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Humanities LibreTexts

9.29: Elvis Presley

  • Page ID
    56420
  • Known around the world as “the King of Rock and Roll,” Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the son of a poor white truck driver. Presley and his family moved to Memphis in 1948, where he was exposed to both white country and black R&B and gospel music. In 1954, the year after he graduated high school, he made his first recordings at Sam Philip’s now legendary Sun Studios on Union Avenue in Memphis. Philips had recorded both white country singers and black blues singes, but in Presley he discovered a young white man who had exceptional feel for the black music, as demonstrated on his early blues covers “That’s All Right Mama” (original by Arthur Crudup), “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (original by Roy Brown), and “Mystery Train” (original by Jr. Parker). Accompanied by the twangy electric guitar of Scotty Moore and bouncing bass of Bill Black, Presley’s sound was dubbed “rockabilly” by early critics in deference to his hillbilly roots and his ability to rock the blues.

    Presley appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride live radio shows, but it was not until Philips sold his contract to the major record label RCA that Presley would become a teen idol and national star. In 1956 and 1957 he recorded over a dozen hit songs, with “All Shook Up,” “Hound Dog,” “Teddy Bear,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Don’t be Cruel” charting number one on the pop, country, and R&B charts. His appearances on the popular TV shows Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan shows brought him further fame and earned him the title “Elvis the Pelvis” due to his sexually suggestive dancing. In 1958 Elvis entered the army, and after completing a two-year commitment returned to the United States to continue to record and pursue a career in the Hollywood. He died in his Memphis home in Graceland in 1977, the victim of drug abuse.

    Presley’s early Sun and RCA recordings are considered by many critics to be the pioneering sounds of rock and roll. Presley was the first white pop singer to popularize black rhythm and blues, and in doing so he opened the door for innumerable young white artists to become rock and roll singers. His success demonstrated the tremendous allure black R&B held for the baby boomer generation, and the willingness for white musicians to embrace and at times exploit black music.

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