Popularly known as the King of Rock and Roll, the late Elvis Presley is one of the most celebrated American singers. Growing up in the dirt-poor neighborhood of Tupelo did not prevent Elvis from becoming one of the cultural icons and legends of the 20th century. Today, he is not only remembered for seductive dance moves but also recognized as the figure behind popularizing rock and roll music style to an international level.
His parents Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love brought him up in Tupelo Mississippi in a very humble household. His father was the sole bread winner and worked on a series of odd jobs to sustain his family. Although Elvis grew up as an only child, he was born alongside his identical twin brother Jesse Garon Presley who was delivered as a stillbirth. Elvis’ childhood was gloomy, and poverty in the family made it worse. The family often relied on neighbors and government food assistance for survival. In fact, when Elvis was only three years old, his father was imprisoned for 8 months as a result of writing bad checks. During this time, they lost their home and his mother had to move in with her parents as the poverty level in the family had escalated.
Presley grew up as a Christian and his family would attend the Assembly of God church. Given that the Pentecostal services involved plenty of singing, Elvis found his inspiration for music here.
In 1941, Elvis joined East Tupelo Consolidated for his first grade. Although he was an average student academically, his great vocals and talent in singing impressed many at school. As a result, his class teacher encouraged him to enter an ongoing singing contest. The contest was held in October 1945, at Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. It was his first public performance and though he stood on a chair to reach the microphone, his performance was good as he was ranked fifth.
He joined a different school for sixth grade in 1946. It is here that Presley happened to be in the same class with the younger brother of Mississippi Slim, a singer who hosted a radio show on Tupelo’s WELO. He took him to the station and organized two and a half hours for Presley’s music practice and also tutored him on chord techniques
On his twelfth birthday, he received a guitar from his mother as a present accompanied by guitar lessons from his uncles as well as the pastor in his church. Soon, the guitar became his companion and he started identifying with country music from popular legends like Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff and Bob Wills. For gospel music, his all time favorite star was Jake Hess and he indeed influenced his ballad style singing a great deal.
When Elvis was 13 years old, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in search of better opportunities. While here, Elvis attended L.C Humes High School where despite of his passion in singing, he failed the music class. He was often bullied and most of his classmates regarded him a mama’s boy. His popularity in school however rose after he overcame the fear of performing in front of a crowd in junior school. Finally, he graduated in June 1953 after earning a high school diploma.
Upon graduation, Presley made up his mind that his future would revolve in the music industry. Entry into the industry wasn’t that smooth however, and he worked in a number of odd jobs to sustain himself. Nevertheless, in 1954, he cut his first demo record with Sun Studio and continued to record more demos for his practice. Convinced that his progress was fine, Elvis decided to record his first single in 1954. Backed by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill black, he released “That’s All Right Mama.” To his surprise the track was a massive hit and sold 20,000 copies.
Prepared for a strong foundation in his career, he appointed Top Parker to be his executive manager. Parker together with Sun studio’s owner, Sam Philips, negotiated for a new deal with RCA Victor which was struck in 1955, and Elvis contract was sold to RCA for $40000.
Although Presley’s passion was in music, he made his television debut in 1956 after appearing on Stage Show, which was soon followed by features in Milton Berle Show and Steve Allen Show. That same year, he auditioned for a role in the film Love me Tender and besides getting a feature on the movie, he was signed to a seven year movie contract with Paramount Movie Studios and Hal Wallis.
The year 1956 was indeed quite busy for the young artist, as he released his first number one hit single titled Heartbreak Hotel. The track not only peaked at number one for eight weeks on Billboard Pop Singles charts but also earned Presley a gold record after selling over one million copies. He also released his debut album Elvis Presley which was received with an uproar due to his sexy dance moves. The album was a commercial success as it topped the Billboard Charts for ten weeks and earned him a gold award.
Elvis was quickly gaining popularity among the young people but his sensuous dance and seductive performance was highly criticized by teachers and the religious community. At one time, Ed Sullivan, the host of a popular variety show, refereed him as Elvis the Pelvis and declared him unfit for family viewing due to his tendency of rotating the pelvis.
Even then, Elvis made this to be his trademark, alongside unusual sideburns style. Given his success and a lucrative flow of income, Presley purchased a former church called Graceland and had it converted into a 23 room mansion for his family.
In 1957, he featured in the motion picture Jailhouse Rock which was indeed a success.
Presley’s career was cut shortly after he was inducted into the US Army in 1957 as a common soldier. After serving as a soldier in Germany, Elvis returned to the US in 1960 with the rank of sergeant.
He released a comeback album titled Elvis is Back. The two most outstanding singles from the album were ‘It’s Now or Never and Are you Lonesome tonight?’. Critics were however quick to mention that the flirtatious teenage idol’s singing wasn’t sexy but rather pornographic. The success of Elvis is Back motivated him to release yet another studio album titled Something for Everybody which was similarly well received.
He also made a comeback in the film industry and featured in a series of 30 productions in the next eight years that included Blue Hawaii, Girls!Girls!Girls!, Viva Las Vegas and the TV Show The Frank Sinatra Special among other films. Initially, his manager had suggested a formulaic schedule where he would star in musical comedies, a stand that Presley did not support. However, after filming two films that were a commercial failure, he reverted to Parker’s formula. These movies heightened his earning scale to $1 million per film as well as a large percentage of the gross.
