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No other artist could have had more of an impact on popular culture in the 1950’s than Elvis Presley. Elvis’s childhood was far less glamorous than his adult life, he and his parents lived in poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi. The early life of Elvis and the situations regarding his upbringing had a major influence on his musical style. The uniqueness of Elvis’s singing, dancing, and persona all had an impact on pop culture and are evident in areas such as sexuality, music, fashion, and the anti-authority attitude. There have been many imitators of Elvis Presley’s life and influence but no other can quite match the impact that he had on popular culture.
Elvis undoubtedly grew up under tough conditions and lived a controversial lifestyle, all of which had an impact on his musical style. Elvis and his mother and father lived in poverty and moved around while he was a child but came to settle in Tupelo, Mississippi. Because they could not afford to live in white neighborhoods they lived in what was considered a respectable black neighborhood in Tupelo. Once Elvis’s family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when he was a teenager he was frequently found hanging out in the black section of town, especially on Beale street (historyofrock.com). The African-American culture surrounding Elvis certainly had an impact on his music as he was dubbed the “white man with the negro feel” (Campbell). The Presley family remained involved in The First Assembly of God Church and Elvis was involved in the church choir during his childhood. As a teen in Memphis, Tennessee Elvis and his friends often snuck out of the church service and headed to the colored church, “they reveled in the exotic atmosphere, the music was out of this world” (Guralnick). As a child Elvis would head over to South Spring Street where he would listen to the performers at WELO. Elvis got the chance to play the only two songs he knew at the time on broadcast radio with Mississippi Slim accompanying him on guitar. Elvis was inspired by Slim’s guitar playing and sought guitar lessons from him and asked him to teach him new songs (Guralnick, 21). Inspired by the gospel singing from church and the country music heard on the Grand Ole Opry radio station Elvis’s passion for music continued to grow.
Elvis certainly did not create rock and roll but in a time when it was not very popular he is most notable for giving rock and roll a commercial presence. His contributions to rock history were his fresh look, attitude, and sound, he gave rock it’s most memorable visible image. Elvis’s sound drew interest from country-western radio, though some stations would not play his music because it sounded too black. However, within one year he reached #1 nationally on country-western radio with “Mystery Train” which transformed Junior Parker’s rhythm and blues song into rockabilly. Elvis’s version of this #1 hit was brighter and more upbeat than the original rhythm and blues version which was standard Elvis rockabilly (Campbell). Elvis brought a country flavor to rock and roll. While Elvis had major impact on popular culture his musical contributions were not as significant. He brought a new vocal sound into popular music and represented the musical direction but after Elvis rock followed a different path (Campbell). America was not a musical export but Elvis remained the top favorite each year in England until the arrival of the Beatles. Elvis’s musical significance ended after three years in 1958 when he was inducted into the army. When asked about his service Elvis told a reporter “he was happy to serve, he would simply go wherever he was called” (Guralnick, 380). Once Elvis arrived back home he remained the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll but was never able to recapture the sparkle he had before he left.
Elvis’s influence has spanned decades and lasted generations; his reach of influence went farther than just other musicians but to society as a whole. Elvis quickly became a household name both for those who idolized and despised him, despite the criticism Elvis refused to change. Unlike many of the white pop singers of the time Elvis was unashamed during his performances and enjoyed his time on stage, he was “an extraordinarily liberating presence for a new generation of popstars” (Campbell). Elvis starred in four movies before his induction into the army and each one of them showcased his dancing ability, whereas other actors and dancers looked choreographed Elvis seemed to be having the most fun. His free and spontaneous attitude was the opposite of other pop artists at the time who preferred to just stand in front of the mic and croon.
Elvis affected aspects of society such as music, fashion, sexuality, and an anti-authority attitude. Elvis was able to break down musical and racial barriers through his blending of musical and racial genres. Through his musical combinations he introduced black music to whites and white music to blacks. Without Elvis’s mixing and merging of music and cultures society could have taken a very different course. His fashion sense was the cause of much controversy at a time when racism was rampant. Elvis’s rebellious attitude appealed to many teens, he projected a tough-teen dress, greased pompadour, energetic singing style and stage manner. He performed in suits that were worn predominately by African-American’s but his fashion sense was copied by many; his pompadour hairstyle was also copied by many young men at the time. Elvis’s pelvis caused a national hullabaloo, his moves were so outrageous that shows were only shot from his waist up. Though many parents despised this practice young people copied his moves. Elvis’s blatant sexuality laid the seeds for the “free love” attitude of the 1960’s. Because of the controversy surrounding Elvis Presley many parents did not want their teens to listen or watch Elvis for fear that their children would copy his undesirable actions. This, however, had the opposite effect, teens flocked to his performances thus increasing his popularity all the more. This anti-authority attitude became a major part of rock ‘n’ roll from punk rock to rockabilly to heavy metal. (Black)
Elvis’s upbringing was anything but ordinary. He was born to Gladys and Vernon Presley as a twin, but his brother was born a stillborn. Raised as an only child Elvis’s love and devotion to his parents ran deep, he did all he could to provide for them when he became famous. Before fame he took a job in the hopes of just providing for his family (Guralnick). Elvis knew what it was like to have to live in poverty, his father was not known for having very much ambition and moved from job to job just barely scraping by. The family left Tupelo for Memphis in hopes that things had to be better, they were completely poor and underprivileged in Mississippi and wanted to find somewhere they could be happy and worry less about their finances. Elvis lived in the deep south at a time when racism was widespread and Elvis seemed to be unaware of race. Just before Vernon’s death he was quoted as saying, “we never had any prejudice. We never put anybody down. Neither did Elvis” (Guralnick, 29). Once Elvis’s appreciation for music grew and he knew that he had a talent it was time for him to put it to use and make a living off of it. In the summer of 1953 he walked into the Sam Phillips Recording Service to make his demo. Elvis knew that there was no other like him, his sound was unique and unheard of. His confidence and uniqueness brought Elvis the fame he had been seeking since he was a child. Despite the hard times in his own life and the controversies surrounding his music Elvis flourished and remained a popular icon in music for years.
Despite Elvis’s musical contributions not being as significant as many would believe his reach and influence in popular culture still continues to dominate today. His passion for music at an early age and the constant love and support he received from his family and other supporters helped Elvis’s musical ability to flourish and thrive. Evidenced in the rampant sexuality in todays culture and the outspoken and opinionated youth Elvis’s influence has spanned multiple generations and touched almost all areas of society. Without Elvis’s contributions to music and society there is no telling what the world we live in now would be like. With Elvis impersonators, memorials, and his current popularity there may never be a time when we don’t hear of his fame and influence, but with work as powerful as his it is important to be reminded of his labor. Elvis blended racial lines at a time when many believed it could not be done. His memory and impact on music and culture is one to be remembered and it is a shame that he was unable to live long enough to see the impact he would have on society.
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