StMU Research Scholars

Elvis: The Rise of the Rock and Roll King

There are very few individuals that are almost universally recognized by their first name. Elvis is one of those individuals whose fame is so great that just a mere mention of his first name would suffice to create an association with his person and legacy. It, however, was not always this way for Elvis. Actually, in many ways, Elvis’s origin could be described as quite the opposite. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi in January of 1935, Elvis Aaron Presley was born into a very financially burdened family, during a very financially burdened time for the United States. In 1935, the United States was in the middle of the most severe financial crisis in recent history: The Great Depression. Because of this, Americans were experiencing severe financial losses, and some families were struggling to make ends meet. This was the world that Elvis was born into. His parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, were not very well-off financially, so the Depression had taken a toll on them financially. At the time of Elvis’s birth, Mississippi was the poorest state, and the Presleys lived in a small home with no electricity and no running water. At the age of three, Elvis would often ride with his mother to visit his father at a state penitentiary. Elvis’s father, Vernon, had been sentenced to three years in prison for forgery. Vernon was released after only nine months, due to petitioning from the local people around town. The Presleys’ struggles didn’t end with the release of Vernon. They were constantly moving from place to place, as they were rarely able to pay rent. Elvis remembered his mother as an honest, hardworking woman who was always trying her best to create a better life for her family. Vernon, on the other hand, struggled to hold down a job and was always taking out loans that he could not pay back.1

Despite these hardships, Elvis recalled growing up a relatively happy kid and cherished the time he spent with his parents. His mother gave him the proper care and attention, often reading books to him, and singing to him. He often attended church with his family and participated in the singing of hymns. His mother would later tell him that at the age of two he would try to run down the aisle towards the choir in hopes of joining them in song. For the most part, Elvis was a healthy and active kid who stayed out of trouble. Although, during his younger years, Elvis developed a severe case of tonsillitis that had his parents worried that they might lose him. Elvis’s mother was overly protective of her son, most likely in part because she had lost Elvis’s twin brother at birth, and had miscarried another child. Elvis often wondered why his twin brother had died and not him, but his mother always enforced the fact that he was special and that God had a plan for him. In school, a young Elvis was known for being very polite and respectful to his teachers. He was very shy and kept to himself mostly, and was an average student. At the age of eleven, he was given his first guitar. Although it was a thoughtful gift from his mother and father, Elvis would’ve preferred a bike at the time. His mother chose to buy him a guitar instead because she felt that a bicycle was too expensive and dangerous. Soon after he was gifted the guitar, his father followed with a secondary gift of a music book. After becoming confident with the guitar, Elvis was invited to the local station to sing and play his guitar. Elvis was first introduced to a music star when a country singer called Mississippi Slim came into town. Elvis was instantly amazed at the way that he carried himself and by his immense skill on the guitar.2

Around the time Elvis was twelve, the Presleys were truly struggling financially and had to relocate from the predominantly white countryside of East Tupelo to the main part of town called the Shakerag area. This area was predominantly home to African-American families and did not have the country music scene that Elvis had become accustomed to. It was here that Elvis discovered a new form of music: the blues. This would change Elvis’s musical trajectory forever and have a profound influence on the type of music he would produce for years to come. The next year, Elvis again moved, this time to Memphis, Tennessee. This move was especially significant because of the distance of it, and the age that Elvis was at the time. At fourteen, he was often singled out for his strong accent and lack of control over the English language. Although he had become more experienced musically, he would never show his talent around others in fear that they would make fun of him. Throughout high school, Elvis was a bit of a loner, but he often stuck out because of his unique style. He sported long, slicked-back hair and grew out his sideburns to a noticeable length. He loved football and was even a part of the high school football team until he had to quit because of work. Working is what most of Elvis’s high school years consisted of. He worked multiple jobs and many hours to provide for himself and his family. Elvis graduated high school but knew that it would be the end of his educational journey. His family didn’t have enough money to send him to college, so he knew that he had to look for work. He turned to the Tennessee employment office for work opportunities. At this same time, he read about the Memphis Recording Service in a local newspaper. It was a close enough distance that he could walk there and it was run by a man named Sam Philips. Elvis had learned that the Memphis Recording Service was just a side business that would ultimately lead to Philips trying to open his own record company. This new label would be called Sun, and one day Elvis got the courage to knock on Philips’ door.3

