Elvis Aron (Aaron) Presley was born on 8 January 1935 to a poor family from Tupelo, Mississippi, and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, with his parents in 1948.
While still at school, he won first prize in a singing contest, and his father bought him a $4 guitar which became young Elvis’s most prized possession.
After school, he drifted through various menial jobs, choosing to concentrate his attention on leisure activities – including listening to country music and R&B on the local radio stations and occasionally singing with a gospel group called The Blackwood Brothers.
It is said that Presley’s idol at the time was the super-smooth Dean Martin, and it seems probable that when Elvis first entered the premises of the Memphis Recording Company in the Summer of 1954 and paid $4 to cut a private recording of the late forties ballad My Happiness (originally recorded by The Pied Pipers, one of whom was Jo Stafford) he was trying to emulate Martin.
The recording was meant as a surprise present for his mother’s birthday, but an assistant at the studio, Marion Keisker, detected something unique in the 19-year-old truck driver’s voice and persona and mentioned the fact to her boss, Sam Phillips, who brought Elvis back and introduced the young truck driver to a couple of studio musicians.
Scotty Moore was a young guitarist with The Starlite Wranglers. Bill Black was their bass player.
Phillips put them in the studio with Elvis on Monday 5 July, and after many lacklustre attempts at mainstream and country ballads, they came out with That’s All Right, a blues by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
Phillips heard the sound of gold, and the track was released (backed with a version of Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon Of Kentucky) to instant local acclaim as Sun 209 in August 1954.
The record shocked fans the first time they heard it. There had never been anything like its strum and bounce on white radio before. The 19-year-old Presley instantly became the biggest teen sensation since Frank Sinatra.
Sun issued a total of five Presley singles, and though none reached the national charts, they remain amongst the finest rock & roll records ever made. Each had an R&B song on one side, and a rocked-up country ballad on the other.
Apart from Crudup’s That’s All Right, the R&B cuts were Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, an old blues song by one Kokomo Arnold called Milk Cow Blues Boogie, Arthur Gunter’s Baby Let’s Play House, and Junior Parker’s Mystery Train – while most of the country songs were fairly straight before they received the ‘treatment’ from Presley, Moore and Black.
By the middle of 1955, Presley’s reputation had spread to the extent that several of America’s biggest record labels were bidding for his signature.
Columbia (CBS) dropped out at $20,000, Atlantic went to $25,000, and in November 1955, RCA signed him up for the unprecedented sum of $35,000.
Presley’s adviser in the deal was the self-styled “Colonel” Tom Parker, who had seen Elvis performing down the bill on various country music packages and heard him on the influential radio show Louisiana Hayride before taking over the role of manager from Memphis DJ Bob Neal.
Presley’s appeal lay not only in his wild music but also in his totally uninhibited, sexually-oriented stage presence, which was considered disgusting by an older generation totally unused to the hip-swivelling, the snarling, the sexuality and the (to them) incomprehensible lyrics.
Rush-released to satisfy public demand in March 1956, Elvis’ debut LP was a ruthless, exploitative product of its day, hastily assembled from Sun session leftovers and hurried covers. In parts brilliant (such as the ghostly Blue Moon), and despite a reputation as his definitive early work, the Elvis Presley album pales beside his second LP, Elvis.
Released seven months later, the follow-up album is a reverb-sodden paradise featuring guitarist Scotty Moore at his spidery-fingered best and capped by the rarely celebrated weepie, How’s The World Treating You?
In 1957, Elvis purchased a hilltop mansion in Whitehaven, Memphis. Known as Graceland, the building (which cost Elvis $100,000 at the time) would become one of the most famous – and visited – rock ‘n’ roll landmarks in the world.
Also in 1957, Elvis appeared for his third and last time on the Ed Sullivan Show, on which cameramen were instructed to show him from the waist up only, for fear of offending conservative viewers.
On 24 May 1958, Elvis Presley reported to the US Army to start his compulsory military service. As Private 53310761, he politely endured the ritual hair-shearing ceremony mounted for the media.
He had completed his fourth movie, King Creole, and left a stockpile of records – all of which climbed the charts while he was away in the army (Don’t Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, Hard Headed Woman and One Night) – so his absence did not impair his popularity.
As the sixties dawned in America, no pretenders had threatened Presley’s position as king of rock & roll.
The month after his army release in March 1960, Stuck On You bolted to #1 to be followed by It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight? later in the year.
By the time Surrender had achieved similar status in February 1961, Elvis already had a dozen chart-toppers under his belt but he was concentrating all his activities in the recording and film studios, making no personal appearances.
Over the next decade, he starred in a succession of woeful song vehicles with films like Tickle Me (1965) and Clambake (1967), and the low standard of his records was reflected in his failure to achieve more than one US Top 10 entry between 1964 and 1969 when In The Ghetto and Suspicious Minds showed a rally of brilliance.
Between 1961 and 1968, in fact, Elvis made no less than 21 movies at the rate of three a year. An MGM executive was quoted as saying at the time; “They don’t need titles. They could be numbered. They would still sell”.
