Presley Becomes a Rock-and-Roll Sensation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Emerging from the American South with a voice that bridged black and white musical traditions, Elvis Presley became the supreme figure in rock and roll and one of the most famous singers of all time.

Summary of Event

By the beginning of 1956, Elvis Presley had completed a musical apprenticeship that had him poised on the brink of superstardom. In 1953, the poor, white, Mississippi-born Presley had walked into Sam Phillips’s Sun Records Sun Records Record labels;Sun studio in Memphis, supposedly to make a vanity recording for his mother, and was noticed by secretary Marion Keiske Keiske, Marion r. Keisker, in turn, brought Presley to the attention of Phillips, the producer for Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and other early country and rock greats. Phillips supposedly had claimed that if he could find a white boy who could sing black music, he would make a million dollars; Elvis was that boy. It had taken months of practice before the dimensions of Presley’s talent became clear, and when Phillips finally sold his contract to the Radio Corporation of America Radio Corporation of America (RCA), he received only forty thousand dollars. (Phillips later made his million many times over by investing in the Holiday Inn.) Rock and roll Music;rock [kw]Presley Becomes a Rock-and-Roll Sensation (1956-1957) [kw]Rock-and-Roll Sensation, Presley Becomes a (1956-1957)[Rock and Roll Sensation, Presley Becomes a] [kw]Sensation, Presley Becomes a Rock-and-Roll (1956-1957) Rock and roll Music;rock [g]North America;1956-1957: Presley Becomes a Rock-and-Roll Sensation[05090] [g]United States;1956-1957: Presley Becomes a Rock-and-Roll Sensation[05090] [c]Music;1956-1957: Presley Becomes a Rock-and-Roll Sensation[05090] Presley, Elvis Phillips, Sam Parker, Colonel Tom

Phillips decided to sell the contract because he feared—ironically—that his protégé’s success would bankrupt his company. While Presley was building a large regional following making hit records for Sun in 1954 and 1955—including “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and “Mystery Train”—Sun lacked the credit and capacity to meet the demand for product generated by a huge national star. RCA, like most major New York record companies, had largely ignored the groundswell of rock and roll emerging from the South and was trying to catch up by acquiring a bankable franchise. It was in this context that Presley recorded his first RCA single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” "Heartbreak Hotel" (Presley)[Heartbreak Hotel (Presley)] which was released in early 1956. It quickly topped the pop charts and was followed in short order by “Don’t Be Cruel” "Don’t Be Cruel" (Blackwell)[Dont Be Cruel] and “Hound Dog.” "Hound Dog" (Leiber and Stoller)[Hound Dog (Leiber and Stoller)]

Events then moved rapidly. In January, Presley made the first of a series of appearances on national television, culminating with performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan Show, The (television program) Sullivan, Sullivan, Ed who had sworn Presley would never appear on the program, ended up paying the then-vast sum of fifty thousand dollars for Presley’s performance, though the overt sexuality of Presley’s hip thrusts led censors to show him only from the waist up by the time of his last Sullivan show appearance in January of 1957.

Meanwhile, Presley began pursuing his dream of becoming a movie star. In the summer of 1956, he went to Hollywood to film Love Me Tender, Love Me Tender (Webb) which created a sensation when released later that year. Jailhouse Rock, Jailhouse Rock (Thorpe) which followed in 1957, enjoyed similar success. Ironically, the one venue where Presley failed in his early career was Las Vegas, where a two-week engagement in April of 1956 was canceled after one week because of poor ticket sales (Las Vegas audiences in the decades to follow would prove far more enthusiastic).

By the beginning of 1957, Elvis Presley had become one of the most familiar faces in the country, adored by teenage girls, emulated by teenage boys, and viewed with much consternation by the gatekeepers of the nation’s morals. Though he was unfailingly polite and careful to avoid political controversies later rock stars would embrace, Presley’s powerful sexuality, the clear influence of African American musical styles in his music at a time of racial segregation, and his powerful grip on a widely distrusted popular culture made him an object of scorn and fear for many middle-class white Americans. In retrospect, the draft notice Presley received in 1957 (deferred until early 1958) seems as much a covert attempt to control him as an example of the blind justice of the military system.

Meanwhile, the records kept coming: chart-topping film songs such as “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock,” as well as “All Shook Up,” “Treat Me Nice,” and “Loving You.” Presley began 1958 with “Don’t”/“I Beg of You” at number one, and he probably would have kept right on going if his induction into the Army in March had not interrupted his career. He spent most of the next two years stationed in Germany, with only one opportunity to record; a song from that session, “Big Hunk of Love,” "Big Hunk of Love" (Presley)[Big Hunk of Love] reached the top of the charts in 1959. Presley returned home from the Army in early 1960 and quickly resumed his career. In the opinion of many critics, however, he never recovered the early brilliance of his first RCA records—or, for that matter, of his Sun recordings—and it is the youthful Elvis of the 1950’s who is most wholeheartedly praised by later generations.


