2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the sudden death of Elvis Presley. The singer, movie star and globally-known entertainer had been a mainstay in popular culture since he burst onto the scene over twenty years prior. Known for his southern charm, his manic on-stage gyrations, his many cookie cutter film roles (with accompanying soundtracks) and countless hit records, Elvis is considered by many the greatest entertainer ever to live. Numerous outlets hailed him as the Greatest Artist of the 20th Century, despite only operating for a fifth of the century and only living for less than half of it. The acclaim is deserved, not only for the work he did between 1954-1977, but also for the impact he continues to have on the world today. “Elvis” today is no longer just the name of a singer/actor. “Elvis” is an icon. “Elvis” is an institution.

Elvis is the king, transcendent above other singers, actors or otherwise entertainers.

As legendary musician B.B. King quipped “Elvis is worth more dead than he was when he was alive.” Today, in the fortieth year since his death, his life and legacy remain a source of great interest to longtime fans as well as neophytes. A look back on his history as a musician, an actor, and just as a man pulled in every direction by the rapid winds of fame, is proper on this anniversary year.

PART ONE : IN THE BEGINNING…

Today, Tupelo, Mississippi, is a happy little town in love with Elvis Presley. In 1935, however, things were much different. The town, like all towns during the great depression, was a struggling one. It was a cotton town, whose textile mill provided most of her residents with only-meager employment. The town only acquired electricity a few months before Elvis was born. Like the rest of the 1930’s south, Tupelo was poor and her poor residents had few opportunities to rise out of their poverty; most were just happy to have a roof over their head. It was Elvis’ grandfather who built the now-famous two-room house, in preparation for Elvis’ birth.

His birth came with tragedy, however. A twin brother, to be named Jesse, was delivered stillborn a half-hour before Elvis entered the world. As a result of their suddenly having an only child, Elvis’ parents—Vernon and Gladys—were especially overprotective of him, and he grew up very close to them (especially to his mother). His father Vernon never was able to hold down a job, and the family suffered one near-disaster after another for the first decade of his life. There was a tornado that nearly wiped out the town in 1936, and there was a winter of unemployment in 1940 where Christmas dinner was some bread and eggs provided by a neighbor. In between, Vernon spent eight months in jail for check kiting, trying desperately to keep his family afloat.

Though he was an average student, Elvis showed an early talent for music and was encouraged by teachers to enter competitions. He did, hoping to make a little prize money in so doing, but rarely ever reached higher than third place. On his eleventh birthday he was gifted a guitar and the promise of playing lessons to be given by his uncles. What he really wanted was a rifle, but he took the lessons anyway and became just good enough to let his playing supplement his high tenor voice. He made friends (one of his few) with the younger brother of Carvel Lee Ausborn (a prominent disc jockey in the area who went by the name Mississippi Slim). Ausborn offered Elvis the chance to perform on his WELO radio show. On his first attempt, stage fright got the better of him and he was unable to utter a sound. He found the courage on his second try and played the song that was his go-to in those days, a ballad about a dog called Old Shep (a song he would later record for his second RCA album).

By this point, music was Presley’s passion, not hobby, and when not singing or sleeping, Presley was usually found with his ear pressed to a speaker, listening. He was never formally trained, and he never learned to read music, but his ear was always open and he learned enough by observation. Fortunately for him, the Presleys moved to Memphis in 1948 and Elvis found himself in the heart of a city already bursting with musical culture.

A new school did not improve Elvis’ grades, and he even received a C- (below average grade) in music. His teacher now-infamously told him “you have no aptitude for music, Mr. Presley.” He returned to class the next day with a guitar in and a song (“Keep them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me”) to prove her wrong. Before playing, the rebellious Presley explained that his poor grade was just because she didn’t like his kind of singing. After his impromptu performance, she agreed.

He ended up with a C+ in music to end the year.

