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Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley belongs on the short list of artists who changed the course of popular music in the 20th century. He may not have invented rock & roll, but he was indisputably its first rock star, a singer whose charisma was tightly intertwined with his natural talent for a combination that seemed combustible, sexy, and dangerous when Presley seized the imagination of America with four successive number one singles in 1956. He spent the next two decades near the top of the charts, weathering changes in fashion, self-inflicted missteps, and comebacks as his music expanded and evolved. Throughout his career, he never abandoned the rock & roll he pioneered on his early singles for Sun Records, but he developed an effective counterpoint to his primal rockabilly by honing a rich, resonant ballad style while also delving into blues, country, and soul, progressions that came into sharp relief with his celebrated "comeback" in the late '60s. Some musical nuances were overshadowed by Presley's phenomenal celebrity, a fame maintained by a long string of B-movies in the '60s and extravagant Las Vegas shows in the '70s -- elements that were essential in creating a stardom that persisted long after his premature death in 1977. The myth of Elvis grew in his absence, aided by an estate intent on keeping Presley in the public view: his recordings were continually reissued, his Memphis home Graceland became a tourist attraction, and Baz Luhrmann's 2022 biopic Elvis introduced Presley to a new audience. The passage of time helped clarify the depth and range of his musical achievements. He undeniably kick-started the rock & roll era, shaping the sound and attitudes of the last few decades of the 20th century in the process, but he also built a distinctive body of work that reflected the best of what American music has to offer.

Born to a poor Mississippi family in the heart of the Depression, Presley had moved to Memphis by his teens, where he absorbed the vibrant melting pot of Black Southern music in the form of blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel. After graduating from high school, he became a truck driver, rarely, if ever, singing in public. Some 1953 and 1954 demos, recorded at the emerging Sun label in Memphis primarily for Presley' own pleasure, helped stir interest on the part of Sun owner Sam Phillips. In the middle of 1954, Phillips, looking for a white singer with a Black feel, teamed Presley with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Almost by accident, apparently, the trio hit upon a version of an Arthur Crudup blues tune "That's All Right Mama," which became Presley's first single.

Presley's five Sun singles combined blues covers with country and pop ones, all made into rock & roll (at this point, a term that barely existed) with the pulsing beat, slap-back echo, and Presley's soaring, frenetic vocals. "That's All Right Mama," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Good Rockin' Tonight," "Baby Let's Play House," and "Mystery Train" remain core early rock classics.

The singles immediately sold well in the Memphis area, and by 1955 were starting to sell well to country audiences throughout the South. Presley, Moore, and Black hit the road with a stage show that grew ever wilder and more provocative, with Presley's swiveling hips causing enormous controversy. The move to all-out rock was hastened by the addition of drummer D.J. Fontana. The last Sun single, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget"/"Mystery Train," hit number one on the national country charts in late 1955. Presley was obviously a performer with superstar potential, attracting the interest of both bigger labels and Colonel Tom Parker, who became Presley's manager. In need of capital to expand the Sun label, Sam Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA in late 1955 for $35,000.00; a bargain when viewed in hindsight, but an astronomical sum at the time.

His first single for the label, 1956's "Heartbreak Hotel," rose to number one and, aided by some national television appearances, helped make him an instant superstar. "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" was a number one follow-up; the double-sided monster "Hound Dog"/"Don't Be Cruel" was one of the biggest-selling singles the industry had ever experienced up to that point. His first two LPs, Elvis Presley and Elvis, were also chart-toppers, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. The 1956 RCA recordings, while a bit more sophisticated in production and a bit less rootsy in orientation than his previous work, rank among the most influential recordings of early rock & roll.

Presley's (and Parker's) aspirations were too big to be limited to records and live appearances. By late 1956, his first Hollywood movie, Love Me Tender, had been released; other screen vehicles would follow in the next few years. The hits continued unabated, several of them ("Jailhouse Rock," "All Shook Up," "Too Much") benefiting from the efforts of top early rock songwriter Otis Blackwell, as well as the emerging team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The Jordanaires added both pop and gospel elements with their smooth backup vocals and a heavy Dean Martin influence began rearing its head on smoky, sentimental ballads like "Loving You," Although Moore and Black continued to back Elvis on his early RCA recordings, within a few years the musicians had gone their own ways.

