In 1953 a young man from Mississippi entered a Memphis recording studio to make a personal record. The office manager asked the youth what type of music he favored. He replied shyly that he liked all kinds. Intrigued, she questioned him about his style. Was it country? Pop? Gospel? He insisted that he adhered to no particular style. She probed again, pushing him to reveal the vocalist he most resembled. The eighteen-year-old delivery truck driver stubbornly yet politely maintained that he did not sound like anyone else. Curious, she placed the young man with the ducktail haircut and sideburns before a microphone. Accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar, he began to sing. His emotional intensity and sensitivity surprised her. When he completed his two songs, Marion Keisker reached the same conclusion as the teenager she had just interrogated: Elvis Presley did not sound like anyone else.
This would not be the last time that Elvis Presley confounded categorization. He was the hip-swiveling “Hillbilly Cat,” a complex figure who encompassed within his persona the emotions, aspirations, fears, and particularly the contradictions common to a large segment of his generation. His endeavors challenged many of the cultural norms of his society, conventions that governed such matters as racial segregation, masculinity, sexual expression, middle-class preeminence, teen subordination, and musical tastes. From the moment he stepped onto the national stage in the mid-1950s, the singer excited, exasperated, and enraged countless people. His was a controversial presence that even death failed to diminish. Decades following his demise, historians, music scholars, fans, and casual connoisseurs of popular culture argue over the merits he may or may not have possessed. No consensus regarding his career and significance has been reached. Once likened to a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party, Elvis, uninvited and unsolicited, interjected the intrinsically invisible and interrelated issues of class, race, region, gender, and age into the American mainstream. Bringing to light many of the conflicts and tensions simmering below the seemingly placid post–World War II societal surface, he helped initiate a cultural upheaval that has continued to reverberate well into the new millennium.
Such influence could not have been predicted. Born on 8 January 1935 to anonymity in a two-room East Tupelo shotgun house, Elvis Aron Presley lived as his identical twin died. This factor undoubtedly contributed to a very strong bond forged between Elvis and his mother, Gladys. He was not as close to his father, Vernon, a failed sharecropper. The family was poor and briefly lived near or within Shake Rag, an African American section of the northeastern Mississippi town. The Pentecostal Presleys regularly attended the First Assembly of God Church. Not surprisingly, given his residential and religious surroundings, Elvis developed an attachment to music. He listened to WELO, a local radio station that featured Mississippi Slim, a country performer who served as the first of Presley’s many celebrity models. At age ten, Elvis won second prize at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show for his sentimental rendition—delivered while standing on a chair to reach the microphone—of a song about the death of an aged dog.
After years of struggle against dwindling economic opportunities and eroding status in Mississippi, the Presleys migrated to Memphis in 1948. In the West Tennessee metropolis, young Elvis aspired to overcome his feelings of invisibility and irrelevance. He turned to popular culture to redefine himself. Inspired by movie stars and entertainers, he developed a penchant for flashy clothes, slicked-back hair, and long sideburns. Beale Street beckoned, and Presley frequently ventured down the Main Street of Negro America, absorbing its many sounds and visual manifestations. He often continued his forays into African American culture on Sunday mornings (and Wednesday evenings), visiting Rev. Herbert Brewster’s East Trigg Baptist Church. In a seemingly endless quest to establish an identity, Presley also soaked up everything he heard on the radio. Black-appeal stations such as WDIA and eccentric disc jockeys such as WHBQ’s Dewey Phillips provided an eclectic assortment of musical styles that would prove formative: rhythm and blues, country, pop, and both black and white gospel.
In 1954 Presley made his first commercial recordings for independent producer Sam Phillips. Along with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley and Phillips produced five Sun singles in just eighteen months. Exploiting their creation of a working-class and biracial musical synthesis later dubbed rockabilly, Presley, Moore, and Black, newly minted members of the Louisiana Hayride radio program, rapidly built a youthful following throughout the South and Southwest.
By the close of 1955 Presley was one of the hottest commodities in country music. Under the tutelage of his flamboyant manager, Col. Tom Parker, Elvis signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor. In 1956 RCA and Parker, seeking to promote their multifaceted performer in the pop and R&B markets, booked Presley onto several network television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Beamed into the living rooms of millions, the singer’s popularity skyrocketed. As his fame rose, a national furor mounted over Presley’s black-derived and overtly sexual performance style. The criticisms, however, only heightened Presleymania. Following unprecedented record sales, Hollywood called, and Elvis began his stint as a movie idol in Love Me Tender (1956). By 1958 he had emerged as the undisputed King of Rock and Roll.
Between 1956 and 1963 Presley dominated popular music. Even a two-year stint in the US Army failed to stifle his popularity. After 1960 he devoted his energy almost exclusively to making motion pictures, averaging three films a year during the ensuing decade. While the results did not bring him critical acclaim, he became one of the highest-paid actors of his era. Yet by the mid-1960s Presley’s creativity and influence appeared irreversibly diminished. His films had grown increasingly formulaic, and his music seemed tired and hopelessly tied to inane movie soundtracks. As the sights and sounds that came to dominate the 1960s became younger and more disruptive, Elvis seemed old-fashioned. A highly successful 1968 television special in which he returned to his blues and gospel roots revived his career, and Presley began touring for the first time since the 1950s. To the astonishment of many, Presley recaptured the vitality that had characterized his early stage shows. Assisted by a generational revival that utilized the consumer power of now-middle-aged rock and rollers born during the Great Depression, Elvis returned to pop superstardom. After 1973, however, personal difficulties, including a failed marriage, health problems, and ballooning weight, took their toll. On 16 August 1977 Presley died of heart failure and complications caused by long-term drug abuse.
Elvis Presley, of course, did not invent rock and roll. He did, however, possess the unusual combination of talent, charisma, and luck to become a popular entertainer whose improbable rise to wealth and fame appealed to a large segment of American society. A southern version of the Horatio Alger hero who challenged contemporary boundaries regarding music, taste, race, gender, class, and public behavior, Presley remains a significant key to understanding the postwar world from which he emerged.
- Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (2005)
- Vernon Chadwick, In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Art, Religion (1997)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1994)
- Erika Lee Doss, Fans, Faith, and Image (2004)
- Elaine Dundy, Elvis and Gladys (2004)
- Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll (1992)
- Peter Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (1998)
- Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1995)
- Jerry Hopkins, Elvis: The Biography (2007)
- George Lipsitz, Class and Culture in Cold War America: A Rainbow at Midnight (1981)
- Bill Malone with Dave Stricklin, Southern Music, American Music (2nd rev. ed. 2003)
- Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll (2008)
- Charles Ponce de Leon, Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley (2006)
- Joel Williamson, Elvis Presley, A Southern Life (2015)