The Birthday of Elvis Presley

United States - Scott #2731 (1993)
United States – Scott #2731 (1993)

On January 8, 1993, the United States Postal Service kicked off its American Music Series with a photogravure-printed stamp perforated 11 portraying a young version of singer Elvis Presley (Scott #2721). It would have been his 58th birthday had he not died on August 16, 1977. The American singer, musician, and actor is regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century, often referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll” or simply “the King”. This stamp would become the best-selling postage stamp in the history of the United States. The design was reissued on June 16, 1993, perforated 10, in sheets of 35 with six other pioneering rock and rhythm & blues musicians (Scott #2724-2730) as well as in booklets of thirty which were perforated 1 horizontally on one or two sides (Scott #2731-2737).

Elvis Aaron Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Gladys Love (née Smith) and Vernon Elvis Presley in the two-room shotgun house built by Vernon’s father in preparation for the child’s birth. Jesse Garon Presley, his identical twin brother, was delivered stillborn 35 minutes before his own birth. Jesse was buried in an unmarked grave at Priceville Cemetery in Tupelo. After Presley became famous, he asked people on several occasions to try and find the whereabouts of Jesse. The efforts were to no avail, because no papers marked the spot. Presley became close to both parents and formed an especially close bond with his mother. The family attended an Assembly of God church, where he found his initial musical inspiration. Although he was in conflict with the Pentecostal church in his later years, he never officially left it. Rev. Rex Humbard officiated at Presley’s funeral, because Presley had been an admirer of Humbard’s ministry.

In September 1941, Presley entered first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated, where his instructors regarded him as “average”. He was encouraged to enter a singing contest after impressing his schoolteacher with a rendition of Red Foley’s country song “Old Shep” during morning prayers. The contest, held at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945, was his first public performance. Ten-year-old Presley was dressed as a cowboy; he stood on a chair to reach the microphone and sang “Old Shep”. He recalled placing fifth. A few months later, Presley received his first guitar for his birthday; he had hoped for something else — by different accounts, either a bicycle or a rifle. Over the following year, he received basic guitar lessons from two of his uncles and the new pastor at the family’s church. Presley recalled, “I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it.”

Elvis Presley's birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo taken on November 7, 2007.
Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo taken on November 7, 2007.

In September 1946, Presley entered a new school, Milam, for sixth grade; he was regarded as a loner. The following year, he began bringing his guitar to school on a daily basis. He played and sang during lunchtime, and was often teased as a “trashy” kid who played hillbilly music. By then, the family was living in a largely African-American neighborhood. Presley was a devotee of Mississippi Slim’s show on the Tupelo radio station WELO. He was described as “crazy about music” by Slim’s younger brother, who was one of Presley’s classmates and often took him into the station. Slim supplemented Presley’s guitar tuition by demonstrating chord techniques. When his protégé was 12 years old, Slim scheduled him for two on-air performances. Presley was overcome by stage fright the first time, but succeeded in performing the following week.

In November 1948, when Elvis was 13 years old, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. After residing for nearly a year in rooming houses, they were granted a two-bedroom apartment in the public housing complex known as the Lauderdale Courts. Enrolled at L. C. Humes High School, Presley received only a C in music in eighth grade. When his music teacher informed him that he did not have an aptitude for singing, he brought in his guitar the next day and sang a recent hit, “Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me”, in an effort to prove otherwise. A classmate later recalled that the teacher “agreed that Elvis was right when he said that she didn’t appreciate his kind of singing.” He was usually too shy to perform openly, and was occasionally bullied by classmates who viewed him as a “mama’s boy”. In 1950, he regularly began practicing guitar under the tutelage of Jesse Lee Denson, a neighbor two-and-a-half years his senior. They and three other boys — including two future rockabilly pioneers, brothers Dorsey and Johnny Burnette — formed a loose musical collective that played frequently around the Courts. That September, he began ushering at Loew’s State Theater. Other jobs followed, including Precision Tool, Loew’s again, and MARL Metal Products.

During his junior year, Presley began to stand out more among his classmates, largely because of his appearance: he grew out his sideburns and styled his hair with rose oil and Vaseline. In his free time, he would head down to Beale Street, the heart of Memphis’s thriving blues scene, and gaze longingly at the wild, flashy clothes in the windows of Lansky Brothers. By his senior year, he was wearing them. Overcoming his reticence about performing outside the Lauderdale Courts, he competed in Humes’s Annual “Minstrel” show in April 1953. Singing and playing guitar, he opened with “Till I Waltz Again with You”, a recent hit for Teresa Brewer. Presley recalled that the performance did much for his reputation: “I wasn’t popular in school … I failed music—only thing I ever failed. And then they entered me in this talent show … when I came onstage I heard people kind of rumbling and whispering and so forth, ’cause nobody knew I even sang. It was amazing how popular I became after that.”

