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Decades:
1954–77

Elvis Aaron Presleya (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977) was one of the most popular American singers of the 20th century. A cultural icon, he is widely known by the single name Elvis. He is often referred to as the "King of Rock and Roll" or simply "the King".

Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with his family at the age of 13. He began his career there in 1954 when Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, eager to bring the sound of African American music to a wider audience, saw in Presley the means to realize his ambition. Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley was one of the originators of rockabilly, an uptempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country and rhythm and blues. RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who would manage the singer for over two decades. Presley's first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel", released in January 1956, was a number one hit. He became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll with a series of network television appearances and chart-topping records. His energized interpretations of songs, many from African American sources, and his uninhibited performance style made him enormously popular—and controversial. In November 1956, he made his film debut in Love Me Tender.

Conscripted into military service in 1958, Presley relaunched his recording career two years later with some of his most commercially successful work. He staged few concerts, however, and, guided by Parker, proceeded to devote much of the 1960s to making Hollywood movies and soundtrack albums, most of them critically derided. In 1968, after seven years away from the stage, he returned to live performance in a celebrated comeback television special that led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of profitable tours. In 1973, Presley staged the first concert broadcast globally via satellite, Aloha from Hawaii, seen by approximately 1.5 billion viewers. Prescription drug abuse severely compromised his health, and he died suddenly in 1977 at the age of 42.

Presley is regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th-century popular culture. He had a versatile voice and unusually wide success encompassing many genres, including country, pop ballads, gospel, and blues. He is the best-selling solo artist in the history of popular music. Nominated for 14 competitive Grammys, he won three, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36. He has been inducted into four music halls of fame.

Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Love Presley. In the two-room shotgun house built by his father in readiness for the birth, Jesse Garon Presley, his identical twin brother, was delivered 35 minutes before him, stillborn. As an only child, Presley became close to both parents and formed an unusually tight bond with his mother. The family attended an Assembly of God church where he found his initial musical inspiration.

Presley's ancestry was primarily a Western European mix—Scots-Irish, with some French Norman; one of Gladys's great-great-grandmothers was Cherokee. According to a third cousin of Presley's, one of Gladys's great-grandmothers was Jewish. Gladys was regarded by relatives and friends as the dominant member of the small family. Vernon moved from one odd job to the next, evidencing little ambition. The family often relied on help from neighbors and government food assistance. In 1938, they lost their home after Vernon was found guilty of altering a check written by the landowner. He was jailed for eight months, and Gladys and Elvis moved in with relatives.

In September 1941, Presley entered first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated, where his instructors regarded him as "average". He was encouraged to enter a singing contest after impressing his schoolteacher with a rendition of Red Foley's country song "Old Shep" during morning prayers. The contest, held at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945, saw his first public performance: dressed as a cowboy, the ten-year-old Presley stood on a chair to reach the microphone and sang "Old Shep". He recalled placing fifth. A few months later, Presley received for his birthday his first guitar. He had hoped for something else—by different accounts, either a bicycle or a rifle. Over the following year, he received basic guitar lessons from two of his uncles and the new pastor at the family's church. Presley recalled, "I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it."

Entering a new school, Milam, for sixth grade in September 1946, Presley was regarded as a loner. The following year, he began bringing his guitar in on a daily basis. He would play and sing during lunchtime, and was often teased as a "trashy" kid who played hillbilly music. The family was by then living in a largely African American neighborhood. A devotee of Mississippi Slim's show on the Tupelo radio station WELO, Presley was described as "crazy about music" by Slim's younger brother, a classmate of Presley's, who often took him in to the station. Slim supplemented Presley's guitar tuition by demonstrating chord techniques. When his protégé was 12 years old, Slim scheduled him for two on-air performances. Presley was overcome by stage fright the first time, but succeeded in performing the following week.

