Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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PRESLEY, Elvis

(b Elvis Aron Presley, 8 January 1935, Tupelo MS; d 16 August 1977, Memphis TN) Singer, aka 'the King', among the biggest stars of the 20th century, for sociological as well as musical reasons. An only child from a poor family (twin brother Jessie Garon was born dead); the doctor spelled 'Aaron' correctly on the birth certificate but Elvis later had a change made legal. 'Elvis', his father's middle name, is uncommon in the USA except among poor white Southerners, the most direct descendants of English/Scottish emigrants: it was spelled 'Helwiss' or 'Helwys' in 17th-century England. His father served two years on Parchman Farm c.1938-40 for forging a cheque, then worked only sporadically. Elvis attended Pentacostal churches, where he heard impassioned singing, and heard country music and black blues on the radio; he won a talent contest singing Red Foley's sentimental set-piece 'Old Shep' '45 and received a guitar for his birthday. As a teenager he may have known black Memphis clubs, hearing B. B. King and others.

After high school he worked as a truckdriver, recorded himself at the Memphis Recording Service to hear what he sounded like, and came to the attention of proprietor Sam Phillips (see Sun Records); on 6 July 1954 he made his first commercial records, with Bill Black on bass and guitarist Scotty Moore. He tried to sing ballads and country songs, but the style that made him famous was discovered while fooling around in the studio: a cover of Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's 'That's All Right (Mama)' backed with Bill Monroe's 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' created a local sensation. Though Presley's idol was Dean Martin, he was the greatest of the rockabillies: he brought more black content than others to the combination of blues and country music and he pushed the beat, imparting urgency to the music. Phillips had looked for a white who could sing like a black; a radio interview was hastily arranged, the name of the high school Presley had attended establishing that he was white. Sun singles continued to combine a blues backed with a country song, a strategy paying off when 'Baby Let's Play House' was a top ten country hit (song by Arthur Gunter, b 23 May 1926, Nashville; d 16 March 1976, Port Huron MI; recorded for Excello '54-61: compilation Baby Let's Play House '96) followed by a two-sided no. 1: 'Mystery Train' (by Junior Parker) backed with 'I Forgot To Remember To Forget' (by Stanley Kesler and Charlie Feathers), all '55. By then D. J. Fontana was added on drums, and the first great rock'n'roll records were being made. Presley's only appearance on Grand Ole Opry was a flop (they allegedly advised him to go back to driving a truck); he became a regular on Shreveport's Louisiana Hayride, and his appearances on tour were sensational. He had the same effect on young women that Frank Sinatra had had 15 years earlier. Moore was his first manager, Memphis disc jockey Bob Neal his second; 'Colonel' Tom Parker became his third and last as RCA bought his contract and masters from Sun in November 1955 for the then unheard-of sum of $35,000. Elvis got an advance of $5,000 and spent it on a pink Cadillac; Hill and Range got the publishing of Presley songs (through BMI's Presley Music and ASCAP's Gladys Music, named after his mother): not that he wrote songs, but Parker demanded the rights to songs he recorded, which would severely restrict the quality of his material in future, but did not do so immediately.

The first RCA session in January in Nashville added Chet Atkins on rhythm guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano on rockaballads 'I Was The One' and 'I'm Counting On You', and Mae Axton's blues 'Heartbreak Hotel', all accompanied by a vocal trio led by Gordon Stoker; there were also covers of Ray Charles's 'I Got A Woman' and Jesse Stone's 'Money Honey'. 'Heartbreak Hotel'/'I Was The One' was his first no. 1 pop hit (for eight weeks; also no. 1 R&B, no. 5 C&W), helped by Cramer's piano, but not by the appalling recording quality (it would be wonderful now to know what it would have sounded like if it had not been recorded in a breadbox). The next two sessions, in NYC with better recording quality, Shorty Long on piano and no vocal backing, were the peak of his career, including classic covers of Carl Perkins's 'Blue Suede Shoes', Little Richard's 'Tutti Frutti', Crudup's 'My Baby Left Me' and 'So Glad You're Mine', Lloyd Price's 'Lawdy Miss Clawdy', also 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Cry Over You' and 'Shake, Rattle And Roll' (also by Stone; see his entry: an R&B hit by Joe Turner, pop hit by Bill Haley). RCA released an unprecedented six singles with sequential numbers, reissuing all the Sun sides, and Presley's first album was an instant rock classic (twelve tracks, five from Sun). His fourth date (in Nashville, with Atkins, pianist Marvin Hughes, echo and vocal trio) was his second no. 1, the syrupy ballad 'I Want You, I Need You, I Love You' (Crudup's 'My Baby Left Me' on the flip, one of Presley's best); then (in NYC) 'Hound Dog'/'Don't Be Cruel', both sides reaching no. 1, both significantly by pop tunesmiths: the first (a blues) by Leiber and Stoller, previously done (very differently) by Big Mama Thornton, spoiled in Presley's recording by the typical pop production of the period, inclcluding incessant handclaps and the caterwauling of the Jordanaires (quartet led by Stoker); the other a catchy pop song by Otis Blackwell (its prettiness more evident in the Judds' version '86).