As a result of concentrating much on film works, the quality of the soundtrack songs released during that time worsened. Elvis nevertheless continued to work on several tracks as well as albums. In 1967, he released his very first gospel album titled How Great Thou Art which won him a Grammy Award for best Sacred Performance. Presley was however growing unhappy with his career since of all the tracks he had released around that time, only two had peaked on top 40 in the Billboard Charts. In fact, his album Speedway had been ranked at number 82 on the charts. Similarly most of the movies he had starred were a failure as they did not hit the box office.
Nonetheless, Elvis was not ready to see his career drop to the ground by all means. He recorded his first television special and live lavish live performance dubbed 68 Comeback Special which was termed one of the most famous images of Presley. It is this performance that saw him proclaimed the King of Rock and Roll. He followed the recording with a release of his first secular- non soundtrack album Elvis in Memphis which was successful.
Following the success he received with the two special works, several hotels approached him and signed him to performance contracts. He also released a series of top singles to ride the crest of his comeback.
His international appeal also heightened after the TV special Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii was broadcasted via satellite in more than 40 countries.
The 70s were not busy for Presley as he was battling some personal problems. He nevertheless continued being a notable star with concert performances in his trademark costumes.
Although Presley was also fighting health problems in the mid-70s he was far from considering a break in his career. Even then, the King of Rock and Roll was destined for fate as he was found dead on August 16, 1977 aged 42 years. It was alleged that he died of a heart attack triggered by drug overdose.
Although he has been dead for more than four decades now, his generosity and service to the community was evident when he lived. In March 1961, Presley performed at a Hawaii concert to raise money for the USS Arizona memorial. Elvis also donated several vehicles to charitable organizations which were later sold to support different welfares. In the course of his career, he also performed on many live concerts which were geared towards charitable acts.
Given his kind nature, his legacy has continued to exist to date. In 1984, The Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation was founded to carry on Elvis good deeds. The foundation went further to create The Elvis Presley Endowed Scholarship at the College of Communications & Fine Arts.
Given his attractiveness, Elvis was viewed as a sex symbol. His performance style and physical beauty played a big part in Presley’s eroticized style. During performances, he regarded his guitar as a both a phallus and a girl. Although Elvis’ dancing enthusiasm was applauded by most of his fans some critics described it aggressively bisexual in appeal.
Even then, Presley was involved in a number of controversies that ended up raising eyebrows on his fans. In mid 1957, it was reported that he had made racial remarks earlier stating that “The only thing Negroes can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes” Although Presley came forward to refute the statement as pure rumor, the remark has been used to date to disregard Elvis Presley decades later.
Despite being raised in a poor family, Presley lived a life full of luxuries when his career thrived. Besides the Graceland home he purchased for his family, Presley owned very expensive cars that included three pink Cadillacs. In regards to food, he adored Southern cuisines, rich and heavy food.
Although Elvis was involved in several relationships throughout his career, the King of Rock n Roll regarded Gladys, his mother as the most special of all. In an interview with The Memphis Press Scimitar, Elvis stated that his mother was his number one girl and had therefore dedicated his entire career to her. He also confessed to have shared her mother’s bed until he was a young teen primarily because their financial status did not allow them to own two beds. That explains why he was often refereed too as a mama’s boy by his classmates. When Elvis started soaring high in his career, Gladys felt lonely and became a heavy drunkard. Well, she had always prayed for her son’s success but not to have her left all alone. As a result, Gladys condition got worse and she was diagnosed with liver problems. Sadly, she lost her life in August 1958 when Elvis was away in the military. Gladys’ death was a huge blow to both Vernon and Elvis as they grieved uncontrollably.
On love matters, Elvis first girlfriend was 15 year old Dixie Locke. The two dated for a while from the time he graduated from high school up to the time of his contract with Sun Records. Presley then dated June Juanico and his mother seemed to approve of this relationship. Funny enough, Elvis confessed to never having sex with June as she was afraid of getting pregnant. Presley also became the centre of several Hollywood starlets such as Natalie Wood, Connie Stevens and Judy Tyler, but nothing fruitful came out of it. Some people also argued that Presley lacked sexual urge due to his boyishness and heavy drug abuse. Even then, volumes of women have come forward since then to proclaim Elvis’ love for one night stands.
Presley’s light in relationship was however with Priscilla Ann Beaulieu who he met in 1959 when he was in Germany for military service. At that time, Priscilla was only 14 years old. After an on and off relationship, the two got married in May 1967. The couple was later blessed with a daughter Lisa Marie born on February 1968. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last long as the two divorced in 1973 with Priscilla receiving full custody of their daughter.
Given a successful career that Presley prided in, he lived a dangerous lifestyle that actually cost his life. He was heavily consuming drugs and this affected his health. Additionally, the once thin rock star was fighting weight problems and he was hospitalized for drug related health problems.
Sadly, the once vibrant King of Rock n Roll succumbed to these health problems in August 16 1977.
Every year, Presley’s family holds a tribute event to mark the anniversary of Elvis’ death. Presley’s fans also held a special vigil in 2012 honoring their king’s 35th anniversary since his death. Candles were lit as thousands of fans stood outside his home in Graceland.
Written by: Peris Ngaruiya