Elvis Presley, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” would have been celebrating his 80th birthday Jan. 8. It seems a lifetime ago that we heard news of his premature death in 1977.
This was huge news on our side of the Atlantic, too. As a young school girl in London, the tabloid details of some of his excesses were largely hidden from us by our parents. Many years later, my husband took me to Graceland and I was surprised by the comparative modesty in the way “The King” lived.
Never has there been a more rags-to-riches story, which is told very well by Peter Guralnick in his book “Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley.” Born in a modest two-room home in Tupelo, Mississippi, Presley had a typically mixed American heritage. He had the blood of German, Irish, Scottish, French and even Native American Cherokee ancestors running through his veins. Young Elvis got his early musical inspiration from the Assembly of God Church, received a guitar for his 11th birthday and sang at a few local events and even on a popular Tupelo radio show, “Mississippi Slim’s,” when he was 12.
The family moved to Memphis, and Elvis — having no formal training as a musician — kept playing small gatherings and hanging around Beale Street, the hub of the Memphis blues scene, although he drove a truck and worked odd jobs after graduating high school. He not only loved country music, but also rhythm and blues and its roots in African-American gospel music.
In August 1953, Elvis walked into the offices of Sun Records to pay to record a couple of songs for his mother. The receptionist kept a copy of his record along with a notation that could be the biggest understatement of all time: “Good ballad singer. Hold.” A few months later, he cut another record at Sun, but like the first one, it received no real attention.
About that time, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips was looking for a white singer who could cross racial boundaries. He invited the future king to audition and was sufficiently impressed to team Elvis up with guitarist Scotty Moore and upright-bass player Bill Black in order to see what kind of sound they could come up with.
The result was Elvis’ first release and what five decades later Rolling Stone magazine would declare the first rock ‘n’ roll song and rank No. 113 in its list of 500 greatest songs of all time: “That’s All Right (Mama),” an extremely upbeat version of a slow lament by Arthur Crudup. A Memphis radio station started playing the recording non-stop just three days later and was inundated with listeners calling in to find out who the singer was.
During the trio’s early gigs, Elvis gyrated and shook his legs, partly keeping the beat and partly out of nervousness. Over the years, conservative crowds and TV networks hated his controversial gyrations, but women went wild — and the rest is history. Presley went on to become the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music, starred in 33 movies, had 149 charted singles and is believed to have sold more than a billion records worldwide, according to Billboard Magazine.
Here is a short quote from the great man himself, one that I think really personifies the American dream and just what is possible from humble beginnings: “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”
Happy Birthday, Elvis Presley, and God bless America!
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