Elvis Presley - Biography
Marion Keisker -- who encountered Elvis Presley as an 18-year-old youth seeking to cut a record at Memphis Recording Service – said of the singer to biographer Peter Guralnick, “He was like a mirror. Whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him.” Perhaps it is Elvis’ unique ability to reflect us all that has made his myth, which is also the creation myth of rock ‘n’ roll, such a durable one.
Schoolchildren know the story of his rise better than the lives of most American presidents. Elvis Aron Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi; his twin, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. His mother Gladys doted on him; his father Vernon was something of a ne’er-do-well who did time at the Parchman penal farm for forgery.
Even as a schoolboy, Elvis evidenced an interest in music. When he was 14, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they lived in low-income housing. He absorbed gospel, country music, and the black blues and R&B he heard on WDIA, the first black-owned station in the Mid-South. Already exhibiting an unusual sartorial sense, he bought clothes at Lansky Brothers, the flashy Beale Street tailors.
In the summer of 1953, the recent Humes High graduate stopped by Memphis Recording Service’s Union Avenue studio, ostensibly to record a musical gift for his mother. “I don’t sound like nobody,” he told Keisker, who assisted Sam Phillips, owner of the studio and the fledgling hillbilly and R&B label Sun Records. For $3.98, he cut the ballad “My Happiness” and the old Ink Spots hit “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Keisker remembered the boy later that year and recommended him to Phillips, who heard something different in his voice and put him together with two local musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore (of the Sun act Doug Poindexter’s Starlite Wranglers) and bassist Bill Black. They began recording in July 1954.
The first of the three acts of Elvis Presley’s musical career begins with his Sun recordings. His early singles – among them spare, jumped-up, high-energy covers of bluesman Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” bluegrass king Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” R&B singer Wynonie Harris’ “Good Rocking Tonight,” and bluesman Kokomo Arnold’s “Milkcow Blues Boogie” – were blazingly energetic and sensuous recordings that cleanly fused country and blues strains. The songs became regional hits, and Elvis’ gyrating, wildly-garbed live shows tore up Southern crowds. His music was not without precedent – Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” had been a big 1954 hit – but Presley’s ferocious, untethered sexuality was.
A Louisiana radio executive summarized his impact neatly in a 1955 interview with England’s Melody Maker: “He’s the new rage. Sings hillbilly in R&B time.”
Among the stars upstaged by Elvis on the road was Canadian country singer Hank Snow; his booking agency partner, carnival veteran Colonel Tom Parker, the former manager of country luminary Eddy Arnold, smelled money immediately. By late 1955, he was nudging Presley’s manager Bob Neal aside. Parker brokered the deal in which RCA Records paid a then-unprecedented $35,000 to a cash-strapped Phillips for his Sun masters and Elvis’ exclusive services.
In March 1956, Elvis became Parker’s sole management client. By that time, the vocalist had cut his first RCA sessions and was on the way to stardom. The still-youthful medium of television was instrumental in putting Elvis across: That year, he made a series of controversy-provoking, ratings-garnering appearances on shows hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, Milton Berle, Steve Allen (who had him sing “Hound Dog” in a tuxedo to a startled basset hound), and, finally, Sunday evening variety king Ed Sullivan (who, responding to complaints about Elvis’ pelvis-thrusting “suggestive” performances, had him photographed only from the waist up on one show).
Those TV shows and the concurrent recordings divided audiences between young and old, between sharp-penned critics and keening, adoring fans, between those who got it and those who didn’t. Those who got it bought Elvis’ records in numbers never witnessed before: Between March and December 1956, he registered five hits – “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Love Me Tender” -- that collectively logged 36 weeks at No. 1. His first two albums, Elvis Presley and Elvis (both 1956), spent 15 weeks at No. 1 all told.
He also became a movie star: The B Western Love Me Tender, with Elvis as the incongruously pompadoured, hip-swiveling second lead, became an instant box-office smash. It was followed in quick succession by Loving You (a fictionalized gloss on Elvis’ meteoric rise), Jailhouse Rock (featuring the dynamic title song), and King Creole, all top grossers. Elvis, who sought to emulate his idols James Dean and Marlon Brando, would be confined to similar, but lesser, fare for the rest of his Hollywood career.
Elvis had put rock ‘n’ roll over for good. The No. 1 hits – “Too Much,” “All Shook Up,” “Teddy Bear,” “Jailhouse Rock” – continued in 1957. Late that year, Elvis received his Army induction notice. After a flurry of last-minute recording, he left the U.S. in 1958 to join an armored division in Germany.
Momentous events took place during Private Presley’s time in the service. In August 1958, his mother Gladys died; her stabilizing influence would be much missed. On maneuvers, he discovered the energizing qualities of amphetamines, beginning a continuing romance with pharmaceuticals. And, in August 1959, he met and was quickly smitten with 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, daughter of an Army captain and 10 years his junior.
Elvis’ second creative act began with his March 1960 Army discharge. He quickly re-established himself with the blazing album Elvis is Back (1960) and a succession of No. 1 singles – “Stuck On You,” the operatic “It’s Now Or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “Surrender.”