In his free time Elvis would grease his air up and stroll through legendary-Beale Street, taking in the various jazz and blues sounds and flirting with the local waitresses. As his age increased so did his confidence and by the early 1950’s he was dressing flashier, acting sassier and singing wilder than anyone around him.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Sam Phillips started up the Sun Studios recording booth and record label. It began in 1952 (but was the second attempt by Phillips’ to run a recording company) as a small and struggling business, offering anyone the chance to record and potentially sign a recording deal (whereupon Phillips would nearly kill himself driving across the southern-United States trying to pawn the records off to Disc Jockeys). A few famous black musicians (B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf) recorded for him, but it was of all things a prison band named—I kid you not—“the Prisonaires—who scored Phillip’s label its biggest hit to date, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain” (which would later be covered to greater success by Johnnie Ray). The Prisonaires’ success earned Sun Studios a write-up in the local Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper.

The newspaper coverage of the song and its label motivated Elvis to seek out Sun Studios to cut a record.

In July of 1953, Presley entered Sam Phillips’ 706 Union Ave. building to record a couple songs “as a gift for his mother.” That was only a pretense of course, as there were other (cheaper) places in town to cut a personalized record, and he had previously used them. What Sun Studios offered was the chance to be discovered. He paid the standard fee of $3.98 to record two songs, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” (the latter of which would be rerecorded in 1957 as the B-side to “All Shook Up”).

Elvis did well-enough on the recordings for Sam Phillips to instruct his secretary to take down his name and address. She did, adding “good ballad singer” to the note. Presley returned in January of ’54 to record “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same without You.”

When he first walked into Sun Studios, the receptionist asked him what kind of music he sang, and Elvis responded “I sing all kinds.” When she pressed him further, asking him who he sounded like, Presley mumbled “I don’t sound like nobody.” It was a lofty boast, but four songs and six months later, he had not demonstrated any more than just a “fine enough” falsetto and a little bit of a bass. Mostly his style was “generic country ballad.” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t attention-grabbing.

Soon after, Presley auditioned to join a Gospel quartet named The Songfellows. One of their members was leaving the group and Presley jumped at the chance to be in something…anything. Unfortunately, the member in question had a change of heart during Elvis’ audition and decided to stay. Presley then tried his luck at Memphis’ Hi-Hat (a country and western club that featured talent looking to sign recording deals), auditioning as a rhythm gutarist and background vocalist in a local band whose name was been lost to history. He was turned down, being told he couldn’t harmonize and that he’d never make it in music.

Meanwhile Sam Phillips had discovered a song demo entitled, “Without You” and couldn’t identify the singer. He asked his secretary to get a hold of Elvis (who was working around town as a truck driver) to give him a chance to record a version. He came in and recorded in May of 1954, but performed poorly. Nevertheless, Phillips asked him to sing “just whatever you know” and Elvis ran through a few ballads and country tunes. As the impromptu session ended, Elvis asked about coming back, this time with a band, to have a proper audition. Phillips recruited Scotty Moore (guitarist) and Bill Black (bass) and the session was booked for Monday, July 5, 1954.

As he had during all his previous Sun sessions, Elvis performed a safe and simple country tune. This time it was “I Love you Because.”

And as with everything before, it was perfectly adequate, but no more. After a few takes, Scotty Moore requested a break. With everyone’s guard down, Elvis picked up his rhythm guitar and started fooling around, just trying to get loose after a stiff and stuffy start. Presley started picking at an old rhythm & blues song by Arthur Crudup, named “That’s All Right (Mama).” Today it’s an iconic Elvis song, arguably the iconic Presley song, but listening to the original version reveals just how little he deviated from the source material…

Elvis started jumping around and acting a fool while singing the song, showing little concern about the pitch of his voice or taking care to strike the correct chords on his guitar. He was just being manic but it was a complete reversal from the straight-laced and professional look he’d showed earlier in the evening. Sam Phillips immediately told Elvis to stop, back up and start over, this time with the recording machine turned on.

For years Sam Phillips had been trying, unsuccessfully, to market black music to white disc jockeys. He once said “if I could find a white boy who sang like a black man I’d make a million dollars!” After recording “That’s All Right,” Sam set to work with the trio to find a good B-side. The country ballad “Harbor Lights” was on the schedule to be recorded after “I Love You Because” so they laid down a version that would have been dull even without “That’s All Right” fresh on their minds. The final number they tried that night, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” was a 1946 mid-tempo ballad by bluegrass singer Bill Monroe.

