Biography of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock 'n' Roll

Elvis Presley

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Elvis Presley (Jan. 8, 1935–Aug 16, 1977) was a singer, actor, and cultural icon of the 20th century. Presley sold more than 1 billion records and made 33 movies, but his cultural impact far exceeds even those numbers.

Fast Facts: Elvis Presley

  • Known For: A rock 'n' roll icon
  • Also Known As: The King of Rock 'n' Roll
  • Born: Jan. 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi
  • Parents: Gladys and Vernon Presley
  • Died: Aug 16, 1977 in Memphis, Tennessee
  • Songs: "Love Me Tender," “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love”
  • Movies: "Kid Galahad," "Blue Hawaii," “Jailhouse Rock,” "King Creole”
  • Spouse: Priscilla Beaulieu Presley
  • Children: Lisa Marie Presley
  • Notable Quote: "Rock 'n' roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it. That's what happens to me. I can't help it."

Early Life

Elvis Presley was born to Gladys and Vernon Presley in the couple's two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, following a difficult delivery. Presley's twin brother, Jessie Garon, was stillborn, and Gladys was so ill from the birth that she was taken to the hospital. She wasn't able to have more children.

Gladys Presley doted on her sandy-haired, blue-eyed son and worked hard to keep her family together. She struggled when her husband was sentenced to three years in the Mississippi state penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, for forgery after changing the amount on a check. With him in prison, Gladys couldn't earn enough to keep the house, so she and her 3-year-old moved in with relatives, the first of many moves for the family.

Learning Music

Since they moved often, only two things were consistent in Presley's childhood: his parents and music. With his parents usually at work, Presley found music wherever he could. He listened to music in church and taught himself to play the church piano. When Presley was 8, he often hung out at the local radio station. For his 11th birthday, his parents gave him a guitar.

By high school, his family had moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Although Presley joined R.O.T.C., played football, and worked as an usher at a movie theater, his activities didn't stop other students from picking on him. Presley was different. He dyed his hair black and wore it in a style that made him look more like a comic book character than other kids in his school.

So he surrounded himself with music, listening to the radio and buying records. After the family moved to Lauderdale Courts, an apartment complex, he often played with other aspiring musicians who lived there. Although segregation was still a fact in the south, Presley crossed the color line and listened to African-American artists such as B.B. King. He often visited Beale Street in the African-American section of town to watch black musicians play.

Big Break

By the time Presley graduated from high school, he could sing in various styles, from hillbilly to gospel. He also had a style of singing and moving that was all his own. He had combined what he saw and heard 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 and playing at small clubs at night, Presley received a call from Sun Records on June 6, 1954. Phillips wanted Presley to sing a new song. When that didn't work out, he set Presley up with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. After a month of practicing, they recorded "That's All Right (Mama)." Phillips convinced a friend to play it on the radio, and it was an instant hit.

Moore, Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana continued to back Presley on dozens of legendary rock 'n' roll songs over the next decade.

Presley quickly built an audience. On Aug. 15, 1954, he signed with Sun Records for four albums. He then began making appearances on popular radio shows such as "Grand Ole Opry" and "Louisiana Hayride." Presley was so successful on "Hayride" that he was hired to perform every Saturday for a year. He quit his job and toured the south during the week, playing anywhere there was a paying audience, then returned to Shreveport, Louisiana, every Saturday for "Hayride."

High school and college students went wild for Presley, screaming and cheering and mobbing him backstage. He put his soul into every performance and moved his body—a lot. Presley 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 Presley's popularity soared, he hired "Colonel" Tom Parker as his manager. In some ways, Parker took advantage of Presley, including taking a generous cut of his proceeds, but he steered Presley to mega-stardom.

Stardom

Presley's popularity soon became more than Sun Records could handle, so Phillips sold Presley's contract to RCA Victor for $35,000, more than any record company had ever paid for a singer.

To further boost Presley's popularity, Parker put him on television. On Jan. 28, 1956, Presley made his first television appearance on "Stage Show," followed by appearances on "The Milton Berle Show," "The Steve Allen Show," and "The Ed Sullivan Show."

In March 1956, Parker arranged an audition with Presley at Paramount studios. Studio executives liked Presley so much that they signed him to do his first movie, "Love Me Tender" (1956), with an option for six more. Two weeks after his audition, Presley received his first gold record for "Heartbreak Hotel," which had sold 1 million copies.

Presley's popularity was skyrocketing and money was flowing. He bought his mother the house he had promised her and in March 1957, he purchased Graceland—a mansion with 13 acres of land—for $102,500. He then had the entire mansion remodeled to his tastes.

Army

Just as it seemed like everything Presley touched turned to gold, on Dec. 20, 1957, he received a draft notice. Presley could have been excused from military service, but he chose to enter the Army as a regular soldier. He was stationed in Germany.

With a nearly two-year hiatus from his career, many people, including Presley, wondered if the world would forget him. But Parker worked hard to keep Presley's name and image before the public, succeeding so well that some said Presley was as popular after his military experience as before it.

While Presley was in the Army, two major personal events occurred. The first was the death of his mother, which devastated him. The second was meeting and dating 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whose father was also stationed in Germany. They married eight years later, on May 1, 1967, and had one child, a daughter named Lisa Marie Presley, on Feb. 1, 1968.

Movies

Following Presley's discharge in 1960, he launched into recording songs and making movies. It had become obvious to Parker and others that anything bearing Presley's name would make money, so Presley was pushed to make movies in quantity rather than quality. His most successful movie, "Blue Hawaii" (1961), became a template for many that followed. He grew increasingly upset about the poor quality of his movies and songs.

From 1960 until 1968, Presley made few public appearances, focusing on making movies. In all, he made 33 movies.

Comeback

While Presley was busy making movies, other musicians took the stage, some of whom, including the Beatles, sold lots of records and threatened to make Presley share his title of "King of Rock 'n' Roll,"—if not steal it. Presley had to do something to keep his crown.

In December 1968, he dressed in black leather and made an hour-long television special titled "Elvis." Calm, sexy, and humorous, he wowed the crowd. The "comeback special" energized Presley. He returned to recording songs and doing live performances. In July 1969, Parker booked Presley at the largest venue in Las Vegas, the new International Hotel. His shows were huge successes and the hotel booked Presley for four weeks a year through 1974. The rest of the year he toured.

Health

Since he became popular, Presley had worked at breakneck speed, recording songs, making movies, and giving concerts with little to no rest. To maintain that pace, he started taking prescription drugs.

By the early 1970s, continued drug use had begun to cause problems. Presley started having severe mood swings with aggressive and erratic behavior, and he gained a lot of weight. Presley and Priscilla had grown apart, and in January 1973, they divorced. His drug addiction became worse; he was hospitalized several times for overdoses and other health problems. His performances began to suffer; on many occasions, he mumbled through songs.

Death

On Aug. 16, 1977, Presley's girlfriend Ginger Alden found him on the bathroom floor at Graceland. He wasn't breathing. He was taken to the hospital, but doctors were unable to resuscitate him and he was pronounced dead at 42. His death initially was attributed to "cardiac arrhythmia," but the cause later was changed to a lethal mix of prescription drugs. 

Legacy

Elvis Presley was one of the few artists to become known worldwide by just his first name and whose talent and accomplishments made him pop culture royalty. His fame has endured.

Twenty-five years after his death, RCA released an album of his No.1 records, titled "ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits." The album debuted at No. 1 on the charts, selling half a million copies in its first week. Having an album debut atop the U.S. charts was something Presley hadn't accomplished while he was alive.

It opened at No. 1 in 16 other countries, including Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Argentina, and the United Arab Emirates.

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