On December 3, 1968, The King reclaimed his throne. After years of mediocre movies and lackluster singles, Elvis Presley proved that his title was not just a marketing gimmick. Clad in a black leather suit with his hair piled in a perfect jet-black pompadour, he performed with a fire that he had not shown since the 1950's. He performed songs that he hadn't performed in years: "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," "Jailhouse Rock," "Hound Dog." The official name was "Singer Presents: Elvis", but history would remember it as the '68 Comeback Special.
Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. His father Vernon worked odd jobs, and his mother Gladys was a seamstress. Elvis began singing in the church choir at an early age and received his first guitar for his eleventh birthday. He made his first public performance the year before at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. He sang "Old Shep," a Red Foley ballad about a boy and his dog.
Like many Depression-era families, the Presleys had trouble making ends meet. They bounced from home to home before finally settling in
Elvis graduated from L.C. Humes High School in June of 1953. That summer, he walked into The Memphis Recording Service to make a belated birthday present for his mother. He recorded two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin". Receptionist Marion Keisker was impressed enough to take down his name and telephone number for her husband Sam.
Sam Phillips was the owner of the Memphis Recording Service and the founder of Sun Records. He noticed that many white kids were buying R&B records, and set out to find a white singer that sounded black. In January of 1954, Elvis returned to the studio to make another recording. This time Sam was around for the proceedings and, like Marion, he was impressed by Elvis' rough talent. That summer, Sam brought Elvis in to record a demo of a song called "Without You". The song didn't click, but Sam was still willing to give Elvis a shot. He put the young singer together with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black.
After several unremarkable sessions, the band stumbled upon an old blues number by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup entitled "That's All Right." The instant the band started playing, everything fell into place. Elvis' ringing rhythm guitar and confident voice highlighted Scotty's leads, while Bill's propulsive bass held it all together. The result was a compelling blend of country and R&B that would later be known as "rockabilly". "That's All Right" b/w "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was Elvis' first single for the Sun label, and was released on July 19, 1954. Scotty became the group's manager, and they began to play small clubs throughout the South. Sun released his second single, "Good Rockin' Tonight" b/w "I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine," in late September of 1954. On October 6, 1954, the band appeared on "The Grand Ole Opry". They were given a lukewarm reception.
A few weeks later, the band played the "Louisiana Hayride". Elvis' appearance on the "Hayride" was a success, and he signed a contract for 52 more appearances. During this time, Elvis met Colonel Tom Parker, manager of country star Hank Snow. In January of 1955, Sun released Elvis' third single, "Milk Cow Blues Boogie" b/w "You're a Heartbreaker." Elvis signed a contract with Bob Neal, who took over as the band's manager. Colonel Parker became involved with the band's affairs as well, booking them on several package tours with Hank Snow and other "Hayride" stars. His live appearances became wilder, and his good looks and sex appeal were a hit with the girls in the crowd. That spring, Elvis auditioned for Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts" but was not accepted. In April, Sun released his fourth single, "Baby Let's Play House" b/w "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone."
In August of 1955, Elvis signed a management contract with Hank Snow Attractions, owned by Hank Snow and Colonel Tom Parker. Snow left shortly after, and Colonel Parker became the sole manager of Elvis Presley. Bob Neal was initially kept on in an advisory capacity, but disagreements with the Colonel caused him to leave. The same month, Sun released his fifth and final single for the label, "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" b/w "Mystery Train."
In November of 1955, Colonel Parker began to negotiate the sale of Elvis' Sun contract to RCA. The deal included all five of Elvis' Sun singles, and all of his unreleased material. Elvis signed the document on November 20, 1955. The deal was for an unprecedented $40,000, plus a $5,000 signing bonus. Elvis had his first RCA recording session in January of 1956, just days after his twenty-first birthday.
On January 27, 1956, RCA released Elvis' first single, "Heartbreak Hotel" b/w "I Was The One." The single was a smash right out of the box, selling 300,000 copies in its first three weeks. It would eventually hit #1 on the pop and country charts, as well as #5 on the R&B chart. Elvis and the boys made their first
On March 13, 1956 RCA released Elvis Presley, his first full length album. The album eventually reached #1 on the album chart, where it would remain for ten weeks. The album is a million seller.
On April 1, 1956 Elvis had a screen test for Paramount Pictures. He lip synched "Blue Suede Shoes" and performed a scene from The Rainmaker, a Katherine Hepburn vehicle. Elvis did not get a part in the film, but signed a seven-picture deal with studio head Hal B. Wallis. Elvis' fame skyrocketed during this period, and crowds got bigger and wilder. Many shows were stopped early due to hysterical fans rushing the stage.
