Full name, Elvis Aaron (some sources say Aron) Presley; born January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Miss.; died of heart failure, August 16, 1977, in Memphis, Tenn.; buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, Memphis, Tenn., August 18, 1977; body moved to private graveyard at Graceland, Memphis, October, 1977; son of Vernon Elvis and Gladys Love (Smith) Presley; married Priscilla Ann Beaulieu (an actress), May 1, 1967 (divorced, 1973); children: Lisa Marie. Education: Graduated from Humes High School, Memphis, 1953.

Admired as one of the most successful recording artists of all time, American singer and guitarist Elvis Presley exploded onto the music scene in the mid-1950s. With a sound rooted in rockabilly and rhythm-and-blues, a daringly sexual performing style, and a magnetic charm, the pioneer rock 'n' roller became an idol for an entire generation of music enthusiasts. Adoring fans remember him as The Father of Rock 'n' Roll, The King, and Elvis the Pelvis, and he is widely credited with introducing a new era in popular culture. Writing for Newsweek, Jim Miller reported that Presley himself has become "a complex figure of American myth: as improbably successful as a Horatio Alger hero, as endearing as Mickey Mouse, as tragically self-destructive as Marilyn Monroe."

Indeed, neither critics nor biographers can find much in the Mississippi-born star's background to presage his rise to fame. The boy spent his earliest years in his hometown of Tupelo, where he and his family shared a two-room house, and as a teen he lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where his family relocated when he was in the eighth grade. Shortly after finishing high school in 1953, the unknown artist began driving a delivery truck for the Crown Electric Company. He fooled around with the guitar in his free time.

The year he graduated, however, the young hopeful also made an amateur recording at the Memphis Recording Studio. He followed it with a second in 1954 and captured the attention of Sam Phillips at Sun Records. As a result, Presley created the now-legendary Sun recordings, hailed by many as among his finest. With a musical career in the offing, the future star quit his truck-driving job in 1954 and began performing professionally, mostly in rural areas where he was billed as The Hillbilly Cat. He also saw his first Sun recording, "That's All Right Mama," rise to number three on the Memphis country-and-western charts. Thus, despite some disappointments, including discouraging words from the Grand Ole Opry and rejection by New York City's Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, Presley persisted. By the end of 1955, after making a six-state Southern tour with Hank Snow's Jamboree that piqued considerable interest, the up-and-comer had negotiated the agreement with RCA that would bring him stardom.

Presley's very first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel" (co-written by Presley, Tommy Durden, and Mae Boren Axton, mother of country star Hoyt Axton), was wildly succesful and became his first Gold Record. "From the opening notes of the song," opined Miller in another Newsweek review, "the air is electric." The air remained electric as the singer scored hit after hit with such tunes as "Don't Be Cruel," "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," and "Love Me Tender." His sound, which evolved from his roots in the deep South and combined elements of country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues, and gospel, was new, and it was instantly popular. Though not the inventor of rock and roll, Presley, reflected John Rockwell in the New York Times, "defined the style and gave it an indelible image."

Voice alone did not comprise the star's appeal. He was also a remarkable showman. Advised by Colonel Tom Parker, whom he signed as his manager early in 1956, Presley began making films, appearing on television, and otherwise keeping himself in the public eye. Though reportedly shy and disinclined to be interviewed, the upstart musician gave performances that drove audiences mad. His captivating smile, coupled with the pelvic "bump-and-grind" rhythm that earned him the appellation Elvis the Pelvis, projected an exciting sexuality that was unprecedented in the music world. He prompted moral outrage from the older generation and hero worship from the younger to become, in Rockwell's words, an entertainer "parents abhorred, young women adored and young men instantly imitated."

Presley was already a legend by the time he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958, and during his two-year hitch, most of it spent in West Germany, his recordings continued to sell well. But by the time he returned from his tour of duty, the music climate in the United States had changed. There was a notable downturn in his career, and The King of Rock and Roll devoted most of the 1960s to making movies that were entertaining but undistinguished. In 1968 the rocker staged a successful, if short-lived, comeback, and during the seventies he concentrated on playing nightclubs.

