Birth and upbringingPresley was born poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, the son of Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Smith Presley. He was raised both in Tupelo and later in Memphis, Tennessee, where his family moved when he was 13. He had a twin brother (Jesse Garon Presley) who died at birth. The young Elvis took up guitar at 11 and, after high school, worked at a tool company and then an electric company.
Sun RecordsIn the summer of 1953 he paid $4 to record the first of two double-sided demo acetates at Sun Studios as a gift to his mother, singing "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin", popular ballads of the time.
Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and assistant Marion Keisker heard the discs and, recognizing Presley's nascent talent, called him in June 1954 to fill in for a missing ballad singer. Although the session did not prove fruitful, Sam put Elvis together with local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to see what might develop. During a rehearsal break on July 5, 1954, Elvis started fooling around with a song called "That's All Right" and Sam hit the record button, thinking Elvis may have found his niche. The resulting single, backed with Elvis' hopped-up version of the country song "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", was a huge local hit in Memphis after WHBQ aired it two days later, and regular touring started to expand his fame beyond Tennessee.
Elvis recorded five singles while at Sun:
- That's All Right / Blue Moon Of Kentucky - released on July 19, 1954
- Good Rockin' Tonight / I Don't Care if the Sun Don't Shine - released on September 25, 1954
- Milkcow Blues Boogie / You're A Heartbreaker - released on December 28, 1954
- Baby Let's Play House / I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone - released April 10, 1955
- Mystery Train / I Forgot To Remember To Forget - Released on August 6, 1955
Elvis signed with RCA Records on November 21, 1955. On January 27, 1956 the single "Heartbreak Hotel" / "I Was the One" was released. It was the sixth single of his career. Unlike the previous singles, this one did chart, reaching #1 in April 1956.
Over the next twenty-one years, until his death in 1977, Elvis had 146 Hot 100 hits, 112 top 40 hits, 72 top 20 hits and 40 top 10 hits; all of these are the most anyone has yet achieved.
A string of hit records followed as the public's desire for his product seemed insatiable.
TelevisionOn January 28, 1956 Presley made his national television debut by appearing on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. Now recording for RCA, and under the management of (honorary) Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time on February 22 with "Heartbreak Hotel" and on April 21 that year the same song hit number one. His June 5, 1956 introduction of his next single, "Hound Dog", on The Milton Berle Show, scandalized the audience with his suggestive hip movements. After a string of other TV appearances, he made his first appearance on the top-rated Ed Sullivan Show on September 9, earning the show a record 52-60 million viewers (82.6% of viewership that night). Presley had dyed his sandy blond hair jet black by the time of his second Sullivan performance on October 28 of the same year. On his third and final Sullivan appearance (January 6, 1957) Sullivan bowed to pressure from moralists and ordered Presley to be filmed only from the waist up due to his customary suggestive hip movements.
MilitaryOn January 20, 1958 Presley received a draft notice for a 2-year tour with the United States Army. He served in Germany, where he drove a jeep for Sgt. Ira Jones, and was honorably discharged on March 5, 1960. Many have sinced wondered why an only child – by then the sole support of his parents and grandmother – was drafted during peacetime, since his services were clearly not critical for the defense of his country. It has long been suspected that Elvis' draft notice was either politically instigated to shunt his "dangerous," "race-mixing" influence, or quietly encouraged by his manager in order to keep the increasingly world-wise southern lad under his thumb.
Motion picturesBeginning with Love Me Tender (opened on November 15, 1956), Presley starred in 31 motion pictures, having signed to multiple long-term contracts on the advice of his manager. These were usually musicals based around Presley performances, and marked the beginning of his transition from rebellious rock and roller to all-round family entertainer.
Return to recording and live showsThe 1960s saw the quality of Presley's recorded output drop, although he was still capable of creating records equal to his best and did so on the infrequent occasions where he was presented with decent material at his movie recording sessions. With this drop-off, and in the face of the social upheaval of the 60s and the British Invasion spearheaded by The Beatles, Presley's star faded slightly before a triumphant TV comeback special on NBC (aired on December 3, 1968) that saw him return to his rock and roll roots. His 1969 return to live performances, first in Las Vegas and then across the country, was noted for the constant stream of sold-out shows, with many setting attendance records in the venues where he performed.
Gospel musicPresley was deeply religious, and he recorded several gospel albums. His 3 Grammy awards are all for gospel music.