On June 5, 1956 Elvis made an appearance on "The Milton Berle Show". He performed "Hound Dog," and swiveled his hips in a manner most suggestive. Adult America is shocked and appalled, and Elvis was condemned by religious leaders and parents groups. The press dubbed him "Elvis the Pelvis." The controversy made him even more popular with teenagers.
A month later, Elvis appeared on "The Steve Allen Show". In an effort to diffuse the controversy, Allen had Elvis dress in a tuxedo and tails. To complete the humiliation, Allen forced Elvis to sing "Hound Dog" to a basset hound. Elvis went along with the plan, but was clearly unhappy about it. Meanwhile, Elvis' fame continued to grow. Ed Sullivan vowed never to have Elvis on his show, but eventually offered The Colonel $50,000 for three appearances. It was the highest amount ever paid for a variety show performance. Later that year, an issue of Variety magazine proclaimed Elvis the "King Of Rock ‘n' Roll".
In August 1956, Elvis began shooting his first movie, a Civil War melodrama called The Reno Brothers. The movie co-starred Debra Paget and Richard Egan. The title was changed to Love Me Tender midway through production to capitalize on Elvis' new single. Elvis made his first appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" on September 9th. He performed "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender" and "Reddy Teddy." The show garnered the highest ratings in television history.
Tupelo, Mississippi proclaimed September 26, 1956, "Elvis Presley Day." Elvis played two shows at the Alabama-Mississippi Fair and Dairy Show, the very place that he performed "Old Shep" a decade before. The crowd was so wild that the National Guard was called in to maintain order. Elvis Presley was deemed the biggest thing to hit the music industry since Frank Sinatra. The Colonel capitalized on his fame by placing his likeness on every piece of merchandise imaginable, from lipstick to stationary. By the end of the year, the merchandise would gross $22 million.
Elvis made his second "Ed Sullivan Show" performance on October 28th. On November 16th, Love Me Tender premiered. The film was a smash, and the critics' reviews weren't bad. The fact that Elvis sang several songs in the film certainly helped matters.
Elvis made his final appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" on January 6, 1957. To avoid controversy, he was only filmed from the waist up. Ed Sullivan proclaimed Elvis to be a "real decent, fine boy" and told America that he was a pleasure to work with. Shortly after his Sullivan appearance, Elvis began shooting his second movie, Loving You.
In March, Elvis purchases Graceland, a sprawling mansion for his family to live in. The home was his sanctuary for the rest of his life. The family moved into the home in April. Elvis finished work on Loving You, and continued to tour and make personal appearances. That spring, he performed outside of the United States for the first time, appearing in Canada. In May, Elvis began shooting his third film, Jailhouse Rock.
Loving You premiered on July 9th. The movie was another smash for Presley, and reached the top ten of the box office receipts. The movie produced two hit singles, the title track and "Teddy Bear." Elvis continued to tour, release records and make appearances. On August 31st, Elvis performed a concert in Vancouver. It would be the final time he performed a concert outside of the United States.
On September 27th, Elvis returned to Tupelo and performed a benefit concert for the Elvis Presley Youth Recreation Center. He would donate to the center for the rest of his life, and it still exists today.
Jailhouse Rock premiered on October 17th. The film was another huge hit, and is generally considered Elvis' best performance. The jailhouse production number provided an iconic image of Elvis, and the title track became one of his signature songs. Unfortunately, the movie was also marred by tragedy. Just weeks after shooting wrapped, Elvis' co-star Judy Tyler was killed in an automobile accident. Elvis never watched the finished film.
Elvis and his family celebrated their first Christmas in Graceland in December. Elvis received an unwelcome present that year: His draft notice. Undaunted, Elvis began shooting his fourth film, King Creole in January of 1958. Shooting wrapped in March, and Elvis returned to Memphis to perform a few concerts. These would be his final live appearances until he was released from the army.
On March 24, Elvis Presley was inducted in the United States Army. His induction was masterfully orchestrated by Colonel Parker. Everything from his formal induction to the desecration of his perfect pompadour was meticulously documented by the press. Elvis was sent to Fort Hood in Texas for basic training, and would remain there for six months. While on leave, he was rushed into the recording studio by RCA. This would be his final session until his release in 1960.
King Creole was released in July. Elvis received positive reviews for his acting, and the film is considered to be one of his finest. Unfortunately it was one of the only times where he was taken seriously as an actor.
In August, Gladys Presley became very ill. She returned to Memphis, and doctors diagnosed her with acute hepatitis. The army granted Elvis emergency leave, and Elvis rushed home to be by her side. Gladys Presley died on August 14, 1958. Services were held the next day at the Memphis Funeral Home, and she was laid to rest at Forest Hill Cemetery. Elvis was devastated by his mother's death, and he never quite got over it.