Elvis playing his guitar | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This would be Elvis’s first step into the music industry. The industry had undergone a transition into an era of blues over past few decades. The rise of many great African-American artists had started to popularize this new genre of music among the general public. Some white people were still very hesitant to adopt this form of music; however, blues had held its place in the music industry since the 1920s. In Chicago, African-Americans starting to make their way into the jazz scene as young people started to open up clubs that were friendly to African-American artists. A couple of Jewish brothers, Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz, started opening jazz clubs around the city. They went by the names of Leonard and Philip Chess. During the mid-1940s, they opened up a club called the Macomba Lounge. At this same time, a young man, McKinley Morganfield, had just rented an apartment in Chicago in hopes of kicking off his music career. He was playing a new style of music with an electric guitar, which was music that had not yet made its presence in the clubs. In 1946, McKinley Morganfield, who was now going by Muddy Waters, recorded three songs for Columbia Records. Although these songs were not released immediately, Muddy Waters’s big break came soon after. Leonard and Philip Chess happened to come across some of Muddy Waters’s music and instantly knew that he was just the kind of artist for them. They scheduled a session with Muddy and in February of 1948, they released Muddy’s first record. This is a prime example of how African-Americans were slowly getting their music into the mainstream. Blues artists, such as B.B. King, had found an audience during the late 1940s. By mid-1949, a journalist named Gerald Wexler convinced his employer (Billboard) to change the name of its “Race Records” chart to “Rhythm and Blues.” This was a step in the direction of the mainstream music industry accepting unique and diverse new forms of music. What people didn’t know was that the music industry would rise to unprecedented heights in the decade to follow. A unique mixture of sound, which drew its inspiration from the African Americans’ blues, was being created by a young man from Tupelo, Mississippi. His influence on the rock and roll genre would bring it into the mainstream and make his stardom unparalleled.4

In 1951, a disc jockey by the name of Alan Freed, who is credited with first using the term “rock and roll,” began incorporating some rhythm and blues into the night shift of his late-night radio show in Cleveland, Ohio. Freed believed that the historically African-American genre of music could appeal to teenagers of different backgrounds. Freed’s radio sponsor was a local record store owner, Leo Mintz. Mintz had convinced Freed to begin playing more rhythm and blues on the observation that many white teenagers had a positive reaction to the rhythm and blues music that Mintz had been playing in his record store. “The Moon Dog Rock and Roll House Party” became the name of Freed’s show, and rhythm and blues were on the show daily. Records such as The Ravens‘ “Rock All Night” and Roy Brown’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” were in the radio show’s rotation. At first, Freed was one of the only white voices in this genre of music, but soon enough, many others began to follow in his footsteps. This began a transition in the music industry, as a new genre of music was brought into the mainstream. Simultaneously, the prices of radios were dropping, and this allowed many middle-class teenagers accessibility to their very own radio receivers. Many “rebellious” teenagers opted to listen to this new and unique form of music behind the closed doors of their rooms. This combination of factors, among other things, would set the stage for a new generation of musical celebrities that would take the nation by storm. In 1953, Freed hosted an event called the “Moon Dog Coronation Ball” at Cleveland Arena. The event included many rock and roll shows and sold 18,000 tickets. However, Cleveland Arena only had a capacity of around 9,000 people, so ticket holders who were unable to get seats became very unhappy and madness broke out. There were riots outside the arena and this display did not portray rock and roll in a good light to the public. By the mid-1950s, rock and roll was still relatively localized to black communities and “white hipsters.” Freed, for instance, was not a huge fan of white individuals performing the historically black genre of music.5