Presley, who received no formal music training and could not read music, studied and played by ear. He also frequented record stores that provided jukeboxes and listening booths to customers. He knew all of Hank Snow’s songs, and he loved records by other country singers such as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Ted Daffan, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmie Davis, and Bob Wills. The Southern gospel singer Jake Hess, one of his favorite performers, was a significant influence on his ballad-singing style. He was a regular audience member at the monthly All-Night Singings downtown, where many of the white gospel groups that performed reflected the influence of African-American spiritual music. He adored the music of black gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Like some of his peers, he may have attended blues venues — of necessity, in the segregated South, on only the nights designated for exclusively white audiences. He certainly listened to the regional radio stations, such as WDIA-AM, that played “race records”: spirituals, blues, and the modern, backbeat-heavy sound of rhythm and blues. Many of his future recordings were inspired by local African-American musicians such as Arthur Crudup and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King recalled that he had known Presley before he was popular, when they both used to frequent Beale Street. By the time he graduated from high school in June 1953, Presley had already singled out music as his future.

Photo sent out by the CBS television program Stage Show to promote the first national television appearance of Elvis Presley on January 28, 1956. The show was hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, who had patched up their long-standing family feud. The program was hosted one week by Jimmy Dorsey and the following one, by Tommy. The death of Tommy Dorsey, in November 1956, put an end to the variety program.
Photo sent out by the CBS television program Stage Show to promote the first national television appearance of Elvis Presley on January 28, 1956. The show was hosted by the Dorsey Brothers, who had patched up their long-standing family feud. The program was hosted one week by Jimmy Dorsey and the following one, by Tommy. The death of Tommy Dorsey, in November 1956, put an end to the variety program.

After graduating from secondary school, Presley thought for a short time about joining a gospel group. He attempted to join a group called Songfellows who sang at the local church, but he was unsuccessful. He worked on an assembly line in his first job, which he quit after a few weeks because he disliked the work. He then decided to become an apprentice electrician at Crown Electric.

In August 1953, Presley walked into the offices of Sun Records. He aimed to pay for a few minutes of studio time to record a two-sided acetate disc: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. He would later claim that he intended the record as a gift for his mother, or that he was merely interested in what he “sounded like”, although there was a much cheaper, amateur record-making service at a nearby general store. Biographer Peter Guralnick argues that he chose Sun in the hope of being discovered. Asked by receptionist Marion Keisker what kind of singer he was, Presley responded, “I sing all kinds.” When she pressed him on who he sounded like, he repeatedly answered, “I don’t sound like nobody.” After he recorded, Sun boss Sam Phillips asked Keisker to note down the young man’s name, which she did along with her own commentary: “Good ballad singer. Hold.”

In January 1954, Presley cut a second acetate at Sun Records — “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You” — but again nothing came of it. Not long after, he failed an audition for a local vocal quartet, the Songfellows. He explained to his father, “They told me I couldn’t sing.” Songfellow Jim Hamill later claimed that he was turned down because he did not demonstrate an ear for harmony at the time. In April, Presley began working for the Crown Electric company as a truck driver. His friend Ronnie Smith, after playing a few local gigs with him, suggested he contact Eddie Bond, leader of Smith’s professional band, which had an opening for a vocalist. Bond rejected him after a tryout, advising Presley to stick to truck driving “because you’re never going to make it as a singer”.

Phillips, meanwhile, was always on the lookout for someone who could bring to a broader audience the sound of the black musicians on whom Sun focused. As Keisker reported, “Over and over I remember Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'” In June, he acquired a demo recording by Jimmy Sweeney of a ballad, “Without You”, that he thought might suit the teenage singer. Presley came by the studio, but was unable to do it justice. Despite this, Phillips asked Presley to sing as many numbers as he knew. He was sufficiently affected by what he heard to invite two local musicians, guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore and upright bass player Bill Black, to work something up with Presley for a recording session.

The legendary Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, was established by Sam Phillips in 1952. It was here that he discovered and/or recorded many of the greatest names in rock and roll, including: B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and Roy Orbison. Rock and roll was deeply influenced by Phillips' work, and its advent drove profound changes in American music, society, and race relations.
The legendary Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, was established by Sam Phillips in 1952. It was here that he discovered and/or recorded many of the greatest names in rock and roll, including: B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, and Roy Orbison. Rock and roll was deeply influenced by Phillips’ work, and its advent drove profound changes in American music, society, and race relations. Photo taken on March 24, 2013.

