‘The King’ Elvis Presley, 40 years after his death, remains an icon and a cautionary tale
He turned music on its head and has been a major influence on everyone from The Beatles to Bruno Mars, but Elvis also played a big part in his own downfall – even if it was just by being a ‘naive country boy’
There is only one Elvis Presley, but there are also many Elvis Presleys.
That’s not an existential riddle about the hip-swivelling, lip-curling singer who irrevocably changed the sound and look of contemporary music and, with it, popular culture in the 1950s and beyond. Nor is it a reference to the estimated 35,000 Elvis impersonators still active around the world today, 40 years after the intensely charismatic singer hailed as “The King” permanently left the building on August 16, 1977.
Elvis died from a drug-fuelled heart attack in Memphis in his famed Graceland mansion, which still draws 600,000 visitors a year (second only to the White House in the US). Only 42, Elvis reportedly weighed almost 160 kilograms at the time of his death – 85 kilograms more than when he was 32. He tested positive in his autopsy for 10 different prescription medications, including 10 times his prescribed amount of codeine.
Yet, while he died far too young, Elvis had seemingly lived several lifetimes in just over four decades.
He was a sometimes scorned high school student, an impoverished Memphis truck driver, an aspiring singer, a wealthy pop music superstar, a sergeant in the US Army, a smouldering sex symbol, a movie idol, a middle-of-the-road Las Vegas showroom staple, a bloated, drug-addled victim of fame, and more.
Most significantly of all, Elvis was the proto-rock star, an inadvertent revolutionary and game-changing cultural phenomenon, whose impact extends from The Beatles and U2 to Bruno Mars and beyond. “He is about as iconic as anyone in American music gets,” says John Oates, of the rock duo Hall & Oates.
Paul Stanley of rock band Kiss says: “When Elvis came on the scene it was like an unbridled and untamed beast had arrived. There was a sexuality, a danger and a joy in what he was doing that was the sign of a phenomenon. You see early footage of him, shimmying across the stage and playing for these screaming crowds – he was that generation’s template for everything that came after him and everyone copied that template.”
Indeed, no other solo singing star – not Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Madonna or Beyoncé – has matched Elvis in influence. His example helped pave the way – directly or indirectly – for The Beatles, Bob Dylan and countless others.
“Elvis is my man,” Paul McCartney says. “He was a big influence on the Beatles.”
Former Beatles drummer Pete Best says: “There were other American greats, but it was Elvis we talked about. The effect he had on all the members of The Beatles showed, from our repertoire to the way we played the music and handled ourselves on stage.”
Ringo Starr, who replaced Best in The Beatles, echoes his fellow drummer’s enthusiasm. “Elvis turned my head around,” Starr says. “Frankie Laine, who I liked [in the early 1950s] was like my dad; everyone you listened to was like your dad, until Elvis came out.”
The late John Lennon put it bluntly. “Before Elvis,” the bespectacled Beatle once famously said, “there was nothing.”
In fact, there was much before Elvis, including many who inspired him profoundly from the worlds of blues, gospel and rhythm-and-blues. They included a wealth of gifted but obscure African-American musicians and songwriters who created rock ‘n’ roll and paved the way for Elvis and many more.
At a time when much of the US was still segregated, Elvis frequented black nightclubs in Memphis to absorb and study the music of Ike Turner, Jackie Wilson, Little Junior Parker, Matt “Guitar” Murphy and others. The sizzling sensuality of their songs and performances was a major inspiration for him.
Elvis’ first commercially released recording was his reverent 1954 version of That’s All Right, Mama by bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup.
He also recorded Crudup’s So Glad You’re Mine and My Baby Left Me, along with Roy Brown’s Good Rockin’ Tonight, Little Junior Parker’s Mystery Train, Arthur Gunter’s Baby Let’s Play House, Kokomo Arnold’s Milk Cow Blues, Jesse Stone’s Money Honey, Ivory Joe Hunter’s I Need You So and Smiley Lewis’ One Night of Sin (which was sanitised by Presley and his producers as One Night With You).
Three of Elvis’ landmark early recordings – All Shook Up, Don’t Be Cruel and Return to Sender – were written by Otis Blackwell. Sadly, Blackwell’s own singing career never ignited, despite the fact that Presley’s recordings were almost identical to how Blackwell sang them on his demonstration recordings.
“It’s unfortunate that a lot of songs Elvis was famous for were written by African-American music artists that he didn’t really credit,” says noted New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley. “He changed the whole feeling of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Yet while Elvis may have been a far more adept musical synthesist than an actual innovator, the power, range and emotional depth of his singing – on stage and on record – were undeniable. The same was true of his ability to transcend even so-so songs through the sheer force of his musical skills and personality.
“Elvis was a great, great performer,” says San Diego-born avant garde vocal wizard Diamanda Galas. “Even at the start of his Las Vegas decline, he was phenomenal. It was sad to see a talent like that go away.”
U2’s Bono has at times emulated both the singing and bigger-than-life stage persona of Elvis. U2’s acclaimed 1984 album, The Unforgettable Fire, includes Elvis Presley and America, a song reportedly inspired by Albert Goldman’s controversial 1981 biography, Elvis.
“Even at the height of his middle-of-the-road terror period, at his most hamburger-esque, Elvis could stop the traffic, and not just give them a speeding ticket,” Bono said. “His voice, when he wanted to connect – even in Las Vegas, when he was forgetting the words – that was opera. And it was living opera.”
At first, Elvis’ real-life story was as triumphant as the second act of Verdi’s Aida. But, like Aida’s harrowing final act, he was destined for doom.
His decline was artistic, physical and spiritual. The superstar who once had it all became a victim of his own success. He also fell prey to forces within and beyond his control, in particular his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker (who was actually a former Dutch carnival barker born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk).
Parker turned Elvis into an incredibly lucrative international brand, but at a soul-sapping cost to his once rebellious client. He also funnelled an eye-raising amount of Elvis’ earnings to himself.
“Elvis was a tragic figure who should have stood up and fired his manager,” says former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra. “The ‘colonel’ appears to have robbed him blind; it appears Elvis’ handlers preferred him to be strung out on drugs so that he couldn’t take more control of the direction of his career.”
Eagles co-founder Don Henley is equally critical of Parker. “Elvis’ Hound Dog was the first rock record I ever owned, so you could say that changed my life completely,” Henley says. “But Elvis’ manager – rotten son of a bitch that he was – took 50 per cent of Elvis’ earnings, which is absolutely disgusting. He put him in all those [crummy] movies, and put him in Vegas. Not that Elvis wasn’t culpable to some degree, but he was just kind of a naive country boy.”
Even as a teenager, though, Elvis was eager to be heard. By so expertly emulating the blues, R&B and gospel music he loved, Elvis had what his first producer, Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips, had long sought: “A white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel.”
It was a potent combination that would change Elvis and – with him – the world, forever.