Among the facets of American art, music is one of the most significant subgroups. In this subgroup, there are very few names that carry as much historical and cultural significance as Elvis Presley. White people consider him the King of Rock and Roll, and African Americans see him as the man who stole black sound. But to both races, there is no denying that Elvis was one of the most defining figures of the 20th century.
However, beyond the popularity and controversy that trailed the life of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis was a man who, albeit had a short life, had a full one. From an ultra-successful career as a music and decent career as an actor to enormous wealth and a rocky personal life, Elvis was a complicated man with a complicated history.
With Elvis Presley still very much a major staple of American culture, it is worth exploring the life of the American icon. Here is a time-based look at the life of the King of Rock and Roll.
Growing Up in Tupelo
Compared to other states in America, Mississippi might not carry a lot of prestige. But beyond its checkered past is the fact it was the birthplace of American treasure, Elvis Presley. He was born in Tupelo on the 8th of January, 1935, as the only surviving half of a twin to parents who loved and adored him.
His parents, Vernon Elvis and Gladys Love raised him in a shotgun house with two rooms. There, he grew to love music via the family’s weekly church visits to the Assembly of God church. They raised him in a loving environment, but it wasn’t without its challenges, most of which were financial. Presley’s family lived on government food assistance, along with the little income his father made from working one odd job or the other.
Three years after Elvis was born, his father was arrested and jailed for fraud, forcing him and his mother to abandon their home and move in with relatives. In between the financial difficulties that defined Elvis’s childhood, his love for music continued to wax strong. He entered a few competitions as a child, including one at the Mississippi-Alabama fair in October 1945. Elvis, who was ten years old at the time, performed in public for the first time.
As an adult musician, the guitar was one of the most defining instruments of Elvis Presley’s career, and he owned his first one at the age of 10, a gift for his birthday. A year after he got the present, he began taking lessons, and at the age of 12, he performed on the radio for the first time.
Teenage Years – Living in Memphis and the Pursuit of a Music Career
Although Elvis grew up shy and reluctant to perform in public, his growing love for music remained. He kept learning the guitar, taking lessons from his neighbor, Lee Denson, when he and his family lived in a public housing complex called Lauderdale Courts. The family secured the house in 1949 after they left Tupelo for Memphis in November 1948 and lived in rooming houses for a year.
In between completing his education at L.C. Humes High School and learning guitar and music, Elvis Presley worked a few odd jobs to supplement the income of his family. He worked as an usher for a theater, and in other low-skilled jobs for MARL Metal Products and Precision Tool.
As Presley grew other, he gradually overcame the shyness that defined his childhood years. He adopted an ostentatious dressing style and competed in radio singing competitions. His performance in the Humes’ Annual Minstrel show in April 1953 is particularly renowned for turning him into a popular high school senior.
After the performance, Elvis further dedicated himself to studying and listening to other music artists. He spent plenty of time in record stores and listened to the works of artists like Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Bob Wills, and Jake Hess, a lot of whom influenced his style as a musician.
After his graduation from L.C. Humes High School, Elvis Presley decided to pursue music as a career. In the late summer of 1953, Elvis recorded his first two songs, That’s When Your Heartaches Begin and My Happiness. He recorded the songs at Sun Records, leaving an impression on the record owner, Sam Phillips.
Becoming a Professional Musician
Despite the sense of potential that Sam Phillips had about Elvis Presley, it was not enough for him to offer the Tupelo native a recording contract. Yet to become a professional musician, Elvis worked as a truck driver and played some local gigs with a friend, Ronnie Smith, for money.
In between Elvis Presley’s struggle to make ends meet, Sam Phillips was on a quest for a new musician. He wanted a white man who could take the black sound famous in Memphis and sell it to white folk. In his search, he remembered Elvis and invited him over to record a track.
After hours of trying, Elvis came up with the track, That’s All Right. The record proved a hit when it debuted on the Red, Hot, and Blue show hosted by DJ Dewey Phillips. He followed up the track with a bluegrass cover of Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky. The success of both tracks, Elvis Presley, signed a contract with Sun Records and began his life as a professional musician.
Between July 1954 and November 1955, Elvis Presley, under Sun Records, performed at various venues, radio stations, and on television. He performed on the Louisiana Hayride show, which drew audiences from 28 states in the US. After a year of mixed reaction to his music style, Elvis was undoubtedly a burgeoning country music superstar, and he drew the attention of several record labels. After months of courting, Elvis signed with RCA Victor, to a contract worth $40,000.