No one who'd listened to both R&B and country music could have been astonished by Elvis Presley, but that did not apply to most Americans; parents and clergymen hated him, and a petrol station in Texas gave away Presley 78s so that motorists could enjoy smashing them. Yet his unbridled (for the time) sexuality was to him completely natural, while offstage he was polite and worshipped his mother. He appeared on the Milton Berle and Dorsey Bros TV shows (the camera not showing his swivelling hips; he was called 'Elvis the Pelvis'); Ed Sullivan swore he would never have Presley on his top-rated Sunday-night variety show, but changed his mind when Steve Allen had him on the other channel, reducing Sullivan to 15 per cent of the viewers. His three Sullivan appearances included the debut of the title song from his first film, Love Me Tender, and rock'n'roll fans groaned: a non-song based on a Civil War campfire ballad (out of copyright so Parker could grab it), it was his fifth no. 1. His second album had more country content (included 'Old Shep'); even as a warm review of it appeared in the New York Times by John S. Wilson, he was already a phenomenon which had to do with an upheaval in popular culture. His voice matured into a rich instrument and he was always a stage-wise entertainer, but little of his subsequent output was as exciting as that of the first three years.

His hit with Blackwell's 'Don't Be Cruel' established a pattern: he apparently copied style and all from demo records. But even when he did so he was using some judgement; he didn't make changes because he saw no reason to do so. His big hit with 'Heartbreak Hotel' occurred at the beginning of '56, and that year became a watershed, dividing the history of pop music and even music reference books. Country boogie and doo-wop had been around for years, and Bill Haley and a few others had had rock'n'roll hits, but they were regarded as novelties; Ray Charles, Fats Domino and a few other big R&B acts had been bubbling under the (white) pop chart, but only Domino's 'Ain't That A Shame' and Chuck Berry's 'Maybellene' had broken through in '55, although everybody knew that something new was happening. Presley's accomplishment was to smash the flood gates. After a decade of being fed pap like 'Doggie In The Window' the baby boom took over, and Domino, Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly all rushed through in '56-7; the absolute dominance of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood was over, and the music business has been riding a tiger ever since. Presley's year really was a watershed, and his earliest records really were exciting, but the huge amounts of money involved, the abdication of broadcasters and the influence of people like Parker has led to a lot of trash fertilizing the flood plain.

Presley's further number ones '57-8 included 'Teddy Bear' (a Tin Pan Alley product from the second film, Loving You); 'Jailhouse Rock' (the title theme of Presley's third and best film) and 'Don't' (both by Leiber and Stoller); 'Hard Headed Woman' (from King Creole, one of the less bad films). 'One Night' '58 (co-written by Dave Bartholomew for Smiley Lewis) reached no. 4 (with lyrics cleaned up) and was close to the earlier excitement, but the Dean Martin influence had begun to tell. By the time Presley was drafted early '58 his influence on pop music was complete. He later described his mother's death that year as the greatest tragedy of his life; he spent two years in Germany driving tanks; no. 1 hits '60-2 were 'A Big Hunk O' Love', 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' (written in 1926), 'Surrender' (adapted from 'Come Back To Sorrento'), 'It's Now Or Never' (from 'O Sole Mio'), 'Good Luck Charm'. The two-sided hit 'Little Sister'/'(Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame' (by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) and 'Return To Sender' (by Blackwell and 'Winfield Scott') were excellent and exciting pop records, all top five, but Presley wanted to be a movie star and spent the decade making increasingly trashy films.

