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.

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

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 create 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 firsFt 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 tastes.

The Army

Just as it seemed that everything Elvis touched turned to gold, on December 20, 1957, Elvis received a draft notice in the mail.

Elvis had both the opportunity to be excused from the military and the ability to get special dispensation, but instead, Elvis chose to enter the U.S. Army as a regular soldier. He was stationed in Germany.

With a nearly two-year hiatus from his career, many people, including Elvis himself, wondered if the world would forget him while he was in the army. Parker, on the other hand, worked hard to keep Elvis' name and image in the public eye. Parker was so successful at this that some would say Elvis was almost more popular after his military experience than he was before it.

While Elvis was in the army, two major events happened to him. The first was the death of his beloved mother. Her death devastated him. The second was that he met and started 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 together, a daughter named Lisa Marie Presley (born February 1, 1968).

Elvis, the Actor

When Elvis was discharged from the army in 1960, fans once again mobbed him. Elvis was as popular as ever, and he got started right away recording new songs and making more movies. Unfortunately, it had become obvious to Parker and others that anything with Elvis' name or image on it would make money, so Elvis was pushed to make movies in quantity rather than in quality. Elvis' most successful movie, Blue Hawaii (1961), became a basic template for many of his later movies. Elvis became increasingly upset about the poor quality of his movies and songs.

With few exceptions, from 1960 until 1968, Elvis made very few public appearances while he focused on making movies. In all, Elvis made 33 movies.

The 1968 Comeback and Las Vegas

While Elvis was away from the stage, other musicians appeared on the scene. A few of these groups, such as the Beatles, riled up teenagers, sold lots of records and threatened to make Elvis share his title of "King of Rock 'n' Roll," if not take it away. Elvis had to do something to keep his crown.

In December 1968, Elvis, dressed in a black leather outfit, appeared in an hour-long television special titled, Elvis. Calm, sexy, and humorous, Elvis wowed the crowd.

The 1968 "comeback special" energized Elvis. After the success of his television appearance, Elvis got back both into recording and live performances. In July 1969, Parker booked Elvis at the largest venue in Las Vegas, the new International Hotel. Elvis' shows there was a huge success and the hotel booked Elvis for four weeks a year through 1974. The rest of the year, Elvis went on tour.

Elvis Health

Ever since Elvis had become popular, he had worked at a breakneck speed. He was recording songs, making movies, signing autographs, and giving concerts with little to no rest. To keep up the fast pace, Elvis had started taking prescription drugs.

By the early 1970s, the long and continued use of these drugs began to cause problems. Elvis started having severe mood swings, aggression, erratic behavior and gained a lot of weight.

By this time, Elvis and Priscilla had grown apart and in January 1973, the two divorced. After the divorce, Elvis's drug addiction got even worse. Several times he was hospitalized for overdoses and other health problems. His performances began to suffer severely. On many occasions, Elvis just mumbled through songs while on stage.

Death: Elvis Has Left the Building

On the morning of August 16, 1977, Elvis' girlfriend, Ginger Alden, found Elvis on the bathroom floor at Graceland. He wasn't breathing. Elvis was taken to the hospital, where doctors were unable to resuscitate him. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. Elvis died at age 42.