Elvis Presley – circa 1957
“You know he’s gone, gone, gone / Jumpin’ like a catfish on a pole / You know he’s gone, gone, gone / Hip shakin’ King Creole” – ‘King Creole’ (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller)
“Hold it, fellas,” interrupts Elvis Presley imperiously. “That don’t move me,” he advises the musicians in the recording studio of Sun Records, late in 1954. They are working on ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’, the song that, in January 1955, will become the singer’s third single. Up until now, the wandering arrangement has been rather shapeless. Elvis instructs, “Let’s get real, real gone for a change,”…and something happens. It’s like a switch from black-and-white to colour. It seems like a bolt of electricity has transformed the recording session. A wild, headlong momentum has taken possession of those present. Arguably, rock ‘n’ roll is born in such moments. Certainly, the career of Elvis Presley originates in this alchemy.
Elvis Aron Presley (8 January 1935 – 16 August 1977) is born in East Tupelo, Mississippi, in the United States of America. (Note: At birth, his middle name is spelled Aron but, later in life, it is amended to Aaron to align with his Biblical namesake.) His twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, is still born thirty-five minutes later or dies shortly after birth. “They say when one twin dies, the other grows up with all the quality of the other too,” Elvis later muses. “If I did, I’m lucky.” Elvis is the only child of Vernon Elvis Presley and his wife, Gladys Love Presley (nee Smith). They both came from sharecropping families, but had left that behind before the birth of the twins. Vernon became a truck driver while Gladys worked as a sewing machine operator. Elvis is particularly close to his mother, resulting in some labelling him a ‘mama’s boy’. “I was an only child and mother was always right with me all my life,” Elvis notes. “From the time I was a kid,” he says, “I always knew something big was going to happen to me. Didn’t know exactly what.”
The Presley family attends the Pentecostal First Assembly of God church. Elvis’ first exposure to music takes the form of religious songs, gospel music or ‘spirituals’. “Since I was two years old all I knew was gospel music…We used to go to these religious singings all the time.” Elvis Presley also soaks up the sounds of ‘rhythm and blues radio shows in his home town, and country singers of the ‘40s.’ When he is 10, young Elvis sings the country and western ballad ‘Old Shep’ at the Mississippi – Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on 3 October 1945. Elvis recalls, “I wore glasses, no music, and I won, I think it was fifth place.” Elvis is blonde until his early teens when his hair starts gradually getting darker to its familiar raven hue. His mother gives Elvis a guitar for his 12th birthday in 1947. “I wanted a bicycle,” he points out ruefully.
In September 1948 Elvis Presley and his parents relocate to Memphis, Tennessee. “We were broke, man, broke, and we left Tupelo overnight,” he acknowledges. Elvis attends L.C. Humes High School in Memphis. He works in the school library and, after school hours, as a cinema usher at Loew’s State Theatre. In 1951 Elvis obtains his driver’s licence. In April 1953 he competes in Humes’ ‘minstrel’ show. “I wasn’t popular in school,” he claims. “I failed music.” Elvis’ first sweetheart is 15 year old Dixie Locke, whom he takes to the school prom. In 1953 Elvis Presley graduates from high school. He starts work at the Parker Machinists Shop. In June 1953 he moves on to the assembly line at the Precision Tool Company. From there, Elvis Presley follows his father’s example and begins driving a truck. His employer is Crown Electric Co. and the young truck driver is supposedly preparing to become an electrician.
In the summer of 1953, Elvis Presley walks into the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue. This business allows for ‘custom recording’. Their clients can use the service to record their voice onto a record, whether it be a spoken message for loved ones or a song they care to sing. The 18 year old Elvis Presley puts down his $3.98 and records the songs ‘My Happiness’ and ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’, supposedly as a belated birthday gift for his mother. The ‘custom recording’ business is a sideline for Sam Phillips, the proprietor of the Sun Records label. His assistant, Marion Keisker, takes note of Elvis Presley. On 6 January 1954 Elvis returns and cuts a second record, “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way’ and ‘It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You’, hoping to catch the attention of Sam Phillips. On 26 June 1954 Sam Phillips summons Elvis Presley to Sun Records. The aspiring singer responds with alacrity but their attempts to cut a version of a song called ‘Without You’ end in failure. The session is not a total loss. It is Elvis’ first meeting with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Moore’s group, The Starlite Wranglers, are a fledging act on Sun. They are looking for a vocalist and begin rehearsing with Elvis Presley. The trio of Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black return to the studio on 5 July 1954 to record what becomes Elvis Presley’s first single.
Dixie Locke is said to be Elvis Presley’s girlfriend from the time he graduates high school (mid 1953) until his first single on Sun Records (July 1954). Presumably, it is Dixie to whom he refers when he says, “The closest I ever came to getting married was just before I started singing. In fact, my first record saved my neck.”
Elvis Presley is one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll as a type of music. In simple terms, rock ‘n’ roll is a meeting of the music of white people (country and western) and the music of black people (rhythm and blues). In the 1950s that ‘meeting’ was more like a head-on collision than a careful blending. Sam Phillips was reportedly looking for a white singer who had the Negro sound and feel. In Elvis Presley he found that combination. Elvis’ interest in country music and blues singers was roughly equal and both influences can be detected in his performances.
“I don’t sound like nobody,” the young Elvis Presley insists. “People ask me where I got my singing style. I didn’t copy my style from anybody.” Yet, as early as 1956, he contradicts this, saying, “The coloured folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. I got it from them.” Perhaps it can be allowed that, although modelling his vocal approach on African-American singers, by the time Elvis filters it through his Caucasian sensibilities, what emerges is something original that doesn’t “sound like nobody.” Characteristic traits of Elvis Presley’s vocal delivery are a nervous ‘hiccupping’ on some syllables (white-country) and a sudden dip to smouldering bass notes (black-blues).
