It is hard to imagine Elvis Presley at the age of 80, but January 8, 2015 is the 80th anniversary of the singer’s birth. Elvis only lived to be 42, dying on August 16, 1977. Even though his final years were fraught with illness and addiction, when we look back we remember a young, strong, vibrant performer who helped redefine popular culture. His significance to popular music cannot be overstated.
Growing up dirt poor in the south, Elvis responded to a myriad of musical styles, from country, to blues, to R&B. When he first walked into the Sun studios in Memphis, Tennessee, he brought with him a vocal style that fused several genres into something new, exciting, and innovative. “I don’t sound like nobody,” he told the Sun secretary. And he didn’t. His unique sound was enough to pique the interest of studio owner Sam Phillips, and, along with Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar, Elvis cut a few tracks that contain the essence of the rock and roll sound. And while songs like “That’s All Right (Mama)” and “Mystery Train” might not sound as explosive sixty years later, their ingredients are the foundation of any rock song that has come along since.
When Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA, early hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog” helped further establish his perspective on popular music. Future rock royalty like John Lennon and Keith Richards are among those who fondly recall the enormous impact “Heartbreak Hotel” had on them when they first heard it. Presley’s approach to the lyrics, response to his musicians, and the way his voice would fluctuate from loud to soft, from bellowing to hiccupping, offered a new, exciting sound that was unlike anything else playing on the 1955 airwaves.
The response to Elvis Presley from the staid conservatism of the prevailing 1950s culture was one of confusion, anger and disgust. But the cultural revolution continued, even after Elvis did a two year stint in the army, lost his beloved mother, and returned from the service to a career that reinvented his original concept. The raw power and rebellious spirit of “All Shook Up,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” was replaced by a safer, more playful Elvis with “Stuck on You” and “Good Luck Charm.”
Elvis made movies. Good scripts and top directors like Richard Thorpe and Michael Curtiz gave the public films like “Jailhouse Rock” and “King Creole.” After the army it changed. For every serious western like Don Siegel’s “Flaming Star,” Elvis would jiggle and giggle through a series of colorful lightweight musicals that were hugely successful at the box office despite their shallowness. When the music changed with the coming of The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Dylan, and Motown, Elvis shrugged off his ability with movie soundtracks for films like “Girl Happy” and “Tickle Me.” His music did not chart from 1965-1968 as rock and roll rapidly changed.
During the Christmas season of 1968, Elvis offered what may be the greatest performance of his career, singing his legacy of hits with snarling, throaty command, and reminding everyone just who was originally responsible for the rock and roll sound that had progressed into the most comprehensive music of the 20th century. In 1969, Elvis went into the studio in Memphis and cut some of his strongest tracks, including the timeless “Suspicious Minds.” He also gave up movies and returned to live performances.
Sadly, the 1970s were years of excesses and indulgences that became so great, they contributed to Elvis Presley’s early death at the age of only 42. But now, on what would have been his 80th birthday, we celebrate his enormous contribution to popular culture, from his brilliant, diverse music to his innate ability as an actor when given a good script and director, and, finally, to his continued status as an icon for all time and generations.