Presley, Elvis (Aaron) [Aron]
- David Brackett
( b East Tupelo, MS, Jan 8, 1935; d Memphis, Aug 16, 1977). American rock and roll singer, guitarist and actor . As the most successful artist of the mid-1950s rock and roll explosion, Presley had a profound impact on popular music. His sense of style, musical and personal, was both the focal point of the media reaction to early rock and roll and the inspiration for many of the most important rock musicians to follow. The narrative of his meteoric rise and subsequent decline amidst mysterious and tawdry circumstances fuelled many myths both during his life and after his death at 42.
Raised in extreme poverty in the deep South, his earliest musical experiences came in the Pentecostal services of the First Assembly of God Church. Other formative influences included popular tunes of the day, country music, blues, and rhythm and blues. Although he had little experience as a performer, in 1954, at the age of 19, he came to the attention of Sam Phillips, owner of the Memphis recording company Sun Records. Phillips teamed Presley, who sang and played guitar, with local country and western musicians Scotty Moore (guitar) and Bill Black (bass). During their first recording session in June 1954, the trio recorded a single with the two sides That’s all right, mama, originally recorded in 1946 by blues singer Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, and Blue Moon of Kentucky, originally recorded in 1946 by bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. The group’s style blended elements of country and rhythm and blues without being identifiable as either; the distinctive sound included Moore’s rhythmically oriented lead guitar, Black’s slapped bass, and Presley’s forceful, if crude, rhythm guitar, with the recording swathed in a distinctive electronic echo effect. Presley’s voice, however, attracted the most attention: swooping almost two octaves at times, changing timbre from a croon to a growl instantaneously, he seemed not so much to be synthesizing pre-existing styles as to be juxtaposing them, sometimes within the course of a single phrase. While the trio’s initial record provoked enthusiastic responses immediately upon being broadcast on Memphis radio, it confused audiences, who wondered if the singer was white or black. Although white hillbilly musicians’ music had incorporated African-American instrumental and vocal approaches since the earliest recordings in the 1920s, no previous white singer had so successfully forged an individual style so clearly rooted in a contemporary African-American idiom. Presley, Moore and Black released four more singles with Sun Records (1954–5); each one featured a blues or rhythm and blues song backed with a country-styled number; each one displayed increasing confidence on the part of Presley, and each recording was more commercially successful than the preceding one, with the last two, Baby, let’s play house and Mystery Train, reaching the top ten in Billboard’s national country and western chart. Presley’s uninhibited, sexually charged performances throughout the South-east provoked frenzied responses and influenced other musicians: by the end of 1955 performers such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash had emerged with a style coined ‘rockabilly’ that bore a strong resemblance to Presley’s.
Presley’s growing popularity attracted the attention of promoter ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, who negotiated the sale of Presley’s contract to RCA records for the unheard-of-sum of $35,000. His first recording for RCA, Heartbreak Hotel, which was released in March 1956, achieved the unprecedented feat of reaching the top five on the pop, rhythm and blues, and country charts simultaneously. This recording and the songs that followed in 1956 all combined aspects of his spare Sun recordings with an increasingly heavy instrumentation that included piano, drums, and background singers, and so moved the sound closer to that of mainstream pop. Both sides of his third RCA single Hound Dog and Don’t be cruel hit number one on all three charts. Hound Dog radically transformed Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton’s 1952 rhythm and blues hit, while Don’t be cruel was a more pop-orientated recording written specifically for him. Presley’s vocal style already showed signs of mannerism, trading the unpredictable exchanges of different voices of the early recordings for a single effect throughout each song. At the same time he continued to explore new musical territory with the recording of Love Me Tender (1956), from his first movie of the same title, an updated version of the Civil War song Aura Lee.
Over the next two years, Presley released numerous successful recordings of fast or medium tempo rock and roll songs, and ballads derived from country music, Tin Pan Alley or gospel music. He acted in three more films, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, and King Creole, all of which were successful. His suggestive performing style as presented in recordings, films and personal appearances generated a firestorm of critical approbation, which did nothing to dim his popularity. Presley’s induction into the US Army in early 1958 removed him from the public eye for two years, during which time recordings made previously continued to be released. Upon his return to civilian life in 1960, he recorded and released Stuck on You, a song in the rock and roll style of his pre-Army recordings. However, his next two hits represented a considerable change of direction: Are you lonesome tonight? and It’s now or never (based on the Italian traditional O Sole Mio in the style of one of Presley’s idols, Mario Lanza) were both ballads that showed Presley moving toward a middle-of-the-road blend of country and pop music. This move away from his raucous mid-1950s rock and roll style, and a simultaneous retreat from performing into a string of formulaic films, contributed to his waning popularity as a recording artist. Despite this, he continued to have numerous top ten songs up to 1963. The change in popular music tastes around 1964 with the sudden dominance of British bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and of artists recording for the Motown record label, such as The Supremes and The Four Tops, effectively ended his consistent success in the top 40.
In the late 1960s Presley attempted to re-establish himself as a creative artist. In 1968 he taped a television special clad in black leather in which he performed many of his older songs with a small, informal ensemble in front of a live audience. In 1969 he released the album From Elvis in Memphis, featuring his strongest material since his return to civilian life, and the two hit singles In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds. He returned to live performing that year as well; however, after an initial burst of energy, these performances soon degenerated into formula and self-parody. Although he had a few sporadic hits over the succeeding years, most notably with Burning Love (1972), he failed to achieve artistic or commercial consistency with his recordings. From 1972 to the time of his death Presley’s performances became increasingly erratic as his health deteriorated and his behaviour grew more eccentric and reclusive. His rise and fall have been exhaustively documented, and perhaps no other celebrity has led such an active postmortem existence in the public imagination.
- J. Hopkins: Elvis (New York, 1971)
- G. Marcus: Mystery Train: Images of American in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (New York, 1975)
- M. Farren and P. Marchbank: Elvis in His Own Words (London, 1977)
- D. Marsh: Elvis (New York, 1982)
- K. Quain: The Elvis Reader: Texts and Sources on the King of Rock ‘n Roll (New York, 1992) [incl. R. Middleton: ‘All Shook Up’, 3–12; C. Wolfe: ‘Presley and the Gospel Tradition’, 13–27]
- P. Guralnick: Last Train to Memphis: the Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston, 1994) [incl. bibliography and discography]
- G. Rodman: Elvis after Elvis: the Posthumous Career of a Living Legend (London, 1996)