Elvis Presley’s appeal was based on raw emotion. USA TODAY looks at 10 pivotal points in his life that sparked excitement or outrage — or sometimes both.
Feb. 6, 1955:Elvis encounters the Colonel
Elvis had just released his third Sun single, Milkcow Blues Boogie, when his newly signed manager Bob Neal took him to meet promoter Tom Parker, who had managed country star Eddy Arnold. Colonel Parker, as he called himself (he’d acquired the honorary title from Louisiana’s songwriting Gov. Jimmie Davis), had booked Elvis on a tour headlined by Hank Snow and was curious to meet him. The former carnival huckster and dogcatcher — who was, unbeknownst to all but himself, an undocumented Dutch immigrant born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk — was impressed with what he saw. He entered into a formal partnership with Neal in August, helping to negotiate the singer’s deal with RCA Records and squeezing out Neal in March 1956 to become Elvis’ sole manager. He would remain involved with Elvis and the business until his death in 1997.
1955 – 56:Elvis signs to RCA, takes a walk down Lonely Street
Sun Records owner Sam Phillips needed money. He had bought his first radio station and had a hot new artist named Carl Perkins whom he wanted to invest in. He had offered his flagship star, Elvis Presley, to major labels before, but they thought the price was too high for an artist with just three top 10 country hits to his credit. In late 1955, Elvis’ growing reputation as a performer upped the ante, and Phillips told RCA it could have Elvis’ contract for $35,000 (about $300,000 today), the highest price to date for a recording artist. Colonel Parker found Heartbreak Hotel, based on a suicide note, and the echo-drenched lament became the singer’s first RCA single. It hit Billboard on March 3, battled Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes up the chart for two months, and became Elvis’ first pop No. 1 on May 5.
1956: Elvis rocksthe small screen
Now signed to a major label, Elvis launched a major-media assault with six appearances on the Dorsey Brothers’ CBS variety program Stage Show, starting on Jan. 28, 1956. His uninhibited hip thrusts provoked letters of protest, as did an appearance on an NBC Milton Berle special on April 3. But a whole lotta shakin’ went down during and after his June 5 Milton Berle Show date. Elvis’ performance of Hound Dog had virtually every TV critic in the country baying about his immoral antics, while record sales soared. A July 1 appearance on Steve Allen’s NBC show fueled the fires when Allen had a tuxedo-clad Elvis sing Hound Dog to a top-hatted, mournful-looking dog, which he did good-humoredly, hugging the hound at song’s end. Though Elvis fans blasted Allen for homogenizing their hero, the show nonetheless attracted twice as many viewers as CBS’ Ed Sullivan Show that week. That prompted Sullivan, who had initially vowed not to showcase anyone as vulgar as Elvis, to capitulate and sign the singer for three relatively controversy-free appearances (owing in part to Elvis being shot from the waist up) in September and October 1956 and January 1957.
Nov. 8, 1957:Elvis rocks the big screen
Having conquered radio and television, the next logical move for the broadly appealing king of all media envisioned by Colonel Parker was to move into movies. 1956’s Love Me Tender was a thin, badly reviewed Western without much music, and the following year’s Loving You was a thinly disguised reflection of Elvis’ live act, with more music than plot. But Jailhouse Rock is where it all came together: a serious story line, a serious starring role, a series of great songs and even some serious dance moves, in the classic sequence set in prison to the title track, regarded by many as the forefather of the music video. Contemporary critics were still unkind, but Jailhouse Rock provided the first hints that Elvis could be taken seriously as an actor.
March 25, 1958:Presley drafted,swaps private life for life as a private
At the height of his early fame, Elvis was a ripe target — for the military draft. Various branches of the armed services offered him cushy berths in which he could do his time, but the Colonel was gung-ho for Elvis serving as an ordinary soldier, the move most likely to enhance his across-the-board image. Elvis picked up his draft notice in December 1957 but received a deferment to finish his current film project, King Creole. Three months later, he was inducted, receiving a standard close-shorn Army haircut on March 25 that was much publicized — although there couldn’t have been all that much hair to shear, Elvis having voluntarily gotten a crewcut about a week before. Still, it was regarded as a symbolic Samson moment, the taming of the wild rocker — and indeed, though releases of previously recorded music during his time away disguised it, once he went into the Army, Elvis’ reign as premiere rock ‘n’ roller was over.