Elvis Presley’s Commercial Breakthrough
It did not take very long before RCA Victor’s investment in Elvis Presley began to yield fruit. He released the single, Heartbreak Hotel, under the label in January 1956. The single topped the Billboard Top 100 chart for seven weeks, no. 1 on the Country and Western chart, no. 3 on the R&B chart, selling more than one million copies. Since the song’s release, it has sold more than two million copies, inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, named in Rolling Stone’s magazine 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The popularity of the song brought Elvis Presley to a broader audience, including earning him a place on national television via the CBS show, Stage Show. Elvis appeared on the show six times over two months, during which he recorded and released his debut album, Elvis Presley, in March 1956.
The album continued the success of his debut single under RCA Victor. It spent ten weeks at number one on the Billboard Top Pop Albums, the first rock and roll album to ever achieve the feat. In that time, the album sold more than one million copies, and beyond its commercial success, was a critical victory for the Tupelo native. The album is ranked 56 in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time and features in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
A Look at Elvis’ 24-Year Music Career
1956 – 1958
Following the release of his debut album, Elvis Presley quickly became a national figure. His appearance on the Stage Show solidified his redefinition of pop music and his unique sound as a rock and roll musician. His popularity led to other appearances in major TV shows like the Milton Berle Show and a residency at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino at the Las Vegas Strip.
But even as he grew in popularity, Presley’s music and personality drew criticism from certain corners of the media, with some accusing him of lacking a discernible singing ability. None of it, however, was able to stop the Presley train. Within the first three years of his career, he appeared on several major television programs, including that of his vocal critics, such as Ed Sullivan on his show, CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show.
He also released two additional albums, Elvis and Elvis’ Christmas Album. Both albums went platinum, with the latter in particular earning three platinum awards. The record currently holds the title of the best-selling Christmas album in US history, with more than 20 million sold copies. He also released 23 singles, most of which peaked at number one of the Billboard Hot 100 and US Country Music chart.
1958 – 1960
The second phase of Elvis Presley’s career was a lot less musically memorable as his first. Due to his military career that lasted between March 1958 and March 1960, and the death of his mother, Elvis did just little recording.
After his return from military duty, Presley released two albums in 1960 – Elvis is Back! released in April 1960 and His Hand in Mine, a gospel album, released in November. Both albums were commercially successful – the latter hit platinum status while the former hit gold. He also released five singles, and all but two, reached number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. After the release of His Hand in Mine, Elvis Presley had globally sold more than 75 million records.
1960 – 1967
The return of Elvis Presley from active military duty did not necessarily translate into a full-fledged return to his music career. While he did release an album in 1961 and 1962, Elvis Presley spent the bulk of the next seven years in pursuit of a Hollywood career as an actor. His sixth studio album, Something for Everybody, was released in June 1961, and the seventh, Pot Luck, followed suit a year later.
Neither of the albums matched the successes of his earlier albums. While Something for Everybody did peak at number one on the Billboard 200, it only reached gold status. In contrast, Pot Luck peaked at number four and was never certified. After a couple of concerts and benefit shows in 1961, Presley did not perform in public again for seven years. Instead, he focused most of his attention in chase of a career as an actor.
1968 – 1973
Elvis recorded several soundtrack albums for his films during his seven-year hiatus from a full-time music career but released no studio albums. During this time, combined with several critically panned films, Elvis Presley’s music reputation waned. The popularity of his music reflected in his commercial prowess. Several of his singles failed to hit the Top 40, and many more did not chart. The derivativeness of his music and lack of concert presence resulted in the depletion of his admirers and frustrated his fanbase.
However, in 1968, he returned to his best. Rather than an album, he recorded a Christmas special with NBC, with a performance and songs that reminded people of the skill and talent that made him famous. The success of the special sent the single, If I Can Dream, to number 12 on the singles chart, and the soundtrack album, Speedway, cracked the top ten, having previously peaked at number 82.
He continued his comeback with the release of From Elvis in Memphis in 1969, which was one of the singer’s most critically acclaimed albums. Presley also returned to playing concerts and recorded another album, That’s The Way It Is, released in 1970.
