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 fellow Memphian and 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.

You can read the previous installments in this series here:

Part One: 1954-1955 (In the Beginning…)

Part Two: 1956-1957 (Peak Presley)

PART THREE : OUT OF SIGHT

Elvis’ meteoric rise from 1954-1957 saw him transform from a nobody truck driver in Memphis, Tennessee to an international entertainment sensation. As he celebrated Christmas in 1957, Elvis was riding a string of successful singles, albums, TV appearances and motion pictures. Arguably no other individual had his “product” so widely and varyingly consumed. His face was everywhere, his records were constantly being spun by DJs, his movies were smash hits, his TV appearances shattered ratings records. Typically this is where the phrase “nowhere to go but down” is tossed out, but were it not for one little hiccup, his career might’ve continued climbing ever higher.

His first single of the year went straight to #1, and though he didn’t release an LP in 1958, each of his first four albums continued to sell well; even his Christmas album was a steady seller well into Spring. His lone film for the year brought him his first critical acclaim as an actor (which he had long coveted). But again, the achievements and accolades he enjoyed in 1958 have to be considered with an asterisk.

Five days before Christmas, 1957, Elvis received his official notice that he was being drafted into the Army. Immediately, Paramount Pictures appealed for a delay in his enlistment since Elvis was about to shoot the movie King Creole. The Army granted a two-moth deferment, allowing Elvis time to star in his final film of the 1950’s.

Originally, producer Hal Wallis secured the rights to “A Stone for Danny Fisher” as a vehicle for James Dean. After the movie rebel’s death in 1955 the film sat in limbo until Wallis signed a ten-picture deal with Elvis Presley. By 1958 they had already made the tremendously successful musical-comedy Loving You, and would go on to develop similar big hits like G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii. Elvis’ followup to Jailhouse Rock, however, was not indented to be a musical-comedy. Both Wallis and Presley were eager to make the film a dramatic showcase.

He never outright said it in interviews, but privately Elvis was ready and eager to leave the recording studio for the movie studio and pursue his true dream of being an actor. When the offer came to star in A Stone for Danny Fisher (the title had not yet changed to King Creole), Elvis saw it as his chance to solidify himself as a leading man. And what better way to do it than to take over the staring role originally planned for his Hollywood idol? Being drafted threw all of those long-term plans in the air, however, and Elvis would instead (according to associate Eddie Fadal) spend the entire shoot working on the assumption that his career was likely finished and that he’d be a forgotten man when he returned from the Army.

In the meantime, he sank his teeth into the role of Danny Fisher, memorizing—as he had done during the Jailhouse Rock shoot—every word of the script (not just his own parts) and insisting on additional takes to get his performance perfect. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it wasn’t Spinout either. In the end, the critics that had dismissed him in Love Me Tender and mocked his silliness in Loving You and Jailhouse Rock finally gave kudos to the dedicated performer. The role is still regarded as the best work of his career. The film scored with the public too, ending the year as a top-five film according to Variety.

The soundtrack was equally as impressive, with all selections taken from the movie (as opposed to the “Loving You” album where half the record featured studio cuts), giving the album a cohesive feel. The New Orleans flavor—especially the blusy trumpet—make the tunes stand out significantly from prior records, giving it an almost “concept album” feel. The title track is a perfect rock and roll opener, but it’s the neo-R&B-sounding “Trouble” that really stands out.

Curiously, the album only features eleven songs, as opposed to the then-standard twelve. Originally ten songs were recorded in January, but a month later two more were finished, but only one was added to the LP. The one that was included was “Steadfast Loyal and True,” a throwaway by hit-makers Lieber and Stoller, perhaps due to a contract requiring the number of their songs to be included. But why not also include the inspired blues song “Danny,” with its far-better vocal performance? The song went unreleased until a compilation album 1978 and demonstrates a singer at the top of his game.

The album was released in September, to coincide with the premiere of the movie. By this time Elvis was well into his Army career, and could not enjoy its #2 peak on the US charts (#1 in the UK). The singer was also dealing with a personal tragedy at the time, one which would affect him for the rest of his life.

In early August, Elvis’ mother Gladys was rushed to the hospital, suffering from hepatitis. Her condition rapidly deteriorated and Elvis was granted an emergency leave to visit her at the Methodist Hospital in Memphis. Two days later she died of heart failure, being only 46 years old. The forever-young singer had always been closest to his mother, more so than his dad, manager, or any other adviser or friend. His mother was the solid rock from which he built his success. He thought of her as his guiding light and moral compass. When accusations of lewdness and indecency first came to the hip-shaking singer, Elvis’ first reaction was to say “I would not do anything on stage that I won’t do in front of my own mama.” Her death ripped the carpet out from under him. All the sudden changes in his life—from the sudden success to the Army and everything in between—happened with her providing reassuring familiarity. Now he would have to go through the rest of life’s trials alone, and that feeling of sudden abandonment never left him until his own tragic death.