Elvis worked the song through the same frenetic filter he used with “That’s All Right” and gave Sam Phillips the B-side he was looking for, to complete what he hoped would be Sun’s first major hit record.

“That’s All Right” was sent to Sam’s Memphis friend Dewey Phillips (no relation), who DJ’d “Red Hot and Blue,” the most popular radio show in the mid-south. Dewey played it to instant-success. Callers flooded the WHBQ station, demanding to hear the song over and over, as well as to know who the new singer was. Phillips secured an interview with Elvis and, by shrewdly asking him which high school he attended, was able to tip off to the listeners whether Presley was white or black (Memphis schools were still segregated by race in those days, and would be for a few more years).

Within a month the trio of Presley, Moore and Black were hitting local clubs, playing to screaming crowds. Elvis’ now-famous gyrations began in those days as the simple shakes of a nervous man. Stage fright would make his legs uneasy and during instrumental interludes in between vocals, Elvis would turn back to his band, shaking uncontrollably, partially out of nervous energy and partially because it was good music (who doesn’t shake…something…to good music?). The shaking naturally caused female audience members to go bananas.

In between steady gigs, Presley returned to Sun to record whatever Phillips could get his hands on, trying desperately to find the next “That’s All Right.” The twenty-year-old standard “Blue Moon” was recorded, more out of obligation than anything (everyone did a cover of that one) as was “Tomorrow Night,” a good tune, but not good enough for an A-side. In September they tried their hands on a tune written by singing cowboy Jimmy Wakely, “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’).”

The original number was a simple country tune, but Elvis demonstrated (the first of many) a real gift for interpretation with it. He started the tune slow like a traditional ballad, but then, for the final stretch, changed it into an up-tempo toe-tapper.

The song was quickly followed up with a couple true “rock and roll” songs, the first since “That’s All Right” entitled “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” leaving Sam Phillips’ confident Elvis would not be a one-hit wonder.

Presley had been invited in October to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville but his performance was met with only polite applause and a shrug from Opry manager Jim Denny, who told the young singer “your music isn’t for us.” He recorded another “balled-meets-rocker” in early December, entitled “Milkcow Blues Boogie” which perfected the concept he tried in “I’ll Never Let You Go (Little Darlin’).”

By the time Christmas came around, Elvis’ style and city-wide fame had been cemented. Nashville wasn’t ready for him, perhaps, but Memphis couldn’t contain him. He signed a deal to perform for the Lousiana Hayride radio show (the Opry’s biggest competitor) and entered 1955 as one of the hottest acts on the show, touring the tri-state area of Louisiana, Arkansas and southeastern Texas.

As summer approached, Elvis fame had increased and his name was known from Raleigh, NC to El Paso, TX. His stage shows were a hit and kids were scooping up records as fast as Sun could print them. Sam Phillips released another three singles that year but always had trouble convincing DJ’s to play them. Fans would call and beg to hear him but R&B stations generally wouldn’t play him because there was too much country in his style, and country stations avoided him because he sounded too black.

It was clear Elvis’ sound was a revolution just waiting to be unleashed, but it wouldn’t happen with Sam Phillips’ limited resources.

That Autumn, Elvis’ new manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, arranged a bidding war between several major record companies. Columbia and Atlantic both offered Elvis a $25,000 contract but Parker held out for a better deal and RCA-Victor provided it. They offered Elvis a staggering $41,000 deal ($35,000 with a $6,000 signing bonus), the largest contract ever handed out to a new star.

RCA took a chance on Presley, who was only twenty years old at the time and not even legally allowed to sign the contract (his father Vernon signed it in his stead). The New York-based company saw potential, if not in Elvis himself then at least in his R&B/Country blend. Like almost everyone else, RCA saw Presley as a fad (only offering him a three year agreement), but one they expected to ride while he was hot, before he inevitably disappeared into history.

They could not have imagined what the future would bring them.

Part Two: Peak Presley

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  • Guillermo F. Perez-Argüello

    According to the MIT launched Pantheon programme, he is the tenth most celebrated artist in history.

    • matthew martin

      Awesome. I would love to see who was ranked in the 9 places higher than him.

      (He’s number one in my heart!)

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