Elvis Aaron Presley. Affectionately known as “the King” to music fans world wide. Presley first burst onto the scene in the summer of 1953 when he cut a record at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee. Prior to Elvis, there were two very different music industries in the United States. The “white” music industry consisting of mostly crooners and singers who had migrated from the jazz world into popular music and the “black” music industry consisting of blues and rhythm and blues acts mostly dotting the Mississippi river from New Orleans to Memphis to St. Louis up to Chicago. Presley’s initial appeal was the fact that he was able to harness the emotional power of the more expressive R&B and blues musicians and make it palatable to a white audience. When he first appeared, radio listeners did not know if he was white or black. His first album released on RCA records in 1956 attests to his melding of styles covering songs by country and western artists Carl Perkins, Don Robertson and Leon Payne on one hand and Ray Charles, Little Richard and Charlie Singleton from the R&B world on the other.
Because there was not a cultural reference for someone like Elvis, the music establishment really did not know what to do with him. He was invited to play The Grand Ole Oprey in Nashville in the fall of ’54 but really wasn’t a match for the country audience. Presley gained attention by appearing on Louisiana Hayride a few weeks after the Oprey performance and from that gig appeared every Saturday night on their radio broadcast for a year. The Hayride was broadcast to almost 200 stations in 28 states and suddenly, Elvis was a star. The story might have ended there if not for an ambitious promoter named Col. Tom Parker who took over Elvis’ career and exploited his young star in every way imaginable. Back in the mid 1950’s there wasn’t a blueprint for how to create a star so Col. Parker made it up as he went. Record deals, television appearances, movie contracts together with a relentless tour schedule and promotion of every imaginable product kept Elvis busy and exhausted for the next twenty years. No one had ever seen a performer with such wide appeal and his influence was so wide spread by 1957 that the FBI actually regarded him as a threat to the security of the US.
As this is not a biography of Elvis, I won’t delve into the man himself, just the music he represented. Rockabilly, Country and Western, Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel: Elvis could do it all and remained wildly popular throughout. He defined the modern music industry and paved the way for countless others. In almost every way imaginable, Elvis epitomized rock and roll; money, fame, women, drugs, and the excess, generations to follow associate with the rock and roll life. Elvis was the pioneer and his influence has been felt since that fateful day in 1953 when he walked into Sun Studios in Memphis paid $3.98 and cut a record ostensibly as a gift for his mother. On this, the 39th anniversary of Elvis’ death, every music fan the world over should take a minute to remember the truck driver who created and defined an industry.