There are other early rock ‘n’ roll acts that appropriate parts of country music and parts of rhythm and blues, but Elvis Presley is not just a rock singer, he is a rock star, perhaps the first such person. The public persona of Elvis, the image and fashion, are part of what makes him successful. The former cinema usher borrows liberally from three movie stars. Elvis’ greasy duck-tail and pompadour hairstyle is derived from Tony Curtis; the curled upper lip and sneering indifference are hallmarks of Marlon Brando; and the agonised vulnerability is copied from James Dean. Elvis’ clothing is more original. He dresses in gaudy bright colours or previously unheard of masculine combinations like pink jackets and black slacks. Elvis’ ‘cat clothes’ are mainly purchased from Lansky’s in Memphis. Beyond his considerable male beauty, Elvis Presley’s movements are also crucial to his image. When performing, he shifts his hips from left to right in a pattern that is clearly sexual and drives teenage girls wild. “I’m not trying to be sexy,” Elvis claims. “It’s just my way of expressing myself when I move around.” Media commentators dub him ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ – an appellation he is quick to disavow: “I don’t like being called Elvis the Pelvis. That’s gotta be one of the most childish expressions I’ve ever heard coming from an adult.” His early dominance over the embryonic rock industry earns him another sobriquet, ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ or, simply, ‘The King’ – but this is met with almost equal disdain: “I am not the King. Jesus Christ is the King. I’m just an entertainer.”
As a guitar player, Elvis Presley is competent rather than impressive. He modestly likens his playing to “someone beating on a bucket lid.” Still, his acoustic guitar lends a scratchy urgency to many of his early recordings. Even in the ‘50s he would sometimes just sing, rather than play along with his musicians. After that, Elvis was less often seen playing guitar and mainly just used it as an occasional prop.
“I’ve never written a song in my life,” Elvis Presley says in a mixture of boastfulness and embarrassment. At first, his output is almost exclusively cover versions of songs previously recorded by other artists. Then, songs written especially for him filter into his work and gradually become the norm, with only a small number of covers supplementing them. The credits for the original performers and the songwriters of Elvis Presley’s material will not be covered here except for a select number of examples.
On 6 July 1954 Elvis Presley records his first single. Elvis sings and plays acoustic guitar on the tune. Sam Phillips acts as producer. Scotty Moore plays the sharp, stinging lead guitar notes while Bill Black plays ‘slap bass’ on an upright, acoustic double bass. The song is ‘That’s All Right’. It is written by the blues singer Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup and was originally recorded by Crudup on 6 September 1946. Legend has it that, as the musicians struggle with finding something that will appease Sam Phillips’ strict quality control requirements, Elvis begins messing around with ‘That’s All Right’, just being silly: “That’s all right, mama / That’s all right for you / That’s all right, mama / Just anyway you do.” Bill Black joins in, and then Scotty Moore taps into their rickety kinetic rhythm. Sam Phillips’ ears prick up and he instructs the trio to back up and start again. He rolls tape and history is made. ‘That’s All Right’ backed with ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ is released in July 1954.
Elvis Presley records four more singles for Sun Records: ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ b/w ‘I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine’ (US no. 74) (September 1954); ‘Milkcow Blues Boogie’ b/w ‘You’re A Heartbreaker’ (January 1955); ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ b/w ‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’ (May 1955); and ‘Mystery Train’ b/w ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’ (August 1955). Although their commercial impact is minimal, it is difficult to overstate the importance of these recordings. This is the deep wellspring that enriches everything Elvis Presley will achieve in the best moments of his career. Fittingly, the songs are almost equally divided between those of country music origin and those drawn from rhythm and blues. Each has the same characteristic snap of immediacy despite evidently being the result of protracted labour. The wonderful spartan quality of the Sun Records studio, with just the right touch of echo, is ever present. The trio of Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black is augmented by drummers Jimmie Lott (‘I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone’) and Johnny Bernero (‘Mystery Train’ and ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’).
At Sam Phillips’ suggestion, Scotty Moore acts as Elvis Presley’s manager from July 1954. Together with Bill Black, they perform some local dates, with Elvis known as ‘The Hillbilly Cat’. On 16 October 1954 Elvis Presley appears on television’s ‘Louisiana Hayride’. For this show, Elvis, Scotty and Bill are joined by drummer J.D. Fontana who becomes the fourth member of the act. Scotty Moore’s managerial contract lasts for one year. In July 1955 Bob Neal becomes Elvis’ new manager.
‘While still a rising star’, Elvis Presley dates June Juanico over an eighteen month period from 1955 to 1956.
Elvis Presley’s growing notoriety brings him to the attention of Colonel Tom Parker. Actually this entrepreneur is born Andreas Cornelis Van Kuijk in Holland. He is acting as manager of country singer Hank Snow when Elvis gets a gig as a support act at one of Snow’s shows late in 1954. Colonel Tom Parker becomes a management consultant to Bob Neal, who is rapidly getting out of his depth. On 22 November 1955 Elvis Presley is signed to RCA Records in a deal Colonel Tom Parker has been crucial in arranging with Steve Sholes, the RCA man who will take over Sam Phillips’ role in Elvis’ career. It is reasonable to wonder why Sam Phillips would have accepted a deal to sell Elvis’ contract to another company. The reasons are twofold. Firstly, Elvis (and Colonel Tom Parker) are ambitious. RCA is a much bigger operation, offering the opportunity for greater record sales and the associated financial benefits. Sam Phillips is astute enough to recognise that, though he could legally enforce Presley’s continuation as a Sun Records artist, a disinterested or obstructive performer is to no one’s advantage. Secondly, because Sun Records is a tiny company it has certain inbuilt cash-flow problems. The juicy settlement with RCA keeps Sun Records (and its other recording artists) in business for a number of years. With the RCA coup to this credit, Colonel Tom Parker officially becomes Elvis Presley’s manager on 15 March 1956.
