On January 8, 1935, the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Elvis Presley, was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis is known as one of the most significant American pop culture icons of the 20th century. Popularizing the musical styling known as rockabilly, which is an uptempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues, he ranks as one of the most successful and well-known musicians of all time with hits like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and many more.
Elvis was born to parents Gladys and Vernon in a shotgun house built by his father in Mississippi. Elvis was actually supposed to have an identical twin brother, but his brother, Jesse, was born a stillborn 35 minutes before Elvis. As an only child, Elvis had a very close relationship with his parents, and his mother raised him to have a very strong faith in God. It was in church that he gained his first musical influence, and he drew inspiration from the gospel music he heard there for the rest of his life.
After receiving a guitar as a gift at the age of 10, Elvis began playing music regularly on his own. In 1948, Elvis moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee. He got his first taste of live performance at his high school where he played in a talent show and won. His classmates then began to take notice of him because of his previously unknown musical abilities and his new appearance. He grew out his sideburns, styled his hair with rose oil and Vaseline, and began wearing flashy clothing he found on Beale Street, the blues hub of Memphis which Elvis frequented. He never received any formal musical training, instead studying and playing music by ear. He frequented record stores with jukeboxes and listening booths to supplement his love for music and gain inspiration.
In 1953, Elvis began visiting Sun Studios and recording songs. Before long, record label owner, Sam Phillips, recognized Elvis’s talents and decided to help the young musician develop his sound. Just a few days after recording his first single, “That’s All Right,” a popular local radio DJ played Elvis’s new single, and listeners bombarded the phone lines, curious who this new singer was. Elvis’s popularity soon began to swell, with fans attracted to his dashing good looks, unique musical style, and signature gyrating hips.
The following years saw huge turning points in the singer’s career. His then manager and Phillips, Sun Studios owner, struck up a $40,000 deal for RCA to acquire Elvis’s Sun contract. In 1956, he recorded his first No. 1 single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and his first album, Elvis Presley, which skyrocketed to No. 1 as well. He became a favored guest on many televised variety shows, even though his provocative dance moves caused controversy. That same year, he signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures and starred in his first box office hit, Love Me Tender.
After receiving a draft notice from the United States Army in 1957, Elvis did not ignore his duties. He began training in Fort Hood, Texas, and was granted leave at one point to return to Memphis for the funeral of his mother. Though he was devastated by her death, he returned to service in Germany where his sadness was quelled when he met Priscilla Beaulieu. They eventually married after a seven and a half year courtship. Elvis was afraid that serving in the army would ruin his career, but his producers were prepared for his absence with several unreleased recordings. The musician had ten Top 40 hits during his time in the army.
When he returned from his army hiatus, he filmed the movie GI Blues and also recorded the soundtrack for it, once again sending him to the top of the charts. During the following years, he starred in several more films and recorded music along with them. The movies were hit and miss with audiences, but the soundtracks still became widely popular.
His popularity began to fade in the late 1960s, but he proved himself to still be the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” with his “’68 Comeback” TV special where he reminded audiences of his incredible singing abilities and guitar prowess. During the late ’60s, he also married his longtime girlfriend, Priscilla, and soon they had their first and only child, Lisa Marie. Their marriage did not last long, however, and they were divorced by 1973, with Priscilla gaining custody of Lisa Marie.
Elvis’s health slowly began to decline as he suffered from weight problems and prescription drug abuse. Although his personal life was not doing well, Elvis still drew large crowds of fans at his Las Vegas performances and on his last tour. His last performance was in Indianapolis, Indiana in June 1977.
On August 16, 1977, Elvis was found dead in his home, Graceland, at the age of 42. He suffered from heart failure. He was eventually buried with his family on the Graceland property.
The legacy left by Elvis is huge. He’s credited with bringing rock ‘n’ roll music to the forefront of popular music in the United States. After his death, President Jimmy Carter issued a statement saying Elvis, “permanently changed the face of American popular culture.” During his life, he won 3 Grammy Awards and was nominated several more times. He had 18 No. 1 hits, and several of his albums were certified gold or platinum. He was one of the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was later also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Since his death, many documentaries have been made about him, and there are countless Elvis impersonators around the world who constantly try to channel “The King.”
If you’re around the Memphis area this time of year, you can celebrate Elvis’s birthday by attending the multi-day birthday celebration held at his home, Graceland.