The Memphis Flash
Elvis Presley from birth to 1959
Origins of Rock ‘n’ RollThe term rock ‘n’ roll can be traced back to the black blues artists of the 1930s, when it was used as a term to describe sexual intercourse. White country artists were just as important in the early development of this explosive musical form, blending the two musical forms together, resulting in a brand of country boogie – an early formation of rock ‘n’ roll – which was carefully developed and popularised by artists such as Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent just to name a few. However, the first rock ‘n’ roll star to shape the future of popular music, and fuel teenage controversy was Elvis Presley.
Poor BoyElvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, on 8th January 1935 at 4.35am to Vernon Elvis and Gladys Love Presley. One of twins, his stillborn brother Jesse Garon was delivered half an hour earlier and buried in the Priceville Baptist Cemetery in an unmarked grave the following day.
Tupelo HomeElvis’ father Vernon, built the Presley’s two-roomed home on the Old Saltillo Road in 1934, using a loan of $180 dollars from local farmer Orville Bean. Elvis’ birthplace was known as a Shotgun Shack – because it was small enough to fire a bullet straight through the front door and out the back. Living in poverty, the Presleys were forced to leave their home and live with family, when Vernon Presley was imprisoned for forging a cheque. However, the building was later salvaged and opened to the public in June 1971.
Old ShepElvis’ first public performance was singing Old Shep at the Mississippi Alabama fair talent contest in 1945. Reportedly, he won 2nd place, but researchers have recently uncovered a lower placing of 5th for the eight year old.
1st GuitarElvis’ first guitar was bought for his eleventh birthday from the Tupelo Hardware Company. A bicycle was his first choice of present.
MemphisIn 1948, and in search of a better life, the Presley’s moved to Memphis, Tennessee. They took up residence in a boarding house on Washington Street, then on Poplar Avenue before they moved to a city housing project at Lauderdale Courts. The Presley’s moved out of Lauderdale courts in 1953, when Elvis was old enough to make a contribution to the family income and their small raise in finances disqualified them from housing benefit.
Memphis HistoryMemphis was founded as a river port on the banks of the Mississippi River in 1826, becoming a key centre for cotton trading and the ideal base for smugglers during the civil war. In the years following the war, an outbreak of yellow fever killed half the population of the city and former slaves claimed the deserted land. Memphis played a huge role in the American civil rights movement and is celebrated for its multicultural community – particularly in Beale Street, known as the birthplace of the Blues.
Humes High SchoolElvis graduated from Humes High on June 3,1953. Located at 659 N. Manasas Street, the school was named after Laurence Carl Hughes, a former president of the Memphis Board of Education.
Early CareerDuring high school, Elvis worked part-time as an usher at Loew’s theatre in Memphis. Before he found his vocation as a singer, his other places of employment included the Precision Tool Co., Parker Machinists and the Crown Electric Company where he worked as a delivery driver.
First RecordingElvis’ made his first recording in the summer of 1953 at the Memphis Recording Service on 706 Union Avenue. He recorded My Happiness backed with That’s When Your Heartaches Begin, which he claimed was a $4 gift for his Mother, but it was really for his own use. Although the owner, Sam Phillips, was not in the studio at the time, his assistant Marion Keisker noticed Elvis’ potential and made a copy of his recording.
Sun StudioSam Phillips opened the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in 1950. In 1952 it became home to his Sun Record label recording a wealth of legendary artists including BB King, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Howling Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
That’s All RightElvis returned to the Memphis Recording Service in January 1954 to record I’ll Never Stand In Your Way backed with (It Wouldn’t Be The Sam) Without You. Sam Phillips was present at this recording, but he didn’t call Elvis back into the studio until the following summer, when he asked him to cut the ballad Without You. He then teamed Elvis with musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black, who tried several unsuccessful recordings until Elvis performed an impromptu version of That’s All Right, which sealed his fate as a rockabilly artist. The single was recorded on July 5 (and later backed with Blue Moon Of Kentucky) and became his debut single on the Sun Record Label.
Radio DebutThat’s All Right received its radio debut on July 8, 1954 on Dewey Phillips Red Hot and Blue radio show on WHBQ. Listeners to the show called in and demanded that the record was replayed through the night, prompting Dewey to invite Elvis to the studio for his first media interview. Too nervous to listen to his radio debut, Elvis had spent the evening hidden away in the cinema.
The Blue Moon BoysFollowing the regional success of That’s All Right, Elvis began touring around Memphis and the South with guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black in a combo known as the Blue Moon Boys, who were later joined by drummer DJ Fontana.
