Home >> Artists >> Artists P >> Elvis Presley >> Elvis Presley Biography

Elvis Presley Biography

Browse Artists: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0-9
Products Discography Biography Links

Elvis Aron Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977), often known simply as Elvis and also called "The King of Rock 'n' Roll" or simply "The King", was an American singer and actor. He is regarded by many to be the greatest entertainer of the 20th century. (Presley's birth certificate uses the spelling Aron, but his estate has designated Aaron as the official spelling of his middle name.)

Presley started as a singer of rockabilly, singing many songs from rhythm and blues, gospel and country. He was first billed as "The Hilbilly Cat". His combination of country music with bluesy vocals and a strong back beat marked a clear path toward rock & roll. He was the most commercially successful singer of rock and roll, but he also had success with ballads, country, gospel, blues, pop, folk and even semi-operatic and jazz standards. His voice, which developed into many voices as his career progressed, had always a unique tonality and an extraordinary unusual center of gravity, leading to his ability to tackle a range of songs and melodies which would be nearly impossible for most other popular singers to achieve. In a musical career of over two decades, Presley set many records, such as concert attendance, television ratings, and records sales, and became one of the best-selling artists in music history.

He is an icon of modern American pop culture. In the late 1960s, Presley re-emerged as a live performer of old and new hit songs, both on tour and in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he was known for his on-stage highly energetic performances both vocally and physically, his sartorial jump-suits and capes adding to the drama. He attracted massive attendance figures. His concert performances were staggering in quantity, considering they numbered over 1,100 in 8 years. He continued to perform before sell-out audiences around the U.S. until his death in 1977. His death was premature at 42, despite alarming concerns about his health. When he died on August 16, 1977, it was a huge shock to his fans. However, it soon became clear that a combination of over-work, obesity, depression, bad diet and severe abuse of prescription drugs, accelerated his premature departure. However, much confusion, conflict, contradictions and general controversy still surrounds his death. Regardless, his popularity as a singer has survived his death.

Presley was born on January 8, 1935 at around 4:13 a.m. in a two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo, Mississippi to Vernon Presley, a truck driver, and Gladys Love Smith, a sewing machine operator. Vernon Presley is described as a "taciturn to the point of sullenness," whereas his mother Gladys "was voluble, lively, full of spunk." Priscilla Presley describes her as "a surreptitious drinker and alcoholic." When she was angry, "she cussed like a sailor". Presley's twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn, thus leaving him to grow up as a only child. The surname Presley was Anglicized from the German name "Pressler" during the Civil War. His ancestor Johann Valentin Pressler emigrated to America in 1710. Presley was mostly of Scottish,Native American, Irish, Jewish, and German roots.

Presley's parents were very protective of their only surviving child. The little boy "grew up a loved and precious child. He was, everyone agreed, unusually close to his mother." His mother Gladys "worshipped him", said a neighbor, "from the day he was born." Elvis himself said, "My mama never let me out of her sight. I couldn't go down to the creek with the other kids." In his teens he was still a very shy person, a "kid who had spent scarcely a night away from home in his nineteen years." He was teased by his fellow classmates who threw "things at him - rotten fruit and stuff - because he was different, because he was quiet and he stuttered and he was a mama's boy." Gladys was so proud of her son, that, years later, she "would get up early in the morning to run off the fans so Elvis could sleep". She was frightened of Elvis being hurt: "She knew her boy, and she knew he could take care of himself, but what if some crazy man came after him with a gun? she said...tears streaming down her face."

In 1938, when Presley was three years old, his father was convicted of forgery. Vernon, Gladys's brother Travis Smith, and Luther Gable went to prison for altering a check from Orville Bean, Vernon's boss, from $3 to $8 and then cashing it at a local bank. Vernon was sentenced to three years at Mississippi State Penitentiary. Though Vernon was released after serving eight months, this event deeply influenced the life of the young family. During her husband's absence, Gladys lost the house and was forced to move in briefly with her in-laws next door. The Presley family lived just above the poverty line during their years in East Tupelo.

In 1941 Presley started school at the East Tupelo Consolidated. There he seems to have been an outsider. His few friends relate that he was separate from any crowd and did not belong to any "gang", but, according to his teachers, he was a sweet and average student, and he loved comic books. In 1943 Vernon moved to Memphis, where he found work and stayed throughout the war, coming home only on weekends.