The session, held the evening of July 5, 1954, proved entirely unfruitful until late in the night. As they were about to give up and go home, Presley took his guitar and launched into a 1946 blues number, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right”. Moore recalled, “All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'” Phillips quickly began taping; this was the sound he had been looking for.

Three days later, popular Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played “That’s All Right” on his WHBQ Red, Hot, and Blue show. Listeners began phoning in, eager to find out who the singer was. The interest was such that Phillips played the record repeatedly during the last two hours of his show. Interviewing Presley on-air, Phillips asked him what high school he attended in order to clarify his color for the many callers who had assumed he was black. During the next few days, the trio recorded a bluegrass number, Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, again in a distinctive style and employing an audio delay echo effect that Sam Phillips dubbed “slapback”. A single was pressed with “That’s All Right” on the A side and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the reverse.

The trio played publicly for the first time on July 17, 1954, at the Bon Air Club in Memphis — Presley still sporting his child-size guitar. At the end of the month, they appeared at the Overton Park Shell, with Slim Whitman headlining. A combination of his strong response to rhythm and nervousness at playing before a large crowd led Presley to shake his legs as he performed: his wide-cut pants emphasized his movements, causing young women in the audience to start screaming. Moore recalled, “During the instrumental parts, he would back off from the mike and be playing and shaking, and the crowd would just go wild”. Black, a natural showman, whooped and rode his bass, hitting double licks that Presley would later remember as “really a wild sound, like a jungle drum or something”. Soon after, Moore and Black quit their old band, the Starlite Wranglers, to play with Presley regularly, and DJ and promoter Bob Neal became the trio’s manager. From August through October, they played frequently at the Eagle’s Nest club and returned to Sun Studio for more recording sessions, and Presley quickly grew more confident on stage. According to Moore, “His movement was a natural thing, but he was also very conscious of what got a reaction. He’d do something one time and then he would expand on it real quick.”

Presley made what would be his only appearance on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry on October 2; after a polite audience response, Opry manager Jim Denny told Phillips that his singer was “not bad” but did not suit the program. Two weeks later, Presley was booked on Louisiana Hayride, the Opry‘s chief, and more adventurous, rival. The Shreveport-based show was broadcast to 198 radio stations in 28 states. Presley had another attack of nerves during the first set, which drew a muted reaction. A more composed and energetic second set inspired an enthusiastic response House drummer D. J. Fontana brought a new element, complementing Presley’s movements with accented beats that he had mastered playing in strip clubs. Soon after the show, the Hayride engaged Presley for a year’s worth of Saturday-night appearances. Trading in his old guitar for $8 (and seeing it promptly dispatched to the garbage), he purchased a Martin instrument for $175, and his trio began playing in new locales including Houston, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas.

By early 1955, Presley’s regular Hayride appearances, constant touring, and well-received record releases had made him a regional star, from Tennessee to West Texas. In January, Neal signed a formal management contract with Presley and brought the singer to the attention of Colonel Tom Parker, whom he considered the best promoter in the music business. Having successfully managed top country star Eddy Arnold, Parker was now working with the new number-one country singer, Hank Snow.

Parker booked Presley on Snow’s February tour. When the tour reached Odessa, Texas, a 19-year-old Roy Orbison saw Presley for the first time: “His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. … I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.” Presley made his television debut on March 3 on the KSLA-TV broadcast of Louisiana Hayride. Soon after, he failed an audition for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on the CBS television network.

“That’s All Right” single on Sun Records.

By August, Sun had released ten sides credited to “Elvis Presley, Scotty and Bill”; on the latest recordings, the trio were joined by a drummer. Some of the songs, like “That’s All Right”, were in what one Memphis journalist described as the “R&B idiom of negro field jazz”; others, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, were “more in the country field”, “but there was a curious blending of the two different musics in both”. This blend of styles made it difficult for Presley’s music to find radio airplay. According to Neal, many country-music disc jockeys would not play it because he sounded too much like a black artist and none of the rhythm-and-blues stations would touch him because “he sounded too much like a hillbilly.” The blend came to be known as rockabilly. At the time, Presley was variously billed as “The King of Western Bop”, “The Hillbilly Cat”, and “The Memphis Flash”.

