It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since Elvis Presley died. He’s now been gone almost as long as he was alive.
But in many ways, Elvis has never quite left the building. His musical legacy is unmatched. He’s believed to have sold more than 1 billion albums worldwide, and his pop singles charted 149 times: 114 Top 40, 40 Top Ten, and 18 Number Ones. Every pop artist today walks a trail he began to blaze when he first shimmied onto the scene decades ago as a loose-legged, hip swinging performer who fused blues, country, gospel and other music genres into his own signature musical style.
In the decades since his passing, his legacy has been aggressively guarded by his ex-wife Priscilla and their daughter, Lisa Marie. Today, Graceland, the Memphis mansion where he lived and died, is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Elvis’ image graces every type of merchandise imaginable and has come to symbolize an era.
But his life was not uncomplicated, and his path to immortality holds lessons. Here are a couple:
Elvis faced a lot of doubters early on, including himself. One of his school teachers declared he had no aptitude for music and he couldn’t sing. He sang anyway, and spent his high school years haunting blues establishments on Beale Street in Memphis. In 1953, he plunked down $4 to record himself singing “My Happiness” and “That’s Where Your Heartaches Begin” at the Memphis Recording Service. He was reportedly disappointed with the results.
But he tried again, returning in January of 1954 to record two more songs. This time, something in the young truck driver’s voice caught the ear of Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records. He asked Elvis to try singing another song, which Elvis did. The result – another failure.
But neither Elvis nor Phillips gave up, and eventually found his voice and a band to back him up. Early local hits landed them a spot on the Grand Old Opry. That didn’t go so well either; rumor has it he was told by the Opry’s talent coordinator to go back to driving trucks.
Presley faced opposition his entire career. Many influential people just didn’t get his style. They didn’t know what to do with the loose-limbed young man from Memphis who didn’t sound or act quite like anyone else. But Elvis persevered, and once they had a chance to see him perform, fans seemed to get what he was doing right away.
Ill-advised career moves cost him some credibility. Elvis certainly had the face and presence for film, and he dreamed of becoming a legitimate actor. Unfortunately, he was steered into light, airy musicals meant to appeal the teeny-bopper crowd. The movie deals included accompanying soundtracks, and he was compelled to lend his impressive voice to some questionable fluffy fare (Clambake, anyone?) By the time he was done with acting, the cheesy movie musical soundtracks littered his discography. He made bank, but it cost him.
Elvis was loyal and trusting to a fault, and those traits no doubt played into his decision to divert his time, skills and talent to movies that made money but did little to advance his career and get him taken seriously. His management – motivated by their own desire to make money – steered him towards low-hanging fruit that did little beyond exploiting his reputation. Elvis paid the price for that personally and professionally.
Even though he was interviewed hundreds of times, there’s still so much more to ask to Elvis Presley. If you could ask him one question, what would it be?