Elvis Presley

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Presley, Elvis

Presley, Elvis (Elvis Aaron Presley), 1935–77, American popular singer, b. Tupelo, Miss. Exposed to gospel music from childhood, Presley began playing guitar before his adolescence. He first recorded in 1953, became a national sensation by 1956, and dominated rock music until 1963. His rebellious image inspired several generations of would be rock stars, from John Lennon of the Beatles, The to dozens more.

Presley was "discovered" by recording engineer/studio owner Sam Phillips, who headed the small Sun Studios in Memphis after Presley recorded a custom record for his mother there. Phillips paired him with two local musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, to record his first single, a cover of the R&B hit "That's Alright Mama" backed with the country hit "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Elvis began touring on the country circuit and was an immediate sensation thanks to his powerful singing and suggestive dance moves. Unable to fully exploit the star, Phillips sold Elvis's contract to RCA Victor in 1956.

Guided by his single-minded manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, Elvis became a teen sensation thanks to successful records including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don't Be Cruel.” His success led to a movie contract in 1956, and he appeared in 33 films through 1972, including Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and Viva Las Vegas (1964). During the '60s, Elvis's film career overshadowed his work as an innovative performer, until in 1968 he appeared in a "comeback" TV special that featured Elvis returning to his rock roots with his original band members. From the late '60s to his death, Presley focused on performing in Las Vegas. His death was attributed largely to substance abuse. Since his death, popular interest in Presley has remained high; his home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tenn., has been turned into a highly successful tourist attraction and pop culture shrine.


See account by his former wife, Priscilla, Elvis and Me (with S. Harmon, 1986); J. Hopkins, Elvis: The Final Years (1986), L. Cotten, Elvis Catalog (1987), R. Gibson and S. Shaw, Elvis (1987); biography by P. Guralnick (2 vol., 1994, 1998); documentary dir. by T. Zimny (2018).

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Presley, Elvis (Aaron, orig. Aron)

(1935–77) popular singer, movie actor; born in Tupelo, Miss. An only child (a twin brother was stillborn), he was raised in a religious home. As a boy he sang with his local Assembly of God church choir, which emulated the style of African-American psalm singing. At age ten he won a school singing contest and taught himself the rudiments of the guitar (although he never really could read music). In 1948 he moved with his family to Memphis, Tenn., where he graduated from high school in 1953 and began working as a truck driver and studying evenings to be an electrician. Later that year he made a private recording for his mother at the Memphis Sound Studio, where he attracted the attention of proprietor Sam Phillips, who also operated Sun Records, a fledgling blues label. In July 1954 Phillips had Presley record his first single, "That's All Right, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," a synthesis of rhythm-and-blues and country-and-western that was for awhile described as "rockabilly." The record made an immediate impression on local listeners, who were bewildered to learn that Presley was white, but their enthusiasm for his style of dress, bodily movements, and music signaled the beginnings of rock 'n' roll. He toured the South as the Hillbilly Cat and performed on a Shreveport, La., radio station, and after releasing his first national hit on Sun Records, he moved to RCA Records under the tutelage of his ambitious personal manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker. His first national television appearance was actually in 1955 on Jackie Gleason's Stage Show, but it was his 1956 appearance on Ed Sullivan's Talk of the Town that made him a national sensation: his pelvic gyrations were considered so scandalous that he was shown only from the waist up. That same year he released his first million-selling single, "Heartbreak Hotel," and starred in Love Me Tender, the first of 33 relatively bland movies he eventually made. He was forced to interrupt his career while serving in the U.S. Army (1958–60) but he returned to his recording and movie careers with undimmed success and solidified what became virtually an industry. He scored his last chart-topping single in 1969 but in 1973 his television special, "Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii," was broadcast to a potential worldwide audience of over a billion people and he carved out a new career as a flashy nightclub performer even as he broadened his repertoire to include traditional and religious songs. In 1973, following his divorce from his wife Priscilla Presley, he became increasingly drug-dependent and overweight, and he spent his last years living reclusively at his Memphis home, Graceland. His death at age 42 shocked his many admirers, who have never given up on the music, mementoes, and memory of the man they regard as "the King of rock 'n' roll."
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.