In the music industry of the 20th century, there was a before and after Elvis Presley. The ascent of The King changed the way people perceived artists and music: his moves, multicultural sound, delirious fans, and flamboyant stage persona made him the timeless legend that revolutionised rock music and whose influence still resonates to this day.
Almost 70 years after the publication of his first single, That's All Right, the image of the king of rock and roll is remains iconic, and his cultural impact on the entertainment industry seems to be limitless.
For various reasons, Elvis' larger-than-life persona offers the perfect ground for movie biopics depicting his career. From humble beginnings to unprecedented stardom, The King’s saga seems to have more and more facets as time goes by.
With the new biopic Elvis by Baz Luhrmann having debuted this week, let’s take a look at the history and influence of the Mississippi native who took the music industry by storm and paved the way for decades of rock and roll.
The humble origins of Elvis are well documented and helped build his image as the young all-American star we’re all familiar with. Born in Tupelo in a shotgun shack in 1935, Elvis’ first encounter with music came through the local evangelical church.
The influence of gospel and the black music scene of the Mississippi greatly affected his style, which blended white country and black rhythm-and-blues in the early ‘50s – a time when racial segregation and discrimination affected the lives of millions.
At the age of 12, he moved to Memphis with his family, and here The King started his journey to worldwide music domination. After a couple of recordings in the local Sun Studios, on July 5th 1954, Elvis and his band recorded That’s All Right, a cover of the original blues song by Arthur Crudup.
The song was a local hit, with hundreds of listeners calling the show Red, Hot, and Blue to find out more about this mysterious new band. Eventually, local radio presenter Dewey Phillips interviewed Elvis on air, revealing that, to the audience’s surprise, he was a young white man.
During those sessions at the Sun Studios, the trio comprising Elvis, guitarist Winfield Moore and bass player Bill Black brought rockabilly to life, with a fusion of hectic rhythm and the vibrant, blues-inflected energy of the vocals and guitar that changed music once and for all.
Was it rockabilly, rock and roll, country, or blues? Trying to define Elvis Presley’s sound is no trivial task. The King’s career is defined by his ability to blend and transcend different genres, using his unmistakable voice and charisma to introduce white people to black music and vice versa.
His encyclopaedic knowledge of gospel music and blues laid the foundations for his ground-breaking sound – the mesmerising, almost mystic power Elvis' music exuded drove hordes of fans to the edge of hysteria, with a sound that felt as fresh as it was primaeval.
Between the ‘50s and the ‘70s, The King’s music evolved to embrace new genres and styles. While his early recordings were purely rockabilly, Elvis Presley’s music changed in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s under the management of the legendary RCA Records.
The music industry was changing, and rock music was taking over radio stations worldwide. As a result of the shifting interest, Elvis’ works became richer and more intense, with sounds ranging from aggressive guitar riffs to heart-breaking country ballads.
After returning from military service in 1960, Elvis’ soaring fame led him to a career as a movie star. The result was 27 movies of questionable quality, which also had an impact on his music career. Albums and movie soundtracks became more accessible to the larger audience, with a pop influence permeating his hits at the time, such as Can't Help Falling in Love (1961), Return to Sender (1962), and Viva Las Vegas.
In retrospect, Elvis would show dissatisfaction about this time of his career, feeling that he was distancing himself from the music industry while concentrating on mediocre movie productions. For many years, top ten hits were scarce, and the image of the iconic man of the late ‘50s gradually faded from the memory of fans.
However, in the ‘70s, the King earned the moniker of a rising phoenix. Neglected for many years by audiences and industry alike, Elvis Presley came back with a renewed, contemporary rock sound that combined his early experiences as a rockabilly star with the more aggressive sounds of ‘70s rock music.
The ‘68 Comeback Special is often considered the moment that defined Elvis’ resurgence as an iconic rock star. The King, now more mature and in control of his career, went on stage and reignited his career with a compelling, and now legendary, performance.
This was Elvis’ first performance since 1961, and during that time, the world of rock and roll moved on at a frantic pace. Yet, Elvis’ concert was met with widespread acclaim, with journalists praising The King’s almost magical on-stage presence and timeless sound.
His vibrant energy was once again there for everyone to experience. The resurgence of Elvis is a powerful tale of struggle and redemption in a period when most artists would enjoy a meteoric career or dwindle as time went by.
Elvis Presley’s fame results from an infallible formula of talent, beauty, and music that drew inspiration from the best sounds America had to offer at the time.
The King's music owes much to the black community. In some ways, his songs became an amplifier for the African-Americans who saw in this young white Southern man someone who could represent their sound and rights in a time when the segregation and racial prejudice issues were at their pinnacle.
Although not everyone was happy with Elvis drawing so much inspiration from African-American music, there's no doubt The King was the first to make black music accessible to young white audiences.
Elvis always cited B.B. King and Fats Domino as his primary sources of inspiration. Interviewed after his '68 Comeback Special performance, he’d tell the interviewer that Fats Domino was the real king of rock and roll, and not him. Furthermore, having as his songwriter Claude Demetrius – who wrote songs for the likes of Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan – was a daring move for a white artist in the late ‘50s.
While Elvis’ praise for the rhythm and blues scene and culture led him to become a star within the African-American community, his appearance and image as a sex symbol made him legendary among white teenagers, therefore making him the first all-encompassing icon who ever lived.
His full-on black leather outfit from the ‘68 Comeback Special laid the foundation for the rock attire of the ‘70s, while the flashy, extravagant outfits from his Las Vegas shows clearly inspired the glam-rock appearance of the ‘80s. Whichever way you look at it, Elvis’ influence in the entertainment industry has crossed decades and media and will continue to do so for a long time.
"The image is one thing and the human being another. It's very hard to live up to an image."
This is what Elvis said in an interview in 1972, shortly after his divorce and just before a hectic tour that would result in 168 concerts in the following year alone. That’s also when Elvis’ health declined dramatically as his usage of barbiturates soared.
Often unable to move and devastated by drug abuse, Elvis spent the final years of his life struggling to keep up with the recording sessions and tours that were forced upon him. The book Elvis: What Happened?, featuring accounts by three of his former bodyguards, exposed The King’s excessive lifestyle and, in a way, predicted the inevitable end of The King's story. Two weeks after the book’s publication, Elvis Presley died in his bathroom at his Graceland home.
45 years after his death, the enigmatic image of Elvis still resonates with fans worldwide, regardless of their age and cultural background. The boy from Mississippi inflamed the crowds and paved the way that all rock musicians follow today, and the stage persona he created over the years became the epitome of stardom that all artists aspire to.
As his overnight success, incredible comeback, and tragic death are revisited and represented in a contemporary key, the image of the king of rock and roll changes over time and follows the flow of our society. In this way, the voice and the cultural impact of Elvis will never die.
Cover Credit: Robert Emerson /Alamy Stock Photo
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.