In January 1945 Gladys took Elvis shopping for a birthday present at Tupelo hardware. And she bought him his first guitar, in lieu of a bike and rifle, for $12.75.

In 1946 Presley started at a new school, Milam, which went from grades 5 through 9, but in 1948 the family left Tupelo, moving 110 miles northwest to Memphis, Tennessee. Here too, the thirteen-year-old lived in the city's poorer section of town and attended a Pentecostal church. At this time, he was very much influenced by the Memphis blues music and the gospel sung at his church. His only reason for waking up in the morning was to give those who he deemed to be squares a "hair cut on the neckline."

Presley entered Humes High School in Memphis taking up work at the school library and after school at Loew's State Theatre. In 1951 he enrolled in the school's ROTC unit, tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the high school football team (supposedly cut from the team by the coach for not trimming his sideburns and ducktail), spending his spare time around the African-American section of Memphis, especially on Beale Street. In 1953 he graduated from Humes, majoring in History, English, and Shop.

After graduation Presley worked first at Parker Machinists Shop, and then for the Precision Tool Company with his father, finally working for the Crown Electric Company driving a truck, where he began wearing his hair the trademarked pompadour style.

On August 15, 1955, Presley was signed by "Hank Snow Attractions", a management company jointly owned by singer Hank Snow and "Colonel" Tom Parker. Shortly thereafter, "Colonel" Parker took full control and recognizing the limitations of Sun Studios, negotiated a deal with RCA Victor Records to acquire Presley's Sun contract for $35,000 on November 21, 1955. Presley's first single for RCA "Heartbreak Hotel" quickly sold one million copies and within a year RCA would go on to sell ten million Presley singles.

On December 20, 1957, at the peaks of his career, Presley received his draft board notice for his mandatory service in the United States Army. He was worried that his absence in the public eye for 2 years, while serving in the Army, might end his career. Even more worried were Hal Wallis and Paramount who already spent $350,000 on pre-production of Presley's latest film King Creole and they feared of suspending the project or worse canceling it. Fortunately, the Memphis Draft Board granted Wallis and Colonel Parker a deferment until March 20 so Presley could complete his film project. On 24 March 1958, Presley joined his unit, 1st Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment and was posted to Germany.

While serving in Germany, Presley met his wife-to-be - the then 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu; noted International Herald Tribune correspondent and humorist Art Buchwald; future US Secretary of State Colin Powell (then a lieutenant with the Third Army Division in Germany); and Walter Alden, the father of Presley's fiancee Ginger Alden who inducted Presley into the Army.

His rankings and dates of promotions were as follows: Private (upon draft March 24, 1958), Private First Class (November 27, 1958), Specialist Fourth Class (June 1, 1959), Sergeant (January 20, 1960). While in the Army, he earned sharpshooter badges for both the .45 pistol and the M1 rifle, and a marksman badge for the M2 carbine, as well as a Good Conduct Medal.

Presley returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant (E-6) on March 5.

After serving his duty in the military, he became more mature and lost his raw and rebellious edge. However, he gained respect from older and more conservative crowds who initially disliked him before he entered the Army.

Presley admired the style of James Dean and Tony Curtis and returned from the military eager to make a career as a movie star. Although "he was definitely not the most talented actor around", he "became a film genre of his own." Pop film staples of the early sixties, such as the Presley musicals and the AIP beach movies were mainly produced for a teenage audience and called by film critics a "pantheon of bad taste". In the sixties, at Colonel Parker's command, Presley withdrew from concerts and television appearances, after his final appearance with Frank Sinatra on NBC entitled "Welcome Home Elvis" where he sang "Witchcraft/Love Me Tender" with Sinatra, in order to make these movies. "He blamed his fading popularity on his humdrum movies," Priscilla Presley recalled in her 1985 autobiography, Elvis and Me. "He loathed their stock plots and short shooting schedules. He could have demanded better, more substantial scripts but he didn't." According to most critics, the scripts of the movies "were all the same, the songs progressively worse." The latter were "written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll." For Blue Hawaii and its soundtrack LP, "fourteen songs were cut in just three days." Julie Parrish, starring in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, says that Presley hated such songs and that he "couldn't stop laughing while he was recording" one of them.