May 12, 1960:Sinatra offersTV olive branch
Many establishment figures despised rock ‘n’ roll and said so, but nobody said it quite like Frank Sinatra in 1957: “It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons … the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” Less than three years later, Sinatra welcomed the rock ‘n’ roller as a guest on his ABC special It’s Nice to Go Traveling. Elvis earned $125,000 (the highest TV guest fee to date, and more than the host pocketed) to sing both sides of his new single, Stuck on You and Fame and Fortune, plus a duet with Sinatra on the latter’s Witchcraft and Elvis’ own Love Me Tender. As part of the Colonel’s continuing campaign to broaden Elvis’ appeal (and de-emphasize that degenerate, vicious rock ‘n’ roll image), it worked like a charm, with two-thirds of the TV viewing audience witnessing the grand rapprochement.
Dec. 3, 1968:Missionimplausible:‘ComebackSpecial’
By 1968, Elvis was either an afterthought or a laughingstock. It had been three years since he had scored a top 10 hit, and each film that came off the assembly line seemed more ludicrous. And a planned TV special of Christmas songs didn’t promise to lift the malaise. But Elvis found kindred spirits in executive producer Bob Finkel and former Hullabaloo and T.A.M.I. Show director Steve Binder, and despite the Colonel’s objections, they ditched the holiday numbers (all but one) and conceived a sort of musical autobiography instead. A slimmed-down Elvis donned black leather and sang raw versions of his favorite songs in a casual setting, reintroducing the world to what made him such a phenomenon in the first place. Elvis (aka the “Comeback Special”) was NBC’s top-rated show of the year. Elvis was the King once more.
July 31, 1969 – Sept. 14, 1970:The King of Rock ‘n’ Rollstages his live return
Exhilarated by performing in front of a crowd for his ’68 “Comeback Special,” Elvis told the Colonel he wanted to tour again. Seeing the potential, Parker set up a lucrative contract for eight weeks at Las Vegas’ newly constructed International Hotel, starting at the end of July 1969. Ace guitarist James Burton put together a top-notch band, gospel group The Imperials and R&B session stalwarts the Sweet Inspirations handled backing vocals and an energized Elvis triumphed in front of a celebrity-packed audience. After headlining the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in February 1970 and returning to the International, Elvis set out on a six-day tour Sept. 9, opening in Phoenix and following a somewhat peculiar itinerary: St. Louis, Detroit, Miami, Tampa and Mobile, Ala. The course of the remainder of his career, now focused on frequent tours, was set.
Jan. 14, 1973:‘Aloha From Hawaii’:Satellite night live
Four years after the “Comeback Special,” it was time for another kingly gesture. And what could be grander than a worldwide TV broadcast via satellite, projected (by the Colonel) to reach more than a billion viewers? The location was Hawaii, one of Elvis’ favorite places since his first concert there in 1957. Elvis dropped 25 pounds for the occasion (quickly restored with bonus weight after the concert) and, just after midnight, performed a generous helping of current and past favorites, from Hound Dog to James Taylor’s Steamroller Blues. The Aloha From Hawaii broadcast went out live to Australia, Japan and other countries in that general region, then was shown later in the day to 28 countries across Europe. A longer version, containing songs recorded after the actual concert, aired April 4 in the USA, with more than a third of the TV audience tuning in for the NBC broadcast. The broadly hyped 1.3 billion global audience estimate added up to the total population of the 38 countries in which the concert aired, so the number of people who actually saw the program was considerably less. Even so, Aloha‘s soundtrack gave Elvis his first chart-topping album since 1965, and the special — the most expensive produced to date — once again cemented his worldwide stature.
Oct. 9, 1973:Elvis andPriscilla divorce
It was the romance of the century (one of them, anyway). Elvis met Priscillia Beaulieu while stationed in Germany during his Army stint. Her father was in the Air Force; she was in ninth grade. She moved to Memphis with her parents’ permission in 1963, and the couple’s formal courtship began, culminating in a May 1967 wedding. By many accounts, things started to sour after their only child, Lisa Marie, was born in 1968. Matters worsened when Elvis began performing live again in 1969. They separated in February 1972, on the way to eventual divorce. Priscilla, who has never remarried, always spoke well of Elvis, but he was known to fly into rages over their breakup. Such feelings surely contributed to the general gloom and lassitude that characterized Elvis’ remaining four years.