Grand Ol OpryNashville’s Grand Ol Opry made its first radio broadcast on WSM on November 28, 1925 and went on to become the leading venue for country music and the springboard for many legendary artists. Unfortunately for Elvis, he was rejected by the Opry following his audition in October 1954. The Grand Ol Opry still broadcasts today, although it has moved to a larger custom-built arena. The original venue, the Ryman Auditorium, remained derelict for many years, but it has been recently restored and is open again to the public.
Louisiana HayrideBroadcast by KWKH in Shreveport Louisiana, Elvis made his debut appearance on October 16, 1954, and became a regular on the show, which also featured appearances from country legends Hank Williams, Jim Reeves and Johnny Horton in its heyday.
Colonel Tom ParkerElvis’ first manager was fellow Blue Moon Boy Scotty Moore, before local DJ Bob Neal took on the role. In August 1955, Elvis signed a management contract with a former carnival promoter Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk on June 26, 1909 in Breda, Holland. Working on the waterfront the young Andreas took an opportunity to stowaway across the Atlantic where he took on the name Colonel Tom Parker following a stint in the army. A lot of controversy still surrounds Parkers immigrant status in America, which is often cited as the reason why Elvis never toured outside of the USA. However, the Colonel’s background was not discovered until 1981, long after Elvis’s death. It was Elvis’ belief that the Colonel was from the USA.
RCA record dealIn November 1955, the Colonel secured a $40,000 record deal for Elvis with RCA records. Elvis received a $5000 bonus in the deal which bought out his contract with Sun Records.
Heartbreak HotelOn January 10, 1956, Elvis recorded his debut single for RCA records, Heartbreak Hotel, which climbed to number one and went on to sell a million, becoming his first gold record.
Television DebutOn January 28, 1956, the day after Heartbreak Hotel was released, Elvis made his national television debut on Stage Show, produced by Jackie Gleason and starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. He was contracted to six weekly appearances.
Debut AlbumElvis Presley, his debut album was released in March 1956. Selling over one million copies, this became his first gold album.
The Milton Berle ShowBooked for a series of appearances on The Milton Berle Show, his overly sexual performance of Hound Dog during his second appearance on June 5, 1956 caused an outrage among its conservative viewers.
Rock ‘n’ Roll ScandalElvis’ performance on the Milton Berle Show added more resentment towards rock ‘n’ roll. During the fifties, movies such as The Blackboard Jungle and Brando’s The Wild One raised concerns over teenage delinquency, while Rock Around The Clock, quite innocent by today’s standards caused riots in cinemas. Soon Elvis became the centre of this rock ‘n’ roll controversy, which spread across the globe. In the USSR, where rock ‘n’ roll was prohibited, Elvis recordings were bootlegged using discarded X-ray plates and his movies were later banned in Mexico, after a series of riots followed screenings of GI Blues.
The Steve Allen ShowKeen to clean up the image of rock ’n’ roll, Steve Allen dressed Elvis in a suit and tails for his appearance on his NBC show on July 1, 1956, where Elvis was humiliated into singing a sedated version of Hound Dog to a basset hound.
Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the TownEd Sullivan, who originally refused to have Elvis Presley on his television show, offered the star three appearances for an unprecedented $50,000. The controversy still surrounding the star meant that, for his third appearance, Elvis could only be filmed from the waist up.
Las Vegas DebutIn April 1956, Elvis was booked for an engagement at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. The original property, the Last Frontier, had recently been refurbished to reflect the nations passion with the new atomic age and also to capitalise on the atomic testing taking place in the desert outside Las Vegas. So naturally Elvis was billed as the ‘Atomic Powered Singer.’ Its often stated that Elvis bombed in Las Vegas, but the middle-aged Vegas audiences were just not as exuberant as his usual teenage crowd, and Elvis felt that he had not succeeded.
Movie DealIn the end of March 1956 negotiations began for Elvis’ movie contract. In his screen test, clutching a miniature prop guitar, Elvis enthusiastically mimed to Blue Suede Shoes and enacted a scene from The Rainmaker. The following week, he signed a seven-year movie deal with Hal Wallis and Paramount pictures.
Audubon DriveWith his newfound success and a nice royalty cheque for Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis bought his first family home at 1034 Audubon Drive in Memphis in March 1956. Fans begin to crowd into the quiet residential area causing concern among his new neighbours.
Love Me TenderElvis was loaned to 20th Century Fox for his first motion picture Love Me Tender. Set at the end of the Civil War, Elvis played Clint Reno, brother of fugitive Vance Reno, in a tragic struggle against the law and for the affections of Cathy, played by Debra Paget. The movie title was changed from The Reno Brothers to Love Me Tender to cash in the ballad of the same name, which was a main feature in the soundtrack.
