Elvis Aaron Presley, known the world over by just his first name, is regarded as one of the most important figures in 20th century music and popular culture. He permanently altered the landscape of American music with a sound and style that uniquely combined diverse and seemingly disparate musical influences. In the process, he ushered in a music revolution that triggered a global-scale cultural transformation.
Elvis was passionate about an extensive and varied array of music. His influences included the pop ballads and country music of his day, the gospel music he heard in church and at the all-night gospel sings he frequently attended, and the black R&B he absorbed on Memphis’ historic Beale Street as a teenager. His aspiration was to take the music that affected him and make it his own. Nobody could have predicted how successfully Elvis would achieve his ambition, or the impact he would have on music and society. He meshed a diversity of musical influences, creating a sound and style that had never been heard or seen. In the process, he became the first genuine Rock & Roll icon, providing a new generation with a unique sound to call its own.
Elvis’ career experienced ebbs and flows, but there are two defining periods in his musical history: 1955-56, when he achieved national and worldwide recognition with a sound that blurred the lines between genres; and in the 1970’s when, after two separate comebacks, he established an iconic image through extensive touring and elaborate performances. Today, 26 years after his death, his success as an artist stands untouched and Elvis Presley remains the undisputed King of Rock & Roll™.
Elvis’ career was not born with Rock & Roll. In his earliest recordings with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1954, Elvis sang one ballad after another. He failed, however, to impress Phillips who thought the raw talent before him could not compete with the polished likes of Eddie Fisher, Dean Martin and Johnny Ray – the definitive crooners of the day. Fooling around between takes, Elvis jumped into an unrehearsed version of blues man Arthur Crudups’ “That’s All Right.” The sound – a white man singing black-influenced music – was precisely what Phillips was waiting for and anxious to promote.
The sound Elvis created in 1954-55, just before exploding onto the scene the next year, was revolutionary. In his earliest performances, Elvis added R&B to country and vice versa, melding musical genres that, previously, had remained distinct. Elvis, while criticized for eradicating the narrowly defined and independent pop and country music genres of the times, was paving the way for the full-fledged introduction of a new musical style that was to be known the world over as rock & roll.
By 1956, Elvis was a national star and recognized as the leader of the rock & roll movement. In November of 1955 Elvis had moved from SUN Records to RCA, a change needed to get national exposure. With the release of “Hound Dog” in 1956, Elvis solidified rock & roll as the newest sound of the day. But it wasn’t his only sound in these first years at RCA. Elvis continued to incorporate the musical styles that moved him, including pop, R&B and gospel, into his recordings. In doing so, he reached a level of success never before achieved by an artist. His first RCA LP release, Elvis Presley, was #1 for 10 weeks on the album chart and the biggest selling pop album at that time. Additionally, his singles occupied the number one spot on the singles charts for 24 weeks. In 1956 Elvis had as many as 10 singles of many different musical genres in the Top 100 at one time. But, it was rock & roll that brought him both acclaim and criticism.
The new sound of rock & roll, exemplified primarily by Elvis, became a catalyst for change. A new icon for a new age, Elvis provided the youth of the ‘50s – a young, restless generation searching for an alternative to their parent’s music – with a sound and style to call their own. Elvis’ music, with its radical departure from the ballads that dominated the days leading to his arrival on the scene and his powerful presence gave his young fans the fresh style they’d been seeking. In the process, his critics – including parents, the media and other artists -- called him lewd, rebellious and dangerous. Ironically, Elvis was not making music to affect social change or ignite a musical revolution. He had just one goal for his music: to entertain.
The rock & roll revolution began to subside in 1958, when Elvis was drafted into the Army. The two events, however, are unrelated -- in fact, RCA released five hit singles while Elvis was on duty. The popularity of rock & roll diminished as the genre evolved and fans became exposed to new material. After being discharged from the Army in 1960, Elvis’ sound and style changed. His first post-Army album, Elvis Is Back, reflected a new voice with greater control, one that had matured over his two-year Army tour. This, combined with improved recording techniques, made Elvis sound better than ever. He launched his first new release in two years, with a repertoire of more mature music that included not only rock & roll, but also R&B, pop and gospel.
