Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Elvis Presley, The #44 Artist of the Seventies*

Elvis Presley got his first musical inspiration from his Assembly of God church in Tupelo, Mississippi.  When Elvis was in the first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated, his teacher encouraged him to enter a singing contest after being impressed with Elvis's version of "Old Shep" during morning prayers.  Presley received his first guitar shortly afterwards, and took lessons from two of his uncles and the new pastor at the church. 

When Elvis went to sixth grade, he took his guitar and played and sang during lunchtime, often teased for it.  In 1948, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and Elvis enrolled at L.C. Humes High School. Presley and two other boys formed a loose group and played around the neighborhood. At night, Elvis went to Beale Street and peered in the windows at the famous blues scene going on all around Memphis.  By the time Presley graduated in 1953, he had already set his sights on a career in music.

In August, Presley walked into the offices of Sun Records to record a couple of songs.  Sam Philips, legendary boss of Sun, asked his secretary to note Presley's name.  Elvis recorded a second record at Sun in January of 1954.  He then failed an audition for the quartet the Songfellows, who famously told him "he couldn't sing".  Presley got a job as a truck driver, when he tried out for a group led by Eddie Bond.  Bond told Elvis to stick to truck driving "because you're never going to make it as a singer".  Ha-Ha.

Phillips called Elvis into Sun Records, and arranged for guitarist Scotty Moore and upright bassist Bill Black to work with him in the studio.  When nothing came of a session on July 5, 1954, Elvis took his guitar and began singing the 1946 song "That's All Right".  Elvis began jumping around while singing, and the other musicians joined in.  Phillips began taping the sound, and three days later, Memphis disc jockey Dewey Philips played the song.

Philips got such positive reaction from his listeners that he played the song repeatedly during the last two hours of his show.  In the next few days, Presley, Moore, and Black recorded "Blue Moon Of Kentucky", which became the "B" side of "That's All Right".

The three began performing around Memphis, and the combination of the rhythm and nervousness at playing before a large crowd caused Presley to shake his legs as he sang.  The women in the audience began screaming.

Presley played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee a few months later.  Opry manager Jim Denny told Phillips that Presley was "not bad" but did not fit the program.  A few weeks later, Presley began performing on Louisiana Hayride, which was broadcast to 198 radio stations in 28 states.  Elvis was booked for a year on the show, and he also began playing at other locations in the South.

Presley was recommended to Colonel Tom Parker, who had managed Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow.  By this time, Elvis was a well-known performer throughout the South.  Presley, whose act now included drummer D.J. Fontana,  played a few shows opening for Bill Haley, whose song "Rock Around The Clock" had reached #1, ushering in the birth of the Rock Era.  The time was right for a star for the new music.  

Parker and Phillips helped Elvis sign a recording contract with RCA Victor for $40,000, an unprecedented sum at the time.  Presley made his first recordings on January 10, 1956, with pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Chet Atkins, and three background singers.  Out of those first sessions came the single "Heartbreak Hotel".

The song was an instant smash (racing to #1 for eight consecutive weeks) and on March 2, Parker officially became Presley's manager.  Presley released his self-titled debut album on March 23.  He performed twice on The Milton Berle Show, and, while performing in Las Vegas, signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures.

Presley took the world by storm in the 50's and 60's, recording an incredible 111 hits, 35 Top 10 songs, and 18 #1's.  However, given that unprecedented success, Parker directed Elvis to focus on movies, and he wasted many of his prime years acting in average or below-average movies rather than doing what he did best.  

As a result, prior to his comeback in 1969, Elvis had only scored one Top 10 ("Crying In The Chapel") in his last 43 single releases, and had not achieved a #1 song in seven years.  Presley's famous Comeback Special, televised live from the International Hotel in Las Vegas, brought Elvis back into the limelight again, and he posted the big hits "Suspicious Minds" (#1) and "In The Ghetto" (#3). 

In 1970, Presley enjoyed a hit with "Don't Cry Daddy", #3 on the Adult chart and #6 overall, and a single that sold over two million copies.

Presley released the four-album package Worldwide 50 Gold Award Hits, Volume 1, which contained the single "Kentucky Rain".  Although it peaked at #14, the song went Gold and became one of his biggest hits of the decade.

In 1970, Elvis returned to the International for two engagements.  Presley then performed six attendance-record-breaking concerts at the Houston Astrodome in Texas. His live album On Stage which used music from the Astrodome concerts went Platinum, and contained the hit "The Wonder Of You", a #9 song that went to #1 on the Adult chart. 

Presley starred in one of his final moves in 1970, That's the Way It Is, with the soundtrack album going Gold.  A single from the album, Elvis's remake of "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me", rose to #1 on the Adult chart and #11 overall.

