By Fred Jacobs
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in January 1935. Elvis was actually a twin, but his identical twin brother died during birth. The family always seemed to be struggling, often relying on neighbors or government help for food. For his first 15 years, Elvis lived in largely African-American neighborhoods, which would influence his musical career.
At the age of six, Elvis started school but was a shy child. One teacher encouraged him to enter a singing contest after hearing him sing. Elvis finished 5th in the contest, but it was the first step to what would become. A few months later Elvis received his first guitar for his birthday, despite him really wanting a bicycle. Two uncles gave him basic guitar lessons and a classmate taught him chord techniques.
By 6th grade, Elvis was bringing his guitar to school daily. He played it and sang during lunch time, often teased as being trashy and that he played “hillbilly music”. The classmate that taught him chords, also had an uncle with a weekly music show on the local radio station. Elvis was given his first “break” at the age of twelve when he got two on air performance chances. The first, Elvis was struck with stage fright, but the second time was a success.
The family continued struggling and the following year, they moved to Memphis, Tennessee and lived in rooming houses for the next year. Memphis had a thriving Blues scene and Elvis was mesmerized by it. In his new high school, he hooked up with several classmates and formed an informal group playing local stages. Elvis’s look was evolving as well, and he started using Vaseline in his hair.
In the 1950’s anyone could pay for an hour of studio time and get a test record made-even at the local drug store. Elvis chose to pay extra and have one made at Sun Records studio, to supposedly make a test record for his mother. Surely Elvis hoped he might get “discovered”, but after two attempts at Sun, there was still no interest from the studio as they specialized in black artists.
Six months later, while working as a truck driver, again Elvis tried making a private recording of “That’s All Right” with two other blues musicians. This recording got noticed and three days later was played on air by a popular Memphis DJ. Callers started flooding the station, asking who the singer was. Within weeks, they performed at the Bon Air Club in Memphis with Elvis still using his “child-sized” guitar.
During the instrumental parts, Elvis played guitar and had a unique leg shake. The leg shake was one part trying to keep rhythm and one part nervousness, but the girls screamed with delight. His unique onstage style was born and Elvis grew more comfortable and confident on stage.
A few months later, Elvis got booked on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and the manager thought Elvis was just “not bad”. Two weeks later, Elvis appeared on rival show “Louisiana Hayride” which broadcast on 198 radio stations in 28 states. This led to regular appearances on Hayride, non-stop regional touring and making a name for himself from Tennessee to Texas.
In January 1955, Elvis met and was signed by legendary manager Colonel Tom Parker. Within a year, Parker got RCA to sign Elvis to a recording contract and the rockabilly hit single “Blue Suede Shoes” was born. Colonel Parker was determined to make Elvis a star and he managed to get Elvis on a national TV broadcast from New York in January 1956. This led to appearances on “The Steve Allen show” and three times on “The Ed Sullivan Show”-this was the start of “Elvis-mania”.
But Elvis-mania reached a crisis in 1958, when Elvis was drafted into the Army. Fans cried when his pictures came out joining the army and film showed his famous hair being buzzed off. Parents and teachers cheered at his being drafted, as they saw Elvis as a “menace to society”.
In the later part of his two year military service, Elvis met the young Pricilla. They had a seven year “courtship” and married in 1967, with daughter Lisa Marie arriving the following year. Sadly the pressure of being married to Elvis was too much for the younger Priscilla and they divorced after just six years, in 1973.
The timing of the divorce also signaled the start of a downward spiral for Elvis. Later in 1973, Elvis twice overdosed on drugs. Despite this, his tour schedule was ramped up to 170 concerts a year through 1976 and his onstage appearance showed the effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Often “he was not understandable onstage.” Summer in Vegas concerts would even be twice daily. Despite his failing health, all concerts whether in Vegas or on tour, were always sold out.
Sadly this pace, drugs and alcohol took its toll and on the eve of another tour, Elvis was found dead in his home on August 16, 1977. The world mourned in an unprecedented manner. Over 80,000 people lined the funeral procession. Elvis was laid to his final rest beside his mother at Graceland.
Elvis released his first full album titled “Elvis Presley” in 1956, which was a mix of country, Rockabilly and pop. Between singles and albums, Elvis recorded over 700 masters in his career, including live concert albums. In all its reported Elvis achieved 38 top ten hits and 18 number 1 hits. Between 1956 and 1969, Elvis stared in 31 films. Many were forgettable films, but always a great showcase for his music and fan favorites.
Fred Jacobs is the author of three books and is a permanent resident of Puerto Vallarta.