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Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, January 8, 1935. His parents were Vernon and Gladys Presley. There was a twin brother, who died at birth. Elvis grew up in the two-room house which Vernon built. He was close to his mother, a relationship which defined his personality. His family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis was 13. He was a misfit in school. He wore flashy clothes and hung out on Beale Street. He had rhythm. He listened to black musicians play the blues. After high school, Elvis took a job driving a truck for an electric company. He wanted to record a song as a gift to his mother and went to Sun Records. Sun was owned by Sam Phillips. Marion Keisker, who worked for Phillips, saw something in Elvis and encouraged Phillips to work with him. He put Elvis with guitar player Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana. The result was That's Alright Mama. Memphis radio stations picked it up. Other recordings for Sun followed as Elvis caught on across the south. Girls loved him. They screamed and swooned. Parents detested his gyrations and called him vulgar. This new music was rock & roll. The older generation called it everything from "nigger music" to the "devil's music." RCA purchased Elvis' contract for $35,000. They got a bargain. Elvis had his first number one in January, 1956, with Heartbreak Hotel. Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel & All Shook Up followed. Elvis appeared on television: the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows. When Sullivan insisted he be shown only from the waist up, it added fuel to the fire. Hollywood beckoned, and Elvis made his first movie: Love Me Tender. In two years, he laid the foundation for the music which would dominate into the 21st century.
Elvis was drafted into the U.S. Army in March, 1958. He got a deferment to finish King Creole, considered by critics to be his best film. The draft was real in the 1950s. Young men were expected to serve their country and relished the opportunity. Elvis did basic training at Fort Hood in Texas. His mother died while he was in basic. He never really recovered from her death. Elvis was in armor and worked with tanks. He got orders for Germany, where he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. She became his wife and the mother of his daughter. Elvis' two years in the Army were something he and his fans were proud of. Despite fame, he pulled K.P. and was not given special treatment.
Music had changed by the time Elvis was discharged in March, 1960. It was calmer. Elvis' first record as a civilian was Stuck On You. Its sexual edge took it to number one. It's Now Or Never was released that summer. It was operatic and proved that Elvis could sing. Having served in the Army and mellowed, he appealed to older people. He starred with Juliet Prowse in G.I. Blues.
Part two of Elvis' career began: the movie years. Viva Las Vegas did well partially because of Ann-Margret. Elvis' manager, Tom Parker, controlled things and saw "his boy" as a money-maker. As long as the movies made money, they ground them out. Each was worse than the one before it. Elvis looked like a cardboard cut-out as The Beatles redefined rock & roll. Elvis and Priscilla married in 1967. Their daughter, Lisa Marie, was born 9 months later.
The renaissance came at the end of 1968. Elvis did a Comeback Special for television. He sat in the round with friends and performed his early hits. At the show's end, he appeared in a white suit and sang If I Can Dream. It was his first relevant song in a while. It fit the tough period of the late 1960s with its Counter Culture, Civil Rights & Vietnam War. Elvis came off as a preacher with a message in this third and final incarnation. Suspicious Minds provided his first number one in seven years. He gave up movies, played the International Hotel in Vegas and went back on the road. He donned jump suits and bell bottoms. Legendary guitarist James Burton joined his band. After Burning Love peaked at number two, things began to slide. Divorce was an issue. Elvis was fooling around, and Priscilla left with her karate instructor. Aloha from Hawaii in 1973 was the last big hurrah. Elvis had a special relationship with Hawaii, and his passion was evident. American Trilogy reeked with pathos.
Elvis died suddenly on August 16, 1977, at 42. It was hard to believe. For baby boomers, there had always been Elvis Presley. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was sitting on a bed in a hotel in Springfield, Virgina, near Washington, D.C., watching television. Thousands gathered at Graceland Mansion in Memphis to show grief and pay their last respects. As time went on, a darker image of Elvis emerged. His former bodyguards published an exposé. Prescription drugs, weight gain, divorce and sad songs had taken their toll. Elvis was miserable in his last days. He had everything a 21-year-old wanted, nothing a 42-year-old needed. Nevertheless, he changed music. He was the one who paved the way for The Beatles.
The Elvis legacy survives in the Broadway musical, All Shook Up, a light-hearted story written around 25 Elvis tunes. A roustabout rides into town on a motorcycle and teaches people how to be hip.
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