Presley, Elvis

Presley, Elvis (Elvis Aaron Presley), 1935–77, American popular singer, b. Tupelo, Miss. Exposed to gospel music from childhood, Presley began playing guitar before his adolescence. He first recorded in 1953, became a national sensation by 1956, and dominated rock music until 1963. His rebellious image inspired several generations of would be rock stars, from John Lennon of the Beatles, The to dozens more.

Presley was "discovered" by recording engineer/studio owner Sam Phillips, who headed the small Sun Studios in Memphis after Presley recorded a custom record for his mother there. Phillips paired him with two local musicians, guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, to record his first single, a cover of the R&B hit "That's Alright Mama" backed with the country hit "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Elvis began touring on the country circuit and was an immediate sensation thanks to his powerful singing and suggestive dance moves. Unable to fully exploit the star, Phillips sold Elvis's contract to RCA Victor in 1956.

Guided by his single-minded manager, "Colonel" Tom Parker, Elvis became a teen sensation thanks to successful records including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Hound Dog,” and “Don't Be Cruel.” His success led to a movie contract in 1956, and he appeared in 33 films through 1972, including Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and Viva Las Vegas (1964). During the '60s, Elvis's film career overshadowed his work as an innovative performer, until in 1968 he appeared in a "comeback" TV special that featured Elvis returning to his rock roots with his original band members. From the late '60s to his death, Presley focused on performing in Las Vegas. His death was attributed largely to substance abuse. Since his death, popular interest in Presley has remained high; his home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tenn., has been turned into a highly successful tourist attraction and pop culture shrine.

See account by his former wife, Priscilla, Elvis and Me (with S. Harmon, 1986); J. Hopkins, Elvis: The Final Years (1986), L. Cotten, Elvis Catalog (1987), R. Gibson and S. Shaw, Elvis (1987); biography by P. Guralnick (2 vol., 1994, 1998); documentary dir. by T. Zimny (2018).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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