Elvis Aaron Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977), or simply Elvis, was an American singer and actor. Dubbed the “King of Rock and Roll”, he is regarded as one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century. His energized interpretations of songs and sexually provocative performance style, combined with a singularly potent mix of influences across color lines during a transformative era in race relations, led him to both great success and initial controversy.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, with his family when he was 13 years old. His music career began there in 1954, recording at Sun Records with producer Sam Phillips, who wanted to bring the sound of African-American music to a wider audience. Presley, on rhythm acoustic guitar, and accompanied by lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, was a pioneer of rockabilly, an uptempo, backbeat-driven fusion of country music and rhythm and blues. In 1955, drummer D. J. Fontana joined to complete the lineup of Presley’s classic quartet and RCA Victor acquired his contract in a deal arranged by Colonel Tom Parker, who would manage him for more than two decades. Presley’s first RCA Victor single, “Heartbreak Hotel”, was released in January 1956 and became a number-one hit in the United States. Within a year, RCA would sell ten million Presley singles. With a series of successful network television appearances and chart-topping records, Presley became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll; though his performative style and promotion of the then-marginalized sound of African-Americans led to him being widely considered a threat to the moral well-being of the White American youth.
In November 1956, Presley made his film debut in Love Me Tender. Drafted into military service in 1958, Presley relaunched his recording career two years later with some of his most commercially successful work. He held few concerts, however, and guided by Parker, proceeded to devote much of the 1960s to making Hollywood films and soundtrack albums, most of them critically derided. Some of his most famous films included Jailhouse Rock (1957), Blue Hawaii (1961), and Viva Las Vegas (1964). In 1968, following a seven-year break from live performances, he returned to the stage in the acclaimed television comeback special Elvis, which led to an extended Las Vegas concert residency and a string of highly profitable tours. In 1973, Presley gave the first concert by a solo artist to be broadcast around the world, Aloha from Hawaii. Years of prescription drug abuse and unhealthy eating habits severely compromised his health, and he died suddenly in 1977 at his Graceland estate at the age of 42.
Having sold over 400 million records worldwide, Presley is recognized as the best-selling solo music artist of all time by Guinness World Records. He was commercially successful in many genres, including pop, country, rhythm & blues, adult contemporary, and gospel. Presley won three Grammy Awards, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36, and has been inducted into multiple music halls of fame. He holds several records, including the most RIAA certified gold and platinum albums, the most albums charted on the Billboard 200, the most number-one albums by a solo artist on the UK Albums Chart, and the most number-one singles by any act on the UK Singles Chart. In 2018, Presley was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On the evening of Tuesday, August 16, 1977, Presley was scheduled to fly out of Memphis to begin another tour. That afternoon, Ginger Alden discovered him in an unresponsive state on the bathroom floor of his Graceland mansion. Attempts to revive him failed, and he was pronounced dead at Baptist Memorial Hospital at 3:30 p.m. He was 42 years old.
President Jimmy Carter issued a statement that credited Presley with having “permanently changed the face of American popular culture”. Thousands of people gathered outside Graceland to view the open casket. One of Presley’s cousins, Billy Mann, accepted US$18,000 (equivalent to $80,000 in 2021) to secretly photograph the body; the picture appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer’s biggest-selling issue ever. Alden struck a $105,000 (equivalent to $470,000 in 2021) deal with the Enquirer for her story, but settled for less when she broke her exclusivity agreement. Presley left her nothing in his will.
Presley’s funeral was held at Graceland on Thursday, August 18. Outside the gates, a car plowed into a group of fans, killing two young women and critically injuring a third. About 80,000 people lined the processional route to Forest Hill Cemetery, where Presley was buried next to his mother. Within a few weeks, “Way Down” topped the country and UK singles chart. Following an attempt to steal Presley’s body in late August, the remains of both Presley and his mother were exhumed and reburied in Graceland’s Meditation Garden on October 2.
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