During this renaissance, Elvis Presley’s popularity returned and surpassed the heights of his career. From 1968 to 1973, he released nine albums. Three of them went platinum, and three went gold, and all of them charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Also, he performed at more than 300 shows between this period, 168 of which came in 1973.
1973 – 1977
After five years of his resurgence, Elvis Presley’s career was on the wane again. This time, however, it was due to his failing health. He suffered from addiction to drugs like pethidine and barbiturates. Despite his failing health, between 1973 and his unexpected death in 1977, Elvis recorded five albums, only two of them, however, matched the success of his early works.
His last album, Moody Blue, was released in July 1977. It peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold more than two million copies, going platinum twice. In the same year, he released the live album, Elvis in Concert, which was also a commercial success.
Presley’s Discography and Commercial Records
With the success of Elvis Presley’s debut album, he effectively conquered the doubts and criticism he suffered in the early days of his music life. One bandleader, Eddie Bond, once famously said he would never make it as a singer. But his first album wasn’t the only significant response of Elvis Presley’s career to his doubters.
After the release of his first album, Elvis Presley, he further released 22 additional studio albums. Nine were hit records. Some of them are A Date with Elvis, Elvis, For LP Fans Only, Something for Everybody, and Pot Luck. He also released nine live albums, 28 compilation albums, 29 EPs (extended plays), 18 soundtrack albums, and following his death, 107 posthumous compilations.
In total, Elvis Presley has 238 music projects to his name, all of which have sold more than 1.5 billion copies worldwide, with over half (600 million) coming from the United States. According to the RIAA, he has more than 146.5 million album sales to his name in the US. He is the second best selling solo album artist and bestselling solo artist of all time.
Also, Presley’s remarkable discography includes a total of 197 awards from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). They are 117 gold albums, 67 platinum albums, and 27 multi-platinum albums.
Other than his albums, Elvis Presley released a total of 117 singles during his lifetime, 33 of which peaked at number one on the Billboard’s chart. Since his death, his label has released 24 new singles, bringing the total singles to his name to 141. Some of his most popular singles are In the Ghetto, Suspicious Minds, Way Down, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me and I Got a Woman.
Presley’s Artistry – What Made Him So Special?
One of the talents that defined Elvis Presley’s career as a musician was the depth of his knowledge about African-American and white people music. His ability to combine the best of both worlds was a unique skill enabled him to create a sound that appealed to a majority of people in both races.
Additionally, his music style, which is now named, rockabilly, was a fresh injection into pop music. The technique consists of blues elements, a raw and emotive vocal style backed up with a string band and strummed rhythm guitar. This, along with a distinctive vocal style and range, made Elvis Presley into a global music phenomenon.
His Acting Career
In the second half of the 50s, Elvis Presley began another chapter in his short but memorable entertainment career – he made his debut as an actor. He debuted in the 1956 film, Love Me Tender as Clint Reno. Although the film was a critical failure, Presley’s popularity transformed it into a box office success.
That later became the theme of Elvis’s acting career. Critics never shared his belief and conviction in his acting skills, and over time, his music reputation suffered for it. All in all, after 13 years, and 31 movie credits, Elvis gave up on acting.
Some of the notable titles in his short stint as an actor include Blue Hawaii, G.I Blues and Tickle Me.
Presley’s Achievements, Awards, and Recognitions
Elvis Presley’s most prominent accomplishments came via music. He sold more than music records than anyone else, but his best years came before the creation of major awards such as the Grammys. During his entire music career, Elvis had a total of 14 Grammy nominations, winning only three of them. He does, however, have a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which he won at the age of 36.
Other awards and recognitions for Elvis Presley include:
- The artist with Most RIAA Certified Gold, Platinum and Multi-Platinum albums
- Grammy Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Memphis Hall of Fame, UK Music Hall of Fame, Las Vegas Walk of Stars and 16 other Hall of Fames.
- Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
- American Music Award of Merit
- NME Award for World Male Singer (11 times)
- NME Award for World Musical Personality (5 times)
- NME Award for Favourite US Male Singer
- NME Award for World’s Outstanding Popular Singer
- Golden Laurel Award
From Living in Public Housing to One of America’s Richest Musicians
The success of Elvis Presley’s music career does not just reflect in his global recognition and access to some of the world’s most powerful personalities. It also resulted in his economic transformation, one that remains to date. Before he signed his contract with RCA Victor and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis was working a minimum wage job as a truck driver. However, his appearance on the show fetched him $50,000.
