When Heartbreak Hotel became Elvis Presley’s first number one hit in the spring of 1956, the United States was still racially segregated in many areas, and crooner Frank Sinatra was its biggest star.
The huge country was in the midst of a massive post-war boom that put money in kids’ pockets to buy records while the spread of television and portable radios was creating a new media age.
Twenty-one years later, when Elvis died aged 42 in 1977, he had done as much as anyone to dramatically change the world’s strongest military, economic and cultural superpower.
The rock ‘n’ roll music he pioneered smashed racial barriers, and became the soundtrack of the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, making him one of the most important figures in 20th century pop culture.
Had he lived, Elvis would have celebrated his 75th birthday on Friday (Jan, 8th). Even decades after his death, his estate earned a total of 55 million dollars in the past year from all his work and the estate, making him the fourth-highest earning deceased celebrity, according to a list by Forbes magazine.
Elvis was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, the only son of a poor white family. He grew up for much of his early life in African American neighbourhoods and is remembered as a shy and lonely kid who played guitar, hung around blues record stores when his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and gazed at the flashy outfits on display at the local costume shops.
The beginning of Presley
He graduated from high school to become a truck driver. He was interested in singing, and cut several vanity recordings at the local Sun Records in 1953 and 1954 that never went anywhere. But he finally had a breakthrough in 1954, thanks to a fortuitous chain of events that involved an alert receptionist and a relaxed moment during a recording session, when the studio owner heard him singing the blues number, That’s All Right, during a break.
Sam Phillips, the owner who was interested in African American blues, realized the potential of a good-looking white kid singing upbeat blues. Until then that kind of music had been the exclusive style of the black community. But as soon as Presley’s song hit the airwaves, he became an overnight local star.
After signing for a major record label he became a national and international sensation in 1956 with hits like Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog, and Love Me Tender. Appearing on America’s top television shows, his unique vocal style, his visual swagger and provocative gyrations drove youngsters wild, and conservative critics even wilder.
Even Sinatra, never seen as a paragon of virtue, echoed the righteous indignation of many older Americans: “His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” But for youngsters, the combination of Presley’s independent image and uninhibited music was irresistible.
“He’d start out, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,’ and they’d just go to pieces,” said his manager at the time, Scotty Moore.
“They’d always react the same way. There’d be a riot every time.” Elvis also reflected the simmering race issues of a time when the civil rights movement was still in its infancy.
“The fact that his music was so openly influenced by black culture cannot be overestimated,” says historian Cheri Paris of the University of California-Santa Cruz. “It helped relax a rigid colour line and gave the different communities a vital common culture.” On the back of his early hits, Elvis bought the Graceland mansion in Memphis in 1957 at the same time as All Shook Up dominated the charts. But his popularity was not limited to music as he became the first rock star to also be a movie star, making four hit films that year before he was drafted for a two-year army stint in 1958 that took him to Germany.
On his discharge in 1960 his train was mobbed by adoring fans and he was soon back in the studio recording some of his greatest hits such as It’s Now or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight. But even as he was joined at Graceland by the teenaged Priscilla Beaulieu, who would eventually become his wife, he also started displaying the insular behaviour that characterized the rest of his life.
As the rock ‘n’ roll movement that he kicked off snowballed with acts like The Beatles, Elvis withdrew from giving concerts and releasing singles. Instead, as his career track was controlled by manager Colonel Tom Parker, he made 27 films during the 1960s — many of them romantic comedies of dubious quality.
By 1968 Elvis was deeply unfulfilled over his singing career and also hated the hippie culture that had spawned from his innovations.
But he made a spectacular comeback with a Christmas special that was his first live performance for seven years. Elvis’ studio work was also resurrected with songs like Suspicious Minds, and a concert tour in Las Vegas was triumphantly received.
The beginning of the end
In 1970, Elvis wrote a six-page letter on American Airlines stationary to then-president Richard Nixon, expressing his patriotic concern over the drug and hippie culture. He offered his celebrity status to speak out against drug abuse, and after the White House confirmed the letter was authentic, the two men met.
But his marriage to Priscilla unravelled, his weight ballooned, he lost his legendary self confidence and he increasingly sought solace in barbiturates, almost dying from an overdose in November 1973.
The downward spiral continued till by 1977 he had become “a grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic former self,” according to biographer Tony Scherman.
On August 16, just days after a book by his former bodyguards detailed his massive drug use, he was found dead on the floor of his Graceland bathroom.
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was dead, but he had left a lasting legacy. “Elvis was the greatest cultural force in the 20th century,” the late classical maestro Leonard Bernstein once said. “He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it was a whole new social revolution.”