This would drastically change with the rise of Elvis to the national stage. The rapid ascent of Elvis to a national celebrity was an experience that had never before been seen. This phenomenon was made possible by the ascension of network television and the promotional power of RCA, which was becoming a major label. The post-WWII boom was in full effect and the buying power of middle-class teenagers had significantly increased. This allowed teenagers to save up their money and purchase items that differentiated themselves from their parents. Simultaneously, there was a movement towards individualism among the younger crowds, as many younger individuals thought of themselves as misunderstood by their elders. Elvis held the perfect combination of uniqueness yet familiarity, to be accepted by the youth population. He was exotic, in that he had his own style and a unique musical background, yet he was still a Caucasian male, which still allowed for his nearly universal acceptance by teenagers.6

Elvis’ first television appearance, however, did not create a lot of buzz. He first appeared on national television in January of 1956, on the CBS variety program called “Stage Show.” There was not an astonishing reaction to the first appearance, but it set the stage for Elvis’ future appearances, which would take the world by storm. Soon after this appearance, RCA released Elvis’ first single “Heartbreak Hotel” on their label, alongside his LP. The LP did very well, selling over a million copies, all while spending ten weeks atop the Billboard’s pop album chart. Around this time, Elvis began traveling and doing roadshows. It was a very busy time and people who were traveling alongside Elvis claimed that they were mostly unaware of the national attention that Elvis was getting. The previously recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” was starting to gain traction as music enthusiasts from all genres listened and enjoyed. It was a constant back-and-forth between Elvis’ tour and his “Stage Show” appearances. Soon after, Elvis was back in the studio recording an album that was simply titled Elvis Presley. This album contained a mixture of the most popular rock and roll songs at the time. To the excitement of Elvis and his label, the album’s release was a massive success. It was the start of a new era of music, as the album became the first rock and roll album to sit atop the pop album chart and the first rock album to have over a million copies sold. By the late-1950s, Elvis’ fame was skyrocketing as the crowd at his tour shows grew larger and larger by the show. The seats were filled with screaming girls who couldn’t wait to see Elvis perform live. People of all races attended Elvis’ shows and joined together in a sea of ecstatic individuals dying to be a part of a unique performance that had not been previously. This traveling attraction was a unique recipe of rebelliousness that attracted many young people. Elvis’ movements were sudden as he jolted his hip around, and as he curled his lip. At the time, these movements were viewed as too sexual for a public setting. It made many parents and elders resent him, while only increasing the interest of young people. There was no denying that Elvis was profoundly affecting the way that music was experienced. He was ushering in a new era of music and culture, and not everyone was on board.7

Young ladies excited to see Elvis perform live | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Rock and roll was the musical manifestation of some of the differences that teenagers and adults had during the 1950s and ’60s. It was seemingly defiance of adult control, and as Charles Laufer wrote about rock and roll, “The music market, for the first time in history, is completely dominated by the young set.”8 While the majority of adults felt that rock and roll was a “pain in the neck” that was dull and outrageous, young people viewed it as an expression of how they felt and as something that was representative of their generation. Another reason why rock and roll was often disliked by adults was the fact that it had taken over the music scene in such dramatic and sudden fashion. The rock and roll genre was dominating the airwaves and consequently pushing out much of the pop, jazz, and classical music that was beloved by older generations, at the time. The strongest objection to rock and roll came in the many adults’ disapproval of the lyrics, style, and tone that came along with the genre. Many viewed rock and roll as too sexually provocative and outright inappropriate for the public space. Some said that the music was encouraging young people to rebel and push back against their parents at an earlier age. A great number of adults viewed rock and roll as only a part of a systematic issue that the nation was undergoing. A change in the youth population that they believed would have profoundly negative effects for future generations. They viewed rock and roll as primitive and as a symptom of a trend towards immature behavior in young people. On the other hand, they viewed jazz and classical music as put-together and respectful, the way that many adults felt that they behaved. Many adults also claimed that rock and roll had effects that could be seen in the everyday behavior of teenagers. One described the teenagers’ “hip” vocabulary as being “as eloquent as a stammer” and “as meaningful as a grunt.” They felt that the young people, at the time, lacked respect for their elders and proper communicative skills. Elvis was a synthesis of everything that parents and adults opposed during this period, and his fame was only growing by the second.9

