Elvis Presley came as a shock to many older Americans when he surfaced on coast-to-coast television in 1956, but he thrilled their children and left an indelible impression on society. His music shook the world. Elvis, as he was simply called by fans and detractors alike, arrived on the national stage at a moment when the adolescents at the first wave of the baby boom were seeking the excitement of a rebel figure, a contrast to the comfortable expectations of suburban life and a colorful distraction from the chilly anxiety of the Cold War. For teenage girls, Elvis was an ideal symbol of adventurous sexuality. Many religious groups condemned his pelvis-shaking gyrations, even though his stage act was rooted in the performances of Pentecostal southern gospel quartets. Many commentators decried him for bringing the bedroom into American living rooms at a time when sexuality was largely invisible on television. Elvis shrugged off such condemnations, insisting his mother fully approved of his show, and disarmed many adults by addressing them as “sir” or “ma’am.”
The rise of Elvis from local hero in the South to international celebrity exploded under the direction of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was a crude man and tightfisted with money, but had a shrewd understanding of the power of the nascent medium of television and drove a tough bargain at the negotiating table. A series of nationally televised appearances, culminating with three performances on Ed Sullivan (starting September 9, 1956) made Elvis inescapable in an era when families gathered in their living rooms to watch television together. The influence of TV coupled with the power of Elvis’s record label, RCA, one of the world’s largest record companies, brought him into virtually every home in the United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere.
Since Elvis’s time, many of the records he set for music sales have been broken, but to little effect. Only the Beatles can match the tectonic shift triggered by the rise of Elvis. As John Lennon said, “Before Elvis there was nothing.” For the generation who would change the course of popular music and culture in the 1960s, the emergence of Elvis represented nothing less than the Year Zero, a break with the past and a new way of relating to an adult world that appeared hopelessly “square.” For his part, Elvis disapproved of the direction of youth culture in the 1960s. His one encounter with the Beatles was frosty; he preferred the company of police officers to rock stars and conferred with President Richard Nixon on the sad state of the younger generation. Nixon appointed him as an honorary drug enforcement agent, an irony in light of Elvis’s growing dependence on prescription drugs.
Elvis Presley was not the originator of rock and roll, a music that had been coalescing out of swing, rhythm and blues, and country and Western influences since World War II, nor even the first of its singers to make hit recordings, but became the undisputed King of Rock and Roll through a convergence of circumstances and social factors. Many prominent rock-and-roll artists of the early 1950s were African American, and while they enjoyed a multiracial audience, the barrier of racism limited their popular appeal and their access to television and radio. The first white rock-and-roll performers who received acclaim included Johnnie Ray, who wore a hearing aid, and Bill Haley, slightly chubby and already a little old for the role. By contrast, Elvis was young, white, and sexy. Contrary to his one youthful rival for top of the charts in the 1950s, Pat Boone, Elvis represented gritty authenticity against the norm of middle class respectability. While Boone seemed like the boy who would offer a pink corsage to his date and reassuring words to her parents, Elvis was hedonistic, polite yet primal. For the huge audience of white Northern teenagers who discovered him on television, he was an exotic product of Southern working class culture, an outsider, rebellious in the tradition of Hollywood actors such as Robert Mitchum, James Dean, and Marlon Brando.
Elvis was younger than his precursors. Already a compelling singer before his arrival on the national stage in 1956, he could summon the emotional force of words and melody and the rebellious potential of rhythm. The generation that came of age in the affluence of post–World War II United States seethed with a vague restlessness. They were aware of themselves as demographically distinct and were catered to by cultural industries eager to sell them products and entertainment directed to their interests. The stage had been set for a generational leader to emerge and Elvis seized the opportunity.
