More than just "The King" and the founder of rock 'n' roll - Big is an American icon. While countless rock stars have become household names, and several have built followings that enshrined them after their deaths (John Lennon, Jim Morrison), only Elvis has passed beyond mortal rock star status to become a superhuman, almost godlike figure. Despite a sordid death over 20 years ago, Elvis lives on, not only through his music, but in velvet portraits, postage stamps, statuettes, vials of sweat, bad jokes, professional imitators, tabloid headlines, theme restaurants, pilgrimages to Graceland and tell-all novels -- a distorted piece of Americana which is more image than substance.
All hype aside, Elvis the musician should be remembered for popularizing rock 'n' roll, perhaps even creating it, by fusing white country music with black R&B. Many of his countless hits remain classics, and his style both as a singer and performer influenced nearly all who followed him.
Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in rural Tupelo, Miss., to Gladys and Vernon Presley, a very poor, very religious couple; Elvis was a twin, but his brother, Jesse Garon, died only six hours after birth. The Presley family frequently relocated in search of work, and by the time he was in high school Presley's family resided in Memphis, Tenn. For several months after graduation Presley was a truck driver, until on one fateful day in 1953 he passed a recording studio with the sign: "Make your own records -- $2 for 4 songs." Elvis returned to that studio, Sun Studios, and recorded "That's When Your Heartache Begins," supposedly as a gift for his mother. Sam Phillips, the owner of the studio, overheard Elvis and knew he was on to something -- he had been searching for a white performer who could sing "Negro" music (since at the time white audiences would not listen to black performers), and Elvis fit the bill.
Phillips encouraged Presley to hang around and record with session musicians Bill Black (bass) and Scotty Moore (guitar), whose country influences gave Presley's material a unique "rockabilly" sound.His next single, "That's All Right Mama," was distributed to the public, and soon became a local hit. Unfortunately a color barrier prevented his song from being played in much of the country -- too many DJs thought he was African American and refused to play his material. Eager to seek a more traditional audience, Presley was booked into the Grand Ole Opry for a one-month stand, but was fired after only one performance because they insisted that he wasn't singing country "correctly."
An illegal Dutch immigrant named "Colonel" Tom Parker took over Presley's management, just in time to see Presley's last Sun single, "Mystery Train," become a No. 1 country hit. The Colonel got Presley a deal with RCA Records for $35,000, an unprecedented advance at the time, and began hyping his star, going as far as to pay teenage girls to scream at his shows. In January of 1956 Elvis had his first hit for RCA, "Heartbreak Hotel," which reached No. 1 on the pop and country charts and No. 2 on the R&B charts. Elvis became a star. Colonel Tom convinced Paramount to sign Elvis to a three-picture deal, and his movies became regular box office draws. Later that year Elvis appeared on the Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Ed Sullivan shows -- his famous Ed Sullivan appearance reached 56 million. (During this show, Presley was only shown from the waist up due to his trademark hip gyrations, which were considered too sexually suggestive at the time.) Presley was considered scandalous among adults, which naturally made him popular with teenagers.
1957's hit singles "Love Me Tender" and "Jailhouse Rock" enhanced Elvis's already huge popularity, and the singer moved from a modest Memphis house into Graceland, a sprawling white mansion just outside the city. (Even today, more than 20 years after Elvis's death, more than one million people visit Graceland each year.) In 1958 Presley was mailed a draft notice, and though every branch of the service wanted him, Elvis enlisted in the U.S. Army. Fans and journalists declared that rock 'n' roll was dead. Elvis spent the next two years based in Germany, where his presence helped to popularize rock 'n' roll in Europe.
When Elvis returned to the U.S. in 1960, the Colonel did everything he could to renew interest in the King. Though he continued to record during the 1960s, Elvis was almost a has-been in rock music, appealing to an older audience when hip teenagers were into the Beatles and psychedelia. Nonetheless his loyal fan base grew to incredible proportions. Each of his 21 movies made between 1961 and 1968 (such as Blue Hawaii and King Creole) packed theaters, and all of his albums sold extremely well. Though he never performed again until 1968, Elvis was so popular that he had to be permanently surrounded by an entourage known as the "Memphis Mafia," who kept him isolated from the real world. Elvis began overeating, typically his famous peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and soon lost his boyish figure. In 1967, the 32-year-old Elvis married his 21-year-old longtime girlfriend, Priscilla Beaulieu; they later had a daughter, Lisa-Marie.
In 1968 the Colonel engineered a big Elvis comeback, beginning with a famed TV special in which the King appeared in a black leather suit and sang many of his old hits. Elvis became a regular at Las Vegas hotels, where the faithful would come to see the King in person. Elvis slowly went to seed, sleeping days, working nights, eating too much, abusing prescription drugs. He became increasingly unstable and paranoid. In 1973 Priscilla divorced him, and Elvis began to fall apart. On August 16, 1977, Elvis was found dead in a bathroom at Graceland. Elvis had died of an overdose of cocaine and barbituates, though it was officially claimed he suffered from an "irregular heartbeat." During his lifetime he sold over 300 million albums and made 33 movies. And of course there are those he claim he is still alive...