By the late 1950s, Elvis’ stardom was on full display. He was a national icon and young people seemed to worship him and his music. With his music topping the charts, Elvis and those around him looked to capitalize on the opportunity. He was offered multiple roles in feature films, along with the movies’ soundtracks. It could be said that it was at this point when Elvis “went Hollywood.” Elvis did travel to Hollywood. When he arrived at the airport in Los Angeles, a crowd of people was waiting, and they cheered with excitement. Signs read “Elvis for President,” which Elvis laughed off when reporters asked about the possibility of him running for the presidency. Elvis spent much of his first visit to Hollywood running around film studios and talking to producers and directors about possible film features. During these encounters, he was offered many guest roles on television shows and movies. Elvis was offered the role of James Dean in a biographical film. Dean was an astoundingly famous and well-respected actor who had recently passed away tragically in an automobile accident. Elvis said that he thought it was a great idea and that he would consider it. During this time, he would call home every night to tell his mother about the news about his time in Hollywood. By the time of his departure, he had three of his songs in motion pictures. The big screen would only enhance Elvis’ reach, as he would be brought straight to the living room of every television owner in America.10

A picture of the front of Elvis’s home called “Graceland” | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Elvis was entering the music scene, television was taking over the nation. Households that had been dominated by radio media up until that point, were now being introduced to the power of television. The 1950s contained many advancements in television and the technology that allowed for the production of television shows on a nationwide scale. In 1950, the National Television System Committee (NTSC) was created to address the industry-wide development of technology. It was established with hopes of making color television a reality. A race began between RCA and CBS, two television companies, who were competing to bring colored television to American households. This competition acted as a catalyst for the rapid development of new technology and made televisions more accessible to the everyday American. This would further the transition from radio to television that had previously begun. RCA and CBS competed tirelessly to create an effective color television. After much trial and error, RCA emerged as the frontrunner when they introduced the tricolor kinescope, which significantly improved the quality of colored television. Television shows were increasing in popularity as the hardware improved. New shows were being added more frequently and viewers began to get attached to lovable actors and actresses such as Lucille Ball from the show “I Love Lucy.” By the mid-1950s, the reach and quality of television shows had significantly improved and the increase in television quantity decreased the sale prices of televisions.11 By 1962, signals were being transferred across the Atlantic Ocean and NCAA College Football playbacks were being broadcasted on national television. Television was truly opening up an unfathomable amount of opportunities for people to tune in to their favorite events and entertainment at a moment’s notice.12

Elvis would ride this wave on technological advancement and a changing culture into never before seen stardom. Television allowed him to reach an exponentially larger amount of people than his predecessors in the music industry. This combined with his ability to popularize a new genre of music (rock and roll), allowed him to affect American culture, and young people in particular, in a way that was incomparable at the time. His rise to fame was historic and unparalleled. From a poor, shy boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, to a national sensation with tremendous wealth and immense swagger. There is no denying that Elvis Presley was a magnificently talented and one of a kind individual, but it is also undeniable that he was swept up in a perfect storm that blew him into a new level of celebrity. His effect on a generation of young people, and the generations to follow, only cements his place among the most influential people of modern times. His music inspired his successors to think outside the box and create something unique to them and that properly displayed themselves fully. The effects of his rebellious attitude toward musical culture can still be seen in artists that pave their path and create music that is special and meaningful to them. Overall, Elvis is an individual that will forever be remembered and loved by those who respect art and music, and he will live forever as a legend and as the Rock and Roll King.