Four years later Elvis would co-write a song (one of the very few he ever personally worked on) in tribute to her, entitled “That’s Someone You Never Forget.”

The whirlwind of 1958 didn’t stop with personal tragedy or sudden changes of address: Soon after his mother’s death, Elvis was back in service, RCA was busy prepping and releasing songs and Paramount was readying the premiere of King Creole. Elvis’ first single of 1958 was a holdover from the previous year’s recording session. “Don’t” was a powerful Lieber/Stoller ballad, backed by “I Beg of You,” a catchy pop tune. The latter is a lot of fun while the former was meant to make the girls swoon. It worked: “Don’t” went straight to #1, his tenth single to do so.

The song demonstrates the range of Elvis’ voice and his demand not to be seen as simply as a “loud rock and roll guy.” Lieber and Stoller also produced the record, marking their fifth time working with Elvis in that capacity. Their partnership was clearly fruitful, with multiple #1 singles, EPs and LPs credited in part to their work behind Elvis’ microphone. Wanting to capitalize on the sucess, the duo offered Elvis (not his manager Tom Parker, mind you) a partnership deal. Whether Elvis even considered it or not is impossible to determine. He almost always deferred to Tom Parker on business matters, preferring not to get mixed up in paperwork and legal issues. Either way, his manager rejected the offer outright, largely because the deal would have given the songwriters greater control over the songs Elvis would sing, which would mean a diminished influence Parker had over Presley’s career.

Parker limited Lieber and Stoller’s input from that point forward. Though they still wrote songs for Elvis, they never produced another of his records after “Don’t.” A few years later, the “Colonel” sent them a new contract to sign, featuring a blank page and a line on the bottom for their signatures. When they called Parker’s office, assuming there had been a mistake, they were told the details of the contract would be filled in later. Stoller then told Parker what he could go do with himself and vowed never to work for “that jerk” again.

After filming completed on King Creole, Elvis left for Fort Hood in Kileen, Texas to receive basic training. He was never in any danger of seeing combat—the Army would have made sure of that—but to his credit, Elvis said that he wanted to be treated, as much as his celebrity would allow, just like every other soldier. His conscription at Fort Chaffe in Arkansas drew a crowd of screaming fans and eager reporters alike, but Presley insisted he was just another solider, saying “the Army can do what they want with me.” RCA regularly published updated reports of Elvis’ happenings, and kept the fanclubs that had popped up over the past few years up to date too. The studio even recorded and released a press conference Elvis hosted in 1959, a few months before returning. The interview hinted at Elvis’ comfortability with his time in service as well as anxiety and eagerness to return to the world of show-business.

All told, Elvis spent fourteen months in Germany, away as much as he could be from the chaos of fame and celebrity. Nevertheless, he was acutely aware of the presumption some had of him, expecting that he would be demand to be treated like a “star” worthy of special attention. Instead, he treated his fellow soldiers as equals and they did the same. He also donated his Army pay to charity and purchased an extra pair of fatigues for every man in his division. Remember that Bing Crosby waged a radio DJ war against Presley a year before this, and Frank Sinatra frequently viciously attacked him to friends and associates. Both tried to paint Elvis as either a danger to society or as a punk that needed to learn his place. And yet, when the time for them to serve in the Army came (during World War II), Bing did “shows” while Frank used his influence to dodge the draft entirely. Elvis’ service in the military was, from the Army’s standpoint, largely insignificant (though his superiors frequently praised his work ethic), but as a so-called “leader” of the youth in America, he showed a finer commitment to country than either of the previous generation’s musical idols.

Elvis’ time in Germany also introduced him to two of the most significant elements of his final twenty years: Priscilla Beaulieu and drugs. Amphetamines were given to soldiers in those days as a stimulant to improve energy, strength and to keep weight under control (an issue the then-slender Elvis actually struggled with his whole life). Long term side effects and dangers of the drug were not as well known as they are today, and Presley quickly became hooked. He not only took them as often as he could, he encouraged others to do so as well, convinced they were almost miraculous in their effects. As the years rolled on, Elvis continued to dabble, and during the 70’s when he was expected to perform multiple Vegas shows between 8pm and 6am, the singer routinely took “uppers” at night and “downers” in the day, doing a number on his internal organs. Certainly everyone today knows “prescription drugs” is the basic answer to explain why he died but few realize how long the road to that death was. It began in Germany.

As did his relationship with Priscilla. The future Mrs. Presley was the step-daughter of a career officer and spent most of her early years moving from base to base. In 1957 her father was transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany, and a year later, Elvis moved to the country, to a town not fifteen minutes away. Priscilla was only fourteen when they first met (in September of 1959); she and some friends slipped away to a party at Elvis’ house. The older Presley was smitten with Priscilla’s looks and immediately took an interest in her. Her parents were initially opposed to the courting, on account of Elvis’ age as well as her tendency to get home well past curfew, but they eventually came around and allowed the budding romance to continue. For the remainder of Elvis’ time in Germany (six months), he and Priscilla were practically inseparable.

