“Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do ‘em all together, I guess.”
– Elvis in 1956, talking about his way of moving on stage. (Graceland.com)
Elvis Presley, known worldwide as the King of Rock ‘N Roll, is as popular and loved today as he was at the time of his tragic death more than forty years ago. His home, Graceland, is the second most visited home in the country. The only house more popular than Graceland is the White House. Even in 1969, Newsweek understood the power Elvis held over the people. In their August 11, 1969 issue, they wrote, “There are several unbelievable things about Elvis, but the most incredible is his staying power in a world where meteoric careers fade like shooting stars” (Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises, No date).
Elvis’s humble beginnings and loving parents affected him and the kind of person he was throughout his life. He was known to be a very kind, humble, giving, and generous man. He always wanted to help others and gave away much of his money and belongings in doing so. He also retained a deep interest and faith in God, which was reflected in his gospel music. Even though the prescription drugs he would eventually become addicted to would affect his moods and behavior, they would not change the core of who Elvis Presley was.
The day of Elvis Aron (a.k.a. Aaron) Presley’s birth, January 8, 1935, was both a happy and tragic one for his parents, Gladys and Vernon Presley. While Elvis was born vibrant and healthy, his twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. At the time they were celebrating the birth of their son, Elvis, Vernon and Gladys Presley were also planning the burial for his twin, Jesse. Elvis would grow up as an only child.
The Presley’s were an impoverished, humble, religious, close-knit family. The home Elvis was born in was a small, two-room, ‘shotgun’ house built by his father and uncle. He did not have much in the way of worldly comforts but was surrounded by loving parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. His family regularly attended the Assembly of God church, giving Elvis his first impressions of and love for gospel music. It was also here in Tupelo, Mississippi, where he was initially introduced to the blues music through his local community and the radio.
It could be said that poverty is what gave the world the gift of Elvis Presley. He wanted a bicycle when he was eleven years old, but his parents could not afford such an extravagant item. His mother bought him a guitar for his birthday instead. His first guitar cost his parents $12.95 (Watson, 2013) but, unbeknownst to his parents at the time; it became the most priceless gift they could have given to the world. He would learn and practice with this guitar during school lunchtime.
In his thirteenth year, the Presley’s moved from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. Here they lived in public housing and low rent homes and continued to struggle to make their way in the world. As a teenager in Memphis, Elvis would become a frequent visitor of Beale Street and continue immersing himself in blues music. Continued exposure to religion and gospel music deeply affected Elvis, impacting the core of the person he became as an adult. Despite his prescription drug dependency and imperfections, Elvis always maintained a belief in and curiosity about God.
It was during a high school talent show when Elvis started to understand the level of talent that he had. He was amazed when he got more applause than any of the other performers and won the contest. It was also this contest that gave him his first glimpse of what it felt like to perform in front of a receptive audience. In 1953, the year he graduated from high school, Elvis recorded demos of his first two songs as a birthday gift for his mom. Those songs were “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartache Begins.”
From Rags to Riches
Unable to afford college, Elvis immediately started working after graduating high school. In the summer of 1953, he worked at a machinist shop; in 1954, he then hired on at Crown Electric in Memphis, driving a delivery truck. It was during this time he started to pursue his dream of a music career. It didn’t take long at all for the young Elvis Presley to become the literal rags to riches story.
In January of 1956, he recorded his first single Heartbreak Hotel, which immediately shot straight up the charts. Within weeks Heartbreak Hotel was #1 on the Billboard pop chart, #1 on the country chart, and #5 on the R&B chart. The song sold over a million copies and earned Elvis his first gold record.
The year 1956 proved to be a banner year for Elvis. In addition to his five hit singles, he made his television debut on a variety of shows. Each show he performed on was met with crowds of swooning females, shocked critics, and skyrocketing ratings. In August, he shot his first film, Love Me Tender. To top it all off, by the end of the year, sales of Elvis merchandise had grossed $22 million.
1957 was a significant year for the Presley’s. This was the year that, for the first time in Elvis’s life, they would have their first real, long term, beautiful home. It was the year Elvis bought Graceland. Graceland would be where Elvis felt the most comfortable for the rest of his life.
