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Summary Article: Presley, Elvis from Encyclopedia of American Studies

In the summer of 1954 Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black labored in a small darkened recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, with guitars, bass, and voice, under the eager tutelage of Sam Phillips, owner and operator of Sun Studios. Their performances mined, refined, and polished the intensities of life in a major Southern city during the final decade of the Jim Crow era of segregation and the first decade of the new postwar youth culture. After hours of ragged, sweaty failure to produce pop songs that felt right to each of them, the shaggy yet overdressed Elvis picked up his old acoustic guitar and began banging out the chords to a recent blues hit by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, “That's All Right.” The song had received regular airplay on WDIA, a white-owned radio station that hired African American talent and aimed its programming at the growing black consumer base in the Memphis region. Moore and Black were familiar with the song. They grabbed their instruments, Phillips hit the tape recorder, and the great mythical cautionary tale that is the story of Elvis Presley began.

Twenty-three years later an overweight, drug-addicted, very lonely, and very rich, and totally evacuated Elvis Presley died at home. Official autopsy reports indicated that Presley died from the effects of too many prescription drugs, but his organization and most of his fans insisted that the real cause was heart failure. And why not? After all, Presley's heart certainly seemed to have failed. And what could be worse for an American entertainer-cum-myth than to end in a case of heart failure—no longer capable of intuiting and responding to the not-quite-spoken needs of his audience?

In between those years Presley recorded hundreds of successful pop songs, successful both artistically and commercially. His best performances were painstakingly constructed of professionally written material, in prime recording conditions, with the support of sympathetic musicians. In retrospect, Elvis Presley was perfectly positioned to capture musically the complex contradictions of race, gender, class, region, and age in the Southern United States. Driven by the ambition to remake himself and to use the inherited materials of his culture to make something new, Presley helped initiate, and then spent his career responding to, the powerful demand from young whites for a music that inspired them to move their bodies in new ways. Presley's music brought to the foreground sexuality, yet it did so through a prism of race; it articulated desire, yet channeled it through commodities. Presley also starred in dozens of nondescript movies, which, despite their blandness, helped distribute his image and expand his audience across the nation. Presley's career was a key contributor to the postwar reassertion of the cultural dominance of whiteness and the commercialization of society in the United States.

Since his death Elvis's music, image, body, and voice have become the site for the projected hopes and conflicts of a wide swath of Americans. Elvis was the poor boy made good, the proof that class barriers in America were absolutely permeable. Elvis was the emblem of bad taste, the proof that class distinctions in America remained absolutely rigid. Elvis was the hopeful innocent controlled and, eventually, corrupted by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and by his own celebrity. Elvis was the white man who respectfully attended black churches and carefully studied black musicians. Elvis was the white man who borrowed and profited from black culture while dismissing blacks as only good for buying his records and shining his shoes. Elvis was the Pentecostal believer who was accused of doing the devil's work. Elvis was the emblem of virile if profligate male heterosexuality. Elvis was the camp object of queer desire. Elvis was the boy who loved his mother so much he could never love another woman. Elvis was the figure of youthful rebellion who grew old, fat, and rich, and who died miserably of those sins. Elvis was the promise of salvation and the guarantee of failure. Elvis was the “ideal American,” and his story illustrates the horrific costs of the American dream.

Elvis Presley Enterprises, Incorporated, the company that owns the rights to exploit Elvis's home (Graceland), his image, and his name and that gathers the royalties from his many still popular movies and recordings, struggles to control and limit the associations that circulate around Elvis. But Presley's significance might be most apparent in his complex and contradictory legacy, the very availability of his image, voice, body, and home for the personal appropriation of the millions of people who still find him compelling, amusing, inspiring, or terrifying.

Elvis Presley, album cover. 1956. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

Elvis Presley. 1957. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon in The Oval Office. 1970. Ollie Atkins, photographer. National Archives and Records Administration

Elvis Presley personal appearance contract. c.1956. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

Bibliography
  • Bertrand, Michael T., Race, Rock, and Elvis (Univ. of Ill. Press 2004).
  • Brode, Douglas, Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture (McFarland 2006).
  • Doss, Erika Lee, Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image (Univ. Press of Kans. 1999).
  • Droll, Susan M., Understanding Elvis: Southern Roots vs. Star Image (Routledge 1998).
  • George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm and Blues (Dutton 1989).
  • Guralnick, Peter, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown 1994).
  • Guralnick, Peter, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown 1999).
  • Hopkins, Jerry, Elvis: The Biography (Plexus 2007).
  • Marcus, Greil, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession (Doubleday 1991).
  • Marcus, Greil, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (Plume Bks. 1997).
  • Reece, Gregory L., Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King (I.B. Tauris 2006).
  • Rodman, Gilbert B., Elvis after Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend (Routledge 1996).
  • West, Sonny; Marshall Terrill, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business (Triumph 2007).
  • Williamson, Joel, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life (Oxford 2013).
  • Barry Shank
    Copyright 2016 The American Studies Association

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