Movie Stars of Old Hollywood: Elvis Presley
When talking about old Hollywood Stars, Elvis Presley isn’t usually the first to come to mind, even though he starred in 33 films and had great influence on not only American music, but also movies and fashion. Many have attempted to emulate The King by sporting his trademark sideburns and gold-rimmed sunglasses. And who hasn’t heard someone trying to imitate his southern drawl when saying, “Thank-you. Thank-you very much.”?
Elvis has many imitators, but he was truly an original.
Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi in a two-room house built by his father. An identical twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. Elvis’ parents were Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys (Love Smith) Presley. Vernon worked low-paying jobs that included driving a truck and working as a sharecropper. His mother worked at the Tupelo Garment Co. as a sewing machine operator. In 1948 when Elvis was 13, the family moved to Memphis to escape the law (Vernon had been supporting his family by transporting bootlegged liquor across the border). Unfortunately, the move did not help the family financially and Gladys began work as a nurse’s aid to earn additional income.
Elvis attended Humes High School and was an average student. His favorite subjects were workshop and English. While there, he made lifelong friends with Red West, the school bully. After graduating in 1953, Elvis found work as a truck driver for Crown Electric. He had hopes of becoming an electrician.
Elvis’ career was on its way after he recorded two tracks at the Memphis Recording Service, a do-it-yourself recording studio. The $14 recordings were for his mother. He sang, “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” and “My Happiness” while playing guitar. Although Elvis’ father did not see a future in music making for his son, the manager at the recording studio did. They invited Elvis back and he made a recording accompanied by two other guitarists. The single was released, but was only popular in Memphis. Two years later, in 1955, a deal was signed with RCA and “Heartbreak Hotel” put Elvis not only on the charts, but at #1.
Elvis became a huge sensation and had a successful career that lasted three decades. But he was a maverick. To critics, Elvis’ music sounded like music that had only been performed by African Americans up to that point. It was referred to as “race music” at a time when whites and blacks were still segregated. Elvis danced in a way that was considered inappropriate by many and he was referred to as “Elvis the Pelvis”. Still, Elvis had a lot to do with creating the sound and promoting the popularity of early rock n’ roll, in addition to introducing America’s white teens to the blues sound.
Elvis’ first movie was Love Me Tender in 1956. Although his movies were not popular with critics, they did well at the box office. In total, his movies earned over $150 million.
On December 20, 1957 Elvis received his draft notice from the US Army. He was inducted on March 24, 1958 as a private and after completing basic training, was posted to Friedberg, Germany. While in service, he strove to be seen as an ordinary soldier. Elvis was granted emergency leave in August 1958 when his mother became very ill from hepatitis, after years of heavy drinking. She died two days after his return at age forty-six. Elvis was grief-stricken at the loss of the person to whom he had been closest. Elvis returned from service on March 2, 1960.
While in the Army, Elvis had been introduced to two things that would have a major impact on the reminder of his life: amphetamines and karate. He also had met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu while he was in Germany. They continued to stay in touch, with her visiting Elvis and eventually moving to the US until they were married On May 1, 1967 at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Their only child, Lisa Marie was born on February 1, 1968.
Another strong influence in Elvis’ life was “Colonel” Tom Parker. He had started as a music promoter in the late 1940s working with country music stars like Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold. He became Elvis’ manager in 1955 and maintained very tight control over Elvis’ career, deciding what path it would take and what projects he would and would not do. Parker was responsible for Elvis not accept leading roles in various movies including West Side Story and Midnight Cowboy. Often, Parker would have Elvis refuse a film based on money or lack of top billing. Barbra Streisand had personally offered Elvis the lead in her remake of A Star is Born, but Parker turned the role down and it was given to Kris Kristofferson. According to Priscilla Presley, Elvis let Parker have complete control because “Elvis detested the business side of his career. He would sign a contract without even reading it”.
Elvis eventually moved to Hollywood and, throughout the ’60s, focused on his movie career. In 1970 he made a comeback to the concert scene by appearing in Las Vegas at over more than 57 sold-out live performances.
In addition to Parker, Elvis was surrounded by his “Memphis Mafia” – an entourage comprised of “yes-men” that served as bodyguards that benefitted from gifts of cars, houses and bonuses, in addition to being paid salaries. In return, the men protected Elvis from rowdy crowds and supplied cars, drugs, women and anything else he might desire. They served as a buffer to protect Elvis’ image, but they also protected Elvis from the reality of what he was doing to himself, which was getting increasingly dependent on drugs and putting on an alarming amount of weight.
Elvis and Priscilla were separated on February 23, 1972 and their divorce was finalized on October 9, 1973. They are reported to have remained friends up to Elvis’ death.
Elvis died on August 16, 1977 at his Graceland mansion. He was 42 years old. His home has become a place of pilgrimage for his millions of fans from all over the world. He is truly an icon that will live on in people’s hearts and minds for a long time to come.
Did you know:
- Elvis, mother gave him his first guitar when he was 11, although what he had been hoping for at the time was a .22 rifle.
- Liberace was responsible for recommending to Elvis that he add some flash to his concert outfits. After the success of this idea, Elvis reserved a seat for Liberace at many of his concerts.
- Elvis has more albums to have gone multi-platinum than any other performer.
- More Elvis albums have sold worldwide (over 1,300,000,000) than even The Beatles.
- Elvis was a black belt in karate.
- In 1973, Elvis met with two members of Led Zeppelin out of a desire to see who was outselling his concerts that year. Robert Plant and John Paul Jones both saw Elvis as their idol, and the three men quickly became friends. Members of Led Zeppelin were seen attending some of Elvis’ concerts, having been granted front row seating by Elvis himself.
- The Beatles were great admirers of Elvis, although he felt they were a bad influence on the young people of America.
- Elvis wrote a 6-page letter to President Nixon requesting that he be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” for the Bureau of Narcotics. This prompted their meeting at the White House on December 21, 1970.
- Elvis’ favorite actors were Marlon Brando and James Dean.
- In 1955 Elvis tried out for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and was turned down.
“The image is one thing and the human being is another, it’s very hard to live up to an image.”
“I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.”
What are your favorite Elvis memories?