“He looked like a prince from another planet, narrow‐eyed, with high Indian cheekbones and a smooth brown skin untouched by his 37 years,” reported the New York Times’ Chris Chase in June 1972.
The “prince” in question was Elvis Presley, performing live on June 9, the opening of his three-day, four-show engagement at Madison Square Garden in New York City. “[W]hen he started to work with the mike, his right hand flailing air, his left leg moving as though it had a life of its own, time stopped, and everyone in the place was 17 again,” Chase wrote.
Just a few hours earlier, the Times added, Elvis had held a press conference “in a hotel ballroom jammed with freaks, little skinny girls, fat men in hippie clothes, lots of leather jackets and inane questions.” Clad in a blue satin jumpsuit, the singer, with his mane of black hair and showbiz smile, received his audience with patience and grace. Off to the side as always, his manager, “the big‐bellied, straw‐hatted, cigar‐carrying” Colonel Tom Parker, watched over him.
During the conference, a reporter barked a question at Elvis, prompting a revealing exchange.
“Are you satisfied with the image you’ve established?” he asked.
Elvis replied, “Uh … well, the image is one thing, and the human being is another, you know, so—”
The reporter cut him off. “How close does the image come to the man?”
“It’s … very hard to live up to an image. I’ll put it that way.”
“The world was not prepared for Elvis Presley,” proclaimed music writer Peter Guralnick in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. “He hit like a Pan American flash, and the reverberations still linger from the shock of his arrival.” Guralnick’s words, first published in 1976, still hold true today. Forty-five years after the musician’s death in 1977 at age 42, observers continue to reckon with the man and the myth that was—and is—Elvis Presley.
Baz Luhrmann’s new film Elvis, starring Austin Butler as the eponymous singer, testifies to the public’s enduring fascination with its title character. The movie dramatizes the artist’s rise and fall from a lesser-known perspective—that of his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Crafted by Luhrmann with the characteristic extravagance of his earlier films, including Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby, Elvis explores the relationship between Elvis the man and Elvis the myth from the viewpoint of the man who sold both. Hanks’ Parker concedes as much in a trailer for the film: “Elvis the man was sacrificed, and Elvis the god was born.”
Here’s what you need to know about the true history behind Elvis—a story inseparable from myth—ahead of its release in theaters tomorrow, June 24.
Is Elvis based on a true story?
Yes. The movie condenses Elvis’ life into a 159-minute biopic. Much is necessarily left out, but all of the key moments appear: Elvis’ discovery at Sun Records in 1954, the titillating cultural explosions of his first live shows, the ’68 Comeback Special, his reinvention in Las Vegas in the 1970s and everything in between. Parker’s narration of the film adds another layer to the experience, as the former carny–turned–rock and roll manager is an unreliable narrator if ever there was one.
“The film is really a story about the ‘biz,’ and the ‘show,’” Luhrmann tells GQ. “... But it isn’t ‘Elvis did this, Elvis did that.’ It’s actually about America in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He’s at the center of culture, for the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Given Luhrmann’s flair for larger-than-life spectacle, Elvis may well reflect the star’s spirit better than any prior depiction. As Harper’s magazine asked in 1958, “When [Elvis’] present public finds itself, as it someday must, demesmerized by time, … what’s to become of this young man whose life and legend are by now indistinguishable?”
Who was Elvis Presley?
Before he was a rock and roll star, Elvis was a truck driver. And before he was a truck driver, he grew up in abject poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi. Born on January 8, 1935, Elvis came of age in a heavily segregated region still reeling from the Great Depression. As the South modernized and became part of a prosperous, postwar America in the 1950s, Elvis brought its musical culture onto the national stage.
These were the conditions that made Elvis, whose actions were largely driven by his fear of losing everything and ending up back where he’d began. “I can never forget the longing to be someone,” he told a reporter in 1965. “I know what poverty is. I lived it for a long time.”
Growing up, Elvis’ desire for something more in life led him to fall in love with all things pop culture. “Elvis invented himself over and over again, through the popular culture that he consumed,” says Michael T. Bertrand, a cultural historian at Tennessee State University and the author of Race, Rock, and Elvis. “I mean, music, movies, style—he was a sponge. … He was the ultimate consumer.” Only 19 when he started recording music with Sun Records in 1954, the culture-savvy teenager was, at the beginning of his career, very much like his future fans.
Elvis’ music drew on his favorite styles—the kinds of music he listened to on the radio, including country, gospel, and rhythm and blues performed by both white and Black artists. “He’s kind of a synthesizer,” says Jack Hamilton, a cultural historian at the University of Virginia. “Like a lot of young, very talented musicians, he’s just kind of going with his gut. … You can really hear all of his influences.”