On 10 January 1956 Elvis Presley enters RCA’s Nashville, Tennessee, recording studio to cut his first single for that label. In addition to Scotty Moore and Bill Black, Elvis is joined by guitarist Chet Atkins and piano player Floyd Cramer. Steve Sholes acts as producer. The aim is to recreate the loose feel of the Sun Records sessions but, inevitably, it sounds new and different. The single is ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2) b/w ‘I Was The One’ (US no. 19). ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is written by Mae Boren Axton, a schoolteacher, Tommy Durden, a singer-songwriter based in Jacksonville…and Elvis Presley. Given Elvis’ protest that, “I’ve never written a song in my life” and “It’s all a big hoax,” his involvement in the creation of the composition can be discarded. The song was written in 1955 and based on a real life newspaper account of a suicide. A guide vocal is recorded by Glen Reeves, but his version exists only to help Presley realise the finished product. In Elvis’ harshly metallic version, he barks, “Well the bellhop’s tears keep flowin’ / The desk clerk’s dressed in black / Well they’ve been so long on lonely street / They never, never look back.” ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ becomes Elvis Presley’s first no. 1 song on the pop charts and RCA’s investment is on its way to being financially rewarding. “I was an overnight sensation,” the singer marvels.
“You can do anything but lay offa my blue suede shoes,” warns Elvis Presley in his second single, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (US no. 20, UK no. 9). This is a tale of a cool cat hung up on his own appearance. Although it might fit Elvis’ distinctive image, it is written by Carl Perkins. The author’s own version was released on Presley’s old label, Sun Records, concurrent with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
‘Blues Suede Shoes’ is included on ‘Elvis Presley’ (1956) (US no. 1, UK no. 1), the debut album released in March. Elvis’ career is based more on singles than albums, but this is his best full-length outing, largely because it captures the seismic impact of the artist’s arrival; the shock of the new. It includes ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘I Love You Because’ and ‘Just Because’, a trio of songs Elvis had first recorded at Sun Records. They went unreleased then and are re-recorded for his RCA album. This disc contains ‘revved-up country music with the most irresistibly sexy voice anyone had ever heard.’
The single ‘I Want You, I Need You, I Love You’ (US no. 3, UK no. 14) b/w ‘My Baby Left Me’ (US no. 31) is next, but it is outclassed by its successor, Elvis Presley’s finest single of all time: ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2) b/w ‘Hound Dog’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2). ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ is penned by the African-American songwriter Otis Blackwell. “If you can’t come around / At least please telephone / Don’t be cruel / To a heart that’s true,” pleads Elvis in a new, vulnerable style. The song dishes up a kind of huggable heartache. By combining pop smarts with a charismatic performance, this transcends the early rock ‘n’ roll mash-up of country and western and rhythm and blues to provide something modern, new and definitive. Almost as satisfying is the raucous ‘Hound Dog’. Amidst pummelling drum rolls and a hand-clapping rhythm, Elvis Presley furiously charges, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog / Cryin’ all the time / Well you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.” Supposedly, ‘Hound Dog’ has ‘reversed sexual imagery’. If that’s true, it’s not readily apparent. On the other hand, when Elvis Presley sings the song on NBC-TV’s ‘The Steve Allen Show’ on 1 July 1956, he finds his sexualised hip-shaking reputation has preceded him. He is told not to dance and is made to sing the song to a real basset hound. ‘Hound Dog’ is written by the famed song-writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and was originally a hit for Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton in 1953.
The recording session on 2 July 1956 for ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Hound Dog’ marks the first time Elvis Presley is backed by The Jordanaires. This is a foursome of male backing vocalists consisting of Gordon Stoker, Hoyt Hawkins, Neal Matthews and Hugh Jarrett. In 1958 Ray Walker will replace Hugh Jarrett. Their gospel influenced stylings will accompany Elvis Presley from 1956 to 1970.
Elvis Presley’s 1956 singles continue with ‘Trying To Get To You’ (UK no. 16), ‘Blue Moon’ (UK no. 9) and ‘Money Honey’ (US no. 76).
Elvis Presley goes to Hollywood to make a movie. While there, he finds time to date starlet Natalie Wood in September 1956. (Wood is not the co-star in his film; Debra Paget has that role.)
‘Elvis’ (1956) (US no. 1, UK no. 3), the artist’s second album, is released in October. It includes ‘Old Shep’, the song he first sang when he was 10, as well as ‘Rip It Up’, ‘When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again’ (US no. 19), ‘Paralyzed’ (UK no. 8) and ‘Ready Teddy’.
‘Love Me Tender’ (1956) is Elvis Presley’s motion picture debut. This western is named in honour of the song Elvis performs in it. ‘Love Me Tender’ (US no. 1, UK no. 11) (the song) hits the charts on 20 October 1956 and the movie debuts on 16 November 1956. ‘Love Me Tender’ is the first of thirty-one films – and two musical documentaries – to star Elvis Presley. Most of them have soundtrack albums. ‘Love Me Tender’ (the song) is something of a departure for Elvis being a hushed ballad with only an acoustic guitar and The Jordanaires backing vocals supporting the singer as he intones: “Love me tender / Love me sweet / Never let me go / You have made my life complete / And I love you so.” Its spartan simplicity makes it all the more effecting and it remains Elvis’ best ballad. The author of ‘Love Me Tender’ is listed as Vera Matson – though Mr Presley receives a (spurious?) co-writing credit. Actually Vera Matson’s credit is just a copyright nicety; it is her husband, Ken Darby, who adapts the song from ‘Aura Lee’, a traditional tune dating back to the American Civil War (1861-1865).
