In the royal family of rock ‘n’ roll, there is only one King.
Elvis Presley is popular music’s all-time best-selling solo artist and one of the 20th century’s most formidable icons.
He broke the contagious but then-taboo music form of rock ‘n’ roll into the white cultural hegemon, making him a controversial catalyst for the growing acceptance of Black culture in America. His existence deeply influenced the next 50 years of popular music and youth culture, leaving a lasting impression that still resonates today.
Elvis’ sultry voice, sensuously shaking hips and cool-as-ice persona were the weakness of every young girl, and the envy of every impressionable guy. As Leonard Bernstein said, “Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century.”
From his humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1948 when he was 13. In short time he would become the most proud export from a city that also gave the world Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, and B.B. King.
He broke his first single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” for RCA in 1954, beginning an amazing series of number one singles that quickly made Elvis the household name he remains today, achieving mind-blowing commercial success. All told Elvis recorded between 655 and 711 master recordings, depending on who’s counting. As of 2017 he has earned 168 gold, platinum or multi-platinum albums and singles. According to RCA he has sold over over 1 billion records.
Elvis’ career was somewhat hampered by his military service from 1958 to 1960, but he still managed to crank out 10 Top 40 hits during those years.
Elvis in the ‘60s was defined by a turbulent and widely-criticized attempt to make an acting career in Hollywood, which frustrated his fans that he was neglecting his musical roots. All was forgiven with his famous 1968 comeback, a return to his true calling that ushered in a long period of touring. That rebound was topped off in 1973 with the history-making event, Aloha From Hawaii, the first ever concert broadcast live via satellite.
Despite his resurgent success, and the unquestioned love of his purported “50,000,000 fans,” Elvis’ health entered a sharp decline. Already exhausted after a lifetime of superstar excesses, and years of extensive substance abuse, Elvis’ condition visibly deteriorated in his last years, and at 47 he died suddenly in his home of Graceland on August 16, 1977. The King was no more.
After his demise the cult obsession around Elvis only increased, even creating a cult industry of impersonators.
At the time of his death there were about 170 known ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists). By 2000 there were estimated to be “at least 85,000” of them worldwide. While tens of thousands of people imitating the dead pop star has done something to trivialize his image, it goes to prove the potent and enduring impression that Elvis left in his path. His fame will surely live on for centuries to come.
Elvis’ life story and musical legacy are both an American success story and an American tragedy. Perhaps that’s why we couldn’t shake away his memory so easily, along with the fact that he recorded some incredible music in his lifetime.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the King’s passing, we’ve collected some of our favorite Elvis hits in the above playlist, which also includes some lesser-known tunes that help explain the unprecedented – and unsurpassed – happening that was Elvis Presley.