Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in one of the two rooms of his parents shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was the first born in a set of twins. However the younger, Jesse Garon, whose name was created to rhyme with his brother's, was still born. Vernon Elvis and Gladys Presley were typical Mississippians of their generation.
Vernon was a truck driver for a dairy and a wholesale grocery. Gladys worked as a sewing machine operator at the Tupelo Garment Factory. The Presley family was the epitome of the word poor, living on, and off, welfare. Vernon even spent time in Parch man Prison for writing bad checks. At the age of ten, Elvis came in second place at the Mississippi- Alabama Fair and Dairy Show talent contest for his rendition of Old Shep. The prize for the contest was a meager five dollars and free admission to the amusement rides, but ten- year- old Elvis may have obtained a much greater gift from the contest: inspiration.
For his 11th birthday, Elvis wanted a bicycle. Instead, he received a small, very cheap guitar. His uncles taught him some chords, and before long, he was singing and accompanying himself in church. In his later youth, Elvis vowed to get rich and buy his Mother a Cadillac. He told her so out loud and even in front of company.
Throughout his youth, Elvis was influenced by many musical genres. Elvis generation was the first that had access to the radio, so he heard blues, country and western, pop, and black gospel. His favorite style of music, White Gospel, was learned firsthand in church. For the Presley's, music began in the church. Years later, Elvis boasted of knowing practically every religious song that has ever been written. When I was four or five, Elvis recalled all I looked forward to was Sundays, when we could go to church.
This was the only singing training I ever had. The Presley family attended the First Assembly of God, a Pentecostal church, first in Tupelo, and later in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis obviously learned a great deal of his stagecraft from the flamboyant Pentecostal preachers of his youth, with their frequent use of theatrics and dancing. However, the gospel quartets made the greatest impression on Elvis. Later he would say that his musical inspiration was Jake Hess, the lead singer of the Statesmen Quartet.
Although Jake Hess was his greatest inspiration, he certainly was not the only influence. Elvis and his family moved to Memphis when he was about 13. Around the age of 16, he began hanging out around the famed Beale Street. It was during this time that Elvis became interested in the Blues. The Blues was still in it's infancy, and Beale street was known to be it's birthplace. Other well-known influences were Roy Orbison, with whom Elvis was so impressed, that he died his own light brown hair black, Hank Williams, a country singer from Alabama, and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, a song-writing team from the fifties, who later wrote many of his songs.
However, his first love proved to be his most inspiring of all. Throughout his career, Elvis surrounded himself with gospel music and gospel artists. Great groups such as the Jordinaires, the Imperials, and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps, combined their voices with his to form a traditional style quartet with five voices instead of four. Usually Elvis had all voices balanced evenly to form chords, virtually hiding the melody line within the chord, a contrast to the backup- group style of his heroes Jake Hess and the Statesmen.
Elvis summed up his greatest stylistic musical influence with the quote, Rock and Roll is basically just gospel music, or gospel music mixed with rhythm and blues. I should point out that Jake Hess continues to sing today, doing solo dates all over the country and the world, in the same style that turned on Elvis as a young boy. Mr. Hess remains very popular in his respective genre, Southern Gospel music. In June of 1953, Elvis graduated from high school and set out to find a job. He found work at the Precision Tool Company factory but after two weeks left for a truck-driving job with the Crown Electric Company.
On July 18, 1953, Elvis visited the Memphis Recording Service, which was in the same building as the now famous Sun Studios. The sign on the door read, We Record Anything- Anytime- Anywhere, $3 One Side, $4 Two Sides. The recording service was a sideline for a man named Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records, to make a little money from local people wanting to realize their dreams and take their first step on the way to becoming a star. Marion Keisker, Phillips secretary, was running the recording service on that busy day and, because of the crowd, Elvis had to patiently wait a great length of time for his turn to record music.