On 4 December 1956 Elvis Presley visits Sun Records again and records some impromptu performances with three current Sun Records performers: Carl Perkins (author of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’), Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. These recordings are shelved until twenty-five years later.
‘Love Me’ (US no. 2), ‘Old Shep’ (US no. 47) and ‘Poor Boy’ (US no. 24) round out Elvis Presley’s 1956 singles. RCA also releases nine Elvis Presley EPs in 1956 (an extended play (EP) is a record with, typically, three to five tracks; it is more than a single, but less than an album). Confusingly, the first, second and fourth EPs have the same name. The nine 1956 Elvis Presley EPs are: ‘Elvis Presley’, ‘Elvis Presley’, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (US no. 5), ‘Elvis Presley’ (US no. 6), ‘The Real Elvis’, ‘Anyway You Want Me’, ‘Elvis Vol. 1’ (US no. 4), ‘Love Me Tender’ (US no. 10) and ‘Elvis Vol. 2’.
Elvis Presley begins 1957 with the stiff-legged march of ‘Too Much’ (US no. 2, UK no. 6) and the EP ‘Strictly Elvis’ (UK no. 1).
On 19 March 1957 Elvis Presley purchases the mansion ‘Graceland’ in Memphis, Tennessee. The name comes with the building and dates back to when it was used as a church.
“Well my hands are shakin’ / And my knees are weak / I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet / Who do you thank when you have such luck? / I’m in love / I’m all shook up,” sings Elvis Presley on his next single. The gentle, yet unstoppable, rhythm of ‘All Shook Up’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) marks it as another Otis Blackwell composition. The man who also wrote ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ again shares the official songwriting credit with Elvis. This is followed by ‘(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley’. ‘Peace In The Valley’ (US no. 3, UK no. 12) is also an EP.
‘Loving You – Soundtrack’ (1957) (US no. 1, UK no. 1) in July accompanies Elvis Presley’s second feature film, ‘Loving You’ (1957). ‘Loving You Vol. 1’ and ‘Loving You Vol. 2’ are released as EPs. Concurrently, ‘(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear’ (US no. 1, UK no. 3), a sophisticated romp with the singer’s characteristic vocal swoops, is a hit single.
Elvis Presley’s love life is rather complicated. In July 1957 he begins dating Anita Wood who he will continue to see until August 1962. Yet in October 1957 he is dating both the starlet Venetia Stevenson (not one of his co-stars) and Jeanne Carmen. In November 1957 he takes up with Kathleen Case In an association that continues until 1960. ‘Just For You’ (US no. 2) may be the title for his next EP – but which of these girls is he talking about?
Scotty Moore, Bill Black and D.J. Fontana have continued to perform as Elvis Presley’s backing group. They are briefly known as The Blue Moon Boys. On 21 September 1957 Scotty Moore and Bill Black discontinue the act ‘because of poor wages.’ Well, Scotty Moore leaves – but Bill Black stays on until 1958. Drummer D.J. Fontana continues to work with his hip-shakin’ frontman until 1968, a further ten years. The single, ‘Party’ (UK no. 2), comes next.
November 1957 brings the multimedia assault of ‘Jailhouse Rock’. It starts with a single written expressly for Elvis Presley by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose ‘Hound Dog’ Elvis covered in ’56. The loose-limbed, rough and tumble ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) sketches out the scenario: “Warden threw a party in the county jail / The prison band was there, they began to wail.” The movie, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957) boasts perhaps Elvis Presley’s most impressive choreography as he gyrates about in a convict’s garb. Completing the set is the ‘Jailhouse Rock’ EP (US no. 1, UK no. 14).
As the year comes to a close, Elvis Presley releases the EP ‘Elvis Sings Christmas Songs’ (US no. 2, UK no. 16) and the full-length ‘Elvis’ Christmas Album’ (1957) (US no. 1, UK no. 2) in November. ‘Peace In The Valley’, from earlier in the year, is incorporated into this album as is his version of ‘White Christmas’, more commonly associated with Bing Crosby. There is some speculation about the ‘impropriety’ of the sexualised singer performing religious songs.
‘Don’t’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2) and ‘Wear My Ring Around Your Neck’ (US no. 3, UK no. 3) begin 1958 for Elvis Presley.
Fourteen days after completing shooting for his much anticipated fourth movie, on 24 March 1958 Elvis Presley is inducted into the U.S. Army (his serial number is 53310761). The Army would have been willing to allow the new recruit to spend the duration of his hitch entertaining the troops, but Colonel Tom Parker convinces the military that it would be ‘good for morale’ for his charge to do full duty. Still, Private Elvis Presley was never going to be an ordinary serviceman. After basic training, he receives two weeks’ leave so he can record some songs.
The single ‘Hard-Headed Woman’ (US no. 2, UK no. 2) heralds Elvis Presley’s next multi-format campaign. ‘King Creole’ (1958) was the movie Elvis Presley completed before he entered the Army. It is released in August. Elvis regards this as his favourite of his movies and critical consensus agrees with him. The ‘King Creole – Soundtrack’ (1958) (US no. 2, UK no. 4) album is also issued as two EPs ‘King Creole Vol. 1’ (US no. 1) and ‘King Creole Vol. 2’ (US no. 1) and the title track, ‘King Creole’ (UK no. 2), is released as a single.
Elvis Presley’s mother, Gladys, contracts hepatitis and is seriously ill. Elvis is granted compassionate leave from the Army to visit her. Due to liver complications, she suffers a heart attack and dies on 14 August 1958, aged 42. At the funeral, beside himself with grief, Elvis throws himself across her coffin.
