“He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything–music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution–the ’60s come from it.” As does so much else.
Last year, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the Essential Elvis record platinum, and in 2016, Presley was, according to Forbes, the fourth top-earning dead celebrity in America, trailing only Michael Jackson (who, in an only-in-America twist, was once married to Presley’s daughter), cartoonist Charles Schulz and golfer Arnold Palmer.
He did not simply sing; he became the music, as though possessed by a spirit of joy and release back at the Assembly of God.
It was sexual, yes, and thus disturbing to the more placid and puritanical observers, but it was inescapably religious too, in the sense that religion evokes realities ordinarily hidden from the human eye.
Legions of fans–many of whom were born after the King was found lifeless, his body wracked by opioids–treat him as a Christ-like figure, a man born on the fringes who attracted a great following and who some still believe is not dead.
“Just as ‘That’s All Right’ was not black anymore, ‘Blue Moon’ was no longer hillbilly; it was joyous, country-come-to-town and damn glad to be there.” The audience, led by ecstatic young women, went wild. “Everyone was hollering, and I didn’t know what they were hollering at.” That much, at least, should have been clear: they were hollering at him, transported by his electric physicality and extraordinary voice, which ranged comfortably from baritone to tenor and above.
“I knew that for black music to come to its rightful place in this country, we had to have some white singers come over and do black music–not copy it, not change, not sweeten it. With Presley’s emergence (as well as Bill Haley’s and Jerry Lee Lewis’, among others), Phillips’ prophecy came true, but not without resentment from the architects of the tradition Presley was drawing on.
“I was making everybody rich, and I was poor,” said Crudup, who originally recorded “That’s All Right.” “I was born poor, I live poor, and I’m going to die poor.” In the white mainstream, Presley’s story was quintessentially American–a striver rising to riches from largely impoverished obscurity (his family lived in a federal housing project in Memphis after moving to Tennessee) on the strength of his talent, not on the circumstances of his birth.
(The other two distinct Mississippi worlds are the Delta and the Gulf Coast.) His father struggled to eke out a living, working different jobs and signing up for FDR’s Works Progress Administration after doing time at Mississippi’s Parchman prison for forging a check.
His mother was devoted to her son, all the more so because Presley had had a twin brother who was stillborn.
“What he did was earthshaking,” says Tim Mc Graw, the country-music superstar who counts Presley as a huge influence.