August 16, 2017 marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death – here we take a look back at the tumultuous life of The King, and revisit just why he’s such a monumental cultural figure.
Words by Jamie Feggans
Image credit: Paramount Pictures; (thumbnail) 20th Century Fox
The King was not born into his later glory, being raised in a simple homestead in Tupelo, Mississippi. He was described as a ‘loner’ in school, and was told again and again that he was a terrible singer and would never make a career out of it.
But Presley kept playing, and kept listening, and eventually caught his break at 19 with a rendition of the classic blues song ‘That’s All Right’.
Image credit: Markuskun.
Presley’s eponymous debut album was released on March 23, 1956, and would come to define the new genre of ‘rock and roll’. Preceded by the single ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the album also featured one of Presley’s most famous recordings – the classic ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.
Elvis Presley sat atop the Billboard chart for 10 weeks, and marked the first time that a rock and roll album had achieved number one status.
Image credit: RCA Records.
Becoming a star
After the release of his album, Presley was courted by various variety television programs, including the ever-popular Ed Sullivan Show. His performance stylings received mixed reviews but the viewers kept tuning in, with a broadcast in September 1956 being watched by 60 million people – over 80 per cent of the total television audience.
Presley soon became a national celebrity across America, with his songs including a new backing track of screaming young fans.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The King hits Hollywood
Presley had always had a dream of becoming a film star like his heroes James Dean and Marlon Brando. Although he never quite reached their heights, his time in Hollywood in the 60’s produced classics such as Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and Viva Las Vegas.
However, many of the films Presley was signed for were medium budget musical comedies which he eventually tired of, disappointed that his hopes of serious dramatic roles were never realised.
Image credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Elvis gets hitched
Presley was conscripted into the US Army in 1958, and after basic training he was posted in Friedberg, Germany where he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu.
He quickly fell for her, and after a lengthy period persuading her parents, in 1963 she moved into his Graceland home in Memphis. Eventually (with some apparent reluctance on Presley’s part) they married in 1966.
A tumultuous marriage with affairs on both sides led to a separation six years later, but the two remained on good terms until Elvis’ death.
Image credit: Las Vegas News Bureau.
The rock and roll lifestyle
After skyrocketing to celebrity status, Presley’s life became closely followed by the tabloids in the 60’s and early 70’s.
From numerous affairs with his Hollywood co-stars to meeting President Nixon in 1970, his frenetic lifestyle became fuelled by prescription drugs and amphetamines that would eventually take their toll.
Presley died on August 16, 1977, just before he was scheduled to fly out of Memphis to begin yet another tour.
Image credit: Ollie Atkins.
A lasting impact
You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in the Western world who hasn’t heard of Elvis Presley. But beyond the modern horde of impersonators, Presley’s most important legacy was without a doubt his music.
Before Presley, rock and roll barely existed – but with his unprecedented popularity it became a central feature of youth culture in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Despite his failing health in his later years, Presley still toured until quite literally the day he died, and this tenacity is one of the reasons there are tributes to The King of Rock and Roll across America and the world.