Presley renewed Neal’s management contract in August 1955, simultaneously appointing Parker as his special adviser. The group maintained an extensive touring schedule throughout the second half of the year. Neal recalled, “It was almost frightening, the reaction that came to Elvis from the teenaged boys. So many of them, through some sort of jealousy, would practically hate him. There were occasions in some towns in Texas when we’d have to be sure to have a police guard because somebody’d always try to take a crack at him. They’d get a gang and try to waylay him or something.” The trio became a quartet when Hayride drummer Fontana joined as a full member. In mid-October, they played a few shows in support of Bill Haley, whose “Rock Around the Clock” had been a number-one hit the previous year. Haley observed that Presley had a natural feel for rhythm, and advised him to sing fewer ballads.

At the Country Disc Jockey Convention in early November, Presley was voted the year’s most promising male artist. Several record companies had by now shown interest in signing him. After three major labels made offers of up to $25,000, Parker and Phillips struck a deal with RCA Victor on November 21 to acquire Presley’s Sun contract for an unprecedented $40,000. Presley, at 20, was still a minor, so his father signed the contract. Parker arranged with the owners of Hill and Range Publishing, Jean and Julian Aberbach, to create two entities, Elvis Presley Music and Gladys Music, to handle all the new material recorded by Presley. Songwriters were obliged to forgo one third of their customary royalties in exchange for having him perform their compositions. By December, RCA had begun to heavily promote its new singer, and before month’s end had reissued many of his Sun recordings.

On January 10, 1956, Presley made his first recordings for RCA in Nashville. Extending the singer’s by now customary backup of Moore, Black, and Fontana, RCA enlisted pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Chet Atkins, and three background singers, including first tenor Gordon Stoker of the popular Jordanaires quartet, to fill out the sound. The session produced the moody, unusual “Heartbreak Hotel”, released as a single on January 27. Parker finally brought Presley to national television, booking him on CBS’s Stage Show for six appearances over two months. The program, produced in New York, was hosted on alternate weeks by big band leaders and brothers Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. After his first appearance, on January 28, introduced by disc jockey Bill Randle, Presley stayed in town to record at RCA’s New York studio. The sessions yielded eight songs, including a cover of Carl Perkins’ rockabilly anthem “Blue Suede Shoes”. In February, Presley’s “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, a Sun recording initially released the previous August, reached the top of the Billboard country chart. Neal’s contract was terminated and, on March 2, Parker became Presley’s manager. Gladys Presley was worried about how the fans were reacting to Presley and had hardly been to any of her son’s performances because she was worried he was going to get hurt, she remarked to him repeatedly: “Elvis, the Colonel is going to work you to your death. It ain’t right.”

On March 12, 1956, Elvis purchased a one-story ranch-style house with two-car attached garage in a quiet residential neighborhood on Audubon Street in Memphis. The home was profiled in national magazines, and soon became a focal point for fans, media and celebrities to visit. Elvis lived here with his parents between March 1956 and March 1957.

Elvis Presley's first long-playing record album on RCA in the original sleeve.
Elvis Presley’s first long-playing record album on RCA in the original sleeve.

RCA Victor released Presley’s eponymous debut album on March 23. Joined by five previously unreleased Sun recordings, its seven recently recorded tracks were of a broad variety. There were two country songs and a bouncy pop tune. The others would centrally define the evolving sound of rock and roll: “Blue Suede Shoes” — “an improvement over Perkins’ in almost every way”, according to critic Robert Hilburn — and three R&B numbers that had been part of Presley’s stage repertoire for some time, covers of Little Richard, Ray Charles, and The Drifters. As described by Hilburn, these “were the most revealing of all. Unlike many white artists … who watered down the gritty edges of the original R&B versions of songs in the ’50s, Presley reshaped them. He not only injected the tunes with his own vocal character but also made guitar, not piano, the lead instrument in all three cases.”It became the first rock-and-roll album to top the Billboard chart, a position it held for 10 weeks. While Presley was not an innovative guitarist like Moore or contemporary African American rockers Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, cultural historian Gilbert B. Rodman argues that the album’s cover image, “of Elvis having the time of his life on stage with a guitar in his hands played a crucial role in positioning the guitar … as the instrument that best captured the style and spirit of this new music.”