Although some film critics chastised these movies for their lack of depth, the fans turned out and they were enormously profitable. According to Jerry Hopkins's book, Elvis in Hawaii, Presley's "pretty-as-a-postcard movies" even "boosted the new state's (Hawaii) tourism. Some of his most enduring and popular songs came from those movies." Altogether, Presley had made 27 movies during the 1960s, "which had grossed about $130 million, and he had sold a hundred million records, which had made $150 million." Overall, he was one of the highest paid Hollywood actors during the 1960s. However, during the later sixties, "the Elvis Presley film was becoming passé. Young people were tuning in, dropping out and doing acid. Musical acts like the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, the Doors, Janis Joplin and many others were dominating the airwaves. Elvis Presley was not considered as cool as he once was."

Presley's star had faded slightly over the 1960s as he made his movies and America was struck by changing styles and tastes after the "British Invasion" spearheaded by the Beatles.

Until the late sixties Presley continued to star in many B-movies, featuring soundtracks that were of increasingly lower quality. He had become deeply dissatisfied with the direction his career had taken over the ensuing seven years, most notably the film contracts with a demanding schedule that eliminated creative recording and giving public concerts. This lead to a triumphant televised performance later dubbed the '68 Comeback Special, aired on the NBC television network on December 3, 1968 and released as an album by RCA. In a special that saw him return to his rock and roll roots, Rolling Stone magazine called it "a performance of emotional grandeur and historical resonance". [8]

The comeback of 1968 was followed by a 1969 return to live performances, first in Las Vegas and then across the United States. The return concerts were noted for the constant stream of sold-out shows, with many setting attendance records in the venues where he performed.

Two concert films were also released: Elvis: That's the Way It Is (1970) and Elvis on Tour (1972).

After seven years off the top of the charts, Presley's song "Suspicious Minds" hit number one on the Billboard music charts on November 1, 1969. He also reached number one on charts elsewhere: "In the Ghetto" did so in West Germany in 1969 and "The Wonder of You" did so in the UK in 1970.

The "Aloha from Hawaii" concert in January 1973 was the first of its kind to be broadcast worldwide via satellite and was seen by at least one billion viewers worldwide. The RCA soundtrack album to the show reached number-one in the charts.

Presley recorded a number of country hits in his final years. Way Down was languishing in the American Country Music chart shortly before his death in 1977, and reached number one the week after his death. It also topped the UK pop charts at the same time.

Between 1969 and 1977 Presley gave over 1,000 sold-out performances in Las Vegas and on tour. He was the first artist to have four shows in a row sold to capacity crowds at New York's Madison Square Garden.

From 1971 to his death in 1977 Presley employed the Stamps Quartet, a gospel group, for his backup vocals. He recorded several gospel albums, earning three Grammy Awards for his gospel music. In his later years his live stage performances almost always included a rendition of How Great Thou Art, the 19th century gospel song made famous by George Beverly Shea. Although some critics say that the singer travestied, commercialized and soft-soaped gospel "to the point where it became nauseating.", twenty-four years after his death, the Gospel Music Association inducted him into its Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001).

After his divorce in 1973 Presley became increasingly isolated, overweight, and battling an addiction to prescription drugs which took a heavy toll on his appearance, health, and performances. He made his last live concert appearance in Indianapolis at the Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977.

On August 16, 1977, at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, Presley was found lying on the floor of his bedroom's bathroom by his fiancee, Ginger Alden, who had been asleep. A stain on the bathroom carpeting was found that indicated "where Elvis had thrown up after being stricken, apparently while seated on the toilet. It looked to the medical investigator as if he had 'stumbled or crawled several feet before he died.' " He was taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead at 3:30 P.M. Presley was 42 years old.

In 1956, a Boston reporter said that Elvis had said, "the only thing niggers can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes." The claim has since been proved untrue (in part by the fact that Elvis was never in Boston until 1971), but it remains a popular urban legend.

In fact, Elvis admired African-Americans.

As early as 1956, he sponsered an All-Negro Day at the Memphis Zoo. In the '50s, a DJ refused to interview Elvis because he was a "nigger-lover". Elvis told guitarist Scotty Moore, "Go tell that son of a bitch, I'm damn proud to be a nigger lover!"

He had close friendships with B.B. King, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Jim Brown, and Muhammmad Ali. After Jackie Wilson went into a coma in the '70s, Elvis supported his family financially.