On 11 September 1958 Private Elvis Presley is posted to a U.S. Army base in Germany. His difference to his fellow servicemen is again apparent. Private Presley is accompanied by his father and his paternal grandmother and two friends from Memphis. Rather than live on the Army base, he and his entourage briefly reside in a hotel before settling in a three-storey house in Bad Nauheim, Germany.
Back in the U.S.A. ‘One Night’ (US no. 4, UK no. 1) b/w ‘I Got Stung’ (US no. 8) keeps Elvis Presley in the singles charts. The latter song was one of the tunes Elvis cut during his break after basic training. Two EPs, ‘Christmas With Elvis’ and ‘Elvis Sails’ (US no. 2), conclude his recording output for 1958.
Despite Elvis Presley still being in the military (and overseas), his presence is maintained on the singles charts in 1959 by ‘A Fool Such As I’ (US no. 2, UK no. 1) b/w ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’ (US no. 4) and ‘A Big Hunk O’ Love’ (US no. 1, UK no. 4) b/w ‘My Wish Came True’ (US no. 12). Most of these tracks date back to the aforementioned post-basic training recording session.
At a party at his home in Germany on 13 September 1959 Elvis Presley meets a 14 year old girl named Priscilla Beaulieu. She was born Priscilla Ann Wagner in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, James Wagner, a U.S. Navy test pilot, died in a crash when she was 6 months old. In 1948, when Priscilla was 3, her mother married Paul Beaulieu, a U.S. Air Force officer hailing from Quebec, Canada. Elvis is taken with the young girl and sees her repeatedly while in Germany. On 24 March 1960, Elvis Presley – now a sergeant – is discharged from the Army after two years of service. Returning to the U.S.A., he stays in touch with Priscilla Beaulieu. In 1962 the 16 year old visits him. Elvis convinces his father and his stepmother, Dee (whom Vernon Presley married on 3 July 1960), to let her stay with them in a house behind Graceland. ‘Elvis has intimate relationships with many of his leading ladies and co-stars [from his movies], all the while denying their existence to Priscilla’ over the next few years.
The films in which Elvis Presley stars during the bulk of the 1960s are: ‘G.I. Blues’ (1960), ‘Flaming Star’ (1960), ‘Wild in the Country’ (1961), ‘Blue Hawaii’ (1961), ‘Follow That Dream’ (1962), ‘Kid Galahad’ (1962), ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ (1962), ‘It Happened at the World’s Fair’ (1963), ‘Fun in Acapulco’ (1963), ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ (1963), ‘Viva Las Vegas’ (1964), ‘Roustabout’ (1964), ‘Girl Happy’ (1965), ‘Tickle Me’ (1965), ‘Harum Scarum’ (1965), ‘Frankie and Johnny’ (1966), ‘Paradise Hawaiian Style’ (1966), ‘Spinout’ (1966), ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ (1967), ‘Double Trouble’ (1967), ‘Clambake’ (1967), ‘Stay Away, Joe’ (1968), ‘Speedway’ (1968) and ‘Live a Little, Love a Little’ (1968). Elvis disliked ‘Clambake’ more than any of his other films, but the critics seem to regard ‘Stay Away, Joe’ as the nadir of his career at the cinema. Looking over his total movie output, Elvis later observes, “Those movies sure got me into a rut.”
In the same period during the 1960s, Elvis Presley issues the following albums and EPs: ‘Elvis Is Back’ (1960) (US no. 2, UK no. 1) in April; ‘G.I. Blues – Soundtrack’ (1960) (US no. 1, UK no. 1) in October; ‘His Hand In Mine’ (1960) (US no. 13, UK no. 3) in December [an album of gospel music]; ‘Something For Everybody’ (1961) (US no. 1, UK no. 2) in June; ‘Blue Hawaii – Soundtrack’ (1961) (US no. 1, UK no. 1) in October; ‘Follow That Dream – Soundtrack’ (EP) (US no. 5, UK no. 1); ‘Pot Luck’ (1962) (US no. 4, UK no. 1) in June [his last non-movie soundtrack album for some years]; ‘Kid Galahad – Soundtrack’ (EP) (UK no. 1); ‘Girls! Girls! Girls! – Soundtrack’ (1962) (US no. 3, UK no. 2) in November; ‘It Happened At The World’s Fair – Soundtrack’ (1963) (US no. 4, UK no. 4) in April, ‘Fun In Acapulco – Soundtrack’ (1963) (US no. 3, UK no. 9) in November; ‘Kissin’ Cousins – Soundtrack’ (1963) (US no. 6, UK no. 5) in April; ‘Viva Las Vegas – Soundtrack’ (EP) (UK no. 3); ‘Roustabout – Soundtrack’ (1964) (US no. 1, UK no. 12) in October; ‘Girl Happy – Soundtrack’ (1965) (US no. 8, UK no. 8) in April; ‘Tickle Me – Soundtrack’ (EP) (UK no. 3); ‘Harum Scarum – Soundtrack’ (1965) (US no. 8, UK no. 11) in October; ‘Frankie And Johnny – Soundtrack’ (1966) (US no. 20, UK no. 11) in April; ‘Paradise Hawaiian Style – Soundtrack’ (1966) (US no. 15, UK no. 7) in June; ‘Spinout – Soundtrack’ (1966) (US no. 18, UK no. 17) in November; ‘Easy Come, Easy Go – Soundtrack’ (EP) (UK no. 1) [his last EP release]; ‘How Great Thou Art’ (1967) (US no. 18, UK no. 11) in March [another gospel record]; ‘Double Trouble – Soundtrack’ (1967) (US no. 47, UK no. 34) in June; ‘Clambake – Soundtrack’ (1967) (US no. 40, UK no. 39) in November; [‘Stay Away, Joe’ doesn’t even get a soundtrack album release] and ‘Speedway – Soundtrack’ (1968) (US no. 82) in June [‘Live a Little, Love a Little’ is denied a soundtrack album]. “I lost my musical direction in Hollywood, “Elvis admits. “My songs were the same conveyor belt mass production, just like most of my movies were.”
