He was known as “The King,” but Elvis Presley’s birth on Jan. 8, 1935, was in East Tupelo, Miss., a place unfamiliar with royalty. The son of Vernon and Gladys Presley, Elvis was an only child (his twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn). Vernon served eight months in prison for writing bad checks when Elvis was 3, and thereafter he struggled to find steady employment. The Presleys moved to Memphis, Tenn., in 1948, and Elvis spent most of his free time hanging out in the city’s black section. He particularly enjoyed watched bluesmen like Furry Lewis and B.B. King perform on Beale Street.
Presley’s musical career began with a visit to the Memphis Recording Service, which Sam Phillips had established in his Sun Records studios, in the summer of 1953. A year later, he had his first local hit, “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Presley played local shows before making his only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in September 1954. After watching his performance, the Opry’s talent coordinator reportedly told him to return to his job driving trucks. He had more success with the popular radio program The Louisiana Hayride, on which he debuted that October and appeared regularly over the following year. His television debut came on a local television version of Hayride in March 1955.
Memphis disc jockey Bob Neal replaced guitarist Scotty Moore as Presley’s manager in early 1955. Presley’s first Number One country record, a version of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” b/w “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” was released that September. By then, Colonel Thomas Parker, who had helped Neal make some tour arrangements, was becoming more involved in Presley’s career. In early 1956, Presley and Parker traveled to Nashville, Tenn., where the 21-year-old cut his first records for RCA. Presley made his national television debut on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on Jan. 28. Parker signed Presley to a managerial agreement in March. The agreement, which gave Parker 25 percent of Presley’s earnings, lasted beyond the singer’s lifetime.
Love Me Tender, Presley’s first movie, recovered its $1 million budget in three days upon its release in November 1956. Presley’s hit singles that year were all certified gold, with four reaching Number One. He purchased Graceland, a 23-room mansion in Memphis, in March 1957, and the next month his single “All Shook Up” began an eight-week stint at Number One. Presley’s second film, Loving You, was released in July 1957. The movie’s soundtrack included “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” which hit Number One on the pop, country and R&B charts. Presley was drafted that December but received a 60-day deferment to finish filming the drama King Creole. He entered the Army in March 1958 but took leave several months later to be with his mother, who died on Aug. 14, 1958, the day after he arrived home in Memphis. “You know how much I lived my whole life just for you,” he said at her funeral. Upon returning to the Army, he was shipped to Bremerhaven, West Germany. In March 1960, two months after being promoted to sergeant, he was discharged.
Parker helped his client remain popular during his absence by releasing singles Presley had recorded prior to entering the service. The strategy enabled Presley to earn $2 million in 1958. “Stuck on You,” Presley’s first stereo record, was made shortly after his return from the Army and hit Number One. He taped a television program with Frank Sinatra, The Frank Sinatra-Timex Special, in March 1960. Priscilla Beaulieu, the teenage daughter of an Army officer whom Elvis met in Germany, visited Graceland in December of that year, and by early 1961 she had moved in.
A live performance at a benefit for the USS Arizona on March 25, 1961, marked Presley’s last concert for 8 years. Instead, he spent most of the decade making a slew of B movies including Blue Hawaii, Fun in Acapulco and Viva Las Vegas. The release of many of his movies was accompanied by a soundtrack LP, four of which hit Number One (another seven placed in the Top 10). Despite earning $1 million per film and a large percentage of the gross by the mid-60s, Presley often expressed his dissatisfaction with these movies to friends and associates. Parker, however, refused to let Presley deviate from a successful formula.
Unlike many American rockers, Presley’s career wasn’t tossed aside due to the British Invasion exemplified by the Beatles, but even he found it difficult to crack the Top 10. Presley and Beaulieu were married in May 1967, and their only child, Lisa Marie, was born the following February. He spent the summer of 1968 filming his musical comeback, a television special that was broadcast on Dec. 3 and received high ratings. The special spun off “I Can Dream,” his first Top 15 single since 1965. According to Rolling Stone, “The importance of this moment in Presley’s life cannot be overestimated. Years later, the ’68 comeback special still stands as one of the most powerful performances in rock history.”
In July 1969, Presley made his debut at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, earning more than $1 million for a month’s work. His first Number One hit in more than 7 years, “Suspicious Minds,” was also released in 1969. He toured annually, performing for sold-out crowds across the country and often breaking box-office records. “Burning Love,” Presley’s last Top 10 hit, was released in October 1972. Although he almost never performed outside America, his international following was demonstrated when the TV special Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii was seen via satellite by more than a billion viewers in 40 countries in January 1973. The special’s soundtrack would be his last album to hit Number One.
While Presley’s professional life was arguably better than ever, his personal life was crumbling. He and his wife separated in February 1972, and on his birthday the following year he filed for divorce. His longtime drug use increased, and his onstage performances began to suffer. As Rolling Stone described it, “He would babble incoherently and rip his pants, having grown quite obese, and on at least one occasion he collapsed.” Presley nevertheless continued his busy tour schedule due to financial needs. A complex deal that Parker had negotiated allowed the manager to earn nearly 50 percent commission – five times the industry average – after 1973. Presley wasn’t earning any more royalties on sides recorded before 1973, despite sales in the millions every year. Adding to his problems, Presley was opposed to tax shelters, consulted his father for business advice and carelessly gave away expensive gifts and cash.
A show in Indianapolis on June 25, 1977, proved to be Presley’s last live performance. His girlfriend Ginger Alden found him dead in his bathroom at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977, the day before his next scheduled concert. Congestive heart failure was originally cited as the cause of death, but later investigation found evidence that drug abuse may have been at least partially responsible. The family was allowed to keep the official autopsy report private, leading to plenty of speculation about contributing factors in Presley’s death. Dr. George Nichopoulos, Presley’s private physician, was charged in September 1979 by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners with “indiscriminately prescribing 5,300 pills and vials for Elvis in the seven months before his death” but was ultimately acquitted.
Presley lay in state at Graceland, where thousands gathered, before being buried in a mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. Following attempts to break into the mausoleum, the bodies of Presley and his mother were moved to the Meditation Garden behind Graceland. Vernon Presley died nearly 2 years later and was also buried there. Graceland was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, and at the end of the 20th century its presence was estimated to have brought $100 million into the local economy. The Presley estate was estimated to have been worth over $100 million by the mid-90s.
The phrase “Gone but not forgotten” applies to few people better than Presley. He was among the first 10 performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His song “A Little Less Conversation,” from the soundtrack of 1968’s Roustabout, was remixed in 2002 and became a Number One hit in the United Kingdom, leading to a new compilation, 30 Number1 Hits, which sold well worldwide and reached Number One in America. Fans from around the world annually visit Graceland on the anniversary of Presley’s death to pay their respects. On Aug. 16, 2012 – the 35th anniversary – Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley surprised fans by appearing together at the annual event for the first time.