Elvis Presley (1935-1977), famously known as the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, rose to fame in the mid-1950s and quickly became one of the most iconic and influential musicians of the 20th century. He is credited with launching a musical revolution by popularising rock and roll, a genre considered niche at the time due to its roots in blues and country music. However his first single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, changed the course of musical history forever.
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ made Elvis an instant hit, repeatedly played on countless radio stations across America to an eager teenage audience. Its success led to multiple national television appearances alongside a string of controversial live performances, which shocked the nation.
His charismatic stage presence and electrifying live performances had a rebellious sex appeal – mainly due to his pioneering dance moves, including his infamous gyrating hip moves which would send teenage audiences into a frenzy. His live shows caused a media uproar and he became a cultural phenomenon. His reputation as ‘the King’ is due to an incredible musical career that produced 18 number 1 singles and 9 number 1 albums in the US, with a total of 149 songs appearing on Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart.
Here are ten facts about the original King of Rock and Roll.
1. He was a twin
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on 8 January 1935, to parents Vernon and Gladys Presley. He was the twin brother of Jesse Garon Presley, who was stillborn. Elvis later changed his middle name, Aaron, to Aron, to more closely match his twin’s middle name. Elvis’s upbringing was characterised by a strong work ethic, a love of family and a deep connection to his roots in the south.
Presley’s family was poor and he grew up in a small two-room house in Tupelo which was barely 400 square feet in size. His father Vernon worked as a truck driver while Gladys was a homemaker.
2. He was hugely influenced by gospel music
Elvis’ mother Gladys was a big influence on Elvis’s earliest musical influences as she was a devout gospel music fan. He frequently attended church in Memphis with his family, where the gospel quartet ‘The Blackwood Brothers’ performed. The group’s soothing harmonies and rousing lyrics had a profound influence upon Elvis, who, throughout his career, used gospel groups as his backing singers. Similarly, Elvis warmed up his voice to gospel music.
3. He taught himself to play guitar
In 1945, 10-year-old Elvis entered a youth talent contest in Tupelo, broadcast live on the local radio station. It was Elvis’ first public performance. He came fifth place and won some fair ride tickets. That same year, his parents gifted him a guitar for his birthday, instead of a bicycle which Elvis had requested but proved too expensive. Elvis quickly taught himself to play and as a teenager soon began performing at school concerts and entering local talent contests.
During this time he started to develop his image as a performer, with a style that would prove key to his iconic image: Cuban-collared shirts, pleated trousers and penny loafers became staples. He also started to wear his hair long, which was unusual at the time. He slicked it back with generous amounts of gel in a style that became known as the pompadour.
4. His first record was a present for his mother
In 1953, Presley recorded his first demo acetate at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, primarily as a birthday gift for his mother, Gladys. The owner of the label, Sam Phillips, was impressed with his voice and unique style and gave him a record deal. Sam teamed Presley together with some local musicians and they went on to record Presley’s first single, ‘That’s All Right’, which was released in 1954. It quickly became a hit in the southern United States and marked the beginning of Elvis’ rapid rise to fame as a rock and roll artist.
Elvis soon started to make regular appearances on a local live radio show where he met a promoter and manager known as ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, who went on to play a fundamental role in the rest of his musical career.
5. He holds the record for the most songs to chart in Billboard’s top 40
Elvis’ first album Elvis Presley was released in 1956 and featured many of his early hit singles that have since become timeless classics, including ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’. Throughout his career, Elvis released a total of 72 albums and charted more than 150 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. He was also the first artist to have 5 of his albums reach No.1, and held the record for the most No.1 hit singles by a solo artist for many years.
6. He became known as ‘Elvis the Pelvis’
Elvis made one of his earliest television performances on 5 June 1956 on the The Milton Berle Show in a performance that shocked America. The mainstream conservative culture was aghast at Elvis’s trademark gyrating hips and pelvis-shaking dance moves that enraged critics across the country, calling his shows ‘vulgar’ and ‘animalistic’.
On 9 September 1956, Elvis made his debut performance on America’s top television programme of the time, The Ed Sullivan Show, in which he was signed for an unprecedented $50,000 for three appearances. With 60 million viewers tuning in, Elvis’ first performance became the most-watched TV broadcast of the 1950s.
7. He wanted to be known as an actor
Elvis also launched a successful acting career, and aspired to be seen as a serious dramatic actor. He appeared in 31 films between 1956-1973, with some of his most successful films including Jailhouse Rock (1957), King Creole (1958) and Viva Las Vegas (1964).
However, as much as Elvis saw acting as the natural next step to his musical career, he soon became disillusioned with the industry. Under the heavy influence of his manager, Colonel Parker, Elvis was forced to continually appear in a series of musicals with romantic plot-lines, mainly due to the sales of the soundtracks returning a huge profit. However, he was never offered the opportunity to appear in a serious, non-singing role.
8. He served in the United States Army
Elvis entered the US Army at Memphis, Tennessee in 1958 and received his discharge from the Army Reserve in 1964. He completed advanced military training and served overseas in Germany from 1958-1960. Although his service didn’t last long, it had a profound effect on him privately, launching him into a dark period in his life during which he also lost his mother Gladys. He would later call her death ‘the great tragedy of his life’.
His military career was also the start of the drug addiction that likely contributed to the end of his life, when a fellow sergeant introduced Elvis to amphetamines, which he began taking almost daily.
9. His marriage was controversial
While Elvis was in the army, he met Priscilla Beaulieu in 1959 during a party at his base in Bad Nauheim, Germany. She was 14 at the time. Priscilla’s parents were furious when she returned home late the night of that first meeting, insisting that she never see Elvis again. But the pair kept in touch by phone and some 2 years later she was allowed by her family to fly from Germany to visit him in America.
Eight years after they met, they were married in Las Vegas, Nevada. The wedding was arranged by Presley’s manager Tom Parker to maximise publicity, and featured very few guests. It was over in just eight minutes.
The couple’s daughter, Lisa Marie, was born the following year, in 1968. Although their marriage didn’t last (they divorced in 1973), Elvis and Priscilla remained friends, and raised Lisa Marie together until Elvis’ death in 1977.
10. He died at just 42 years old
Presley passed away on 16 August 1977, aged just 42. He died in the mansion known as Graceland, which is now a museum and a popular tourist attraction. The cause of death was officially ruled as a heart attack, but many believe that it was the result of his long-term drug abuse.
The later years of his career had been dogged by excessive weight gain, and he led a reclusive life for much of the sixties. Presley weighed some 250 pounds in his final years and his live performances slowly began deteriorating, largely due to his addiction to amphetamines and sleeping pills.