Elvis Presley DayElvis’ birth town, Tupelo, Mississippi, proclaimed an Elvis Presley Day on September 26, 1956, where the singer performed at the Mississippi Alabama Fair, the same venue where he performed Old Shep as a child. This time he was protected by National Guardsmen and returned the following year (on Sept 27th) for a repeat performance.
Elvis Presley EnterprisesAn early version of Elvis Presley Enterprises was formed by Elvis and Bob Neal, Colonel Parker began a heavy merchandise campaign, exploiting the name and image of Elvis Presley on a variety of products ranging from toy guitars, dolls and lipsticks to luggage and portable record players. Today EPE still continue to market Elvis merchandise across the globe.
GracelandDr Thomas and Mrs Ruth Moore built Graceland in 1939, on a plot of land originally owned by S. E. Toof. Toof named the land Graceland after his daughter Grace, who was the aunt of Mrs Ruth Moore. Located at 3764 US Highway 51 (which connects Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi), Elvis purchased Graceland for $100,000 in March 1957. The 13 ¾ wooded acres were protected by the addition of a stone wall and his legendary music gates.
Loving YouElvis’ first colour feature film was billed as ‘The first big modern musical based around the fiery personality of Elvis Presley’ and followed the story of aspiring rock ‘n’ roll singer Deke Rivers, featuring classic songs such as Teddy Bear, Gotta Lotta Livin’ To Do and Party.
Canada ShowsIn April 1957 Elvis performed two shows in Toronto and two in Ottawa. When he returned to play Vancouver in August, these Canadian shows marked his first and last live appearances outside the United States.
Jailhouse RockIn this classic rock ‘n’ roll movie, Elvis played Vince Everett, who is discovered as a singer while serving time in prison. On his release he teams up with record promoter Peggy Van Alden and together they form their own label, Laurel Records, finding great fame for Vince at the expense of their relationship. The film includes legendary rock ‘n’ roll performances of Treat Me Nice, You’re So Square and the brilliantly choreographed Jailhouse Rock.
GirlfriendsElvis’ high school girlfriend was Dixie Locke, who he accompanied to her High School Prom in 1954. At the start of his career girlfriends also included June Juanico and Barbara Hearn, then starlets including Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood, Vegas showgirl Dorothy Harmony and local radio and television personality Anita Wood who lost Elvis to Priscilla Beaulieu when he returned from Germany in 1960. In the sixties Elvis had a passionate affair with actress Ann-Margret, but married Priscilla Beaulieu in 1967. Following his separation from Priscilla, Elvis formed a long-term relationship with beauty queen Linda Thompson, while other dates included Sheila Ryan, Joyce Bova and a brief affair with actress Cybil Sheppard. He met his last girlfriend and fiancée Ginger Alden a few months before his death.
King CreoleIn this acclaimed movie Elvis played Danny Fisher, growing up in New Orleans with all good intentions, but ending up on the wrong side of the law, when he gets mixed up with the formidable Maxie Fields (played by Walter Matthau). The film features tracks such as New Orleans and Dixieland Rock and was based on the Harold Robbins novel A Stone For Danny Fisher.
Private PresleyElvis received his draft notice for the US army in December 1957. Permission was granted to finish production on King Creole before making his last live performances in Memphis two weeks before he was officially drafted on March 24, 1958. The following day at Fort Chaffee, his legendary quiff was shaved and Private USS53310761 was moved to Fort Hood, Texas on the 28th to undergo basic training.
Gladys Presley passes awayAlthough Elvis’ parents accompanied him to Texas, his Mother Gladys returned to Memphis, where she was admitted to the Methodist Hospital with Acute Hepatitis. Following complications she died on August 14, aged 46.
GermanyArriving in Germany aboard the USS Randall on October 1, 1958, Elvis was stationed in Friedberg for the next eighteen months. Once in Germany Elvis lived off base in Bad Nauheim, where his father, paternal grandmother and several close friends joined him.
Priscilla BeaulieuFourteen-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, stepdaughter of Army captain Joseph Beaulieu, was introduced to Elvis in November 1959. After Elvis returned to the USA in 1960, the pair were reunited when Priscilla visited Graceland in 1962, then the following year she returned to Memphis to live at the home of Vernon Presley and his new wife Dee, who were responsible for her education. Unknown to the press and her family, Priscilla lived in Graceland with Elvis, who formally proposed marriage in December 1966.
The 1960s — The 1970s.