Elvis Presley’s singles from 1960 to 1968 are: (1960) ‘Stuck On You’ (US no. 1) b/w ‘Fame And Fortune’ (US no. 17), ‘The Girl Of My Best Friend’ (UK no. 2), ‘It’s Now Or Never’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) b/w ‘A Mess Of Blues’ (US no. 32, UK no. 2), ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) b/w ‘I Gotta Know’ (US no. 20); (1961) ‘Surrender’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) b/w ‘Lonely Man’ (US no. 32), ‘Wooden Heart’ (UK no. 1), ‘Flaming Star’ (US no. 14), ‘I Feel So Bad’ (US no. 5) b/w ‘Wild In The Country’ (US no. 26, UK no. 4), ‘(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame’ (US no. 4, UK no. 1) b/w ‘Little Sister’ (US no. 5), ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ (US no. 2) b/w ‘Rock-A-Hula Baby’ (US no. 23, UK no. 1) [these two songs are from ‘Blue Hawaii’]; (1962) ‘Good Luck Charm’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1) b/w ‘Anything That’s Part Of You’ (US no. 31), ‘Follow That Dream’ (US no. 15, UK no. 34), ‘She’s Not You’ (US no. 5, UK no. 1), ‘King Of The Whole Wide World’ (US no. 30), ‘Return To Sender’ (US no. 2, UK no. 1) [from ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’], ‘One Broken Heart For Sale’ (US no. 11, UK no. 12 [from ‘It Happened At The World’s Fair’], ‘You’re The Devil In Disguise’ (US no. 3, UK no. 1); (1963) ‘Bossa Nova Baby’ (US no. 8, UK no. 13) [from ‘Fun In Acapulco’]; (1964) ‘Kissin Cousins’ (US no. 12, UK no. 10), ‘Kiss Me Quick’ (US no. 34, UK no. 14), ‘Viva Las Vegas’ (US no. 29, UK no. 17), ‘Such A Night’ (US no. 16, UK no. 13), ‘Ask Me’ (US no. 12) b/w ‘Ain’t That Loving You, Baby’ (US no. 16, UK no. 15), ‘Blue Christmas’ (UK no. 11); (1965) ‘Do The Clam’ (US no. 21, UK no. 19), ‘Crying In The Chapel’ (US no. 3, UK no. 1), ‘(Such An) Easy Question’ (US no. 11), ‘I’m Yours’ (US no. 11), ‘Puppet On A String’ (US no. 14); (1966) ‘Tell Me Why’ (US no. 33, UK no. 15), ‘Frankie And Johnny’ (US no. 25) b/w ‘Please Don’t Stop Loving Me’ (US no. 45), ‘Love Letters’ (US no. 19, UK no. 6), ‘Spinout’ (US no. 40) b/w ‘All That I Am’ (US no. 41, UK no. 18), ‘If Everyday Was Like Christmas’ (UK no. 13); (1967) ‘Indescribably Blue’ (US no. 33), ‘Big Boss Man’ (US no. 38) b/w ‘You Don’t Know Me’ (US no. 44) [from ‘Clambake’]; (1968) ‘Guitar Man’ (US no. 43, UK no. 19), ‘U.S. Male’ (US no. 28, UK no. 15) and ‘A Little Less Conversation’ (US no. 69). The best of these songs may be the superior pop of ‘Return To Sender’. ‘It’s Now Or Never’ may be the most commercially successful of these singles. By contrast, 1967 was the first year since 1955 that Elvis Presley failed to have a hit in the U.S. top twenty singles charts.
Elvis Presley told Priscilla Beaulieu that he was not having a relationship with anyone else during 1960 to 1967. So his relations with the following women officially didn’t exist in that version of reality: singer Carol Conners (1960), actress Rita Moreno (1961), actress Tura Satana (1961), Ann Helm (July 1961), actress Tuesday Weld (1962) [who co-starred in ‘Wild in the Country’ (1961)], Sherry Jackson (1962), actress Terri Garr (1963), actress Yvonne Craig (1963) [who co-starred in ‘It Happened at the World’s Fair’ (1963) and went on to become Batgirl in television’s ‘Batman’ (c. 1967-1968)], actress Ann Margaret (1963-1964) [who co-starred in ‘Viva Las Vegas’ (1964)], Regina Carrol (1964), Phyllis Davis (1964), actress Shelley Fabares (December 1964) [who co-starred in ‘Girl Happy’ (1965), ‘Spinout’ (1966) and ‘Clambake’ (1967)], actress Mary Ann Mobley (1964) [who co-starred in ‘Girl Happy’ (1965) and ‘Harum Scarum’ (1965)] and Chris Noel (1965). Ann Margaret was probably the most serious of these ‘non-relationships’.
Other 1960s developments: (1) In 1960 Elvis Presley earns a black belt in karate. In later years, he incorporates some karate moves into his stage-shows. (2) After a concert in Hawaii on 25 March 1961, Elvis Presley does not perform for a live audience for the next seven years. By the way, in his entire career, Elvis only performed live in North America, never in other lands. With only two shows in Canada, he appeared almost exclusively in the U.S.A. (3) On 27 August 1965 Elvis Presley meets The Beatles, the British group whose fame is eclipsing his own.
On 1 May 1967 Elvis Presley marries Priscilla Beaulieu. They have one child, a daughter, Lisa Marie (born 1 February 1968).