Elvis had come to record a song for his mother's birthday, or at least that is what he told Keisker. However, it has since been realized that Elvis probably just wanted to hear himself, (until this time it is doubtful Elvis had been given the opportunity to hear himself.) because, his mother's birthday was in April, about ten months after Elvis was making his first recording. A few years later Elvis stated, I went to Sun, paid my four bucks to the lady because I had a notion to find out what I really sounded like. I had been singing all my life and I was kind of curious. The studio itself was very small.
It measured a mere 30 by 18 feet; but all of the equipment, which was something Elvis had never seen before, made him feel not only very nervous, but also awestruck. Elvis hated his first recording and later said that it sounded like someone was beating on a bucket lid. Keisker, however, felt differently about the sound that Elvis was producing and because of that, slipped a spare tape into an extra recording machine, a practice that was simply unheard of. She felt that she had found exactly what Sam Phillips was searching for.
Sam was always saying that if he could find a white man who could sing with the sound and feel of a black man, he could make a billion dollars. Keisker thought she had found that man. Before Elvis left the recording booth that day, Keisker took down his address and a telephone number of a neighbor, because the Presley's had no phone at the time. When Sam Phillips heard the recording, he was said to have liked it, but was certainly not overwhelmed by it. He did not even think about it until the next January, when Elvis re-visited the studio. This time Phillips was operating the studio when Elvis paid another four dollars and recorded a second demo.
It was the second recording that caught the ear of Phillips. It is unknown if Elvis sounded better this time around, or if his theatrics, which he was later widely known for, aided in his winning Phillips over. Nevertheless, Sam Phillips personally took down Presley's address and the neighbor's phone number, but still refused to call. Sometime later in the year, Sam Phillips received a demo recording of a song from Nashville.
The song, Without You, was a simple ballad. The song itself fascinated Phillips and he was prepared to release the song exactly as it was. He loved not only the song but also the singer. However, as often happened, the demo singer was an unknown black kid who just happened to be hanging around the studio. No one knew who he was or where he was.
At Keisker's request, Phillips called Elvis. Because he had recorded only ballads at their studio, he seemed like a good match. Elvis was at the studio ready to start almost before Phillips could hang up his end of the phone. Elvis recorded the song, but could never get it right. No matter how hard he tried, the takes were terrible, and getting progressively worse. It was Elvis first professional opportunity, and he had met his match in song.
Elvis went into a terrible rage, which he was well known for later in life, screaming, I hate him! I hate him. During a break later in the session, with both Elvis and Phillips about ready to pull the plug, Phillips asked Elvis what sort of music he could sing. I can sing anything, Elvis replied, showing both his persistence, and arrogance; pure Elvis. This time, however, Elvis broke forth with a flood of songs.
All of his influences came shinning through- Gospel, Country, Blues, and Pop. Sam Phillips was impressed. Shortly thereafter, Elvis Aron Presley, although he changed his middle name to the traditional spelling Aaron after he became famous, received a recording contract with Sun Records and became one of the biggest-selling, most popular artists of all times. The importance of Elvis Presley in the history of Rock n Roll still remains immeasurable. In spite of his iconographic status, the image of Elvis was never captured in a single moment of time, like that of many of his peers.
He was not only the fifties, but also the sixties and seventies. Many of his die-hard fans love every phase of his career, while others only like the early Elvis or later Elvis. Regardless of whom you ask though, everyone has heard of Elvis. In many ways, Elvis life ideally represents the rise and fall of an icon in popular culture. Beginning life in extreme poverty and ending his own life with more money than he could count, was the rags-to-riches story gone bad. Elvis life in many ways represented all that is good, and bad, in the music industry.
Twenty-three years after his death, Elvis is still huge. He can be seen in Newspapers, Magazines, and TV specials, (some people have even seen him working at Dominoes in Kalamazoo). His impersonators and imitators are worldwide and know no age limit. Yes it is true, twenty-three years later, the man who inspired countless others and died a premature death, is still the King of Rock n Roll.