Elvis Presley burst onto the music scene in the mid-1950s and served as the catalyst for rock and roll. Elvis had more number-one records and starring movie roles than any other rock and roll performer. He had 126 gold and platinum records and 114 songs on the Top 40 charts. He starred in thirty-three movies. His songs were on the charts every year from 1956 until 1977, the year he died. John Lennon of the Beatles once declared, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
The phrase “rock and roll” is generally attributed to Cleveland DJ Alan Freed. Freed was one of the few white radio personalities, along with the charismatic Dewey Phillips in Memphis, Tennessee, to play black R & B, or rhythm and blues, music in the early 1950s. Elvis may not have created rock and roll, but he was dubbed its king, and there has never been another performer to challenge his claim to the title. He was part of a new wave of rock and roll artists that included Carl Perkins (who, along with Elvis, started out on Sun Records), Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis Presley was the first artist to personify rock and roll.
Elvis, in his person as well as his music, was a rock revolutionary. With his suggestive dance moves that shocked and delighted audiences, “Elvis the Pelvis,” who earned his nickname for the sexy dance moves he did onstage, was blamed for single-handedly releasing the pent-up sexual frustrations of 1950s youth. Also, he helped to break down racial barriers by popularizing R & B and gospel music. Elvis always publicly acknowledged his debt to black R & B and gospel musicians.
Elvis was at the forefront of the musical revolution that gave voice to a generation and redefined music forever. Artists as widely diverse as John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Gene Vincent, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, and Nick Cave were influenced by Elvis Presley. It is doubtful whether one can find a rock musician who does not acknowledge his or her debt to Elvis Presley.
The story of Elvis Presley's success has as much to do with his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, as it does with the artist himself. Tom Parker bought Elvis's contract from Sun Records, and he helped to make the “Hillbilly Cat” into a rock and roll legend whose fame would grow to a cult bordering on the religious, even decades after his death. Thousands of fans flock every year to Graceland, Elvis's flamboyant mansion in Memphis. It is one of the most visited residences in the United States, second only to the White House.
Part of Elvis's popularity in the 1950s came from the fact that he was perfectly poised for musical stardom. He happened on the music scene in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the hottest places in the country then for R & B, at a time when America was eager for a raw, new sound. Elvis Presley's success also was due in large part to the calculated formation of his persona and the marketing, promotion, and merchandising of that persona in movies and memorabilia, which strikes us today as the precursor to the hyping of boy bands such as ‘N Sync. Elvis merchandise included everything from wristwatches to socks to neck scarves bearing Elvis's image!
It can be said that the 1950s were Elvis's recording years, the 1960s were his movie years, and the 1970s were his Las Vegas years. His long and glorious career survived a two-year absence from the eyes of his adoring public, when he was serving in the army. He appeared on television to sing with Frank Sinatra, one of the most famous crooners of the 1940s, invited the Beatles to Graceland for a game of pool, and appeared in the world's first concert broadcast worldwide via satellite. He married Priscilla Beaulieu after dating some of the steamiest starlets of his day, such as his Viva Las Vegas costar Ann-Margret. His divorce from Priscilla in 1973 appeared to strike him a blow from which he never recovered.
The phenomenon of Elvis's career plateau throughout the sixties, his comeback in 1968, and the tabloid tragedy of his death in 1977 seem almost separate stories from the tale of his rise to music superstardom in the 1950s. Who was Elvis Presley, the man and the musician, and why do we continue to worship him as the king of rock and roll?
- Elvis's Childhood - Understanding The Political Climate, Early Musical Influences: Hillbilly, Gospel, And The Blues, The Birthday Present