In 1971, Presley released the albums Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old), which went Gold, Love Letters from Elvis, and Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas (which has now sold over three million copies).  But nine consecutive singles flopped, reminiscent of Presley's track record from the Beatle years prior to his Comeback Special.

The United States Junior Chamber of Commerce oddly named Presley one of its annual Ten Most Outstanding Young Men of the Nation, when in fact, he was 35 years old at the time.  The City of Memphis dedicated Highway 51 South, on which Presley's home Graceland is located, as Elvis Presley Boulevard.

In 1971, Elvis received the Lifetime Achievement Award (then still known as the Bing Crosby Award) by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the Grammys).  In 1972, Presley released the album Elvis Now, which was certified Gold.  The album Burning Love and Hits from His Movies contained the single "Burning Love", a Platinum record that got as high as #2 in both the U.S. and Canada.

Elvis's performances in New York City were recorded and released as the album Elvis:  As Recorded At Madison Square Garden.  That album has now sold over three million copies.

Elvis released another spiritual album, He Touched Me, later in the year, which won a Grammy Award for Best Inspirational Performance.
MGM filmed Presley for the film Elvis on Tour, which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Documentary Film.   Presley's version of the traditional "Amazing Grace" was another highlight of the album.
The following year, Presley released the albums Elvis and Raised on RockPresley released another live album--Aloha From Hawai'i:  Via Satellite, a #1 album in the United States, the U.K., and Canada that has now gone over five million in sales.

Unbeknownst to his millions of fans, Elvis was in dire straits.  He divorced his wife Priscilla on October 9, 1973, and twice had overdosed on barbiturates.  At the end of the year, Presley was hospitalized from the effects of a Demerol addiction.  Presley nonetheless performed 168 concerts in 1973, and another full schedule the following year. 

In 1974, Elvis released the album Good Times, when in fact, they were not.  The album Elvis:  As Recorded Live On Stage in Memphis also went Gold.

But eleven more singles had come and gone without cracking the Top 15 after "Burning Love".  In 1975, Presley released his albums Promised Land and Today.  The title song from Promised Land did creep to #14.

The single "My Boy", released from the album Good Times the year before, yielded another Adult #1 for Presley.

Presley then released the album Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee, which went Gold.  Parker tried to arrange studio time for Presley, but when that was unsuccessful, he arranged for a mobile recording studio to be brought to Elvis at his home.  Even that was difficult for him.

Presley released seven more singles without much success.  In 1977, Elvis released the album Moody Blue, which rose to #3 on the Album chart and went Double Platinum.  The title song, #2 on the Adult chart and #31 overall, broke the skid.

Presley, the young rocker with the wiggling hips in the 50's, was now grossly overweight and dependent on prescription drugs.  Increasingly, he found it difficult to perform.  One night in Alexandria, Louisiana, Presley was on stage for less than an hour and was impossible to understand.  When Elvis was unable to get out of his hotel bed for his appearance in Baton Rouge, the rest of the tour was cancelled. 

The single "Way Down" in 1977, #1 on the Adult chart and #18 on the Popular chart that he once dominated, was Elvis's last big hit while he was alive.  The single sold over two million copies.

Presley's last concert was at Indianapolis, Indiana, on June 26.  He suffered from glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, all aggravated, and likely caused, by prescription drug abuse.

Presley was supposed to fly out of Memphis to begin another tour on August 16, but his fiancĂ©e, Ginger Alden, found him unresponsive on the floor of his bathroom.  Several attempts were made to revive him, and he was officially pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. at Baptist Memorial Hospital.  Approximately 80,000 people lined the streets of his funeral procession.

The live album Elvis in Concert was released later in the year, and it has now topped three million in sales.  The posthumous single "My Way" went to #6 on the Adult Chart and sold over one million copies.

Several compilations were released during the 70's and afterwards, and most of them went Gold, Platinum, and beyond, but as they mostly contained hits from Presley's "glory days" of the 50's and early 60's, only a small percentage of those sales factor in for the purposes of determining The Top Artists of the Seventies*

While Presley's deterioration and death are tragic, there is much to celebrate about his life and music.  His home at Graceland was opened to the public, where fans can see memorabilia, clothing, and news articles about the King and listen to his music.  Graceland was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2006.

Presley was inducted into four music halls of fame--the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 2007.  In 1984, Presley posthumously received the W.C. Handy Award from the Blues Foundation and the Golden Hat Award from the Academy of Country Music.  In 1987, the American Music Award bestowed the Award of Merit on Presley. 

Presley sold over 23 million albums in the U.S. alone in the 70's.  He had 38 hits, but unlike the two previous decades, Top 10 hits were hard to come by, with just two in the 70's.

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