Elvis Presley: A shy young man who conquered the world

A young Elvis Presley
A young Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was undoubtedly the single most important figure in popular music in the 20th century - an enormously charismatic singer whose musical genre straddled the diverse boundaries of country, rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, gospel and even bluegrass.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks in Tupelo in Mississippi on January 8, 1935, Elvis Aron Presley would be 80 today had he lived and it is unimaginable what the good looking, swarthy, jet black haired guy of the 1950s/1960s would have looked as an octegenarian.

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

Some may argue that he was not the best singer who has ever lived, nor the most consistent in his performance, and this is probably true, but his magnetic global appeal was and is still unsurpassed, with an impact in record and album sales that was absolutely phenomenal.

From the mid-1950s through to the 1970s, and from his death on August 16, 1977 to the present, he is far and away the single highest-selling performer in music history. His starring role in a line of 1960s Hollywood movies, which, while lacking a strong story line, kept his songs as chart-toppers in the States and internationally.

The complexities, however, of being a megastar loved, admired and idolised by millions across the world dramatically changed the life of a shy American ‘Deep South’ country boy to being an overweight recluse, bizarrely trapped in the confines of his unprecedented popularity.

His death at the age of only 42 at his glittering but gaudy Graceland, Memphis mansion shocked the world and the cause of his demise has been widely speculated on since, with overdoses of prescription drugs and an unhealthy diet as the most likely component.

In the 37 years from Elvis’ death, his image as a 20th century cult figure has gone into overdrive, with hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Graceland every year and a legion of Presley impersonators perpetuating the memory of a man whose shoes they could never ever adequately fill.

For there was only one Elvis, a modest, unassuming guy who graciously called every adult person he engaged “Sir” or ‘Madam”; a singer, like no other before or since, whose unique deep-throated vocals and on-stage body girations - with lip curled and hips going at 90 degrees - turned the music world upside down, and, globally, had a multitude of young women swooning madly over his performances.

For all of his personal shortcomings, Elvis Presley was a man of deep faith, gleaned from growing up in a small Southern Pentecostalist community. He was not a denominational churchgoer in the organised way, but, religiously, he kept continuously searching for answers and this was reflected in his classic gospel albums, in songs like Peace In The Valley, How Great Thou Art, He Touched Me, and Amazing Grace.

After graduating from high school in the early 1950s, Elvis moved to Memphis to become a teenage truck driver and it was in the West Tennessee metropolis that he came in direct contact with the African American blues’ music along the famed Beale Street.

Some 1953 and 1954 demos by Elvis, recorded by producer Sam Philips at his iconic Sun studio in Memphis, signalled that this was a young man with a very bright future in music, not in truck driving.

His first single recording was That’s All Right Mama, and there followed four Sun singles - Blue Moon of Kentucky (a Bill Monroe bluegrass standard), Good Rockin’ Tonight, Baby Let’s Play House and Mystery Train - that pioneered the blend of rhythm and blues and country and western that would come to characterise rockabilly.

Being white, Elvis made blues popular to many in his community, but he did have detractors in the highly conservative, and strongly racial Southern society of the mid-1950s and, although still singing a blend of country, he was never fully accepted by the establishment at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Indeed, on one occasion at the Opry performing highly active rockabilly, he was loudly booed off the stage by a section of the audience. Drums on stage were even frowned upon in those days at the Opry, with a preference for acoustic musicians.

Sun Records had a galaxy of singers on their books, including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, but the young highly motivated Mr Presley captivated most attention there. His last Sun single I Forget to Remember To Forget/Mystery Train was a US No 1 country hit. Around that time, Sam Philips sold the Presley contract to RCA Reecords for 35,000 dollars, which was a bargain in hindsight, but an astronomical amount of money at the time. ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker - whose army title had no substance - arrived on the scene as Elvis’ manager and a financially productive relationship was to last until the singer’s death, with the Colonel, very restrictively, dictating the singer’s every move and career decision-making.

Close observers of Elvis at the time maintained that he was never a purist artistically - essentially a young man in a hurry to be successful in the maelstrom of popular music (rockabilly, rhythm and blues, country and gospel) in the late 1950s.

Notwithstanding, his top selling rock ‘n’ roll recordings (Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Heartbreak Hotel and All Shook Up), he became a big admirer of the softer dulcet tones of Dean Martin and, over time, moved in the direction of sentimental love ballads like Love Me Tender and Loving You.

The Elvis ballad sessions were for me, a long-time Elvis admirer, his best, with Wooden Heart, It’s Now Or Never, Return to Sender, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Love Letters, Suspicious Minds, I Just Can’t Help Believing and Crying in the Chapel classics .

The softer, lush vocals in the ballads increased the Presley appeal and, through his movies and television appearances, the legend was created.

The one regret for his massive UK fan base was that he never appeared on stage on this side of the Atlantic. The only time he set foot on British soil was fleetingly while on his way back from Germany during his two-year stint in the US Army.

After he died in August 1977, Elvis mania increased with even doubters convinced that he was still around, holed up at Graceland. But his obituary was marked and tributes paid to one of the most enduring mortals of our age.

His years of marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu Presley had many good times and some stormy periods which led to a break-up, but seeing his loving daughter Lisa Marie speak highly of her dad on television in recent days indicate that for all the absenteeism surrounding his singing career, he was an adoring father and an individual, who at a personal level, had charming personality. Sadly, we will never see the like of Elvis Presley again. He was the ‘King’.