In November 1948, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. After residing for nearly a year in rooming houses, they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in the public housing complex known as the Courts. Enrolled at Humes High School, Presley received only a C in music in eighth grade. When his music teacher told him he had no aptitude for singing, he brought in his guitar the next day and sang a recent hit, "Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me", in an effort to prove otherwise. A classmate later recalled that the teacher "agreed that Elvis was right when he said that she didn't appreciate his kind of singing." He was generally too shy to perform openly, and was occasionally bullied by classmates who viewed him as a "mama's boy". In 1950, he began practicing guitar regularly under the tutelage of Jesse Lee Denson, a neighbor two-and-a-half years his senior. They and three other boys—including two future rockabilly pioneers, brothers Dorsey and Johnny Burnette—formed a loose musical collective that played frequently around the Courts. That September, he began ushering at Loew's State Theater. Other jobs followed during his school years: Precision Tool, Loew's again, and MARL Metal Products.

During his junior year, Presley began to stand out more among his classmates, largely because of his appearance: he grew out his sideburns and styled his hair with rose oil and Vaseline. On his own time, he would head down to Beale Street, the heart of Memphis's thriving blues scene, and gaze longingly at the wild, flashy clothes in the windows of Lansky Brothers. By his senior year, he was wearing them. Overcoming his reticence about performing outside the Courts, he competed in Humes's Annual "Minstrel" show in April 1953. Singing and playing guitar, he opened with "Till I Waltz Again With You", a recent hit for Teresa Brewer. Presley recalled that the performance did much for his reputation: "I wasn't popular in school ... I failed music—only thing I ever failed. And then they entered me in this talent show ... when I came onstage I heard people kind of rumbling and whispering and so forth, 'cause nobody knew I even sang. It was amazing how popular I became after that."

Presley, who never received formal music training or learned to read music, studied and played by ear. He frequented record stores with jukeboxes and listening booths. He knew all of Hank Snow's songs and he loved records by other country singers such as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Ted Daffan, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmie Davis, and Bob Wills. The Southern Gospel singer Jake Hess, one of his favorite performers, was a significant influence on his ballad-singing style. He was a regular audience member at the monthly All-Night Singings downtown, where many of the white gospel groups that performed reflected the influence of African American spiritual music. He adored the music of black gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Like some of his peers, he may have attended blues venues—of necessity, in the segregated South, only on nights designated for exclusively white audiences. He certainly listened to the regional radio stations that played "race records": spirituals, blues, and the modern, backbeat-heavy sound of rhythm and blues. Many of his future recordings were inspired by local African American musicians such as Arthur Crudup and Rufus Thomas.B.B. King recalled that he knew Presley before he was popular when they both used to frequent Beale Street. By the time he graduated high school in June 1953, Presley had already singled out music as his future.

In August 1953, Presley walked into the offices of Sun Records. He aimed to pay for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc: "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin". He would later claim he intended the record as a gift for his mother, or was merely interested in what he "sounded like", though there was a much cheaper, amateur record-making service at a nearby general store. Biographer Peter Guralnick argues that he chose Sun in the hope of being discovered. Asked by receptionist Marion Keisker what kind of singer he was, Presley responded, "I sing all kinds." When she pressed him on whom he sounded like, he repeatedly answered, "I don't sound like nobody." After he recorded, Sun boss Sam Phillips asked Keisker to note down the young man's name, which she did along with her own commentary: "Good ballad singer. Hold." Presley cut a second acetate in January 1954—"I'll Never Stand In Your Way" and "It Wouldn't Be the Same Without You"—but again nothing came of it.

Not long after, he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet, the Songfellows. He explained to his father, "They told me I couldn't sing." Songfellow Jim Hamill later claimed that he was turned down because he did not demonstrate an ear for harmony at the time. In April, Presley began working for the Crown Electric company as a truck driver. His friend Ronnie Smith, after playing a few local gigs with him, suggested he contact Eddie Bond, leader of Smith's professional band, which had an opening for a vocalist. Bond rejected him after a tryout, advising Presley to stick to truck driving "because you're never going to make it as a singer."

Phillips, meanwhile, was always on the lookout for someone who could bring the sound of the black musicians on whom Sun focused to a broader audience. As Keisker reported, "Over and over I remember Sam saying, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'" In June, he acquired a demo recording of a ballad, "Without You", that he thought might suit the teenaged singer. Presley came by the studio, but was unable to do it justice. Despite this, Phillips asked Presley to sing as many numbers as he knew. He was sufficiently affected by what he heard to invite two local musicians, guitarist Winfield "Scotty" Moore and upright bass player Bill Black, to work something up with Presley for a recording session.

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