Elvis Presley is undisputably the King of rock ‘n’ roll. But why was his music so influential?
It’s worth remembering that the biggest names in the world of music in the 1950s were singers and musicians who are still household names today, but they’re famous for a very different style from the one developed by Elvis: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and more.
Elvis, on the other hand, cultivated a radical and youthful new persona: that of the rebel. His look was informal, but still respectable, allowing him to appeal to teenagers and young people in a way that remained acceptable to their parents. The post-War youthful generation was moving away from the ideals of the older generation, as well as enjoying a new-found prosperity and a degree of disposable income that allowed them to spend money on clothes, socialising and, all-importantly, records. Elvis remains, to this day, one of the highest-selling musicians of all time.
Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His youth in the southern states of the US would have a significant impact on his music. As a young man, he learned to play the guitar, and when his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, the variety of the local radio stations educated Elvis in a wide range of musical styles, from country music to big band and rhythm-and-blues. In addition to this, there was a significant gospel music tradition in the area, and Elvis frequently attended all-night gospel singing events.
One key influence Elvis experienced during his youth in Memphis came from African-American musicians. The young musician began to incorporate elements of black gospel music, jazz and blues into his songs. It was this ability to combine different musical cultures that was to have such a significant impact on the development of popular music. The 1950s saw the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and the beginning of the end of racial segregation in America. Elvis’ songs helped the integration of elements of black music into mainstream popular culture.
Of course, Elvis didn’t change racial segregation overnight, nor did rock ‘n’ roll suddenly spring into being with his release of Heartbreak Hotel in 1956. Nevertheless, his public tributes to the African-American musicians who had inspired him helped to bring a lot of success to black performers who had previously been overlooked by the white population.
Elvis Presley’s story ends sadly, with his premature death of a heart attack at the age of 42 on 16 August 1977. Conspiracy theorists argue that he’s still alive, and that he faked his death in order to escape the pressures of celebrity. Whatever the truth is, it is undeniable that Elvis’ contributions to music before his untimely end changed the course of popular music forever.