Singer, musician, actor. Born Elvis Aron Presley on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. (He later changed the spelling of his middle name to the biblical form of Aaron.) From very humble beginnings, Elvis Presley grew up to become one of the biggest names in rock and roll. He was originally supposed to be a twin, but his brother Jesse Garon (sometimes spelled Jessie) was stillborn.
Raised by loving, working-class parents, Presley’s family had little money, and they moved around a lot. He was deeply devoted to his parents, especially his mother Gladys, and was raised to have a strong faith in God. Presley attended the Assembly of God Church with his parents where the gospel music became an important influence on him.
Presley got his first guitar at the age of ten, and had his first taste of musical success by winning a talent show at Humes High School in Memphis. After graduating in 1953, he worked a number of jobs while pursuing his musical dream. He cut his first demo record at what later became known as Sun Studio that year, and before long, Sam Phillips, the record label owner, decided to take the young performer under his wing. “That’s All Right” was Presley’s first single in 1954. Presley began touring and recording, trying to get his first big break.
In 1955, Presley began to develop a following with fans being drawn to his unusual musical style, provocative gyrating hips, and good looks. That same year, he signed with RCA Records, a deal worked out by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Presley was on a roll, scoring his first number one single with “Heartbreak Hotel” and first number one album, Elvis Presley, and signing a movie contract with Paramount Pictures—all in 1956. Despite the uproar his sexy dance moves caused, he also becomes a popular guest on a number of television variety shows.
Soon Presley appeared to be everywhere—on the radio, television, and on screen. His first film, Love Me Tender (1956), was a box office hit. Even a stint in the U.S. military couldn’t put a damper on Presley’s thriving career. He received his draft notice in 1957 and was inducted into the army the following March. He eventually served in Germany about a year and a half. Shortly before Presley left for Europe, his beloved mother died. He was granted a leave and returned to Memphis for the funeral. Deeply saddened by her death, he returned to duty. While in Germany, his spirits lifted a bit when he met a young teenager named Priscilla Beaulieu.
After leaving the army in 1960, Presley resumed his career and soon rose right back to the top of the charts with the soundtrack for his film GI Blues. He continued recording music and acting in such films, as Blue Hawaii (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), and Viva Las Vegas (1964). His films were often hit or miss with critics and audiences alike, but they made a profit and the soundtracks usually sold well. By the late 1960s, however, Presley appeared to be losing his box office appeal. Proving he was still the king of rock and rock, he did his first television special in 1968, which is often referred to as the ’68 Comeback. He wowed audiences with his performance, which showcased his talents as a singer and a musician.
Around this time, his personal life also seemed to be on an upswing. He and Priscilla wed in 1967 and had a daughter, Lisa Marie, together the next year. Unfortunately, this joyous time would not last. By the early 1970s, Presley’s marriage was falling apart. The couple divorced in 1973, and Priscilla received custody of Lisa Marie. He was also wrestling with other personal problems, including a growing addiction to prescription drugs. The once thin rock star now battled a weight problem. His destructive lifestyle caught up with him that fall—he was hospitalized for related health problems.
Despite his personal obstacles, Presley remained a popular draw in Las Vegas and on tour. He gave his last concert in June 1977 in Indianapolis, Indiana. After the concert, Presley returned home to his Memphis mansion, Graceland, to prepare for another tour. Sometime on the morning of August 16, 1977 Elvis Presley died of heart failure. He was 42 years old.
During his amazing career, Presley helped popularize rock and roll music in America. He also won three Grammy Awards for his gospel recordings. A major musical force, Presley had 18 number one singles, including “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Good Luck Charm,” and “Suspicious Minds” as well as countless gold and platinum albums. He was one of the first performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. More recently, Presley has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001 in recognition of his contributions to both genres of music.
Even after his death, Presley has remained a popular music icon. Over the years, several documentaries and films have explored the film of this enigmatic performer, including the 2005 television miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Elvis. His Memphis home, Graceland, is open to the public and numerous fans from around the world visit the legendary residence each year, especially around Presley’s birthday and the anniversary of his death.