In his essay “Presliad,” "Presliad" (Marcus)[Presliad] often cited as the best piece of writing on Elvis Presley, Greil Marcus Marcus, Greil aptly summarizes what the man has come to represent for millions of Americans: “Elvis has emerged as a great artist, a great rocker, a great purveyor of schlock, a great heart throb, a great bore, a great symbol of potency, a great ham, a great nice person, and yes, a great American.” With an immense influence that extends far beyond popular music and an iconography that extends far beyond the nation’s borders, Elvis Presley has come to represent the best and worst aspects of the United States’ cultural dominance of the global village.

It is tempting to think that Presley entered the world stage fully formed, offering a dazzling vision of possibility in an era of unprecedented prosperity. For the many Americans chafing under the strictures of a generation gap and the stifling conformity of the 1950’s, there was an irreducible reality to this view. Presley was able to succeed to the extent that he did, however, not only because he presented something new in American culture but also because he distilled some very old—and very powerful—currents in that culture. The most central of these currents was racial.

Growing up as a poor white boy in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, during the Great Depression, Presley was in close contact with African American culture and evangelical religion, two forces that were to exert a powerful influence on his musical development. By the time he walked into the Sun studios as a teenager, he had developed an almost effortless ability to evoke and manipulate a wide variety of musical styles—blues, gospel, bluegrass, country and western, and others. Presley’s first record for Sun was an Arthur Crudup blues tune, “That’s All Right, Mama” "That’s All Right, Mama" (Crudup)[Thats All Right, Mama] backed with Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (Monroe)[Blue Moon of Kentucky] The selection was revealing; Presley took black and white music and made them two sides of the same record, etching each with a style that was wholly his own.

Contrary to popular myth, Presley did not invent rock and roll, a term that had begun circulating in the black community as early as the late 1940’s. Chuck Berry possessed far greater songwriting gifts and a penchant for integrating racial styles; Jerry Lee Lewis may have had more raw performing talent. It was Presley, however, who synthesized a variety of strains and even contradictions: technology and tradition, the sacred and the profane, poverty and wealth, and, of course, black and white. Given the racism that pervaded so many aspects of American society in the 1950’s, it was virtually inevitable that great wealth and fame would be conferred on a white rock star rather than a black one. No doubt other performers deserved more recognition than they received, and Presley himself might have had a longer, happier life if he had received less.

Despite all this, Presley’s signal achievement—obscured as it is amid all the hype, his mediocre acting performances, the laughable excess of his 1970’s persona, and his pathetic addictions to drugs, alcohol, and other vices—remains his music. Over the course of two decades, he amassed a remarkably diverse body of work that has become a point of reference for generations of subsequent performers.

In the aftermath of his rise to national prominence in 1956 and 1957, Elvis Presley acquired an appellation that has stuck ever since: the King. There is a subtle irony in the bestowal of such a title in a nation presumably founded to resist royalty in all its forms. In any case, it is striking to consider that a poor boy with undistinguished lineage ascended to a cultural and commercial throne in the United States. This is just one more contradiction in a life full of them—and in the nation that produced him. He lives on, not only in his music, but also in the guise of Elvis look-alikes and with the phenomenon of “Elvis sightings.” Rock and roll Music;rock

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brode, Douglas. Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Detailed study of Presley’s films, arguing that each one reflects the particular moment in American culture during which it was made and that as a body of work, Elvis’s films reveal the shifts that the United States was undergoing during his career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Ace. Untold Gold: The Stories Behind Elvis Presley’s #1 Hits. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005. Goes through all of Presley’s number one hits, song by song, discussing how each was made, what it meant, and why it was popular. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dundy, Elaine. Elvis and Gladys. New York: Macmillan, 1985. Chronicles Presley’s relationship with perhaps the most important person in his life—his mother. With sensitivity and solid research, Dundy explores a major inspiration to Presley and a major source of anguish following her death in 1958.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, Jerry. Elvis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. Dated, but a good source of factual material. In some ways, still the standard biography of Presley; remains widely cited. See also Elvis: The Final Years (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), which supplements the original book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marchback, Pearce, ed. Elvis in His Own Words. Compiled by Mick Farren. New York: Omnibus Press, 1977. A useful collection of interviews, fan-club material, and more. Presley was not always a candid or incisive evaluator of his life and work, but read with care, this material can be revealing. Many interesting photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Greil. Dead Elvis. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1991. A loose collection of pieces on Presley’s lasting influence on American culture, even in death. Some critics have considered the book too fragmented and excessive, but there are keen insights throughout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Presliad.” In Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music. Rev. ed. New York: Plume, 1990. A classic in the field of rock criticism. The book’s final chapter on Presley, first written in 1972, remains a landmark. Especially useful for appreciating Presley’s cultural significance. Includes excellent bibliographic and discographic material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marsh, Dave. Elvis. New York: Warner Books, 1982. One of the better works on Presley’s life and death. More an extended essay than a biography, the book features some good analysis and evocative photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ward, Ed. “Sunrise in the South” and “Don’t Lose That Kid.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. The former essay does an excellent job of placing Presley into the Memphis musical milieu; the latter chronicles the events of Presley’s rise to stardom. Together, the two chapters offer perhaps the best brief narrative account of Presley’s life in the years 1953-1956.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wise, Sue. “Sexing Elvis.” In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. A fascinating feminist reading of Presley by a lesbian critic who compellingly explores the varied ways popular cultural phenomena are apprehended and used by audiences. An unusual and important contribution to Presley literature.

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