Personalities | Elvis Presley | Rockabilly | Country

Elvis Presley was the most important figure in popular music during the twentieth century. His influence was enormous, and remains so, nearly 30 years after his death. The recordings that he made during the first few years of his career inspired a whole generation and the initial impact of a country boy singing black R&B changed forever the strictly segregated nature of the music industry in America.

Hillbilly Cat

Born in a two room shotgun shack in Tupelo, Mississippi on 8 January 1935, Presley moved with his family to Memphis in 1948. His musical influences were many and varied. He enjoyed hillbilly and country boogie, gospel quartets like The Blackwood Brothers, R&B singers including Wynonie Harris and Big Mama Thornton, even pop singers like Dean Martin. He picked a little guitar and would hang around the blues clubs on Beale Street. He even adopted the brightly coloured clothes favoured by the negroes. He was a loner and a drifter – and an unlikely candidate for stardom.

Sam Phillips at Sun Records was the man who spotted the potential in Presley. Accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black, Presley first recorded on 5 July 1954, delivering groundbreaking renditions of Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ and the Bill Monroe bluegrass standard, ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’. Both songs were given a raw, primitive feel and the end product sounded quite different – neither country nor R&B. The style became known as rockabilly.

Presley was not an overnight success. Everything about him – his appearance, his overtly sexual persona and his strange-sounding music – was met with confusion, disbelief and open hostility from the general public to begin with. Slowly however, his teenage support increased sufficiently to drown out the dissenting voices. Sun issued five singles by Presley as his popularity gradually expanded through the South, and his final Sun offering ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’ (1955) broke him nationally when it reached No. 1 on the country charts.

King Of Rockabilly

In November 1955, Sun sold Presley’s contract to RCA Victor for the then-substantial fee of $35,000. At the same time, his management was acquired by the Svengali-like Colonel Tom Parker. The move to RCA provided Presley with the financial support and superior distribution network to become an international star, and after a slow start, his debut single ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (1956) became a worldwide hit.

Over the next year, Presley evolved from a rockabilly singer into the ‘king of rock’n’roll’, through a series of million-selling records. In August 1956, he travelled to Hollywood to commence work on his first movie, Love Me Tender. Colonel Tom Parker was already shaping the direction that his career would take. Presley was called up to serve in the US Army in March 1958, but even this period out of the limelight in no way affected his enormous popularity – his return to civilian life two years later was probably the peak of his career. Gone, however...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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