On April 3, Presley made the first of two appearances on NBC’s Milton Berle Show. His performance, on the deck of the USS Hancock in San Diego, prompted cheers and screams from an audience of sailors and their dates. A few days later, a flight taking Presley and his band to Nashville for a recording session left all three badly shaken when an engine died and the plane almost went down over Arkansas. Twelve weeks after its original release, “Heartbreak Hotel” became Presley’s first number-one pop hit. In late April, Presley began a two-week residency at the New Frontier Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The shows were poorly received by the conservative, middle-aged hotel guests — “like a jug of corn liquor at a champagne party,” wrote a critic for Newsweek. Amid his Vegas tenure,

Presley, who had serious acting ambitions, signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures. He began a tour of the Midwest in mid-May 1956, taking in 15 cities in as many days. He had attended several shows by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys in Vegas and was struck by their cover of “Hound Dog”, a hit in 1953 for blues singer Big Mama Thornton by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It became the new closing number of his act. After a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, an urgent message on the letterhead of the local Catholic diocese’s newspaper was sent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It warned that “Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. … [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth. … After the show, more than 1,000 teenagers tried to gang into Presley’s room at the auditorium. … Indications of the harm Presley did just in La Crosse were the two high school girls … whose abdomen and thigh had Presley’s autograph.”

The second Milton Berle Show appearance came on June 5 at NBC’s Hollywood studio, amid another hectic tour. Berle persuaded the singer to leave his guitar backstage, advising, “Let ’em see you, son.” During the performance, Presley abruptly halted an uptempo rendition of “Hound Dog” with a wave of his arm and launched into a slow, grinding version accentuated with energetic, exaggerated body movements. Presley’s gyrations created a storm of controversy. Newspaper critics were outraged: Jack Gould of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. … His phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathtub. … His one specialty is an accented movement of the body … primarily identified with the repertoire of the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.” Ben Gross of the New York Daily News opined that popular music “has reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley. … Elvis, who rotates his pelvis … gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos”. Ed Sullivan, whose own variety show was the nation’s most popular, declared him “unfit for family viewing”. To Presley’s displeasure, he soon found himself being referred to as “Elvis the Pelvis”, which he called “one of the most childish expressions I ever heard, comin’ from an adult.”

Photo of Elvis Presley signing autographs for some young fans in Minneapolis Minnesota, on June 3, 1956.
Photo of Elvis Presley signing autographs for some young fans in Minneapolis Minnesota, on June 3, 1956.

The Berle shows drew such high ratings that Presley was booked for a July 1 appearance on NBC’s Steve Allen Show in New York. Allen, no fan of rock and roll, introduced a “new Elvis” in a white bow tie and black tails. Presley sang “Hound Dog” for less than a minute to a basset hound wearing a top hat and bow tie. As described by television historian Jake Austen, “Allen thought Presley was talentless and absurd … [he] set things up so that Presley would show his contrition”. Allen, for his part, later wrote that he found Presley’s “strange, gangly, country-boy charisma, his hard-to-define cuteness, and his charming eccentricity intriguing” and simply worked the singer into the customary “comedy fabric” of his program. Just before the final rehearsal for the show, Presley told a reporter, “I’m holding down on this show. I don’t want to do anything to make people dislike me. I think TV is important so I’m going to go along, but I won’t be able to give the kind of show I do in a personal appearance.” Presley would refer back to the Allen show as the most ridiculous performance of his career. Later that night, he appeared on Hy Gardner Calling, a popular local TV show. Pressed on whether he had learned anything from the criticism to which he was being subjected, Presley responded, “No, I haven’t, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything wrong. … I don’t see how any type of music would have any bad influence on people when it’s only music. … I mean, how would rock ‘n’ roll music make anyone rebel against their parents?”

The next day, Presley recorded “Hound Dog”, along with “Any Way You Want Me” and “Don’t Be Cruel”. The Jordanaires sang harmony, as they had on The Steve Allen Show; they would work with Presley through the 1960s. A few days later, the singer made an outdoor concert appearance in Memphis at which he announced, “You know, those people in New York are not gonna change me none. I’m gonna show you what the real Elvis is like tonight.” In August, a judge in Jacksonville, Florida, ordered Presley to tame his act. Throughout the following performance, he largely kept still, except for wiggling his little finger suggestively in mockery of the order. The single pairing “Don’t Be Cruel” with “Hound Dog” ruled the top of the charts for 11 weeks — a mark that would not be surpassed for 36 years. Recording sessions for Presley’s second album took place in Hollywood during the first week of September. Leiber and Stoller, the writers of “Hound Dog,” contributed “Love Me.”

Allen’s show with Presley had, for the first time, beaten CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings. Sullivan, despite his June pronouncement, booked the singer for three appearances for an unprecedented $50,000. The first, on September 9, 1956, was seen by approximately 60 million viewers — a record 82.6 percent of the television audience. Actor Charles Laughton hosted the show, filling in while Sullivan recuperated from a car accident. Presley appeared in two segments that night from CBS Television City in Los Angeles, during which he was shot from only the waist up. Watching clips of the Allen and Berle shows with his producer, Sullivan said that Presley “got some kind of device hanging down below the crotch of his pants — so when he moves his legs back and forth you can see the outline of his cock. … I think it’s a Coke bottle. … We just can’t have this on a Sunday night. This is a family show!” Sullivan publicly told TV Guide, “As for his gyrations, the whole thing can be controlled with camera shots.”