On October 1, 1958, Elvis was deployed to Germany. He was stationed there for eighteen months. During this time, Colonel Parker kept his name alive by putting out records and through various promotions. In October 1959, he met fourteen year old Pricilla Beaulieau. He was instantly taken with her.
Elvis was promoted to Sergeant on January 20, 1960. He was a good soldier, and showed remarkable abilities as a scout. Despite his celebrity, he was treated just like any other GI. He was officially discharged from the United States Army on March 5, 1960. He returned to Memphis two days later.
The remainder of March was a blur of recording sessions and television appearances. On March 26th, he taped an appearance on Frank Sinatra's television special that was titled "Welcome Home Elvis". The highlight of the special came at the end, when Sinatra crooned "Love Me Tender" and Elvis answered back with a rendition of "Witchcraft."
Elvis is Back! was released on April 8th. The record went to #2 on the Pop chart. It was considerably less rocking than his 50's output and showed the more pop oriented direction that he was going in. Meanwhile Elvis began shooting his fifth film GI Blues. "Welcome Home Elvis" aired on May 8th and was a ratings winner. In August, Elvis began shooting his sixth film, Flaming Star. Flaming Star was a serious drama, a major departure from the musical fluff of GI Blues.
The GI Blues soundtrack was released in October and quickly hit #1. The album would become Elvis' most successful on the Billboard charts. The film was released in November, and was a big hit. In contrast, Flaming Star was released to good reviews, but the lack of music hurt its box office receipts.
Elvis would make a few more serious dramas, but they never did as well in the box office as his musicals. GI Blues and 1961's Blue Hawaii set the tone for the remainder of his film career: Exotic locales, pretty girls, and lots of music. With the exception of 1964's Viva Las Vegas, none of them show Elvis' talent as a performer. Elvis quickly became bored and frustrated with his lack of quality output.
As the 1960's wore on, Elvis seemed to fall behind with the times. His movies always made a profit at the box office, but teenagers had moved on. The Beatles had surpassed their idol as the number one musical act in the world. The Fab Four met Elvis at his LA mansion in 1965. The two camps were civil, but Elvis was clearly threatened by the Beatles' popularity.
On May 1, 1967, Elvis and Pricilla married in a private ceremony in Las Vegas. Pricilla had been living with Elvis since 1963. Pricilla became pregnant in July, and Lisa Marie Presley was born on February 1, 1968. In July, Elvis began rehearsals for a new television special. The show was initially supposed to have a Christmas theme, but midway through production plans were changed. The special featured the best new material since Elvis is Back! as well as rocking versions of his older hits. The highlight of the show was a roundtable jam session with his original musicians. Elvis played his hits and even poked fun at his rebellious image. Elvis' creative juices were reinvigorated.
The "comeback special" aired on December 3, 1968 and became a milestone of American popular culture. It was one of the biggest television hits of the year, and the accompanying soundtrack album shot up the charts. The King had proudly reclaimed his throne. The creative juices kept flowing into 1969, and Elvis threw himself into recording. He held marathon recording sessions in Memphis, and the musicians were astounded by how motivated he was. The results, From Elvis in Memphis and Back in Memphis are considered Elvis' finest studio albums.
In March of 1969, Elvis began filming Change of Habit, his final motion picture. In July, he was booked for a four week engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. The engagement marked Elvis' first appearances on a live stage since the early 1960's. Elvis was in tremendous shape, and the show was a red-hot mix of old classics and new material. In September of 1969, "Suspicious Minds" was released. The song was his first #1 hit since "Good Luck Charm" in 1962, and would be his final #1 single.
In January of 1970, Elvis returned to Vegas for another engagement at the International. He broke attendance records. In February, Elvis played six shows at the Houston Astrodome and drew a record setting 207,494 people. The success of the shows spawned rumors that Elvis would tour for the first time since the 1950's. Elvis returned to Vegas for another engagement in July, and parts of it were filmed for an upcoming documentary, Elvis: That's the Way It Is.
In September, Elvis embarked on a nine-city concert tour. It was his first since 1957, and ticket sales were brisk. The show got good reviews and parts of it were also filmed for That's the Way It Is. He never left the road for such a long stretch again.
In December, Elvis made in impromptu visit to the White House and met with President Nixon. He wanted a DEA Drug Enforcement Badge and wrote a heartfelt letter to the president, telling him that he was deeply concerned about the drug problem in the United States. Ironically, Elvis was high most of the time. He had gotten hooked on amphetamines in the army, and was rarely without a lethal cocktail of uppers and downers. Nixon granted Elvis his badge and took several photos. The picture of Elvis and Nixon shaking hands is one of the most requested images in the National Archives.