Presley's recording and movie careers were interrupted by his induction into the Army in early 1958. There was enough material in the can to flood the charts throughout his two-year absence (during which he largely served in Germany). When he reentered civilian life in 1960, his level of popularity, remarkably, was just as high as when he left.

By this point, however, Presley's rebellious, wild image had been tamed to a large degree, as he and Parker began designing a career built around Hollywood films. Shortly after leaving the Army, in fact, Presley gave up live performance altogether for nearly a decade to concentrate on movie making. The films, in turn, would serve as vehicles to both promote his records and to generate maximum revenue with minimal effort. For much of the '60s, Presley released two or three movies a year that were mostly profitable. This also meant that his '60s discography was soon dominated by soundtracks that were sometimes filled out with outtakes that had been sitting around for years. There were some strong singles in the early '60s, like "Return to Sender"; once in a while there was even a flash of superb, tough rock, like "Little Sister" or "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame."

By 1967 and 1968, there were stirrings of an artistic reawakening in Presley with singles like "Guitar Man," "Big Boss Man," and "U.S. Male." A 1968 television special gave him the opportunity he needed to reinvent himself as an all-out leather-encased rocker, still capable of magnetizing an audience and eager to revisit his blues and country roots.

The 1968 album From Elvis in Memphis found Presley updating his sound with contemporary compositions and touches of soul to create some gutsy late-'60s pop/rock. This material, and 1969 hits like "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto," returned him to the top of the charts. Presley returned to live performance in 1969, breaking himself in with weeks of shows in Las Vegas. This was followed by national tours that proved him still capable of being an excellent live entertainer. (Presley never did play outside of North America and Hawaii, possibly because Parker, it was later revealed, was an illegal alien who could have faced serious problems if he traveled abroad.) Further studio and live albums were generated at a rapid pace, usually selling reasonably well, although Presley never had a Top Ten hit after 1972's "Burning Love."

Presley's '70s recordings were pretty eclectic, running from country to blues to all-out rock to gospel (he periodically recorded gospel-only releases going all the way back to 1957).

During Presley's final years, his became mostly isolated from the outside world except for professional purposes (he continued to tour until the end), rarely venturing outside of his Graceland mansion in Memphis. He even stopped leaving home for recording sessions, using an RCA Records mobile recording truck to make up the bulk of his final two albums, 1976's From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee and 1977's Moody Blue, At Graceland. (A collection of these final home recordings appeared in 2016, titled Way Down in the Jungle Room.)

On August 16, 1977, Presley was found dead in Graceland. An immediate cult sprang up around his legacy, kept alive by the hundreds of thousands of visitors who make the pilgrimage to Graceland annually and those who continue to listen to and buy his music in various forms.

In the digital age, RCA finally began to treat the catalog with some of the reverence it deserved, at long last assembling a box set containing nearly all of the '50s recordings. The 1992 set, called The King of Rock 'n' Roll, was the first of many serious compilations that focused on particular decades, phases, and collaborators. These archival sets, targeted at collectors, were balanced with LPs like Follow That Dream, which aimed for a mainstream audience. The most popular of these was the 2002 compilation Elv1s: 30 #1 Hits, which topped the charts in the U.S. and U.K. on its way to multi-platinum certification, but a pair of albums that grafted original Presley performances to music by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra -- 2015's If I Can Dream and 2016's The Wonder of You -- went to number one in the U.K. in the mid-2010s; Christmas with Elvis, a seasonal set overdubbed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, debuted at six in the U.K. upon its 2017 release. In 2018, the two-part documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher premiered on HBO and was accompanied by two soundtracks, one a single disc and one a box set. Later that year, an overdubbed collection of gospel material was released under the title Where No One Stands Alone, as was a box set celebrating the 50th anniversary of his '68 Comeback.

In 2019, the 50th anniversary of Presley's return to live performance was celebrated with the release of Live 1969, a box set containing 11 full concerts from his first engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. A new generation was introduced to Presley's music and life in 2022 with the release of the award-winning Baz Luhrmann biopic Elvis. The accompanying soundtrack topped charts in the U.K. and U.S. Sony continued to release archival projects in the wake of the success of Luhrmann's movie, including two box sets in 2023: the six-disc set Elvis on Tour, which documented his 1972 North American tour, and a 50th anniversary edition of Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Richie Unterberger

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