Elvis Defies Convention
Elvis was a bit of an outsider in high school and got bullied at times. He didn’t seem to mind being a non-conformist and even created his unique style, wearing colorful shirts, dress pants, and longer hair that he slicked back. Being different than everyone else did not bother him. He would eventually become a trendsetter.
Elvis not only defied convention onstage but blazed a brand-new path for the music world, much to the dismay of parents and community leaders. He combined elements of R&B, country, and pop into his unique sound that crossed all boundaries. While his animated stage presence thrilled the young people, it horrified parents, community and religious leaders, and even the national government. At the same, time Elvis’s music opened the way for scores of other artists.
Elvis grew up during the period of segregation when one didn’t cross those racial lines. Elvis Presley did. His unique blend of R&B, pop, and country together appealed to everyone equally. When his song, “That’s All Right,” was aired on the radio on July 8, 1954, the listeners thought he was African American. It was through the interviewing following the airplay that they discovered he was white. And he was a hit.
Elvis’s relationship with and response from the black community is a complex one, both in the 1950s and today. He was not afraid to go against the norm and show his support of his fellow black brother. From all accounts, he loved them, and many loved and admired him. Among his many admirers and good friends are James Brown, B.B. King, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, and Little Richard. The now-defunct Tan magazine reiterated this when they wrote, “Presley makes no secret of his respect for the negroes, nor of their influence on his singing. Furthermore, he does not shun them, either in public or private” (Ward, 2017).
Uncle Sam Comes Calling
The fame and success would come to a sudden pause when Elvis received his draft notice and was inducted into the U. S. Army on March 24, 1958. Tragedy struck while he was in basic training at Fort Hood, Texas. Elvis’s mother contracted acute hepatitis and was hospitalized in Memphis. Elvis was granted emergency leave to be with his mother on August 12, 1958. Sadly, at the age of 46, Gladys Presley passed away on August 14, 1958, leaving Elvis utterly devastated.
On August 24, 1958, Elvis returned to duty at Fort Hood, Texas. He eventually transferred to Friedberg, Germany, where he served out the remainder of his service. Three key things occurred during his time in the service that would affect him for the rest of his life. First, he met 14-year old Priscilla Beaulieu while in Friedberg. They would marry after a seven-and-a-half-year courtship.
Second, the Army introduced Elvis to karate. He studied the art seriously and earned his first-degree black belt. He later discovered he needed an effective defense against jealous husbands and boyfriends, so he resumed studying the art. He eventually became an eighth-degree black belt, which is the third-highest rank.
Third, it was in the Army when prescription drugs, amphetamines, were first given to him to keep him awake during long shifts. Presley naively thought that these pills were harmless because a doctor prescribed them. Little did he know how they would affect his life.
Marriage and Birth of Lisa Marie
Skillful planning by his managers kept Elvis’s name and music in the public arena during his stint in the Army. This allowed him to pick right back up with making swarms of girls’ swoon and faint when he returned in 1960. The busy schedule was wearing on him, prompting him to continue relying on the prescription drugs to keep him going. By the early 1960s, their effect already started to show in his radical mood swings.
In 1962, Elvis secretly brought Priscilla to Graceland from Germany, where she then enrolled in high school. He let her be to focus on her studies while he focused on his career. They kept her presence at Graceland a secret from the media to avoid a scandal, as she was still underage. Even with this arrangement with Priscilla, Elvis continued to date other women during this time. Finally, in 1967, Elvis and the now 21-year-old Priscilla were married in Las Vegas. Less than a year later, they welcomed their only daughter, Lisa Marie, into the world.
The Comeback King
The late 1960s brought change to Elvis’s career, which had fallen into a slump due to poor management by Tom Parker, a changing music industry, a world in turmoil, a string of bad movies, and a lack of innovation in his work. In 1968, Steve Binder from NBC wanted to bring back the old rebellious, trendsetting, exciting Elvis. Binder arranged for Elvis to perform in a comeback special on television, which aired in December 1968. It was a smashing success, with nearly half of the television audience in the U.S. watching. It was here that Elvis vowed to take more control of his career going forward. He said, “I will never sing a song I don’t believe in again. I will never make another movie I don’t believe in again.” (Watson, 2013)
It was also in the late 1960s that the famous, rhinestone-studded two-piece suits became part of Elvis’s performances. In 1970 he transitioned to the one-piece jumpsuit. He had regained his popularity and routinely left his concert crowds in hysteria. To calm the audience once the show was over, the announcer coined the phrase, “Elvis has left the building” (Watson, 2013). This phrase would not only become forever linked with Elvis but become a commonly used phrase even decades after his death.