Meanwhile, stateside, RCA was carrying out its plan to keep the singer in the public eye while out of the country. There would be no movies for 1959, after releasing at least one between 1956-1958, so it was up to the music to carry the torch of his fame. First, in June of 1958, Elvis recorded eight songs while on leave from the Army. There were a few hold-overs from 1957 and some other masters RCA was holding on to (such as a cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” that was recorded just before shipping out), but there was never an intention to release another LP. Consolidating the rest of his material into one release was the opposite of the studio’s plan. Instead they released the songs as four singles. The first of which, “Wear my Ring Around Your neck” was the first song in Billboards history to simultaneously debut at #3 on Country chart, #2 on the Hot 100 chart, and #1 on the R&B chart. It was followed up by the re-recorded (and de-scandalized) version of “One Night” which peaked at #4 on the Hot 100 chart. Two more followed in 1959, including the exceptional “A Fool Such as I” (#2 on the Hot 100) and then the corny rockabilly “A Big Hunk O’ Love” which brought Elvis his final (out of twelve) #1 song of the decade.

It was apparent from these final recordings of the decade that Elvis was already eager to evolve. The production is more robust than the stripped-down sound that was present in his first Sun and RCA singles. It was only four years prior that Sam Phillips was pulling his hair out to find something for Elvis to sing that could compliment that radically new “That’s All Right.” Ballads and trite country tunes was all the shy young man knew at the time, but in those proto-days of rock, ballads were left on the back-burner. Four years later, however, the confident Elvis was belting out “My Wish Came True” to top-10 success and trying out Doo Wap music with “I Beg of You.” His desire to constantly tweak his sound would continue for the rest of his career, making the moniker “King of Rock and Roll” a bit oversimplified.

RCA still expected something in the way of album-releases, so a compilation of several of Elvis’ gold-selling (500,000 copies or more) singles was released just after he left the states. The so-called “Elvis’ Golden Records” LP was the first “greatest hits” album in rock-and-roll history. It went on to peak at #2 on the LP charts, and would sell a staggering six million copies, making it his best-selling LP to that point and still ranks among his top five best-sellers, despite so many more robust greatest hits packages that would follow.

In addition, the 1957 Christmas album was re-issued with new cover art for 1958, and then in 1959, RCA packaged Elvis’ Sun material (all of which had been issued on 45s but little of which was widely known at the time) into two, ten-track budget LPs, entitled “For LP Fans Only” and “A Date with Elvis.” Both featured publicity shots of Elvis in his spiffy Army dress uniform and came loaded with posters and even a calendar for girls to decorate with hearts and such. Neither album moved the needle in terms of sales, but they still made the studio a profit and, more importantly, successfully bridged the gap between Elvis’ departure from and imminent return to America.

Meanwhile, back in Germany, Elvis had not divorced himself from music. He was learning new musical styles in Europe that would make their way onto albums and singles throughout the 1960s. In addition he was constantly playing around on the piano and fiddling with his guitar, trying out whatever old songs he could think of and learning whatever new songs captured his attention. Fortunately for his fans, many of these private performances were recorded and have been made available. A lot of it is just Elvis and his pals laughing and goofing around, but every now and then inspiration would strike and Elvis would lay down a track good enough to be his next A-side.

The audio quality is poor but through the noise and the distortion you can hear the makings of what would become one of his signature tunes, “It’s Now or Never.” There’s also a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa” that matches Cole’s 1950 version in beauty, as well as a take on “Earth Angel” that Elvis apparently became obsessed with and played constantly (as he was wont to do) during his time overseas.

After basically two years removed from the entertainment world (after two years being on top of it), Elvis was excited to get back to work. Most fans view the final two years of the 1950’s as the lost years of Elvis’ quarter-century as a performer, but so many things happened that shaped the entertainer and man he would become. Losing his mother, meeting Priscilla,discovering drugs and getting a taste of another country’s culture all permanently impacted his life and career.

The 1950s began with the popular music scene being dominated by holdovers from the post-war era. The 50’s ended with the likes of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley controlling the music of their generation. The youth had taken music over from their parents and Elvis had become the poster-child of this revolution. But just as he took the mantel of king, he was forced to flee the kingdom. In his absence, the revolution continued.

Even with Presley out of the country, Berry in jail and Holly tragically killed, rock and roll refused to go away. It was the new normal and many new voices and new ideas had risen in reaction to it. New entertainers were popping up every week in the late-50’s, capturing peoples attention and controlling their radio dials.

After two years away, Elvis was ready to return, but he would do so to a much more crowded landscape than the one he left behind.

> PART FOUR: TUG OF WAR

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  • Brian Quinn

    Elvis is still KING and topping charts in 2017.

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