Elvis was at his best on stage. Whether it was his legendary 1954 appearance on Louisiana Hayride, his ’68 Comeback Special or his 1973 Aloha From Hawaii broadcast, the star always brought the thunder. He had “a style and panache that come close to pure magic,” wrote Elvis biographer W.A. Harbinson in 1975. “Flamboyant and flashy, sexy and self-mocking, he works with the instincts of a genius to give poetry to the basic rock performance.” Whether he made fans swoon with “Love Me Tender,” rocked their worlds with “Jailhouse Rock” or set their hearts aflame with “Burning Love,” Elvis proved again and again that he was made for the stage.
Though Elvis didn’t write his own material, he heightened every song he sang with the rawness of his smoldering baritone. “He had an incredible sense of time, an incredible sense of intonation and phrasing. … It’s sort of like musical intuition,” says Hamilton. Elvis’ early records, produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Records, stand as testaments to his talent: “That’s All Right,” “Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Mystery Train.”
Though none of Elvis’ Sun singles became national hits, alongside his live performances, they won him a regional following. Elvis’ unique sound, borne from the talent of his voice and the instrumental skill of his backing band, the Blue Moon Boys, resonated across the United States as he moved from Sun to a new label, RCA Victor, and became a national star. From 1956 to 1958, the teen idol dominated the charts with hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” even as he was castigated by his detractors as “Elvis the Pelvis” for his suggestive dance moves and called a racial slur for his affinity with Black culture. Then, in 1958, at the height of his fame, Elvis was drafted into the Army and shipped off to Germany. He only resumed his career after the end of his service in 1960.
Who was Colonel Tom Parker?
As journalist Alanna Nash writes in The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, “No artist had ever exploded on the scene with the volcanic impact of Elvis Presley in 1956, and no manager before Tom Parker had ever been so brilliantly, or blatantly, capitalistic.”
The following exchange between the colonel and a White House staffer, recounted in the rock magazine Creem in 1972, aptly summarizes Parker’s approach to business:
President Nixon requests Mr. Presley to perform. The Colonel did a little quick figuring and then told the man that Elvis would consider it an honor. For the President, Elvis’s fee … would be $25,000. The good German gasped.
“Col. Parker, nobody gets paid for playing for the President.”
“Well, I don’t know much about that, son,” the Colonel responded abruptly, “but there’s one thing I do know. Nobody asks Elvis Presley to play for nothing.”
Like Elvis, Parker came from humble beginnings. Born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk on June 26, 1909, he, too, reinvented himself. Illegally immigrating to the U.S. at the age of 17 and adopting the name Thomas Andrew Parker (he thereafter claimed to be from West Virginia), he made his living as a carnival worker, aside from a nearly four-year stint in the Army. Honorably discharged for psychopathy in 1933, it wasn’t through the military, but rather a carny connection, that Parker received the honorary title of “colonel” from the Louisiana state government.
The colonel later leveraged a position working at an animal shelter to break into the music industry, managing crooner Gene Austin and country stars Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow and Tommy Sands before turning his attention to Elvis as the artist began making waves in the country music scene. In 1955, Parker persuaded the much-larger record label RCA Victor to buy out Elvis’ contract with Sun Records for the staggering sum of $35,000; he became Elvis’ manager and exclusive representative for the rest of the star’s career.
Parker’s personal credo was “don’t try to explain it; just sell it.” He may not have understood—or even liked—rock and roll, but he knew how to promote a product and negotiate with force. In addition to securing Elvis’ RCA deal, Parker negotiated his feature films, his Vegas residency and his Aloha From Hawaii special. The colonel even profited from Elvis’ detractors, selling ”I Hate Elvis” pins alongside “I Love Elvis” ones. Whatever served Elvis’ interests served Parker’s, too: He contractually took a 25 percent cut on all of his client’s earnings (50 percent for licensing and merchandise).
Music writers continue to debate how necessary the colonel was to Elvis’ career, particularly as he polished the rocker’s rough edges to make him more marketable. (The star’s first studio album was titled Elvis Presley. His sixth: Something for Everybody.) Rock critic Dave Marsh denounced Parker as “the most overrated person in the history of show-business,” arguing that he “[sold] genius short for 23 years.” Guralnick, meanwhile, concluded that Elvis and the colonel “started out with great love, loyalty, respect,” but “towards the end of Presley’s life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer.”
