Elvis Presley (1935-1977), American singer and actor, one of the most popular and influential entertainers of the 20th century. Presley is renowned as an early pioneer of rock music, fusing the sounds of country music and rhythm-and-blues influences with what was then the new rock-and-roll style. His unprecedented, electrically charged performances also helped make Presley one of the first mass idols of American popular culture.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. He attended Pentecostal churches in his youth, and there he heard gospel music. He also listened to blues and country-and-western music and won a talent contest at the age of ten for a rendition of the ballad “Old Shep” (1933), written by country singer Red Foley. In his teens, Presley taught himself to play the guitar.
Following high school, Presley worked as a truck driver. In 1953, while recording some songs as a birthday gift for his mother at a studio in Memphis, Tennessee, Presley impressed the studio manager with his unique vocal style, demonstrating both outstanding range and the influences of African American music. Studio owner Sam Phillips promptly signed Presley to his fledgling record label, Sun Records. After recording some country-tinged singles in 1954 for Sun (such as “That’s All Right Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”), Presley switched the next year to a major label, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
With heavy promotion by RCA and a veteran band that included guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, Presley swiftly became a sensation. He had five songs reach the number-one spot on the popular-music sales charts in 1956 alone: “Heartbreak Hotel”; “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”; “Don’t Be Cruel”; “Hound Dog”; and “Love Me Tender.” Presley’s romantic, suggestive ballads were matched by his erotic gyrations on stage, a style that made him popular with teens but controversial with their parents and other authority figures.
From 1956 to 1958, Presley starred in four motion pictures, all of which featured his soundtracks: Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Loving You (1957), and King Creole (1958). After serving in the United States Army from 1958 to 1960, Presley starred in several more musical films, including Flaming Star (1960), Blue Hawaii (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Roustabout (1964), Frankie and Johnny (1966), and Live a Little, Love a Little (1968). His public appeal faded during this period, as his rebellious image gave way to the more wholesome persona developed in his film roles. His movies were also widely panned by critics.
The hit songs continued for Presley, however, including “It’s Now or Never” (1960), “Good Luck Charm” (1962), “Return To Sender” (1962), “Crying In the Chapel” (1965), “In The Ghetto” (1969), and “Suspicious Minds” (1969). Overall, Presley is credited with more than 100 singles that made the pop charts—far more than any other artist.
Presley continued to perform during the late 1960s and 1970s—especially in Las Vegas, Nevada—despite deteriorating health and long-term drug dependency. His death, a subject of some controversy, has been officially attributed to heart failure, a likely result of Presley's chronic overuse of prescription barbiturates. Presley is buried at his mansion, Graceland, which is a major tourist site in Memphis.