When he was in the eighth grade, Elvis Presley received a C in music. When his music teacher told him he had no aptitude for singing, he brought in his guitar the next day and sang a recent hit, “Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me,” in an effort to prove otherwise. A classmate later recalled that the teacher “agreed that Elvis was right when he said that she didn’t appreciate his kind of singing.”
Elvis was the program topic at the recent meeting of the Mathontes Club held at the Pine Bluff Country Club. The program, entitled “The 1950s – Elvis”, continued the year’s study of “Rock Your Decade.”
The program was presented by Judy Barrett and Eva Marie Pearson.
Elvis Aaron Presley, who may be the single most important figure in American 20th century popular music, came from very humble beginning, Barrett said. He was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Miss., to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Love Presley. A twin 35 minutes his senior was stillborn. Their birthplace was a two-room, shotgun house that was built by their father in anticipation of their birth.
Elvis spent his teen years in Memphis, a melting pot of Southern popular music in the form of blues, country, bluegrass and gospel.
In the early days of his career, he was known to Pine Bluff audiences. Barrett recalled seeing him perform at Watson Chapel High School. During the performance, an announcement was made asking whoever had stolen the license from his pink Cadillac to return them. Barrett said that years later at a Pine Bluff High School class reunion, one of her classmates admitted that he had taken the license.
Presley was a major influence in the developing musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Pearson said. A change had already begun with a popular music that originated and evolved in the United States during the late 1940s and 1950s, primarily from a combination of African-American blues, country, jazz and gospel music. However, Rock ‘n’ Roll did not acquire its own name until the 1950s, when the term was first coined by Alan Freed, a Cincinnati disc jockey.
Elvis might not have been the best and certainly not the most consistent, but no one could argue with the fact that he was the musician most responsible for popularizing Rock ‘n’ Roll on an international level. It is estimated that he has sold in excess of 1 billion recording units.
In mid-1954, Sam Phillips, the owner of Memphis’ Sun Records, was looking for a white singer with a black feel. He teamed Elvis with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Almost by accident, apparently, the trio hit upon a version of a tune, “That’s All Right, Mama,” which became Elvis’ first single.
Elvis’ five Sun singles pioneered the blend of rhythm and blues and country and Western that would characterize rockabilly music. For quite a few scholars, they remain not only Elvis’ best singles, but also the best Rock ‘n’ Roll ever recorded.
In need of capital to expand the Sun label, Sam Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA in late 1955 for $35,000 – a bargain, when viewed in hindsight, but an astronomical sum at the time.
After that, Elvis’ popularity flourished with a number of Hollywood movies and recording hits, event though both careers were interrupted by his induction into the Army in early 1958. There was enough material in the can to flood the charts throughout his two-year absence (during which he largely served in Germany). When he re-entered civilian life in 1960, his popularity, remarkably, was at just as high a level as when he left.
Shortly after leaving the Army, Elvis gave up live performing altogether for nearly a decade to concentrate on movie-making. The films, in turn, would serve as vehicles to both promote his records and to generate maximum revenue with minimal effort. For the rest of the ’60s, Elvis ground out two or three movies a year that, while mostly profitable, had little going for them in the way of story, acting or social value.
The Beatles, all big Elvis fans, displaced him as the biggest rock act in the world in 1964. What’s more, they did so by writing their own material and playing their own instruments; something Elvis had never been capable of, or particularly aspired to. The Beatles, and the British and American groups they influenced, were not shy about expressing their opinions, experimenting musically, and taking the reins of their artistic direction into their own hands. The net effect was to make Elvis, still churning out movies in Hollywood as psychedelia and soul music became the rage, seem irrelevant.
On August 16, 1977, Presley was found dead in his Graceland mansion at Memphis. He was 42. The cause of death remains a subject of widespread speculation, although it seems likely that drugs played a part. An immediate cult (if cult is the way to describe millions of people) sprang up around his legacy, kept alive by the hundreds of thousands of visitors who make the pilgrimage to Graceland annually. Elvis memorabilia is another industry in its own right. Dozens, if not hundreds, make a comfortable living by impersonating the King in live performances. And then there are all those Elvis sightings, reported in tabloids on a seemingly weekly basis.
The program was enhanced with a display of Elvis posters, photographs of Graceland and other memorabilia. And in keeping with the spirit of the entertainer, each guest was presented a scarf inscribed with the word “Elvis” as she entered the meeting room. An album of Elvis’ music was playing in the background.
The hostesses for the meeting were Kathryn May, Ginny Clement, Connie Kitchens, Jacque Walker and Cheryl Fox.