ELVIS AARON PRESLEY, THE UNDISPUTED KING OF ROCK AND ROLL JAN 8, 1935 - AUG 16,1977
Sampod has had an ongoing topic on the website for almost a year called ROCK AND ROLL INNOVATORS. There was no question when we started who would be the first in the series; Elvis, of course. He may be the single most important figure in American 20th century popular music... not necessarily the best, and certainly not the most consistent. But no one could argue with the fact that he was the musician most responsible for popularizing rock & roll on an international level. Viewed in cold sales figures, his impact was phenomenal. With dozens upon dozens of international smashes from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s, as well as the steady sales of his catalog and reissues since his death in 1977, it may make him the single highest-selling performer in history, second to none.
He was not the very first white man to sing rhythm & blues; Bill Haley predated him in that regard, and there may have been others as well. Elvis was certainly the first, however, to assertively fuse country and blues music into the style known as rockabilly. While rockabilly styled arrangements were the foundations of his first (and possibly best) recordings, Presley could not have become a mainstream superstar without a much more varied palette that also incorporated pop, gospel, and even some bits of bluegrass and operatic schmaltz here and there. His '50s recordings established the basic language of rock & roll; his explosive and sexual stage presence set standards for the music's visual image; his vocals were incredibly powerful and versatile.
Unfortunately, to much of the public, Elvis is more icon than artist. Innumerable bad Hollywood movies, some increasingly caricatured records and mannerisms, and a personal life that became steadily more sheltered from real-world concerns (and steadily more bizarre) gave his story a somewhat mythic status. By the time of his death, he'd become more a symbol of gross Americana than of cultural innovation. The continued speculation about his incredible career has sustained interest in his life, and supported a large tourist/entertainment industry that may last indefinitely, even if the fascination is fueled more by his celebrity than his music.
While there were some quality efforts on Presley's early-'60s albums, his discography was soon dominated by very forgettable soundtracks, mostly featuring material that was dispensable or downright ridiculous. He became largely disinterested in devoting much time to his craft in the studio. The soundtrack LPs themselves were sometimes filled with outtakes that had been in the can for years (and these, sadly, were often the highlights of the albums). There were some good singles in the early '60s, like "Return to Sender"; once in a while there was even a flash of superb, tough rock, like "Little Sister" or (Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame." But by 1963 or so there was little to get excited about, although he continued to sell in large quantities.
The Beatles, all big Elvis fans, displaced Presley as the biggest rock act in the world in 1964. What's more, they did so by writing their own material, something Elvis had never been capable of, or particularly aspired to. They, and the British and American groups influenced by The Beatles were not shy about expressing their opinions, experimenting musically, and taking the reins of their artistic direction into their own hands. The net effect was to make Elvis Presley, still churning out those movies in Hollywood as psychedelia and soul music became the rage, seem irrelevant, even as he managed to squeeze out an obscure Dylan cover ("Tomorrow Is a Long Time") on a 1966 soundtrack album.
By 1967 and 1968, there were slight stirrings of an artistic reawakening by Elvis. Singles like "Guitar Man," "Big Boss Man," and "U.S. Male," though hardly classics, were at least genuine rock & roll that sounded better than much of what he'd been turning out for years. A 1968 television special gave Presley the opportunity he needed to reinvent himself as an all-out leather-coated rocker, still capable of magnetizing an audience, and eager to revisit his blues and country roots.The 1968 album Elvis in Memphis was the first LP in nearly a decade in which he seemed cognizant of current trends, as he updated his sounds with contemporary compositions and touches of soul to create some reasonably gutsy late-'60s pop/rock. This material, and 1969 hits like "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto," returned him to the top of the charts Elvis' voice did sound good, and he returned to live performing in 1969, breaking in with weeks of shows in Las Vegas. This was followed by national tours that proved him still capable of being an excellent live entertainer, even if the exercises often reeked of show-biz extravaganza. (He never did play outside of North America or Hawaii, very possibly because Colonel Parker, it was later revealed, was an illegal alien who could have faced serious problems if he traveled abroad.) Hollywood was history, but studio and live albums were generated at a rapid pace, usually selling reasonably well, although Presley never had a Top Ten hit after 1972's "Burning Love."
Although Presley had recorded a mammoth quantity of both released and unreleased material for RCA, the label didn't show much interest in repackaging it with the respect due such a pioneer. Haphazard collections of outtakes and live performances were far rarer than budget reissues and countless repackagings of the big hits. In the CD age, RCA finally began to treat the catalog with some of the reverence it deserved, at long last assembling a box set containing nearly all of the '50s recordings. Similar, although less exciting, box sets were documenting the '60s, the '70s, and his soundtrack recordings. And exploitative reissues of Elvis material continue to appear constantly, often baited with one or two rare outtakes or alternates to entice the completists (of which there are many). In death as in life, Presley continues to be one of RCA's most consistent earners. Fortunately, with a little discretion, a good Elvis library can be built with little duplication, sticking largely to the most highly praised and recommended selections. Presley's home in Graceland is one of America's Top Tourist Attractings which generates thousands of dollars every year.
Hundreds of albums are available on most record-buying websites and in many stores. The following pictures represent some of the best:
from his last concert in 1977
CHECK OUT OUR LINK TO SOME OF ELVIS' BEST SONGS ON SPOTIFY.COM (LINK)