In addition to his passion for music, Elvis had a burning desire to become a serious actor. His manager, Colonel Parker, encouraged this aspiration as a mechanism for enhancing Elvis’ exposure. He aspired to be a dramatic actor in the 1950s and early 60s; however, the public yearned only for his music. Consequently, Elvis was consigned to roles in movie musicals, leaving him gravely disappointed. Throughout the ‘60s, Elvis navigated dual movie and music careers. But, while his movie career thrived, the music he recorded for his films was disappointing. To offset this, Elvis continued to record material completely independent of his films and featuring his now standard combination of styles.
The years between 1961-1968 showed Elvis managing film and music careers with relative success. With time, however, interest in Elvis began to wane. His music no longer showed the originality and spontaneity of his earlier recordings. Simultaneously, the British invasion of 1963, which owed a lot to Elvis’ breakthrough in the 1950’s, and new American music acts swept away the next generation of music fans. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors and singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan descended upon the music scene and provided a fresh alternative for young fans.
In 1968, all this changed as Elvis staged a full-fledged comeback. Originally slated to be a Christmas show, “Elvis,” the televised comeback special of 1968, took Elvis’ career to new heights. Drawing mostly from his earlier rock & roll repertoire of the `50s, along with a handful of new songs, his performance was a retrospective of his earlier image, both in sound and style. Dressed in black leather, Elvis exuded the same charisma and raw energy that captivated an entire generation more than a decade earlier. His smoldering performance invigorated audiences who had forgotten the unique dynamism of Elvis Presley. The overwhelming fan reaction and critical acclaim to the special inspired Elvis to regain his musical prominence. He began by changing his recording routine for the first time in nearly a decade.
Abandoning the Nashville studios he called home from 1960-68, Elvis began recording in Memphis one month after the ’68 special. He also sought a new band for a new sound. Once again, Elvis refused to be restricted by musical barriers of the day and was committed to creating music that was uniquely his own and affected change. Much like the music he made upon his return from the Army, Elvis’ 1969 release, From Elvis in Memphis, incorporated numerous musical genres. In essence, the one album featured 12 different Elvis musical personas. Spearheaded by the hit singles “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds,” the music featured mature lyrics with a social commitment.
Elvis had entered another thriving phase of his career. The ‘68 comeback special also provided him with the audience interaction he had greatly missed during his years in Hollywood. By August of 1969, Elvis returned to a period of successful live performances, beginning with four weeks of sold-out shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas – an engagement that broke all existing Las Vegas attendance records. Following additional sold out Las Vegas shows, he embarked on a series of sold out tours throughout the United States. Between these record-setting concerts, Elvis continued to record new music. Once again, his singles and albums sold millions.
In January 1973 he made television and entertainment history -- and confirmed his international appeal -- with the “Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii” special broadcast to more than one billion viewers in 40 countries.
Toward the end of his career, Elvis still loved performing but grew weary of the recording process – to the point where he insisted on recording at home. In fact, he never attended his last recording session in Nashville in January 1977. Ultimately, having achieved greater success than any artist that preceded him, Elvis became steadily bored as he struggled to find new challenges. His health also worsened as he battled numerous medical problems and an increasing dependency upon prescription drugs.
Despite the tragic end to his life and sudden conclusion of his career, Elvis’ musical accomplishments are nothing short of historic. He is the only person to become a member of all three music halls of fame, including rock & roll, country and gospel. His American sales have earned him gold, platinum or multi-platinum awards for 140 different albums and singles, far more than any other artist. As if already selling more records than any other artist in history wasn't enough, the year 2002 - 25 years after his death, became one of the most successful in his entire career. ELV1S 30 #1 HITS became the fastest selling album of his entire career with more than 9 million copies sold in just a few short months. The album was #1 in 26 countries, as was the JXL remix of A LITTLE CONVERSATION – one of the biggest single records of the year. It all goes to prove that 26 years after his death he remains one of the most influential figures in American music and culture. Moreover, recognized by multiple generations, as well as a cross-section of society, Elvis Presley holds a permanent place in American, world and music history.