With each latest chart-topping album and single, Elvis Presley’s income increased, earning as much as $1 million per performance. The exact earnings of the singer are unknown, but at the time of his death, he was worth an estimated $5 million. The figure, which is far less than many expected, was down to an expensive drug habit, a bad divorce, leeches, and bad real estate investments.
However, the poor state of Elvis Presley’s finances at the time of his death has changed since he passed away. With his continued status as one of America’s icons, the Elvis Presley estate has built his wealth to well over $100 million. Aided by posthumous releases, memorabilia, Elvis Presley’s Memphis, and the hotel, The Guest House at Graceland, Elvis has continuously ranked among the highest-earning dead celebrities since he passed.
In 2019, he came behind Michael Jackson with $39 million in earnings, $40 million in 2018, and $35 million in 2017. Since he passed, Elvis has earned more than $871 million, according to Forbes’ records, which began in 2002.
Elvis Presley’s Complicated Personal Life
His Close Relationship with His Mother
Growing up, Elvis developed a close bond with his mother. Because of the difficult life they shared in Memphis and Tupelo, Elvis and Gladys forged a closeness that remained even well into his adult life. This closeness resulted in a co-dependency dynamic that became increasingly harder for Elvis to maintain as his career blossomed.
Unfortunately, as the years passed, the growing distance between mother and child caused depression, despair, and loneliness with Elvis’s mother. She took comfort in alcohol and gained an unhealthy amount of weight, eventually causing her liver problems.
During Elvis’ army stint in August 1958, his mother was admitted to the hospital after her condition worsened. Two days after, Elvis returned to his mother’s bedside before she passed away on the 14th of August, 1958.
A Revolving Door of Flings and Relationships
One other attribute of Elvis Presley’s global fame was the number of women who were attracted to the singer. Via his distinctive dressing, and charming country boy face, Elvis became a universal sex symbol, and a significant number of them found their way into his bed.
Some of them included notable personalities such as Judy Tyler, Connie Stevens, Natalie Wood, and many others. Although he had sexual relationships with adults, Elvis infamously shared a predilection for teenage girls. It is entirely unknown if he had sexual relations with them. But, he regularly had pajama parties with them and reportedly enjoyed playing Pygmalion and father to them.
As for serious relationships, Elvis dated a few women. He was in relationships with Lori Williams, Barbara Leigh, Linda Thompson, and Ginger Alden. His longest relationship was with Linda Thompson, between 1972 and 1976. At the time of his death, he was in a relationship with Ginger Alden, which began shortly after his relationship with Thompson ended.
Many Relationships, but One Marriage
For many artists who have reached or come close to the popularity and wealth of Elvis Presley, multiple marriages are par for the course. But in another twist in the strangeness of the King’s personal life, he only married once.
His only marriage was with Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he met in 1959 during his military service in Germany. At the time, Priscilla was 14 years old. After he completed his military duty, Elvis and Priscilla returned to the United States. Before they got married, Priscilla lived with his father, Vernon, occasionally spending time in Elvis’ home, Graceland.
In 1967, Elvis and Priscilla got married in Las Vegas, and after nine months, they gave birth to Lisa Marie, the only child of the famous singer. She was born on the 1st of February, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee.
After five years of being a couple and four as parents, Elvis and Priscilla separated and completed their divorce on the 9th of October, 1973. Neither of them remarried after the divorce.
The King’s Legacy
Having lived a short but exceptional life, Elvis Presley’s passing on the 16th of August, 1977, due to cardiac arrest, left a lasting void in American history. His transformation of pop music and its effect on popular culture revolutionized what the world knew of music superstars.
His music style and personality influenced an era of rebellious culture. It also brought fringed music genres like rock and roll into the mainstream. This is believed to have contributed to the popularization of black music, such as hip-hop.
In capturing his legacy, several attempts have been made to recognize the contribution of the rock and roll singer to the world. Some of them include:
- The Presidential Medal of Freedom (2018)
- Graceland, his mansion, is a designated US National Historic Landmark. It is the second most-visited house in the US, with more than 650,000 visitors per year.
- Painted images of Elvis have fetched more than $500 million. Several of them hang in major museums across America and the world.