A change comes over Elvis Presley. The reasons for it can only be speculated upon. Being a husband and father may have something to do with it. He seems to realise that the parade of movies and associated soundtracks have left him trailing behind younger rock stars like The Beatles. His discontent finds a focus in the NBC-TV special ‘Elvis’ aired on 3 December 1968. He wears black leather. He seems younger, more dangerous again. It ‘prompts a renaissance both in the studio and on stage’ from, roughly 1968 to 1973, but ‘it doesn’t last.’
The remainder of Elvis Presley’s movies are: ‘Charro!’ (1969) [a rare non-musical], ‘The Trouble with Girls’ (1969) and ‘Change of Habit’ (1969). These are followed by two musical documentaries, ‘Elvis: That’s the Way it is’ (1970) and ‘Elvis on Tour’ (1972).
The albums Elvis Presley releases in the period 1968 to 1973 are: ‘Elvis’ (1968) (US no. 8, UK no. 2) in December [the TV special soundtrack]; ‘From Elvis In Memphis’ (1969) (US no. 13, UK no. 1) in June [an album described as ‘little short of astounding’]; ‘From Memphis To Vegas / From Vegas To Memphis’ (1969) (US no. 12, UK no. 3) in November [a half live, half studio double album recording]; the live recording ‘On Stage’ (1970) (US no. 13, UK no. 2) in June; ‘Elvis: That’s The Way It Is’ (1970) (US no. 21, UK no. 12) in December [the documentary soundtrack; there were no soundtrack albums for ‘The Trouble with Girls’ or ‘Change of Habit’]; ‘Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old)’ (1971) (US no. 12, UK no. 6) in January; ‘Love Letters From Elvis’ (1971) (US no. 33, UK no. 7) in June; ‘Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas’ (1971) in October [which goes wide of the charts]; ‘Elvis Now’ (1972) (US no. 43, UK no. 12) in January; ‘He Touched Me’ (1972) (US no. 79, UK no. 38) in March [a gospel album]; ‘Elvis: As Recorded At Madison Square Garden’ (1972) (US no. 43, UK no. 3) in June [a live recording of a show in New York]; ‘Aloha From Hawaii: Via Satellite’ (1973) (US no. 1, UK no. 1) in February [a souvenir of the show on 14 February 1973 that ‘draws the largest world-wide TV audience ever with a live concert’ and ‘is one of the best-selling LPs of the Seventies’]; and ‘Elvis’ (1973) (US no. 52, UK no. 16) in July.
The singles from Elvis Presley’s ‘renaissance’ from the late ‘60s – early ‘70s are: (1968) ‘If I Can Dream’ (US no. 12, UK no. 11) [the song that closed the crucial 1968 TV special]; (1969) ‘Edge Of Reality’ (US no. 112), ‘Memories’ (US no. 35), ‘In The Ghetto’ (US no. 3, UK no. 2), ‘Clean Up Your Own Backyard’ (US no. 35, UK no. 2), ‘Suspicious Minds’ (US no. 1, UK no. 2), ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ (US no. 6, UK no. 8); (1970) ‘Kentucky Rain’ (US no. 16, UK no. 21), ‘The Wonder Of You’ (US no. 9, UK no. 1), ‘I’ve Lost You’ (US no. 32, UK no. 9), ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ (US no. 11, UK no. 9), ‘I Really Don’t Want To Know’ (US no. 21), ‘Rags To Riches’ (UK no. 9) b/w ‘Where Did They Go, Lord’ (US no. 33), ‘I’m Leavin’’ (US no. 36); (1972) ‘Until It’s Time For You To Go’ (US no. 40, UK no. 5), ‘American Trilogy’ (US no. 66, UK no. 8), ‘Burning Love’ (US no. 2, UK no. 7), ‘Separate Ways’ (US no. 20) b/w ‘Always On My Mind’ (UK no. 9); (1973) ‘Steamroller Blues’ (US no. 17) b/w ‘Fool’ (UK no. 15) and ‘Raised On Rock’ (US no. 41). The best of these may be ‘Burning Love’, ‘his last major hit.’ “Lord almighty / Feel my temperature risin’ / Higher and higher / Its burnin’ through to my soul,” sings Elvis in this impassioned country rock nugget. Written by Dennis Linde, ‘Burning Love’ was first recorded earlier in 1972 by country/blues singer Arthur Alexander.
Just because Elvis Presley is married, it doesn’t mean his name is no longer linked with women other than his wife, Priscilla. Elvis’ extra-curricular romances from 1968 to 1973 are reputed to be: singer/actress Nancy Sinatra (1968) [the daughter of singer/actor Frank Sinatra], Susan Henning (1968-1969), Cassandra Peterson (1969) [who becomes better known in the 1980s as the late night horror movie hostess Elvira], Barbara Leigh (1970-1972), Joyce Bova (August 1970-1972) [who allegedly becomes pregnant by Elvis and has an abortion], actress Raquel Welch (1972), actress Peggy Lipton (1972) [ from TV’s ‘Mod Squad’], beauty queen Linda Thompson (July 1972-November 1976), Kitty Carl (1973) and Sheila Ryan (1973-1975).
Ironically, the seeds of the end of Elvis Presley’s brief renaissance are sown in its beginning. The upsurge in his popularity following the 1968 TV special results in him playing ‘regular gigs in Las Vegas.’ With guitarist James Burton acting as his musical director and such noted players as pianist Glen D. Hardin in his band, it all starts out well. However, with his rhinestone-encrusted white jumpsuits, Elvis Presley gradually sinks into self-parody.
If the steam had already gone out of his comeback earlier, it is certainly undone by Elvis Presley’s divorce from his wife, Priscilla, on 9 October 1973. The couple separated on 23 February 1972 (so Linda Thompson is Elvis’ first love after the split), but the divorce is not finalised until around eighteen months later. After all Elvis’ alleged philandering, it is actually Priscilla’s liaison with her karate instructor that spells the end of the marriage.