Unlike Dean Martin, he showed little sign of having his tongue in his cheek as he cranked out rubbish like G.I. Blues and Flaming Star '60; Wild In The Country and Blue Hawaii '61; Kid Galahad, Girls Girls Girls and Follow That Dream '62; Fun In Acapulco and It Happened At The World's Fair '63; Kissin' Cousins, Viva Las Vegas and Roustabout '64; Girl Happy, Tickle Me and Harem Scarem '65; Frankie And Johnny, Paradise Hawaiian Style and Spinout '66; Easy Come Easy Go and Double Trouble '67; Stay Away Joe, Speedway, Clambake and Live A Little, Love A Little '68; Charro '69; Change Of Habit and The Trouble With Girls '70. His fanatically adoring public saw to it that the films made a profit and that the soundtrack albums were hits; the money continued to pour in, partly because the songs were written to order and owned by Presley, but never was so much time and energy wasted on such dross, such as a song about how to do the hula in a sports car. Critics speculated that he could have been an actor, but when he was offered good straight dramatic roles (Thunder Road '58, A Star Is Born '76) Parker prevented deals by asking for too much money. Jerry Leiber said that writing songs for the films got too boring: 'In fact, we quit ... We cooked up this idea for A Walk On The Wild Side; it would be an incredible property for Elia Kazan to direct and for Presley to play the lead as Dove. We got this notion to Parker, and the word we got back was ''If you two jerks don't mind your own business and stay away from the business of Elvis Presley, I'm going to put you both out of business.''' (Quoted in Rolling Stone '90, interview with David Fricke.)

Presley taped a TV special mid-'68 which was surprisingly powerful, showing what he could still do; portions were taped without an audience but some of it was his first public appearance in more than seven years. Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana were there, and exciting out-takes were rumoured to exist, but when these were issued in a six-LP set of clips from the early TV shows etc (Elvis -- A Golden Celebration '84) they proved less than compelling. The LP from the special went top 10. He recorded 23 songs in Memphis '69, his first session there since the Sun days and the best material of his later career; From Elvis In Memphis '69 was a no. 13 LP, two-disc The Memphis Record '87 compiled it all, including 'In The Ghetto' and 'Suspicious Minds'. ('Suspicious Minds' was his last no. 1 hit; before it was recorded, producer Chips Moman told RCA and Parker that if they insisted on the publishing rights they could take Presley away and he'd cut the hit with somebody else.)

Also in '69 Presley began performing in Las Vegas, excellent backing including James Burton on guitar and Glen D. Hardin on keyboards. (An early appearance in Vegas had been a disaster, but that's where he picked up his treatment of 'Hound Dog' from a vocal group; by '69 he had become a cultural icon and many of his fans were to be found there.) Aloha From Hawaii By Satellite '73 was his ninth and last no. 1 album. He worked hard, touring the USA and putting on many a good show in Las Vegas, but was often overweight, and collapsed on stage at least once. He lived in a garish mansion in Memphis called Graceland (the title song on Paul Simon's album Graceland '86 captures the feeling of the Presley tragedy without referring to him directly). He married Priscilla Beaulieu, an army officer's daughter he met in Germany when she was a child, on 1 May '67; daughter Lisa Marie was born 1 February '68; they divorced '73. He showered acolytes (the 'Memphis Mafia') with gifts and became increasingly reclusive while eating and pilling himself to death; his doctor encouraged him to misuse barbiturates, but he never drank and scorned recreational drugs. He died of toxic poisoning due to gross ingestion of prescription drugs, according to a long-suppressed autopsy report; 14 drugs were identified, enough codeine alone to have caused death in normal cases. His death was described as a good career move.

Honorary Col. Tom Parker (b Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, 26 June 1909 in Holland; d 21 January 1997, many years too late) had been a carnival huckster and a dog-catcher, a manager of Gene Austin in Austin's later years, then of Eddy Arnold; he screwed his sometime partner Hank Snow out of the Presley bonanza. He saw to it that Presley always paid the maximum in income tax and never toured outside the USA (except for three Canadian dates '57) probably because Parker had been an illegal immigrant and wanted to avoid anything to do with the government; during Presley's Las Vegas era Parker lived there gambling at Presley's expense. Worthwhile interviews with Presley do not exist because Parker would have charged any journalist a fortune for the privilege and did not want any sharp questions to rock the boat. Parker engineered a deal '73 in which Presley waived his rights to future royalties on his recordings to that date in exchange for $5.4m, half of which went to Parker, and when it all began to sell massively after Presley's death the estate lost an estimated $100m. Parker was finally divested of his interest in Presley '83, long after it was too late.