For Elvis’s new audience outside the South, he was a strange sight on TV, an alien as startling as any extraterrestrial who stepped off a flying saucer in the era’s science fiction movies. Many Northern teenagers lacked any context for Elvis. However, in his home region, where he was already wildly popular in 1954 and 1955 on the strength of “That’s All Right” and other hit recordings for Memphis-based Sun Records, the audience enjoyed a better understanding of where Elvis derived his music and persona. He was the latest white Southern country performer to adapt the music of his black neighbors in a line that included Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams, and had its roots in centuries of cultural exchange between whites and blacks in the South. Even the bluegrass of Bill Monroe, who seemed to embody the notion of white backcountry folk culture, had black roots. The cross-cultural music of his predecessors raised only a few eyebrows in the South, but Elvis’s rise coincided with Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eliminated the legal sanction for the racial segregation characteristic of Southern life. The rockabilly sound Elvis adopted for most of his early Sun recordings, with its blend of country and blues and white and black, was regarded as cultural miscegenation.
The racially charged denunciations by the White Citizens Councils in the South were not the only sources of criticism against Elvis. Contrasting him unfavorably with the more sophisticated vocal style of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, the entertainment trade magazine Variety accused Elvis of “making monkeys out of real singers.” Some found his sexual innuendo vulgar, especially in the largely sanitized setting of early network television. Middle-aged critics, already nervous over rising rates of juvenile delinquency and the revolt of the baby boom generation, feared Elvis was a modern pied piper. The Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant leaders condemned Elvis for setting a bad moral example. To the intelligentsia, Elvis confirmed their worst fears about the shallowness of the masses and their susceptibility to the influence of television.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the loud outcries against him from the older generation, Elvis Presley won the hearts and imagination of teenagers. He rapidly became one of the world’s top entertainers when measured in sales of recordings and concert and movie tickets, and a leading figure in pop culture when weighed by the volume of publicity and adulation he attracted. The mania he generated among female fans was not unprecedented and was similar to the response of earlier generations to Rudolf Valentino and Frank Sinatra. The difference was in scale. In embrace of the baby boomers, Elvis became an icon for a generation endowed with economic and social importance by their sheer numbers. Unlike the girls who screamed for Sinatra during World War II, Elvis’s fans belonged to a cohort numerous enough to change the direction of society.
In 1960, to celebrate his return from army service in Germany, Elvis appeared on Frank Sinatra’s television program dressed in a tuxedo. Outspoken in his antagonism to rock and roll, Sinatra was hoping to boost his sagging ratings by drawing younger viewers; for Elvis, who numbered Sinatra and the pop stars of the previous generation among his heroes, it was evidence of his entry into the mainstream. No one was certain that rock and roll would last and Elvis was determined to supersede any passing trend.
Critics wondered whether this generational summit marked the end of Elvis as the leader of the youth culture. In truth, Elvis was always reluctant to overturn tradition. His much-commented habit of addressing elders as “sir” or “ma’am” was inherent to the Southern culture that shaped him. Deference to authority was expected, even if delivered with a sullen shrug. Elvis’s major break with the prevailing norms of his time and place was his rejection of racial or religious prejudice. As a teenager in relentlessly Protestant Memphis, Elvis displayed great curiosity about minority groups, dating a Roman Catholic girl, striking up friendships with Jews, and actively seeking out African American music and culture. The origins of Elvis’s friendly feelings for other faiths and cultures lie within the Presley family, which took seriously the inclusiveness of the gospel.
Elvis was reared in the Assembly of God and enjoyed his first musical experiences singing in church. In adulthood he became a seeker, reading many of the same spiritual texts underlying the 1960s counterculture, yet he never lost respect for the institutions of his childhood. Unlike many of his fans, Elvis entertained no thoughts of rejecting his family. He straddled the generation gap in his life, even as he epitomized the chasm occurring in the larger society. The Presleys were a traditional economic and emotional family unit, pooling their resources and supporting one another without reservation. Until his death, Elvis’s kin shared quarters with him at Graceland.
