The life and death of Elvis Presley
Recognised as one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Elvis Presley’s music enjoys enduring popularity among both old and young. Here, we look back at the musician’s life…
Died: 16 August 1977, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
Family: Elvis was born in 1935 to Vernon Presley, a truck driver, and Gladys, a sewing-machine operator. Elvis had a twin brother called Jessie Garon, who was stillborn. Vernon and Gladys did not have any other children, so Elvis grew up as an only child.
Elvis joined the United States Armed Forces in 1958, and he met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu, when he was stationed in Germany in 1959. Eight years later they married and had their daughter, Lisa Marie, in 1968. Elvis and Priscilla divorced in 1973.
Remembered for: Selling more than a billion records and receiving 14 Grammy nominations and winning three Grammy awards. He also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the age of 36. In 1970 he was named one of the 10 Outstanding Young Men of the Nation in the USA. Alongside his successful music career, he also starred in 33 films and made numerous television appearances.
Who was Elvis Presley?
Born into a close-knit working class family in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis had his first taste of playing music when he received his first guitar on his 11th birthday. After moving to Memphis in 1948 Elvis attended Humes High School, where he took part in talent shows.
After graduating from high school in 1953, Elvis began recording music in the Memphis Recording Service. There he recorded ‘That’s When Your Heartaches Begin’ and ‘My Happiness’.
Elvis & Priscilla Presley on their wedding day in 1967. (Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
In 1954, Elvis met with producer Sam Phillips and local musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black. During a rehearsal, they recorded their version of ‘That’s All Right Mama’, which went on to be Elvis’s first single. After being played on local radio stations in Memphis, the song became overwhelmingly popular. Recording agencies soon noticed Elvis’s work, and he signed his first contract with RCA Records in 1955.
Elvis recorded his first number one song, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, in the RCA’s Nashville studio in 1956. In the same year, Elvis made his first appearance on national television on Stage Show, hosted by duo Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Elvis performed ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ and ‘I Got A Woman’, and was invited back to perform on the next five consecutive shows.
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How did Elvis become so famous?
It was also in this year that Elvis performed his version of ‘Hound Dog’ during an appearance on The Milton Berle Show. His unusual dance moves and gyrating on stage shocked many viewers and critics, and caught the attention of many teenage viewers. Soon, crowds of screaming and crying women became customary at his concerts.
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Despite gaining popularity with teenagers, Elvis’s music was seen as too different from the usual music produced in the US, and some newspapers criticised Elvis for his “obscene performance”.
Elvis also tried his hand at film during 1956. His first movie, Love Me Tender, premiered in New York City and became a box office hit – it regained its $1 million spending costs in just three days of being shown in theatres across the US.
Alongside his successful music and acting career, Elvis also found time to serve his country. He was drafted into the US Army in 1957, and was inducted in March 1958. For around a year-and-a-half he was stationed in Germany, where he first met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu. Elvis left the Army in 1960.
After this, Elvis went back to recording music and starring in films such as Blue Hawaii in 1961 and Girls! Girls! Girls! in 1962. Although the films received mixed responses from audiences and critics alike, Elvis was able to profit from selling the soundtracks of the films.
Elvis Presley during his '68 Comeback Special on NBC (Credit: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Following a lapse in popularity at the box office, Elvis made a comeback in 1968 during his first ever recorded television special, Elvis, on channel NBC. The one-off special, filmed over the summer months, included footage from his first performance to an audience in more than seven years. The television special became known as his '’68 comeback’, and is still recognised by many as a significant moment in rock history.
Following the success of the television special, Elvis began performing in sold out shows and touring across the US. Over the course of his career he took part in nearly 1,100 concerts, and starred in two on-tour documentaries: Elvis: That’s the Way It Is in 1970, and the 1972 Golden Globe-winning documentary, Elvis on Tour. In 1972 Elvis became the first artist to perform at four consecutive sold out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York.
How did Elvis Presley die?
Despite his success, Elvis faced financial and personal difficulties in the later years of his life, and he turned to drugs. His health deteriorated during the final years of his life after he became obese and took a concoction of drugs, including tranquilizers and amphetamines.
Presley died aged 42 on 16 August 1977. His body was discovered by his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, in the bathroom at his home, Graceland.
Presley lay in state in Graceland, where thousands of fans gathered to pay their respects, before he was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. His body was later moved so he could be buried near Graceland, alongside that of his mother. His father’s body was later buried beside his son and wife, following his death in 1979.