Elvis Presley: Biography, Songs, Movies & Death

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explore the life, career, and death of Elvis Presley. We will assess the significance of his early career and the contributing factors that led to his downfall.

Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock
Jailhouse

The King of Rock & Roll

Few public figures of the 20th century remain as iconic as Elvis Presley. He was the first genuine rock & roll star, and a symbol of 1950s youth culture. His early records are some of the very first examples of rock & roll music. His untimely death in 1977 represented the end of an era for millions of fans who grew up with his swaggering, larger than life persona. Alongside John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, and Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley represents one of the most important archetypes of mid-century American culture.

Early Life and Career

Elvis Presley was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. The Pentecostal church was an important aspect of his childhood, and is where he performed publicly for the first time. Throughout his life, he would retain a very close relationship with his mother.

In 1948, Elvis and his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. In the late 1940s, Memphis was a major hotbed for blues, boogie woogie, country, and jazz. This fusion of white sacred and folk music with African-American styles would leave a profound impression on him, influencing his vocal style and choice of material.

In 1953, Elvis paid the Memphis Recording Service to record his first record. This 'pay to play' recording studio was also home to Sun Records, owned by Sam Phillips. Impressed by Elvis' performance, Phillips paired him with several backing musicians. The trio would cut two important and influential records of the 1950s, 'That's Alright,' and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' Many music scholars point to these records as the foundation of rock & roll.

It did not hurt matters that Elvis Presley was blessed with dazzling good looks. If he had been born in Los Angeles, he might have been a movie star before becoming a musician. Being from the Deep South, Elvis first revolutionized popular music before taking to the big screen.

The Ascent of the King

After several successful singles with Sun Records, Elvis' contract was sold to the major label RCA Records where his career exploded into pop consciousness. Between 1954 and 1957, he recorded some of the most seminal rock & roll songs of the 1950s, including, 'Jailhouse Rock,' 'Don't Be Cruel,' 'Hound Dog,' and 'Love Me Tender.' His fame during this period was virtually unprecedented. His female teenage fans would become hysterical in his presence, fainting, screaming, and crying. He exuded a distinctive sexuality that was only hinted at by his famously jiggling hips.

One of Elvis' most famous appearances was on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. Although previously skeptical about Elvis' hypersexual reputation, Ed Sullivan eventually bowed to public opinion and paid Elvis the sum of $50,000 for his appearance, a truly staggering amount in 1956. His charismatic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show solidified his reputation at the king of rock & roll.

Beginning at the height of his popularity in the 1950s, and continuing throughout the 1960s, Elvis made numerous movies that were mainly an excuse for fans to bask in the glory of the King. 'Blue Hawaii,' 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'Viva Las Vegas,' were more like extended music videos than actual feature length films, but fans adored them.

Military Service and the 1960s

Elvis' heyday at the forefront of 1950s youth culture came to an end in 1958 when he was drafted into the army. Being a patriotic young American, he complied, but his two years stationed in what was then West Germany took some of the momentum out of his career.

During the 1960s, Elvis' career was somewhat eclipsed by the arrival of the Beatles and other British invasion bands. He was no longer the hottest, most cutting edge thing around. Regardless, he continued to churn out relatively forgettable movies for his faithful fans and recorded music.

The 1970s and the Demise of Elvis Presley

Elvis, during a trip to the White House to meet President Richard Nixon in 1970
Elvis

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