Today marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley – the King of Rock and Roll. Born to a modest background in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis became one of the biggest selling artists of the 20th century, selling more than one billion records. Elvis earned gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, as well as three Grammys and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Elvis never studied music formally. He sang at the Pentecostal church he attended as a child. Elvis’ devoted mother, Gladys, bought a guitar from the Tupelo hardware store for his eleventh birthday. Reports differ but apparently Elvis had either a rifle or a bicycle in mind.
After moving to Memphis at age 15, Elvis began to practise guitar regularly and absorbed R&B on Beale Street, the historic heart of the Memphis blues scene. Elvis came to the attention of Sam Philips, the boss of Sun Records in Memphis. After struggling to find the right track for Elvis, they struck gold on a 1954 late night recording session when Elvis started playing Arthur Crudup’s 1946 song, That’s All Right. Never released in the UK, That’s All right was remastered and re-released in 2004.
Watch this ITN News report from 2004 and see a ‘gaggle’ or a ‘pride’ of Elvis impersonators celebrate the re-release on a London bus:
MUSIC: 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF FIRST ELVIS PRESLEY RECORDING, ITN News, 2004.
Radio appearances, touring and record releases led to regional success for Elvis and after offers from three major record labels, Elvis signed with RCA in November 1955. Now managed by Colonel Thomas Parker, by 1956 Elvis was an international star. His 1956 hits included Heartbreak Hotel, Blue Suede Shoes, Don’t Be Cruel, Hound Dog, My Baby Left Me and Love Me Tender.
Elvis was idolised by teens but felt the wrath of many for what they considered his overly suggestive performances. On his final performance on the Ed Sullivan TV show, Elvis was only shown from the waist up! Watch this 1958 clip from 30 seconds in, to hear London teenagers interviewed about Elvis. Our favourite quote – “He sends me!”:
Elvis Presley Fans, ITN News, 1958.
Elvis also achieved commercial success in films, making his debut in 1956 in Love me Tender for 20th Century Fox. Watch this video for lots of fantastic images of Elvis filming Love me Tender:
Memories of Elvis by Music Historian Michael Ochs, Getty Moving Images, 2007.
In 1960, on his return from 2 years of national service in Germany, Elvis stepped back from live performance. He spent much of the 1960s making movies, which were often accompanied by soundtrack albums of variable quality.
A punishing schedule, often filming three films a year, meant very few non-soundtrack albums were released. A notable exception was the 1967 gospel album, How Great Thou Art, which won him a Grammy. By 1968 Elvis has grown increasingly dissatisfied with his career. An acclaimed performance in a 1968 TV special marked the start of his return to successful recording and live performance.
Chart success and a series of Las Vegas residencies followed the 1968 TV comeback. Elvis maintained a prolific touring schedule from the late 1960s up to his death in 1977. Wary of the public and divorced from Priscilla in 1973, Elvis’ use of prescription drugs increased in his later years and his onstage presence was not what it had been.
Get an insight into Elvis’ life in the 1970s in a fascinating 1980s interview with his step-brother, David Stanley. Including lots of Elvis songs, this interview tells of life on the road with Elvis, the singer’s wealth, legendary generosity and his increasing reliance on prescription drugs. David recounts how angry Elvis would get with him about his use of marijuana, being so anti-drug use that he was keen to send narcotics police to David’s school to round up the kids who were on drugs. The interview quotes Elvis:
“If there’s anything I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to live a straight clean life, not set any kind of a bad example”.
David describes how Elvis’ drug use steadily increased from 1973, initially using prescription drugs to cope with the punishing touring schedule. According to David, Elvis had complete trust in the doctors that prescribed him sleeping tablets, amphetamines and barbiturates, an attitude that David ascribes to his poor background.
Life with Elvis, LBC/IRN Audio Archive, 1987.
Elvis died on August 16th 1977 at Graceland, the Memphis mansion he purchased in 1957. His death caused widespread shock and grief – see footage of fans paying their respects outside Graceland on the day after his death:
Elvis Presley Dies, ITN News, 1977.
Almost forty years after his death, his appeal endures. Graceland was opened to the public in 1982 and annual visitor numbers are in the region of 600,000. Several single reissues achieved high positions in the UK and US charts in 2004 and 2005, following the dance remix of A Little Less Conversation that was used in a Nike advertising campaign in 2002.
His death also spawned a raft of Elvis tribute artists and impersonators. A 2011 Telegraph article has video footage of a contest, held on Elvis’ birthday, to find Japan’s best Elvis impersonator!
Elvis Impersonator, PYMCA, 2003.
Birthday celebrations are planned in Tupelo (as reported by The Washington Times), Los Angeles, Graceland in Memphis and by lots of Elvis fan clubs around the globe.
If you can’t join in and feel the need of some Elvis action, let us leave you with this fun report on how it’s thought that Elvis’s ancestors came from Aberdeenshire in Scotland:
Elvis Presley Ancestors from Scotland, ITN News, 2004.
- Neil Spencer reviews Dylan Jones’ book “Elvis Has Left the Building” for The Guardian, 3rd Aug 2014: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/03/elvis-has-left-the-building-review-dylan-jones-rattlingly-readable
- The Official Graceland website: http://www.graceland.com/
- What Elvis might look like at 80, courtesy of the The Daily Express, 4th January 2015: http://www.express.co.uk/news/showbiz/550092/CGI-Elvis-Presley-would-look-like-still-alive-today-aged-80
- The LA Times (5th Jan 2015) reports a birthday bash taking place today: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/posts/la-et-ms-elvis-birthday-bash-hollywood-20150105-story.html
- The original New York Times Obituary, from 17th August 1977: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0816.html