Elvis continued to tour and release records throughout 1971 and '72. In June of 1971, part of Highway 51 South in Memphis was re-christened "Elvis Presley Boulevard". In late 1971, Elvis and Pricilla separated. The marriage had been on the rocks for several years, and Pricilla left for karate instructor Mike Stone. Elvis began dating Linda Thompson, who would remain his female companion for the next four years. In June of 1972, Elvis performed four sold out shows at Madison Square Garden. A live concert album was quickly rushed out by RCA. Parts of the concert were used in a new documentary called Elvis On Tour.
Elvis performed another Vegas engagement in September and announced plans for a television concert to broadcast live via satellite from Hawaii. Expectations for the special were high, and it was predicted that the concert would be seen by more people than any other television special in history. In October, Elvis released "Burning Love," which would be his final major hit.
Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii was broadcast via satellite in January of 1973. The special was seen by over one billion people in 40 countries. Elvis was in top form for the special, and he played a mixture of standards, new material and his old classics. It was the pinnacle of his career in the 1970's. His performances would rarely hit such glorious heights again. The concert album was released in May, and reached #1 on the charts. It was his final #1 album. Elvis and Pricilla's divorce was finalized in October. The two remained close friends, and Elvis was granted regular visitation with Lisa Marie. In mid-October, Elvis entered the hospital for a variety of health problems, including hepatitis and an enlarged colon. His dependence on prescription drugs increased, and his weight ballooned.
Although his health was getting worse, Elvis continued to tour and perform in Las Vegas. His performances became erratic. He began forgetting the words to songs, and sometimes performed entire concerts on his back. Despite the lackluster performances, Elvis' female fans still saw the sexy "Hillbilly Cat" of 1956. His tours continued to sell out, and he always broke attendance records. During his summer '74 engagement in Vegas, Elvis met with Barbra Streisand to discuss starring in her remake of A Star is Born. Elvis was excited by the idea, but it never materialized.
Elvis and Linda Thompson split in 1976, and Elvis began dating beauty queen Ginger Alden. His life became a haze of tours, pills and food. He barely resembled the King of Rock n' Roll that he once was. In 1976, Elvis fired longtime bodyguards Sonny and Red West. The pair retaliated by writing a tell-all book entitled Elvis: What Happened? The book exposed Elvis' drug problems to the public for the first time. Elvis was shattered and betrayed by its publication.
As 1977 dawned, it was clear that Elvis' health was failing. He still continued to tour. In June, some shows were recorded and taped for a special and concert album called Elvis In Concert. Elvis was a shadow of his former self, but flashes of his amazing talent broke through. At the end of the show he performed "Unchained Melody," and belted the song out with every fiber of his being.
On June 26, 1977 Elvis performed his final concert at The Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. After the show, he returned to Graceland to relax before starting another tour mid-August. He spent time with Lisa Marie, and attempted to get an advanced copy of Star Wars for her to watch.
In the early morning hours of August 16th, Elvis finalized tour details and relaxed. He played a game of racquetball and sang a few songs on the piano. He retired to his room at 7 AM. In the late morning, Ginger Alden found him slumped over in the bathroom. Paramedics were called but were unable to revive him. Elvis was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital. Doctors tried everything they could, but it was no use. Elvis Presley, the undisputed King of Rock n' Roll, was dead. He was 42 years old.
The news reached the media within hours. The major television networks threw together documentaries about his life. Fans gathered at the gates of Graceland, and radio stations played marathons of his records. On August 17th, the gates of Graceland opened for mourners. An estimated 80,000 people passed by Elvis' coffin. The funeral was attended by many celebrities, including Caroline Kennedy and former co-star Ann-Margaret. Televangelist Rex Humbard presided over the service and comedian Jackie Kahane delivered the eulogy. The casket was taken to Forest Hill Cemetery in a procession of all-white automobiles. His body was later moved to the Meditation Garden in Graceland when somebody threatened to steal the corpse. Gladys' remains were also moved, and Vernon was buried there in 1979.
Why Elvis Presley was selected:
Elvis Presley didn't invent rock ‘n' roll, but he was its savior. Bill Haley had a major hit with "Rock Around the Clock," but it was considered a novelty record. Elvis legitimized rock ‘n' roll as a genre and proved that a long term career was possible. Elvis' early records capture everything that was great about early rock n' roll: The energy, the excitement, the innocence and the sexuality. His later records are more subdued, but he still made some fantastic music. The amount of emotion he brings to songs like "Suspicious Minds" is absolutely stunning. Without Elvis, I wouldn't be writing for this website, and I would probably be listening to Patti Page. As legendary rock critic Lester Bangs put it in 1977: "Elvis kicked ‘Doggie in the Window ‘out the window and replaced it with ‘Let's fuck.' The rest of us are still reeling from the impact." Elvis Presley is the one true King of Rock ‘n' Roll. Accept no substitutes.