Elvis Presley: Birth of the Rock Star


By Mike Brewster In 1953, when Elvis Presley was an 18-year-old truck driver earning $35 a week, the American music scene was comfortably set in its ways. Country musicians picked guitars. R&B musicians jammed on saxophones and pianos. Gospel music stayed in churches. And performers' hips stayed in a nice straight line. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sang beloved popular standards. British star Frankie Vaughan performed his high stepping, song-and-dance routine in tails, bow tie, top hat, and cane.

Then, personified in one teenager, a new form of music turned everything upside down.

One day in 1953, Presley walked into a Memphis studio and paid $4 to record his first two songs as a birthday present for his mother: My Happiness and That's When Your Heartaches Begin. The studio's owner, Sam Phillips, vaguely intrigued by something in the young truck driver's mien and voice, invited him to practice with some local musicians who used the studio as their home base.

CRUCIAL FUSION. A few months later Phillips' Sam Records released, fittingly enough given what Presley would do to synthesize country and blues influences into rock, a 45-rpm record with Presley's version of a blues song on one side -- That's All Right -- and a popular country tune on the other, Blue Moon of Kentucky. The youngster's ability to fuse a white country sound and a black blues sound struck everyone in Memphis and its environs as something totally unique. The record sold 20,000 copies in a few weeks, and Presley was invited to appear at the Grand Ole Opry. The King's career was launched.

With Phillips as his mentor in 1954 and 1955, Presley mixed his country, R&B, and gospel influences and continued to forge a new sound by applying traditionally country-music instrumentation -- defined by a heavy use of guitars -- to blues and R&B sounds by black artists. He wasn't the very first or the only one doing it, of course. But, in the mid-1950s, it was his charismatically sneering and sexually suggestive act that would click with teenagers the world over.

By 1956, Presley had changed everything. In that year alone, Presley y magically reinterpreted music that had been done by other musicians, including Heartbreak Hotel, Don't Be Cruel, Hound Dog, Blue Suede Shoes, and Love Me Tender. The appearance of Elvis "The Pelvis" on The Ed Sullivan Show, where CBS decided to show him just from the waist up, scandalized millions of parents all over the country, while enthralling their kids.

STILL THE BIGGEST. The conventional wisdom regarding Presley's singular role in popularizing rock 'n' roll is that he made black music palatable to a young white audience: Take some old blues records, mix with a nice profile, sideburns, a soulful voice, some pelvic gyrations, and, voila -- rock 'n' roll. But it wasn't that simple. "What he actually did was take 'black' music and 'white' music and transform them into this third thing, which ended up being rock," says Greg Drew, a New York City-based voice coach whose clients include Lenny Kravits, Avril Lavigne, and Corey Glover.

The story of Presley's meteoric rise and calamitous fall rivals any on the American cultural landscape. The first person to become what we know now as a rock star, he arguably still remains the biggest one of all time. While he didn't go on to sell as many total albums as the Beatles and several other artists, his American record sales earned the King 52 gold records, still a record.

And he remains astoundingly underrated for his ability to sing anything, anytime, anywhere. "No one sang so many different kinds of music as well as he sang them at such a high level for such a long time -- rock, gospel, country, standards," says Drew. "Can you imagine Bruce Springsteen or Bono or Michael Stipe winning a Grammy for singing gospel music?"

CHURCHES AND BEALE ST. Presley was born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1935. A twin brother, Jesse, died at birth, and Presley grew up as Gladys and Vernon Presley's only child. As a boy, Presley attended all-night gospel sings with Gladys, and soon enough, he and his parents formed a popular singing trio at church retreats, revivals, and county fairs.

His parents gave him his first guitar at age 11, and when the family moved to Memphis when Presley was 13, he began to frequent the black R&B acts on Memphis' club-lined Beale Street. It was the confluence of these influences that would later set Presley apart and what Presley's famous adviser and manager, Colonel Tom Parker, always encouraged him to mine for new material.

During his breakthrough year in 1956, critics savaged the young singer, particularly after his performance on Ed Sullivan. Jack Gould, The New York Times music critic at the time, acidly wrote the morning after the show: "Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His one specialty is an accentuated movement of the body that heretofore has been previously identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway."

JUST ANOTHER G.I. Other performers were just as puzzled at first at Presley's fanatical following, and some, like Jerry Lee Lewis, did their best to poke fun at the young Presley and even upstage him on variety shows and joint acts. But nothing could slow Presley down in the late 1950s, as hit records and movies -- his first flick, Love Me Tender, took just 18 days to shoot in late 1956 -- came one after the other. Presley made 33 films in all. Nothing, that is, except the U.S. Army, which he was drafted into in 1959. Presley, exploiting none of his fame or advantages, spent 18 low-profile months in West Germany.

When he was discharged in 1960, he emerged with a new girlfriend, Priscilla Beaulieu, a toned-down act singing ballads, and a desire to concentrate on movies. Though his new records did just as well as his pure rock albums, the emergence of the Beatles in a few years would soon make Presley seem old-fashioned.

Despite several legitimate comebacks and his ubiquitous presence in Hollywood films, Presley's best work was finished. In his later years, divorced from Priscilla Presley and obese, Presley barricaded himself from the public gaze in Citizen Kane-like isolation at Graceland, his Memphis mansion and present-day shrine for millions of Presley fans.

Even a few weeks before he died of apparent heart failure at age 42 on Aug. 16, 1977 at Graceland, Presley was capable of singing at his very best. At an appearance on a CBS TV special, satiated with appetite suppressors, Presley alternated between mumbling the words to songs and belting out old classics. In the days following Presley's death, John Lennon, who always credited Presley with giving everyone else -- including the Beatles -- the chance to succeed, summed it up best: "The King is dead. Long live the King." As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation

Brewster is a New York-based writer


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