To make an Elvis movie in those days, all you really needed were lots of pretty girls, a couple of fights, some chocolate box scenery and maybe a car race or a rodeo. Kissin’ Cousins (1963), for example, was shot in 17 days, for which Elvis reportedly received $750,000 flat, plus 50% of the take. Nice work if you can get it.
With the movies, the soundtrack albums, the publishing royalties on the songs and the exploitation products, Elvis and his manager were pulling in more than $5 million a year – every year. So what if they were dreadful movies?
Until 1967 Elvis had seemed content to exist in a state of nearly complete limbo, holed up in his Memphis mansion with his cousins and bodyguards and assorted friends, occasionally making the trip out to Hollywood and occasionally rushing into a recording studio to reel off a soundtrack. But even the soundtrack songs were pretty standard fare: oatmeal from his own publishing house.
On 1 May 1967, female Elvis fans had their hopes forever dashed when he married his sweetheart of eight years, Priscilla Beaulieu.
The wedding of the year was a remarkably modest affair, taking place in the private suite of the owner of the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas between 9:30 and 10:00 am, with Nevada Supreme Court Justice David Zenoff officiating.
Best man was Joe Esposito, a trusted member of Presley’s so-called ‘Memphis Mafia’, while Priscilla’s sister Michelle was Maid of Honour.
Elvis decided to stop making films, and by the time he stepped onto the stage of the Las Vegas International Hotel in August 1969 – still with his MGM acting contract unfulfilled – he had matured in every possible way.
With the album of his life, From Elvis In Memphis, receiving the praise it deserved, Presley was at the top of his game: full of energy, the voice better than ever, and the performing skills finely honed. Crucially, he knew how to pick both songs and band members. The results were not camp, not tacky, just sensational.
Before the bovine stewardship of “colonel” Parker ensured that gruelling repetitive America-only touring schedules ground him down, Presley adored performing. It showed in the way he teased his band, trashed his silly films and did Ed Sullivan impersonations on stage.
He radically altered his show each year, dipping into the gospel that was his first love, re-electrifying old hits and covering songs by other artists (Sweet Caroline, Proud Mary etc).
And whenever he covered a song, as the voice of Rock & Roll, it became his. By 1975 the breathing was getting heavier but the voice never ever faltered.
During the morning of 16 August 1977, while at his Graceland mansion, Presley picked up the book he had been reading (The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams) and went into his bathroom. His companion Ginger Alden said to him, “don’t fall asleep in there,” because she knew he occasionally did. Elvis replied, “Okay, I won’t,” and Ginger went back to sleep.
At about 1:30 pm, Ginger woke and found Elvis still gone. Knocking on the bathroom door produced no response, so she entered the room and found his lifeless body on the floor in front of the toilet.
Alden screamed for Elvis associates Al Strada and Joe Esposito, who arrived and called the fire department. An ambulance was dispatched.
Daughter Lisa Marie and father Vernon arrived in the bathroom, but Lisa Marie was quickly removed from the scene.
Elvis was rushed to nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital where, after several attempts to revive him, he died at 3:30 pm CST. His autopsy was performed at 7:00 pm.
The official coroner’s report listed “cardiac arrhythmia” as the cause of death, but there was much speculation at the time over The King’s unsparing approach to self-medication.
The word was that even if the drugs he took hadn’t technically killed him, they’d certainly been keeping him alive for the last few years. The most remarkable thing about the Presley stash, though, was that it was all completely legal.
Everything in his famed travelling medicine chest – apparently, it was like one of those multi-drawer cabinets on wheels that mechanics keep their tools in – was available on prescription.
The only question mark hangs over what they were actually prescribed for. Elvis’ dangerous pharmaceutical cocktail cabinet consisted of;
- Dilaudid (a powerful synthetic opiate which is among the strongest painkillers)
- Percodan (another major league painkiller – usually administered to serious burns victims)
- Biphetamine (a strong stimulant used in cases of a dangerously slow heartbeat)
- Dextroamphetamine (much the same)
- Quaaludes (very strong sleeping pills)
His death resulted in a near standstill in the city of Memphis as fans thronged at the gates of his home and thousands of weeping mourners filed past the open coffin, where he lay in state like a real king.
Within days, 19 of his albums and 11 of his singles entered the charts in Britain, where the Elvis Industry got into full swing, turning out every conceivable ‘tribute’ from solid gold medallions to plaster busts.
Elvis remains the biggest deceased entertainment earner, pulling in over $20 million yearly in royalties.
Elvis was named after his father, Vernon Elvis Presley, and Mr Presley’s good friend in Tupelo, Aaron Kennedy. Aron was the spelling the Presley’s chose, apparently to make it similar to the middle name of Elvis’ stillborn identical twin, Jesse Garon Presley. Jesse was apparently named after Vernon’s father, Jessie Presley, although the spelling was slightly different.
Toward the end of his life, Elvis sought to change the spelling of his middle name to the traditional and biblical ‘Aaron’. In the process, he learned that official state records had inexplicably listed it as Aaron and not Aron as on his original birth records.
Knowing Elvis’ plans for his middle name, ‘Aaron’ is the spelling his father chose for Elvis’ tombstone, and it’s the spelling his estate has designated as the official spelling when the middle name is used today.