In fact, Presley was shown head-to-toe in the first and second shows. Though the camerawork was relatively discreet during his debut, with leg-concealing closeups when he danced, the studio audience reacted in customary style: screaming. Presley’s performance of his forthcoming single, the ballad “Love Me Tender”, prompted a record-shattering million advance orders. More than any other single event, it was this first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that made Presley a national celebrity.

Accompanying Presley’s rise to fame, a cultural shift was taking place that he both helped inspire and came to symbolize. Igniting the “biggest pop craze since Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra … Presley brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream of popular culture”, writes historian Marty Jezer. “As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. … Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation — the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture.”

Elvis Presley performing live at the Mississippi-Alabama Fairgrounds in Tupelo, September 26, 1956.
Elvis Presley performing live at the Mississippi-Alabama Fairgrounds in Tupelo, September 26, 1956.

The audience response at Presley’s live shows became increasingly fevered. Moore recalled, “He’d start out, ‘You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog,’ and they’d just go to pieces. They’d always react the same way. There’d be a riot every time.” At the two concerts he performed in September at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show, 50 National Guardsmen were added to the police security to prevent crowd trouble. Elvis, Presley’s second album, was released in October and quickly rose to number one. The album includes “Old Shep”, which he sang at the talent show in 1945, and which now marked the first time he played piano on an RCA session. According to Guralnick, one can hear “in the halting chords and the somewhat stumbling rhythm both the unmistakable emotion and the equally unmistakable valuing of emotion over technique.” Assessing the musical and cultural impact of Presley’s recordings from “That’s All Right” through Elvis, rock critic Dave Marsh wrote that “these records, more than any others, contain the seeds of what rock & roll was, has been and most likely what it may foreseeably become.”

Presley returned to the Sullivan show at its main studio in New York, hosted this time by its namesake, on October 28. After the performance, crowds in Nashville and St. Louis burned him in effigy. His first motion picture, Love Me Tender, was released on November 21. Though he was not top billed, the film’s original title — The Reno Brothers — was changed to capitalize on his latest number one record: “Love Me Tender” had hit the top of the charts earlier that month. To further take advantage of Presley’s popularity, four musical numbers were added to what was originally a straight acting role. The film was panned by the critics but did very well at the box office.

The Million Dollar Quartet at Sun Studios on December 4, 1956.
The Million Dollar Quartet at Sun Studios on December 4, 1956.

On December 4, 1956, Presley dropped into Sun Records where Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were recording and jammed with them. Though Phillips no longer had the right to release any Presley material, he made sure the session was captured on tape. The results were notable as the “Million Dollar Quartet” recordings — Johnny Cash was long thought to have played as well, but he was present only briefly at Phillips’s instigation for a photo opportunity. The year ended with a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal reporting that Presley merchandise had brought in $22 million on top of his record sales, and Billboard‘s declaration that he had placed more songs in the top 100 than any other artist since records were first charted. In his first full year at RCA, one of the music industry’s largest companies, Presley had accounted for over 50 percent of the label’s singles sales.

Presley made his third and final Ed Sullivan Show appearance on January 6, 1957 — on this occasion indeed shot only down to the waist. Some commentators have claimed that Parker orchestrated an appearance of censorship to generate publicity. In any event, as critic Greil Marcus describes, Presley “did not tie himself down. Leaving behind the bland clothes he had worn on the first two shows, he stepped out in the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl. From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the overwhelmingly sexual cast of his mouth, he was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, with all stops out.” To close, displaying his range and defying Sullivan’s wishes, Presley sang a gentle black spiritual, “Peace in the Valley”. At the end of the show, Sullivan declared Presley “a real decent, fine boy”. Two days later, the Memphis draft board announced that Presley would be classified 1-A and would probably be drafted sometime that year.

Each of the three Presley singles released in the first half of 1957 went to number one: “Too Much”, “All Shook Up”, and “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear”. Already an international star, he was attracting fans even where his music was not officially released. Under the headline “Presley Records a Craze in Soviet”, The New York Times reported that pressings of his music on discarded X-ray plates were commanding high prices in Leningrad. Between film shoots and recording sessions, the singer also found time to purchase an 18-room mansion eight miles (13 km) south of downtown Memphis for himself and his parents: Graceland. When he reported to the film studio for his second film, the Technicolor Loving You, released in July, “The makeup man said that with his eyes he should photograph well with black hair, so they dyed it.” Loving You, the accompanying soundtrack, was Presley’s third straight number one album. The title track was written by Leiber and Stoller, who were then retained to write four of the six songs recorded at the sessions for Jailhouse Rock, Presley’s next film. The songwriting team effectively produced the Jailhouse sessions and developed a close working relationship with Presley, who came to regard them as his “good-luck charm”.

