Elvis Presley

A Biography of the King of Rock 'n' Roll

Picture of President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley at the White House.
President Richard M. Nixon and Elvis Presley at the White House. (December 21, 1970). Picture courtesy the U.S. National Archives.

Historical Importance of Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley, a cultural icon of the 20th century, was a singer and actor. Elvis sold over one billion records and made 33 movies.

Dates: January 8, 1935 -- August 16, 1977

Also Known As: Elvis Aaron Presley, The King of Rock 'n' Roll, The King

Biography of Elvis Presley:

From Humble Beginnings

After a difficult birth, Elvis Presley was born to parents Gladys and Vernon Presley at 4:35 a.m. on January 8, 1935 in the couple's small, two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Elvis' twin brother, Jessie Garon, was stillborn and Gladys was so ill from the birth that she was taken to the hospital. She was never able to have more children.

Gladys doted on her sandy-haired, blue-eyed son and worked very hard to keep her family together. She especially struggled when Vernon was sentenced to three years in the Parchman Farm Prison for forgery. (Vernon had sold a pig for $4, but had changed the check to either $14 or $40.)

With Vernon in prison, Gladys could not earn enough to keep the house, so three-year-old Elvis and his mom moved in with some relatives. This was the first of many moves for Elvis and his family.

Learning Music

Since Elvis moved often, he had only two things that were consistent in his childhood: his parents and music. With his parents usually busy at work, Elvis found music wherever he could. He listened to music in church and even taught himself how to play the church piano.

When Elvis was eight, he often hung out at the local radio station. When he turned eleven, his parents gave him a guitar for his birthday.

By high school, Elvis' family had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Although Elvis joined R.O.T.C., played on the football team, and worked as an usher at a local movie theater, these activities did not stop other students from picking on him.

Elvis was different. He dyed his hair black and wore it in a style that more closely resembled a comic book character (Captain Marvel Jr.) than other kids in his school.

With problems at school, Elvis continued to surround himself with music. He listened to the radio and bought records. After moving with his family to Lauderdale Courts, an apartment complex, he often played with other aspiring musicians who lived there. To listen to a wider variety of music, Elvis crossed the color line (segregation was still strongly in force in the South) and listened to African-American artists, such as B.B. King. Elvis would also often visit Beale Street in the African-American section of town and watch black musicians play.

Elvis' Big Break

By the time Elvis graduated from high school, he could sing in various styles, from hillbilly to gospel. More importantly, Elvis also had a style of singing and moving that was all his own. Elvis had taken all that he had seen and heard and combined it into a unique new sound. The first to realize this was Sam Phillips at Sun Records.

After spending the year after high school working a day job, playing at small clubs at night, and wondering if he would ever become a full-time musician, Elvis received a call from Sun Records on June 6, 1954 offering him a big break.

Phillips wanted Elvis to sing a particular new song, but when that didn't work out, he set Elvis up with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. After a month of practicing, Elvis, Moore, and Black recorded "That's All Right (Mama)." Phillips convinced a friend to play it on the radio and it was an instant hit. The song was so well liked that it was played fourteen times in a row.

Elvis Makes It Big

Elvis rose quickly to stardom. On August 15, 1954, Elvis signed a contract for four records with Sun Records. He then began making appearances on popular radio shows such as the famous Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. Elvis was so successful on the Hayride show that they hired him to perform every Saturday for a year. It was then that Elvis quit his day job. Elvis toured the South during the week, playing anywhere there was a paying audience, but had to be back in Shreveport, Louisiana every Saturday for the Hayride show.

High school and college students went wild for Elvis and his music. They screamed. They cheered. They mobbed him backstage, tearing at his clothes. For his part, Elvis put his soul into every performance. Plus, he moved his body - a lot. This was so very different than any other white performer. Elvis gyrated his hips, jiggled his legs, and fell to his knees on the floor. Adults thought he was lewd and suggestive; teenagers loved him.

As Elvis' popularity soared, he realized that he needed a manager, so he hired "Colonel" Tom Parker. In some ways, Parker took advantage of Elvis over the years, including taking an overly generous cut of Elvis' proceeds. However, Parker also steered Elvis into the mega-star he was to become.

Elvis, the Star

Elvis soon became too popular for the Sun Records studio to handle and Phillips sold Elvis' contract to RCA Victor. At the time, RCA paid $35,000 for Elvis' contract, more than any record company had ever paid for a singer.

To make Elvis even more popular, Parker put Elvis on television. On January 28, 1956, Elvis made his first television appearance on Stage Show, which was soon followed by appearances on the Milton Berle Show, Steve Allen Show, and the Ed Sullivan Show.

In March 1956, Parker arranged for Elvis to get an audition with Paramount Movie Studios. The movie studio liked Elvis so much that they signed him to do his first movie, Love Me Tender (1956), with an option to do six more. About two weeks after his audition, Elvis received his first gold record for "Heartbreak Hotel," which had sold one million copies.

Elvis' popularity was skyrocketing and money was flowing in. Elvis had always wanted to take care of his family and buy his mom a house that she had always wanted. He was able to do this and so much more. In March 1957, Elvis purchased Graceland, a mansion that sat on 13 acres of land, for $102,500. He then had the entire mansion remodeled to his own tastes.