RelationshipsFrom the beginning of his career, Elvis was a sex symbol who sent legions of women swooning. On May 1, 1967 he married Priscilla Anne Beaulieu at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Priscilla had been the daughter of Presley's commanding officer in Germany during his Army stint. A daughter, Lisa Marie, was born exactly nine months after their wedding, on February 1, 1968. After their divorce in 1973 she lived with Priscilla. However, Elvis: The Hollywood Years, a new biography by David Bret, claims the star had a secret gay affair. The author says that his manager Colonel Tom Parker "held secret information about a homosexual affair between Elvis and actor Nick Adams over his head like a sword. He made it clear that... if Elvis didn't toe the line, he'd let it get out. At that time, it could well have ruined his career. That is why Parker had so much control over him." Many journalists' attempts to "out" the star in the past were thwarted by his manager.
1969 onwardsAfter seven years off the top of the charts, Presley's song "Suspicious Minds" hit No. 1 on the Billboard music charts on November 1, 1969. This was the last time any song by Presley hit no. 1 while he was still alive. The mid-1970s saw Elvis becoming increasingly isolated, battling an addiction to prescription drugs and the resulting toll on his appearance and performances. Elvis made his last live concert appearance in Indianapolis, Indiana at the Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977.
Death and burialHe died at his palatial home Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977 and is now buried on its grounds. Originally buried at Forest Hill Cemetery, his tomb was eventually moved to Graceland after an attempted theft of his body. Numerous examinations of his death by medical personnel have not resulted in a final public cause of death; causes most often cited are polypharmacy (drug mixing) or heart disease exacerbated by his drug use. According to popular legend, however, Elvis did not die in 1977, and may continue to be alive (see Elvis sightings).
His international influenceElvis Presley spawned Rock and Roll interest in Europe, his name even known by people behind the then-Iron Curtain. In France, singer Johnny Hallyday copied Presley in the French language, becoming a huge star in that country. Presley paved the way for other American rockers whose records sold in Europe and who began to tour there. Teenagers around the world began copying his "Duck tail" hair style, and the demand for transistor radios exploded so much so that Sony went from a small Japanese telecommunications company making radios to a giant global conglomerate. And, through his new look with black slacks and loose open-necked shirts, he created a huge demand for new lines of clothing. Presley's influence created a generation of teenagers who, for the first time, became an economic powerhouse through their spending capacity. Also, there are a number of Elvis impersonators worldwide.
Enduring legacyNow, more than 25 years after his death, Presley remains a foremost pop icon of the 20th century. His image, especially his trademark forelock, is instantly recognizable. He is still the gold standard against which modern notions of fame are measured. At least one modern recording artist, Elvis Costello, borrowed Presley's first name to help his fledgling career.
But all too often Elvis Presley's kitsch appeal and the industry which has grown up around it, chronicling his dietary and chemical predilections and the trappings of his celebrity, have tended to obscure the vibrant and vital music he made as a young man, the vocally-influential recordings of his later career, and the lasting influence both he and his music had on American popular culture. Connected with this is a continuing urban myth that Elvis is still alive. "Elvis sightings", in which Presley is reported to have been located (frequently in mundane and out-of-the-way places, such as a supermarket in South Dakota), are common events, and one of the staples of supermarket tabloids.
However, interest in his music returned during the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, when Nike used a remixed version of his "A Little Less Conversation" as the background music to a series of TV commercials featuring international soccer stars. The remix hit Number 1 in over 20 countries, including the United States. At about the same time, a compilation of Presley's US Number 1 hits, ELV1S 30 #1 Hits, was being prepared for release. "A Little Less Conversation" (remix version) was quickly added as the album's 31st track just before its release in October 2002. Nearly 50 years after Presley made his first hit record and 25 years after his death, ELV1S 30 #1 Hits reached number 1 on the charts.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, a list of 150 songs circulated on the Internet, purported to be from radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications to its subsidiaries, with the recommendation that these songs be pulled from airplay (it was later revealed that the list was originally the work of a few specific station program directors, was not an official Clear Channel missive, and changed over time as it was distributed). Presley's "(You're the) Devil in Disguise" was on the list.
Among his many accomplishments, Elvis Presley is only one of two singers (Roy Orbison being the other) to ever have two Top 5 albums on the charts simultaneously. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001). In 1993, Presley's image appeared on a United States postage stamp.
Note: The Presley family, including Elvis, spelled his middle name "Aron" throughout his life, although Elvis is said to have considered changing it to "Aaron". His birth certificate and tombstone both read "Aaron."