At approximately 2:30 p.m. on August 16, 1977, Presley's body was found in the bathroom at Graceland, his Memphis, Tennessee, home. Although the medical examiner reported that Presley died of heart failure, rumors of the star's amphetamine use flourished. For a number of years prior to his death, in fact, Presley looked as if he had passed his prime. Apparently, though neither a drinker nor a smoker, The King was known as a junk-food addict (reputed to favor fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches) and had gained considerable weight. He also had a history of mild hypertension. As Miller summed it up, Presley, formerly "an icon of glowing youth ... died tallow-faced and tubby, the victim of too many Dreamsicles and Nutty Buddies, too much Dexedrine, Dilaudid, Demerol, Quaalude, [and] Percodan."

Despite the circumstances, The King continued to grow in stature after his death. Indeed, in a piece for the Saturday Evening Post, Jay Stuller even suggested that death "lent [him] a tragic aura." Whatever the reasons, grief-stricken fans remained fiercely devoted and scrambled to preserve their idol's memory. In the process, they spawned an entire industry. More than ten years later, memorabilia abounds and hundreds of new products pay tribute to the Presley legend--everything from slippers and shampoo to porcelain dolls and grandfather clocks. There are some two hundred-odd active Elvis fan clubs, the city of Memphis hosts an annual Elvis Week, and at one time a bill was put before the U.S. Congress that advocated making the recording giant's birthday a national holiday.

The King's achievement has yet to be duplicated. He racked up more than one hundred Top Forty hits as well as more than forty Gold Records, and sales of his recordings exceed one billion copies. He also influenced an entire generation of rock musicians, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bruce Springsteen. Trying to unravel the mystique, Stuller quoted Graceland Enterprises marketing director, Ken Brixey: "I guess the best answer is that he was a blue-collar worker who in spirit never tried to rise above his roots. He's the epitome of a man who started out with nothing, became something and never lost his attraction to the masses. He's a true folk hero."

by Nancy H. Evans

Elvis Presley's Career

Worked as an usher in a movie theater while in high school; employed by the Precision Tool Plant, Memphis, for three months following graduation from high school; worked for Crown Electric Company, Memphis, in the stockroom and as a delivery truck driver, 1953-54. Recording artist and musical performer, 1953-77. Made first amateur recording, 1953; signed to Sun Records, 1954, made first professional recordings; made first professional appearance, July, 1954; performed in the rural South with back-up musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black, 1954; acquired manager Bob Neal, 1955; made six-state Southern tour with Hank Snow's Jamboree, 1955; signed recording contract with RCA, 1955; released first record for RCA, "Heartbreak Hotel," 1956; signed Colonel Tom Parker as manager, 1956; made first television appearance on CBS-TV's "The Jackie Gleason Stage Show Starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey," January 25, 1956; made first Las Vegas appearance, April 23, 1956; appeared in "Love Me Tender," the first of more than 30 feature films, 1956; served in U.S. Army, 1958-60; became sergeant; continued recording and film careers during 1960s with some personal and benefit appearances, but no road tours; limited road touring during 1970s, concentrated on Las Vegas and nightclubs.

Elvis Presley's Awards

Winner of numerous awards, including three Grammy Awards; earned Billboard magazine's "Vocal Single of the Year Award," 1961, for "It's Now or Never"; named Las Vegas entertainer of the year, 1969; honored by RCA for highest record sales in the company's history (275 million), 1970; Elvis Presley Boulevard named for him by city of Memphis, Tenn., 1971; received Bing Crosby Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1971; posthumously named "Male Musical Star of the Year," 1977, by the Academy of Variety and Cabaret Artists.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

August 2003: A never-before-released Elvis Presley track titled "I'm a Roustabout," which was originally supposed to be used as the title track for his 1964 film Roustabout--but was replaced with another song--is set to appear on the forthcoming collection Elvis 2nd to None. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, August 18, 2003.

July 5, 2004: "That's All Right," Presley's first professional recording, played simultaneously on more than 1,000 radio stations, to mark the 50th anniversary of its creation. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/SHOWBIZ/Music/07/06/elvis.anniversary.ap/index.html, July 8, 2004.

November 11, 2004: Presley was inducted into the first U.K. Music Hall of Fame, as an honorary member. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/music/news/2004-11-12-brit-music-faves_x.htm, November 15, 2004.

December 2004: Jailhouse Rock, starring Presley, was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry for preservation. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, December 31, 2004.

Further Reading



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