A Star Among Stars
Elvis made it a point to remember when a kindness had been extended to him. One of his first appearances after returning from the Army was on the Frank Sinatra show. Elvis recalled being very nervous and uncertain while waiting in the wings. Sammy Davis, Jr., already a successful artist, was also appearing on the Sinatra show that night and saw the unnerved Elvis. Sammy made it a point to be supportive of Elvis and expressed confidence in him.
In a 1969 concert, which included a star-studded audience, Elvis repaid the kindness Sammy Davis, Jr. had shown him. Sammy Davis, Jr. was in the audience, sitting in the front row. Elvis knelt at the edge of the stage in front of Sammy and gave a black star sapphire ring he was wearing to Sammy. Sammy
The Toll of Fame Results in Divorce, Personal Decline
The large, hysterical crowds and wild popularity took its toll on the superstar and Priscilla. Like many superstars, they were not able to have any semblance of a normal life. He received at least one death threat, which had a significant impact on his ability to feel safe. He would collect and carry guns to give him some level of control over his safety. As time wore on, he started to become a bit paranoid.
He continued his dependency on prescription drugs to maintain his schedule and lifestyle, which was also taking its toll on his body, mind, and moods. Whether due to a demanding schedule or lack of discipline, or both, Elvis’s poor diet was causing his health to start deteriorating. Because of his lifestyle, the early 1970s also ushered in the beginning of Elvis’s very public final descent.
Add to the mix his lavish spending habits and their relationship issues, the Presley’s marriage fractured. They ended up separating in 1972 and divorcing in 1973. Elvis and Priscilla would share custody of Lisa Marie and continued to remain close friends for the remainder of his life.
Elvis Has Left the Building
1973 proved to be a challenging year for Elvis. He was trying to deal with his pending divorce from Priscilla, which became final in October 1973, while still maintaining a rigorous schedule. His reliance on prescription medications was already killing him. Because doctors were prescribing them, he refused to believe he was an addict. That year he accidentally overdosed several times, almost dying once. At the young age of 38, his destructive lifestyle had already put him on the path towards death.
The last four years of Presley’s life were very difficult ones. They were filled with loneliness, sadness, total exhaustion, substantial commitments, ill health, weight gain, continued prescription drug addiction, and mockery by the press. It affected his mind and ability to perform well on stage. Despite it all, his manager, Tom Parker, refused to slow down to allow him time to recover. Finally, Elvis’s heart had had enough. On August 16, 1977, Elvis died of heart failure at Graceland. The King was gone.
The King Lives On
Elvis was truly unique, a one-of-a-kind. There have been and will be other icons, record breakers, heart stealers, musical geniuses, and cultural trendsetters. There will only ever be one Elvis Presley. He was a unique combination of kindness, generosity, humility, faith, spirituality, and love, as well as indulgence, drug dependency, and insecurity. Like all of us, he was an imperfect man, one that was not afraid to show his family, friends, and fans how much he loved them. And we all loved and still love him for it.
Elvis Presley has been gone for more than forty years now, but in the hearts of millions, his light will continue to shine for many years to come.
- Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises, I. (. (No date). Biography: 1966 – 1969. Retrieved 10 08, 2019, from Gaceland: https://www.graceland.com/1966—1969
- Tillery, G. (2013). The Seeker King. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House. Retrieved October 4, 2019
- Ward, B. (2017, 08 17). Elvis Presley 40 Years Later: Was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Guilty of Appropriating Black Music? Newsweek. Retrieved 10 08, 2019, from https://www.newsweek.com/elvis-presley-40-years-later-was-king-rock-n-roll-guilty-appropriating-black-651911
- Watson, S. (2013). Elvis Presley, Rock & Roll’s King. Minneapolis, MN: ABDO Publishing Company.