  1. Ray Connolly, Being Elvis: a Lonely Life (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 1-5.
  2. Ray Connolly, Being Elvis: a Lonely Life (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 5-13.
  3. Ray Connolly, Being Elvis: a Lonely Life (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), 13-22.
  4. Ed Ward, The History of Rock & Roll (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017), 26-29.
  5. Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen, and Dan Sokolovic, Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011), 55.
  6. Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen, and Dan Sokolovic, Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011), 55-56.
  7. Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen, and Dan Sokolovic, Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and Our Times (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2011), 107-121.
  8. Henry Finder, The New Yorker Book of the 50s: Story of a Decade (London: W. Heinemann, 2015), 436-437.
  9. Henry Finder, The New Yorker Book of the 50s: Story of a Decade (London: W. Heinemann, 2015), 436-440.
  10. Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis (Little, Brown and Company), 327-331.
  11. Albert Abramson, The History of Television: 1942 to 2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 37-59.
  12. Albert Abramson, The History of Television: 1942 to 2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003), 92-104.

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36 Responses

  1. I am very pleased reading this article. I believe you did a great job explaining the struggles Elvis faced throughout his childhood. Growing up is hard as it is so I could not imagine growing up during the Great Depression. It is surprising to think a good looking guy like himself was alone throughout high school. Elvis seems like a genuine guy, most men think they are too cool to show love to their mom however Elvis was different and called his mother any time he was given good news. In conclusion I have learned various new facts about Elvis.

  2. I loved reading this article because it shows us another facet of Elvis in which we see his childhood and his parents’ financial struggles. It is interesting to notice how old Elvis was as he was born during the Great Depression. Another facet we see from Elvis is his high school days, in which he was known to be shy and part of the football team. We cannot deny the great trajectory and influence that Elvis had; however, Elvis also helped blues music to start being accepted by the mainstream.

  3. I absolutely loved this article! I never really knew much about Elvis Presley’s life, so reading up about the many different obstacles he overcame was interesting. I believe articles like this help readers see that there was more to his life than just the fame and money. I also never realized how old Elvis truly was. I didn’t know he grew up around the Great Depression times. I believe people like him and The Beatles made a heavy impact on music history. Thank you for this article!

  4. I am amazed on how much I learned throughout this article about Elvis, one of the most famous icons for Rock n Roll music. Growing up I heard my friends listening to his music every once and a while, so it is interesting learning more about the obstacles he overcame and the goals that he accomplished. I am surprised to learn that he was a lone- star throughout his Highschool experience, since I imagined that he would be the popular type. I am inspired on how he had a goal of being a musician and follow through with it while facing so many struggles

  5. It is interesting to learn that the one of the world’s most well-known and influential musicians had such a rocky upbringing. From growing up during the Great Depression to his father getting into trouble. It was also interesting to learn how he started his music career around the same time other famous names such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters were being discovered. I liked how you included some of his achievements such as his album “Elvis Presly” becoming the first rock and roll album to be number 1 in the pop album chart and have millions of copies sold. He truly was a talented individual with his musical skill and up and coming acting career. I also liked how you included that the advancement in technology such as the television being invented contributed to his success. His music was able to reach more people with this new platform on the rise. This was a fascinating article, thank you for sharing!

  6. First, I always forget how old Elvis is until phrases like “The Great Depression” remind me that he is far from more recent years, which truly shows how his legacy is still going strong in today’s society. It was quite surprising to learn that Elvis had such a hard start in his career and his humble beginnings of being born to a financially burdened family. His passion for music and his unique style played a huge role in his growing popularity throughout those years. It was also very sweet to know he would call his mom to tell her about his accomplishments, makes the guy seem very genuine. Thank you for a beautiful article.

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