Publicity still of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.
Publicity still of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.

Leiber remembered initially finding Presley “not quite authentic — after all, he was a white singer, and my standards were black.” According to Stoller, the duo was “surprised at the kind of knowledge that he had about black music. We figured that he had these remarkable pipes and all that, but we didn’t realize that he knew so much about the blues. We were quite surprised to find out that he knew as much about it as we did. He certainly knew a lot more than we did about country music and gospel music.” Leiber remembered the recording process with Presley, “He was fast. Any demo you gave him he knew by heart in ten minutes.” As Stoller recalled, Presley “was ‘protected'” by his manager and entourage. “He was removed. … They kept him separate.”

Presley undertook three brief tours during the year, continuing to generate a crazed audience response. A Detroit newspaper suggested that “the trouble with going to see Elvis Presley is that you’re liable to get killed.” Villanova students pelted him with eggs in Philadelphia, and in Vancouver, the crowd rioted after the end of the show, destroying the stage. Frank Sinatra, who had famously inspired the swooning of teenaged girls in the 1940s, condemned the new musical phenomenon. In a magazine article, he decried rock and roll as “brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious. … It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phoney and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. … This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.” Asked for a response, Presley said, “I admire the man. He has a right to say what he wants to say. He is a great success and a fine actor, but I think he shouldn’t have said it. … This is a trend, just the same as he faced when he started years ago.”

Leiber and Stoller were again in the studio for the recording of Elvis’ Christmas Album. Toward the end of the session, they wrote a song on the spot at Presley’s request: “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, an innuendo-laden blues. The holiday release stretched Presley’s string of number one albums to four and would eventually become the best selling Christmas album of all time in the United States and worldwide, with 16 million and 20 million sales, respectively. After the session, Moore and Black — drawing only modest weekly salaries, sharing in none of Presley’s massive financial success — resigned. Though they were brought back on a per diem basis a few weeks later, it was clear that they had not been part of Presley’s inner circle for some time. On December 20, Presley received his draft notice. He was granted a deferment to finish the forthcoming King Creole, in which $350,000 had already been invested by Paramount and producer Hal Wallis. A couple of weeks into the new year, “Don’t”, another Leiber and Stoller tune, became Presley’s tenth number one seller. It had been only 21 months since “Heartbreak Hotel” had brought him to the top for the first time. Recording sessions for the King Creole soundtrack were held in Hollywood mid-January. Leiber and Stoller provided three songs and were again on hand, but it would be the last time they worked closely with Presley. A studio session on February 1 marked another ending: it was the final occasion on which Black was to perform with Presley. He died in 1965.

Elvis Presley being sworn into the U.S. Army at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, March 24, 1958.
Elvis Presley being sworn into the U.S. Army at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, March 24, 1958.

On March 24, 1958, Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army as a private at Fort Chaffee, near Fort Smith, Arkansas. His arrival was a major media event. Hundreds of people descended on Presley as he stepped from the bus; photographers then accompanied him into the fort. Presley announced that he was looking forward to his military stint, saying he did not want to be treated any differently from anyone else: “The Army can do anything it wants with me.”

Soon after Presley commenced basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, he received a visit from Eddie Fadal, a businessman he had met on tour. According to Fadal, Presley had become convinced his career was finished — “He firmly believed that.” During a two-week leave in early June, Presley recorded five songs in Nashville. In early August, his mother was diagnosed with hepatitis and her condition rapidly worsened. Presley, granted emergency leave to visit her, arrived in Memphis on August 12. Two days later, she died of heart failure, aged 46. Presley was devastated; their relationship had remained extremely close — even into his adulthood, they would use baby talk with each other and Presley would address her with pet names.

After training, Presley joined the 3rd Armored Division in Friedberg, Germany, on October 1. While on maneuvers, Presley was introduced to amphetamines by a sergeant. He became “practically evangelical about their benefits,” not only for energy but for “strength” and weight loss as well, and many of his friends in the outfit joined him in indulging. The Army also introduced Presley to karate, which he seriously studied and later included his live performances. Fellow soldiers have attested to Presley’s wish to be seen as an able, ordinary soldier, despite his fame, and to his generosity. He donated his Army pay to charity, purchased TV sets for the base, and bought an extra set of fatigues for everyone in his outfit.