Presley helped to keep RCA's record division afloat for 30 years, but his strange lack of self-confidence allowed him largely to waste his talent. Sam Phillips recalled of the early years, 'He tried not to show it, but he felt so inferior ... All he did was sit with his guitar on the side of his bed at home. I don't think he even played on the front porch.' He became the cabaret entertainer he always wanted to be, 'The King' of rock'n'roll only in the sense that Paul Whiteman was the 'King of Jazz', Benny Goodman the 'King Of Swing'; yet his phrasing was easy and his voice had become beautiful: his singing remained influential even through the bad material. Most of the songs that made him famous '54-6 were written by blacks, and the records sold better in black neighbourhoods than Nat Cole's did, yet Greil Marcus could dismiss as nonsense the obvious truth (in Mystery Train '76, reprinted many times and in general a very good book) that the black influence gave Presley's rock'n'roll much of its value.

Documentary films of tours were Elvis: That's The Way It Is '70 and Elvis On Tour '72; also 'docu-drama' This Is Elvis '82. He had 149 hits in the Billboard Hot 100 '56-82, 92 albums in the top 200 LPs '56-85; there were nearly 100 items listed in the Schwann catalogue '96, and his estate was worth more than ever. The Elvis Presley Sun Collection (aka The Complete Sun Sessions) and Elvis '56 from RCA/BMG are essential pop monuments; for those who want it all, The Complete '50s Masters (five CDs), From Nashville To Memphis (five CDs) and Walk A Mile In My Shoes: The Essential '70s Masters (four CDs) are definitive compilations. Million Dollar Quartet had him singing gospel at the piano with pals at Sun; it was bootlegged for years but was later on RCA/BMG; three-CD Platinum -- A Life In Music '97 was a set of rarities including 'Blowin' In The Wind', where he obviously didn't get it.

Presley's bibliography must be the largest in rock. Dave Hebler and Red and Sonny West (formerly of the Memphis Mafia) published Elvis: What Happened? days before his death, raising the lid on the pill-popping; Albert Goldman's massive, controversial biography Elvis '82 was disfigured by disgust but seemed unfortunately all too true. (In the publishing world Goldman, who also wrote books about Lenny Bruce and John Lennon, was described as a 'grave fucker'; he died of a heart attack 28 March 1994.) Peter Guralnick's well-written Last Train To Memphis '94 was the first of two volumes of what will undoubtedly be the definitive biography. Presley came from nowhere to become a folk hero; such is the strange sociological fascination that some Americans have given their children plastic surgery to look like him, and some do not believe he is dead. The sad irony is that those who need a folk hero are unable to examine the phenomenon, so that Presley himself gets lost in the shuffle; in David Ambrose's Hollywood Lies '96, Elvis was said to have been frozen out of his own life, declared officially dead and reduced to Presley look-alike contests, where he never came better than third.

Lisa Marie Presley watched as people tried to revive her father in the fatal bathroom. She went through her own drug and alcohol phase; when she made her first record in 1987, a cover of Aretha Franklin's hit 'Baby I Love You', she needed a six-pack and four takes. She became a Scientologist, and married singer-songwriter Danny Keough (two children), then Michael Jackson briefly, actor Nicholas Cage even more briefly, guitarist Michael Lockwood with whom she lived in England (two more children). She became a singer-songwriter herself. Her debut album was To Whom It May Concern 2003, described by Playboy as sounding like 'a pissed-off Sheryl Crow'. The second album Now What 2005 was also on Capitol, and had a label warning about 'explicit lyrics'; the third, Storm & Grace 2012, was on Universal Republic, with a dark vision, and a sparse folk-rock production by T-Bone Burnett. 'Presley has a deep and distinctive singing voice she uses to reflect, not overpower', wrote Steve Knopper for Tribune Newspapers, who compared the album not unfavorably to the grammy-winning Raising Sand, by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.