Civil Rights / Cold War
CR Elvis 02 with Jumpsuit CR Elvis 0001 Jailhouse Rock XCRCW Elvis Later Years CR Elvis 001 with Lunn CR Elvis 01 with The Jordanaires


Elvis Presley is undoubtedly the most famous Tennessee music star. He was known as the “King of Rock and Roll.”  This rock icon was also one of the first celebrities to be known by only one name—Elvis.
Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, but his family soon moved to Memphis like so many rural migrants. Elvis attended Humes High School in Memphis.  He developed an interest in music from a variety of local sources.
Employed as a truck driver in the early 1950s, he finally received an audition from Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis after several attempts. The first sessions did not go particularly well until Phillips heard Presley and the session players begin playing “That’s Alright Mamma.” 
Phillips got a version down on tape and took it to his friend Dewey Phillips (no relation), a popular DJ for WHBQ radio. The song was instantly popular.  But debt and the knowledge that he only had Elvis under contract for one more year forced Phillips to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $35,000.
Presley went on to become the most important musical star of the 1950s.  His melodic voice and charismatic stage presence made him almost an instant star. Teenage girls would scream and faint at his concerts. Teenage boys, who didn’t scream or faint, dressed like Elvis.
His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, arranged television appearances for Elvis. This included an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, a popular variety show. Presley had an impressive number of hits, including “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Love Me Tender” Listen to part of "Jailhouse Rock."
Because his gyrating hip movements were considered too indecent for television at the time, Presley was filmed from the waist up. His rebellious appearance and musical style formed the basis of more rock and roll acts to come. Even a two year stint in the Army did not dampen the enthusiasm of his millions of fans.
Parker tried to establish Presley as a movie star. While Elvis's movies were very popular with his fans, they weren’t very well done. Those roles and a “British Invasion” of new musical acts like the Beatles seemed to leave him typecasted as a 1950s performer. By the late 1960s however, Presley was churning out new hits including his 1969 smash “Suspicious Minds.”  
Elvis also performed in Las Vegas clubs where he entertained millions of people. His final years were sadly plagued by health and personal problems. Elvis’s overuse of prescription drugs took its toll. The superstar died unexpectedly at his Memphis home in 1977.  He was only 46 years old. His funeral was one of the largest in Memphis history.
How important was Elvis?
He holds records for the most Top Forty hits (107), the most Top Ten hits (38), the most consecutive #1 hits (10), and the most weeks at #1 (80).   He helped launch the rock and roll era. Many rock stars who followed him in the 1960s and 1970s said they were inspired by Elvis.
The historical marker that stands outside the house where he was born perhaps puts it the best: “Presley’s career as a singer and entertainer redefined popular music.”
For more information about Elvis Presley, click here

Picture Credits:
  • Photograph of Elvis Presley promoting the film, Jailhouse Rock.  Elvis is wearing a jail-like costume for this photograph.  Library of Congress
  • Photograph of Elvis with the Jordanaires. The Jordanaires were a popular gospel quartet that provided background harmonies for Elvis. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 2005.216.2
  • Photograph of Elvis Presley in 1961 with Robert Lunn taken in Nashville by a state photographer.  Elvis was already a well-recognized superstar by this time. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 5.488
  • Photograph of Elvis in his later years.  Elvis continued to entertain thousands of fans well up until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1977.  Library of Congress
  • Photograph of Elvis performing in a white jump suit during the "Elvis Aloha from Hawaii" television program in 1973.  In his latter career, Elvis often wore flashy clothing while performing.   Tennessee State Museum Collection

   Civil Rights / Cold War >>  Everyday Life >>  Music >>  Elvis

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