soon split with his wife in 1972.Nonetheless, with surprising regularity he undertook tour schedules of over 150 shows each year.
On January 14th, 1973, Presley gave his best known concert – “Aloha from Hawaii” was broadcast live via satellite around the world, excluding the USA – the concert was shown in April there. He performed over 18 songs and it is considered by many to be the peak of Presley’s career. It was a ratings smash for NBC.
Elvis’s mental health took a deep decline as the 1970’s went on. In 1974, during his August Las Vegas engagement, he would often ramble and start long monologues about various topics; his ex-wife, his daughter, karate, and rumors about his drug use. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found on the CD release “Desert Storm”. He would often spend his time when not touring holed up in his Memphis mansion, Graceland. It was suggested to him he take a year off and get healthy again, but he refused, insisting he’d be alright. As his guitarist John Wilkinson said, “He was all gut. He was slurring. He was so ****** up…It was obvious he was drugged. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad the words to the songs were barely intelligible…I remember crying. He could barely get through the introductions.” Later on he recounted a 1974 show from Detroit – “I watched him in his dressing room, just draped over a chair, unable to move. So often I thought, ‘Boss, why don’t you just cancel this tour and take a year off?’ I mentioned something once in a guarded moment. He patted me on the back and said, ‘It’ll be all right. Don’t you worry about it.'”
As 1975 turned to 1976, Presley had become a shadow of his former self. Increasingly overweight and struggling to make it through most concerts, things were looking bleak. Widely regarded as his worst moments on stage came one August night in 1976 in Houston. The show, which was released on CD as “Houston…We Have A Problem”, showcases Presley at his unfortunate worst. He is slurring, and barely makes it through the opening number. Thankfully, he soon took a 2 and ? month break, returning to the stage in October, energetic and had dumped a ton of weight. Oddly enough, one his most critically acclaimed concerts came on the night of December 31st, 1976. Photo and video evidence shows that this was perhaps Elvis’s greatest concert. He had slimmed down tremendously in his absence from the stage and compared to a year earlier. He was on stage for over an hour and a half, which is a shock in and of itself as Presley could barely pull himself through forty-five minute concerts in the previous months.
The next time Elvis took the stage was February 12th, 1977. It was shocking. Photos from the show are perhaps the worst that Elvis ever looked. He had grown hugely overweight in the weeks following New Year’s Eve, and the concert was passable at best. As his February tour went on, however, he oddly slimmed down, and gave increasingly better shows.
In June 1977, just six weeks before his death, Elvis agreed to do another television special, for CBS. Titled “Elvis in Concert”, it was filmed on June 19th and June 21st, 1977. Most of the footage used in the broadcast came from the June 21st show, as producers found they could not use most June 19th footage, given the state Presley was in. As of 2014, “Elvis in Concert” has not been ever officially released by Elvis Presley Enterprises, and it most likely never will be. Elvis’s final concert was held on June 26th, 1977 at Market Square Arena.
In July 1977, a book was released by three of Elvis’s ex-bodyguards – appropriately titled “Elvis – What Happened?” At the time, it was a shocking release as the public had not known much about Elvis’s personal habits. The book told of a man obsessed with medication and death, and who had developed a fascination with the occult. It was released just a few weeks before Presley passed away.
On August 16th, 1977, Elvis Presley was found dead at his Graceland mansion at the age of 42. He was to fly to Portland, Maine, that day and perform two concerts there to begin another concert tour. Since his death, many questions have been raised over the cause of death; however, we will not know anytime soon as Vernon Presley had given a request to have his son’s autopsy report be kept private for 50 years, and not released to the public. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack.
Nonetheless, Elvis Presley is perhaps the most well-known musician in the world, even 37 years after his passing. His voice and image are recognizable in an instant. There are hundreds of “Elvis Tribute Artists”. He more than likely will have the most enduring legacy in the music world. Numerous biographies have been written, documentaries have been made. Stamps depicting Presley himself have been issued. He is indeed “The King of Rock n’ Roll”, and just might be the overall King of Music.