Simply put, Elvis Presley was the first real rock & roll star. A white Southerner singing blues laced with country, and country laced with gospel, he brought together American music from both sides of the color line and performed it with a natural hip-swiveling sexuality that made him a teen idol and a role model for generations of cool rebels. He was repeatedly dismissed as vulgar, incompetent, and a bad influence, but the force of his music and his image was no mere merchandising feat. Presley signaled to mainstream culture that it was time to let go. Four decades after his death, Presley’s image and influence remain undiminished. While certainly other artists preceded him and he by no means “invented” rock & roll, he is indisputably its king.
As a recording artist, Presley’s accomplishments are unparalleled. He is believed to have sold over 1 billion records worldwide, about 40 percent of those outside the U.S. The RIAA has awarded Presley the largest number of gold, platinum, and multiplatinum certifications of any artist in history; as of early 2001, 131. His chart performance, as tracked by Billboard, is also unmatched, with 149 charting pop singles: 114 Top 40, 40 Top 10, and 18 #1s.
Presley was the son of Gladys and Vernon Presley, a sewing-machine operator and a truck driver. Elvis’ twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn, and Elvis grew up an only child. When he was three, his father served an eight-month prison term for writing bad checks, and afterward Vernon Presley’s employment was erratic, keeping the family just above poverty level. The Presleys attended the First Assembly of God Church, and its Pentecostal services always involved singing.
In 1945 Presley won second prize at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Diary Show for his rendition of Red Foley’s “Old Shep.” The following January he received a guitar for his birthday. In 1948 the family moved to Memphis, and while attending L.C. Humes High School there, Presley spent much of his spare time hanging around the black section of town, especially on Beale Street, where bluesmen like Furry Lewis and B.B. King performed.
Upon graduation in June 1953, Presley worked at the Precision Tool Company and then drove a truck for Crown Electric. He planned to become a truck driver and had begun to wear his long hair pompadoured, the current truck- driver style. That summer he recorded “My Happiness” and “That’s Where Your Heartaches Begin” at the Memphis Recording Service, a sideline Sam Phillips had established in his Sun Records studios where anyone could record a 10- inch acetate for four dollars.