While in Friedberg, Presley met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. They would eventually marry after a seven-and-a-half-year courtship. In her autobiography, Priscilla says that despite his worries that it would ruin his career, Parker convinced Presley that to gain popular respect, he should serve his country as a regular soldier rather than in Special Services, where he would have been able to give some musical performances and remain in touch with the public. Media reports echoed Presley’s concerns about his career, but RCA producer Steve Sholes and Freddy Bienstock of Hill and Range had carefully prepared for his two-year hiatus. Armed with a substantial amount of unreleased material, they kept up a regular stream of successful releases. Between his induction and discharge, Presley had ten top 40 hits, including “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”, the best-selling “Hard Headed Woman”, and “One Night” in 1958, and “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” and the number one “A Big Hunk o’ Love” in 1959. RCA also generated four albums compiling old material during this period, most successfully Elvis’ Golden Records (1958), which hit number three on the LP chart.

[To be continued…]

Advertisement in People magazine, announcing the ballots to choose the design for the forthcoming Elvis Presley stamp.
Poster announcing the ballots to choose the design for the forthcoming Elvis Presley stamp.

The United States Postal Service first suggested the idea of a stamp honoring Elvis Presley in 1987, ten years after his death. Many were opposed to the idea, citing concerns about his drug use and giving credence to conspiracy theories that he was still alive.

In 1992, the debt-ridden USPS moved forward with the idea of a stamp portraying Presley. Over 60 artist renderings were submitted and came down to a choice between two equally superb but thematically distinct portraits: an airbrush and acrylic portrait of the youthful Elvis by Mark Stutzman, or a more mature Elvis in an oil painting by John Berkey. It was decided to allow the public to choose the design — an unprecedented move by the Postal Service. Pre-addressed ballots were distributed in post offices around the country and in the April 13, 1992, edition of People magazine.

Across the country, reaction to the voting process was boisterous and opinionated. Members of Congress debated the worthiness of Elvis as a stamp subject, newspaper editorialists made lofty pronouncements, and presidential candidate Bill Clinton publicly voiced his support for the younger Elvis. Meanwhile, comedians and cartoonists used the opportunity to poke fun at the Postal Service, the 1992 presidential candidates, and even Elvis himself.

When the 1.2 million ballots are tallied, the USPS ended the nation’s suspense and announced that “Young Elvis” by Mark Stutzman was the decisive victor with more than 75 percent of the vote. The announcement ceremony was held June 4, 1992, on the grounds of Graceland with Presley fans, stamp collectors and Postal Service officials present. At 6:36 am Memphis time (so morning news shows could cover it live), Priscilla Presley revealed the winner. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing produced 517,000,000 copies of the initial sheet stamp perforated to a gauge of 11 using the photogravure method. The stamp was dedicated at Graceland just a few moments after midnight on January 8, 1993 — Elvis’s 58th birthday. Twenty-five years later, the Elvis stamp is still one of the most talked-about stamps ever issued by the Postal Service — and the most popular U.S. commemorative stamp of all time.

John Berkey's
John Berkey’s “Old Elvis” unreleased design.

Six months after Presley’s first appearance on a U.S. stamp, the Postal Service celebrated rock and roll and rhythm & blues music with a sheet of thirty-five 29-cent stamps (perforated 10) and a booklet of thirty 29-cent stamps (perforated 11 horizontally on one or two sides). Aside from the perforation gauge differences, the booklet stamps (Scott #2731-2737) have smaller design sizes, brighter colors and shorter inscriptions than the sheet stamps (Scott #24-2730), as well as framelines around the designs and other subtle differences.

These stamps went on sale on June 16, 1993, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California. The stamps, featuring legendary Rock & Roll performers Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Clyde McPhatter, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, Ritchie Valens, and Dinah Washington were among the Postal Service’s most culturally diverse issues ever. They present a multi-ethnic portfolio of white, black, and Hispanic performers whose careers span the evolution of America’s own special brand of music. The stamps were a part of the Postal Service’s Legends of American Music Series, which began earlier that year with the initial Elvis Presley stamp. The legends series ran for several years, featuring great performers from all genres of American music, including jazz, blues, and popular music.

Mark Stutzman designed the Presley, Holly, Haley, and Valens stamps. John Berkey designed the Redding, Washington, and McPhatter stamps. Stamp Venturers, Inc., produced the stamps in the photogravure process with 14,285,715 printed of the Presley sheet stamp alone.

One thought on “The Birthday of Elvis Presley

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