Elvis requested to meet Martin Luther King in the mid-60s, but never got the oppritunity. His song If I Can Dream is partly about King's assassanation. Elvis later quoted part of King's I Have A Dream speeh on stage.

Elvis was accompanied on stage by The Sweet Inspirations from 1969 until his death. Once, while in Texas, the owner of a venue refused to allow them to go on stage because, he didn't "allow niggers in my arena". Elvis replied, "No Sweets, no Elvis." He also told a fan once to take a Confederate flag down from a balcony at a concert and replace it with the American flag.

Apart from his relationships with women, Presley had many male friends. He reportedly spent day and night with friends and employees whom the news media affectionately dubbed the Memphis Mafia. Among them were Sonny West, Red West, Billy Smith, Marty Lacker and Lamar Fike. Gerald Marzorati says that Elvis "couldn't go anywhere else without a phalanx of boyhood friends." Even the girls he dated deplored, "Whenever you were with Elvis for the most part you were with his entourage. Those guys were always around..." According to Peter Guralnick, for Elvis and the guys "Hollywood was just an open invitation to party all night long. Sometimes they would hang out with Sammy Davis, Jr., or check out Bobby Darin at the Cloister. Nick Adams and his gang came by the suite all the time, not to mention the eccentric actor Billy Murphy ..." Samuel Roy says that "Elvis' bodyguards, Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler, apparently loved Elvis—especially Red ... ; these bodyguards showed loyalty to Elvis and demonstrated it in the ultimate test. When bullets were apparently fired at Elvis in Las Vegas, the bodyguards threw themselves in front of Elvis, forming a shield to protect him." According to Presley expert Elaine Dundy, "Of all Elvis' new friends, Nick Adams, by background and temperament the most insecure, was also his closest." All of the singer's friendships are documented by many photographs.

By 1957 Presley was the most famous entertainer in the world. After pioneer band leader Bill Haley spawned interest in rock and roll in Western Europe, Presley's records triggered a wide shift in tastes with effects lasting many decades. Singers in dozens of countries made Presley-influenced recordings in many languages and his own records were sold around the globe, even behind the former Iron Curtain. By 1958 Cliff Richard, the so-called "British Elvis", was rising to prominence in the UK, and in France Johnny Hallyday, known as the "Elvis of France", became a rock and roll idol singing in French, soon to be followed by others like Claude François and, in Italy, by Adriano Celentano and Bobby Solo, all of whom were heavily influenced by Presley's early style. Later, as his first movies were shown throughout the world, Presley-mannered stage performers and singers appeared everywhere, from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East, and even in some parts of Africa. Airplay and sales of Presley recordings across Europe were followed by those of other American rockers who began touring there. Teenagers around the world copied his "ducktail" hair style.

For the next 21 years, until he died, Presley's singing style, mannerisms and look continued to be imitated with surprising regularity, wherever his image, songs, or movies happened to be shown, regardless of major shifts in popular culture, music, and manner of dress, all of which he had helped influence in the first place. But it was only after his death that an industry built itself around him. Many people of every race, creed and nationality taking up a career as professional Elvis impersonators — or Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs) as they now prefer to be called.

Conversely, a parallel industry, mostly kitsch, continues to grow around his memory, chronicling his dietary and chemical predilections along with the trappings of his wide celebrity. Many impersonators still sing his songs. "While some of the impersonators perform a whole range of Presley music, the raw 1950s Elvis and the kitschy 1970s Elvis are the favorites."

Among his many accomplishments, Presley is only one of four artists (Roy Orbison, Guns N' Roses and Nelly being the others) to ever have two top five albums on the charts simultaneously.

He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1986), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1998), and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2001).

As Presley was a very popular star, the FBI had files on him of more than 600 pages. According to Thomas Fensch, the texts from the FBI reports dating from 1959 to 1981 represent a "microcosm [of Presley's] behind-the-scenes life." For instance, the FBI was interested in death threats made against the singer, the likelihood of Elvis being the victim of blackmail and particularly a "major extortion attempt" while he was in the Army in Germany, complaints about his public performances, a paternity suit, the theft by larceny of an executive jet which he owned and the alleged fraud surrounding a 1955 Corvette which he owned, and similar things.
Artist information courtesy of their Wikipedia entry, which is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
Over 140,000 Items In Stock and Ready to Ship