Elvis had little sympathy for feminism. He was a proponent of the double standard, juggling the male libido of Hugh Hefner with an old-fashioned ideal of marriage and family. The woman he would marry, Priscilla Beaulieu, was set aside before marriage, like a virgin princess, while the King partook of women elsewhere. Thriving on his celebrity, Elvis enjoyed hundreds of sexual encounters. By the 1960s, many baby boomers toyed with ideas of overthrowing the existing political and economic system, or at least fleeing the comforts of affluence in search of alternative ways of living. Elvis was a child of poverty and desperately wanted to become part of the established order, yet on his terms. His first purchases upon earning significant sums of money from music included the suburban ranch house he shared with his parents before moving to Graceland, and a Cadillac, which he painted pink as a marker of his hipster, African American –influenced sense of style.
As an adolescent, Elvis devoured comic books, especially Captain Marvel and other champions of law and order. His obsession with superheroes persisted into adulthood, influencing the caped costumes he wore on stage in his last years. While the student protesters of the 1960s who had grown up with his music clashed with police, Elvis collected honorary badges from various law enforcement agencies.
Although he never surpassed his early rock-and-roll recordings for Sun and RCA for their influence on the imagination of young fans and musicians around the world, Elvis considered rock and roll as only one aspect of the career he sought in entertainment. Like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin, Elvis wanted to be a popular actor as well as a singer. Although he managed to star in a few good films, most of his movies were produced on a stingily budgeted assembly line that left little room for creativity. Elvis loved gospel and the pop music of his parents’ era along with the opera of Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. He was steeped in the country music of his heritage and the blues of his black neighbors. To an unprecedented degree, Elvis incorporated all of these influences into his enormous catalog of recorded songs. Unfortunately, his deference to authority figures usually included his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, determined to maintain Elvis’s revenue stream by confining him to proven, money-making formulas. Elvis made some of his best music in defiance of Parker and his worst when he carried out the Colonel’s schemes. Parker’s interference thwarted Elvis’s potential as an actor and as a songwriter. The King of Rock and Roll penned nothing that became part of the canon of rock music.
However, if Elvis added no words or melodies to the cultural discourse of his time, he helped define the sound and the body language. Many of his performances were seminal and the image he left on baby boomers helped inspire the Beatles and other rock artists of the 1960s. As a generational symbol, Elvis encapsulated rock and roll and became its universally recognized ambassador. Although it will never be possible to know how rock and roll would have developed had Elvis never seized the world’s attention through television, without a star of his magnitude, it might have joined the ranks of mambo, calypso, and other briefly popular forms of music from the 1950s. Rock and roll could also have evolved as a primarily African American genre. Without Elvis and his access to the media, rock and roll’s influence might have been circumscribed.
Elvis changed the direction of music as well as the expression of social and cultural life in innumerable ways. Coinciding with the advent of new communication technologies, especially 45 rpm recordings and transistor radios, rock and roll increased the acceleration toward an atomized society and individualistic pursuit of happiness. Elvis was the most popular early role symbol of rock as a cathartic, uninhibited experience.
Much as Elvis became the prominent face of a musical movement already erupting before his arrival, rock and roll became the brightest star in the firmament of changes underway after World War II. The looser sexual expression suggested by Elvis’s performances came in the wake of the Kinsey Report and with the debut of Playboy. The racial revolution stimulated by Elvis’s music and persona arrived as the civil rights movement roused into action. His international popularity was a major step in the proliferation of American culture throughout the world and the fervent response of his audience signaled the coming dominance of youth culture. With the success of Elvis, the democratization of culture marched onward and popular music assumed greater importance. The destructive physical and psychological seclusion imposed by his captive celebrity would echo in the lives and demise of Jim Morrison, Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson.
While Elvis has always been seen as an agent of change, his life and career always contained a strong core of conservatism. He looked with dismay on many of the social changes for which he was a catalyst and offered his audience a way back through his music to a world of family and faith.
—Glen Jeansonne and David Luhrssen
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