But increasingly, Elvis became a prisoner of Hollywood. He starred in a run of inexpensive and quickly-made but frequently lucrative musical vehicles, with accompanying RCA soundtrack albums. Between 1960 and 1969, Elvis toplined 27 movies featuring featherweight plots, curvaceous starlets, and usually unchallenging, often inane songs. (Only 1962’s Viva Las Vegas, with flashy musical co-star and off-screen love interest Ann-Margret, exhibited much consistent flair.)
Elvis found himself cocooned in his Memphis mansion Graceland and his Hollywood homes, shielded from the outside world by a group of hometown and service cronies – “the guys,” or “the Memphis Mafia.” He performed no live dates between 1961 and 1968; “Good Luck Charm” in ‘62 was his last No. 1 hit for seven years. The arrival of The Beatles made his softened, edgeless music seem irrelevant and slight. He turned to drugs, karate, and spirituality (after hairdresser Larry Geller introduced him to some “consciousness-raising” texts). In 1963, Priscilla Beaulieu joined him at last; she was his unwed consort until they finally married on May 1, 1967. Rich and sheltered, Elvis was also bored and discontent. His record sales and box office receipts were in decline by the late ‘60s, and he was a musical anachronism to the public.
His career’s third act was intimated by his gospel album How Great Though Art (1966) and a September 1967 Nashville session that produced covers of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man.” But it wasn’t until 1968 – not long after the Feb. 1 birth of his only child, daughter Lisa Marie – that Elvis would experience his latter-day apotheosis.
Colonel Parker had contracted with NBC for an hour-long special starring Elvis. The Colonel wanted a conventional Christmas special, but producer Steve Binder gradually convinced Elvis to play to his strengths – his bluesiness, earthiness, and sexuality. The show, which aired Dec. 3, 1968, presented a lean, tough Elvis Presley in all his glory; the show was highlighted by intimate performances in which a leather-clad, perspiring Elvis was accompanied by his old Sun-era bandmates, and by the impassioned show-closing anthem “If Can Dream,” which became his first top 20 single in two years. Elvis was emphatically back, once again.
Early-1969 sessions at Chips Moman’s American Studios in Memphis yielded two splendid albums, From Elvis in Memphis and From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis (both 1969), and Elvis’ biggest hits since the early ‘60s, “In the Ghetto” (No. 3) and“Suspicious Minds” (No. 1). He capitalized on his momentum with an engagement at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas, his first concert appearances in eight years. As a freshly-minted star in 1956, he had bombed at the New Frontier Hotel, but now he drew sold-out crowds and received reviews befitting, well, a king.
There were other triumphs in these later years – more sold-out Vegas dates, a rapturously applauded run at New York’s Madison Square Garden in June 1972, and the live-via-satellite “Aloha From Hawaii” TV special of January 1973, witnessed by an international audience of theretofore unimaginable size. Concert films – Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis On Tour (1972) – documented his breathlessly received shows.
But these were the last glorious gasps of an artist who was, like his glittering stage costumes, slowly coming apart at the seams. Deepening drug abuse and denial had made him increasingly unpredictable: He stunned his family and associates with a bizarre, unannounced solo trip to Washington, D.C., in December 1970 on an ironic quest to procure a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge from President Richard Nixon. Profligate spending taxed his finances, and forced increasing concert commitments. Disillusioned and feeling imprisoned, Priscilla divorced Elvis in October 1973. One by one, the star’s old retainers quit or were fired, replaced by a retinue of paid companions who insulated him from the world.
Mirroring his previous Hollywood captivity, his life gradually turned into a string of Vegas gigs and one-nighters in mid-sized markets. His bloated, unsteady appearance and meandering, profane stage patter alarmed observers. A critic in Houston wrote of a chaotic show there in 1976, “[T]he man who had given us the original myth of rock ‘n’ roll – the man who created it and lived it – was now, for whatever reason, taking it back.”
The hits waned again. Elvis would not log a single top 10 hit after “Burning Love” reached No. 2 in 1972. RCA was frustrated in its attempts to get usable material out of the singer in the studio; his last sessions, in 1976, were recorded by a mobile unit in Graceland’s Jungle Room. Concert appearances filmed in June 1977 for a TV special were deemed unairable. In the summer of 1977, three former Memphis Mafia members collaborated on a sensational tell-all book, poignantly entitled with a question on many lips: Elvis: What Happened?
On Aug. 16, 1977, his girlfriend Ginger Alden found the 42-year-old singer unconscious and motionless on the floor of his Graceland bathroom. Attempts to resuscitate him failed. An autopsy discovered a lethal pharmacopeia in his system. His funeral, held amid a high level of collective hysteria in Memphis, prompted nationwide mourning.
Elvis Presley’s music has remained popular, and his image has remained impervious to time and shifts of public fancy, because no other American performer united legions of listeners of such widely diverse age, taste, and sensibility.
Lester Bangs’ 1977 Village Voice eulogy remains the last word on the all-encompassing nature of Elvis’ native genius: “…I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”