Pop Icon Elvis Presley Remembered on Anniversary of Death

By Michael Jay Friedman and Carolee Walker
Washington File Staff Writers

Washington - Before "Elvis," Beatles vocalist and rhythm guitarist John Lennon once said, "there was nothing." Lennon exaggerated - but not by much. By the late 1950s, Elvis Aaron Presley (1935–1977), a dirt-poor country boy had emerged as “The King" - Hollywood star, top-selling recording artist (of all time, by some measures) and cultural icon. His first and perhaps most lasting achievement, though, was introducing the rhythm-and-blues music pioneered by African Americans to a white audience. Elvis fused what then often was known as "black music" with the "country" sound prevalent in the South. The result was called “rockabilly,” but subsequent generations - John Lennon included - heard the beginning of rock 'n' roll.

Elvis was born on January 8, 1935, in what has been described as a "two-room shotgun house" in East Tupelo, Mississippi. (A "shotgun house" typically refers to a narrow one-story dwelling without halls, each room placed single file behind the other; so named because in theory a shotgun fired through the front door would pass through each room and out the back door.)

In 1948, the Presley family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, a city associated with the blues since at least 1912, when W.C. Handy published the hit song "Memphis Blues." After World War II, the Memphis blues scene had turned electric, pioneering separate roles for lead and rhythm guitar. Artists congregated on Beale Street, a major nexus of African American-owned clubs, restaurants and shops (it also was emblematic of the rougher side of town; one music producer called Beale Street "the center of all evil in the known universe.” Today, much rehabilitated, it is a national landmark.) Among the blues masters plying their trade there were Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner and B.B. King. King later would recall how the teenage Presley "used to come around and be around us a lot."

Young Presley’s other great musical influence came from the local Pentecostal churches he attended. The gospel music he heard there would shape his future sound, as would the country-and-western music popular among southern whites.

In 1953, Presley made his first demo recording for producer Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records. Phillips believed that a white artist capable of making that music accessible to a white audience—"a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel" - would enjoy great commercial success. Elvis frankly acknowledged his debt to his African-American predecessors: "The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doin' now, man, for more years than I know," he said on one occasion. "They played it like that in the shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind 'til I goosed it up. I got it from them." Presley’s success in turn helped early black rockers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard sell records to white teenagers.

Between 1953 and 1955, Presley recorded a number of regional hits for Sun. Some were country-flavored, while others were remakes, or "covers," of African-American blues. In November 1955, his manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker (actually born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk) arranged the purchase of Presley's contract by the much larger RCA Records.

Major hit records followed: classics like "Heartbreak Hotel," "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don’t Be Cruel" "Hound Dog," and "Love Me Tender" in 1956 alone. These hits fused a number of American musical traditions: blues, bluegrass, R&B, hillbilly boogie and more.

Elvis swiftly emerged as “The King." Tall and slim, with long sideburns and a pompadour, he had unlimited star potential. RCA arranged a number of national television appearances. Criticism of Presley's allegedly suggestive hip "gyrations" and swivels during an April 1956 performance of "Hound Dog" only increased his popularity—and earned him the sobriquet "Elvis the Pelvis." By fall, The Ed Sullivan Show paid Elvis an unprecedented $50,000 for three appearances. The first, in September 1956, drew an estimated 82.5 percent of the television audience.

Presley's fame grew. He began to star in motion pictures like Love Me Tender (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957). While Elvis was not a trained actor, his charisma filled the big screen. He continued to star in films like Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas throughout the 1960s.

In March 1958, Presley was inducted into the United States Army for a two-year stint. Thousands of fans wrote pleading letters, begging that their hero not be drafted. Thousands more (female) fans reportedly wept when their hero's locks were sheared in a regulation military crew cut. But Elvis returned to civilian life two years later, and more hit records and movies followed. It has been estimated that The King has sold more than 1 billion recordings.

Presley continued to enjoy commercial success during the 1960s, although changing tastes brought artists associated with Motown and the "British Invasion" more to the fore with younger listeners. Elvis' audience aged with him, and for many, Presley symbolized the America of their youth. In his 1986 song Graceland, named for Elvis’ Memphis estate, now a pilgrimage site for Presley's fans, Paul Simon memorably declared: "For reasons I cannot explain | There's some part of me wants to see Graceland.”

Elvis Presley died at Graceland on August 16, 1977. His music, personality and verve touched millions, from American teens of the 1950s to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who paid his respects in June as one of the 750,000 annual visitors to Graceland. (See related article.)

Elvis' greatest legacy, though, is the music, and the rockers and other musicians who built on it. When Presley died, superstar Bruce Springsteen said: "It was like he whispered his dream in all our ears and then we dreamed it."