Elvis Presley’s career now enters its final phase. He withdraws to the safety of his Graceland mansion and his sycophantic minions. Elvis’ weight balloons alarmingly. The ‘stress of constant travelling [on his live show tours] as well as his increasing weight gain and dependence on stimulants and depressants takes its toll.’
The albums Elvis Presley releases during the twilight of his career are: ‘Good Times’ (1974) (US no. 90, UK no. 42) in March; ‘Elvis: As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis’ (1974) (US no. 33, UK no. 44) in June; ‘Promised Land’ (1975) (US no. 47, UK no. 21) in January; ‘Today’ (1975) (US no. 57, UK no. 48) in May; ‘From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee’ (1976) (US no. 41, UK no. 29); ‘The Sun Sessions’ (1976) (US no. 76, UK no. 16) [finally collecting together his seminal singles from 1954-1955]; and ‘Moody Blue’ (1977) (US no. 3, UK no. 3).
The hit singles from 1974 to 1977 are: (1974) ‘I’ve Got A Thing About You, Baby’ (US no. 39), ‘If You Talk In Your Sleep’ (US no. 17, UK no. 40), ‘Promised Land’ (US no. 14, UK no. 9); (1975) ‘My Boy’ (US no. 20, UK no. 5), ‘T-R-O-U-B-L-E’ (US no. 35); (1976) ‘Hurt’ (US no. 28), ‘Moody Blue’ (US no. 31, UK no. 6); and (1977) ‘Way Down’ (US no. 18, UK no. 1).
The women in his life during this decline are: singer/actress Cher (1974), actress Cybil Shepherd (1974), singer Kathy Westmoreland (1976) and Ginger Alden (from January 1977) to whom he is said to be engaged.
Elvis Presley’s last public performance is at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana, on 26 June 1977. ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ is the last song he sings in that show.
Dr George Constantine Nichopoulos (Dr Nick) is an almost constant presence in the singer’s last days, prescribing him amphetamines, barbiturates and the like.
Elvis Presley dies of heart failure on 16 August 1977. His fiancée, Ginger Alden, finds him in his blue pyjamas at 2.30 p.m. collapsed on the toilet. The autopsy detects traces of fourteen different drugs in Elvis Presley’s body, ten ‘in significant quantities.’ At the time of his death, more than six hundred million copies of his albums and singles had been sold.
A live recording of ‘My Way’ (US no. 22, UK no. 9), from a show early in 1977, becomes Elvis Presley’s first posthumous hit in 1977. Other notable releases after the singer’s demise are ‘The Million Dollar Quartet’ (1981) [the 1956 sing-along with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash] and the 2002 JXL dance music remix version of ‘A Little Less Conversation’ (US no. 50, UK no. 1) that Elvis originally released in 1969. Elvis Presley’s catalogue of recordings has been extensively repackaged and rereleased to feed a seemingly insatiable public appetite for his work.
Elvis Presley, the pop-culture icon, became so much larger than Elvis Presley, the rock ‘n’ roll singer. Try and strip away the herds of Elvis impersonators and the mountains of tacky, kitsch memorabilia. Some contend that Elvis’ only worthwhile recordings were made at Sun Records in 1954-1955. In contrast, Elvis devotees worship the entirety of his body of work as a monumental treasure. The truth is somewhere between these extremes. His best work was created in the 1950s – not just at Sun, but in the first few years at RCA. After that, Elvis behaved like a Cadillac inexplicably attempting to become a station-wagon. In trying for a broader audience, in attempting to become an all-round entertainer in the manner of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, he –arguably – lost his way. This should not be construed as an attempt to consign all post-1959 Elvis Presley recordings to oblivion. There are many gems in his later work (e.g. ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’, ‘Return To Sender’, ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘Burning Love’, Way Down’, etc.). When that electricity surged through the 19 year old Elvis Presley in the Sun Records studio, could he imagine his future? “I’m proud of the way I was brought up to believe and to treat people and have respect for people,” he once said. Whatever his all-too-human failings, Elvis Presley earned the respect that goes with the title of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. ‘The sudden appearance of Elvis Presley on the scene was nothing less than the full-blown arrival of modern rock ‘n’ roll.’ ‘..It is a measure of his greatness that he remains the most important and adulated performer of the rock ‘n’ roll era.’
- ‘Elvis At Sun’ – Sleeve notes by Ernst Mikael Jorgensen (BMG Music, 2004) p. 4, 5, 9, 13
- Notable names database – nndb.com – as at 23 September 2013
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 185
- Internet movie database imdb.com as at 11 November 2013
- wikipedia.org as at 23 September 2013, 16 January 2017
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Elvis Presley’ by Peter Guralnick (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 24, 25, 26, 35
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 58, 60, 61
- ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 23
- brainyquote.com as at 11 November 2013
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 99, 168, 169
- history-of-rock.com as at 11 November 2013
- whosdatedwho.com as at 23 September 2013
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 18
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 8, 17, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 33, 39, 40, 52, 53, 61, 148, 151, 198, 210
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 44, 57
- elvispresley.com as at 20 November 2013
- ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 210, 442, 485, 572, 1063, 1221, 1257
- ‘The All-Time Greatest Hits’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (BMG Music, 1987) p. 8
Song lyrics copyright Gilbey with the exceptions of ‘That’s All Right’ (Crudup Music (BMI/Unichappell Music Inc. (BMI)); ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ (both J. Albert); ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ (Elvis Presley Music); ‘Hound Dog’ (Warner/Chappell); ‘All Shook Up’ (Control); and ‘Burning Love’ (EMI Songs)
Last revised 16 January 2017