“Words can never tell you how my folks and I appreciate what you did for me,” wrote Elvis in a 1955 telegram thanking the colonel for negotiating the RCA deal. “I will stick with you through thick and thin. … I love you like a father.” Toward the end of his life, however, Elvis’ relationship with the colonel completely changed. He felt trapped by the contracts the colonel signed for him in the 1960s and ’70s—a resentment worsened by his drug abuse and the colonel’s gambling addiction. On stage in Vegas in August 1974, the musician ranted at his audience: “Is the Colonel around anywhere? No, he’s out playing roulette, … out there talkin’ mash and drinkin’ trash, whatever.”
“He needed a father figure,” says Nash. “I think initially, Elvis loved this idea. … [The colonel] seemed not only interested in turning his million dollars’ worth of talent into a million dollars, but also in wanting the very best for him.” In the end, it’s likely that Elvis felt obligated to stick with Parker. After all, he had family and friends (nicknamed the “Memphis Mafia” by the media for their black suits and limousines) to support. Above all, he was terrified of being poor again. And the colonel was great at making money.
But did Parker truly care about Elvis?
“[He] was not a warm and fuzzy guy,” says Nash. “I think providing, being able to say, ‘I got the most money,’ was his way of showing love.”
Did Elvis steal Black music?
Music critics, journalists, academics and fans have long debated the idea of Elvis as a white thief of Black art. The truth of the matter is complicated.
Rock and roll started with Black rhythm and blues (also called R&B). “Rock and roll is not, or was not, so much a distinct genre of music as it was a label that was applied to an existing musical form to market it to white teenagers,” says Steven Lewis, a curator of music and the performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Rock and roll was rhythm and blues repackaged for white audiences.”
Rock and roll was indisputably pioneered by Black artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. It’s “Black music” in the sense that it was invented by Black artists, but as Lewis argues, that doesn’t mean only Black people can play music with origins in Black culture. “To me, it’s the difference between talking about Black music as a musical language and talking about musical Blackness as something that is inherent in the body of a Black person,” the curator adds. (In other words, it’s crucial not to confuse music originated by Black artists with the cultural experience of being Black.)
Elvis didn’t “steal” Black music simply by performing it. He consistently credited the artistry of his Black predecessors and peers, so it’s disingenuous to label him a thief. “A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” he told Jet magazine in 1957. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
From cover songs originated by Black artists like Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog”) and Little Richard (“Tutti Frutti”) to his hip shakes (a 1969 New York Times headline described him as “A White Boy With Black Hips”), Elvis borrowed heavily from Black culture.
While this “borrowing”—and whether it constitutes cultural appropriation—is heavily contested, it’s perhaps most useful to think about it in terms of cultural exchange: neutral, with the potential to be positive or negative. American popular music had thrived on cultural exchange (and appropriation) since its inception, and Elvis was far from the first—or the last—white artist to draw from Black music. This lineage includes countless other rockers, including the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, not to mention jazz greats like Benny Goodman and Sophie Tucker and rappers like Eminem and Post Malone.
What is often overlooked when observers pin the blame for pop cultural racism on a single artist is the fact that the broader music industry was—and still is—racist. White artists, regardless of their intentions, enjoyed greater access to fame and profit than Black artists by virtue of the color of their skin. “The discussion of cultural appropriation in music would be much more nuanced if we took a broader look at the conditions in which musicians worked,” says Lewis. “Elvis was always going to get radio play and record sales that Black artists could not have gotten at the time. So, in some ways, the problem goes beyond Elvis.”
Elvis was hailed by his fans as the white “king” of a Black musical style whose originators received far less recognition than he did. “I believe that if Elvis had been Black, he wouldn’t have been as big as he was,” Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 1990. “A lot of things they would do for Elvis and Pat Boone, they wouldn’t do for me.” White rapper Eminem, conscious of how his race benefitted his career, compared himself to Elvis in his 2002 single “Without Me”: “No, I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / To do Black music so selfishly / And use it to get myself wealthy.”
No, Elvis didn’t steal Black music, but he certainly appropriated and profited from it within an unjust, discriminatory system.
Why should we still care about Elvis?
Defying his detractors, who expected his fame to putter out during his military service, Elvis resumed his career right where it left off upon returning to the U.S. in 1960. Backed by the colonel, Elvis starred in nearly 30 movies over the next eight years, appearing in comfort films like Blue Hawaii (1961) and Viva Las Vegas (1964), where he sang, danced and always got the girl. Though the movies made Elvis rich, he became dissatisfied with how they limited his creativity to milquetoast plots and soundtrack albums.
The ’68 Comeback Special changed everything. A televised concert that revisited the entirety of Elvis’ career, it revived him as an artist. Sexy and electric in a full-leather ensemble, he growled and ground his way back up to rock stardom. Leveraging the special’s momentum, the colonel secured Elvis a lucrative residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, where he performed 636 consecutive sold-out shows between July 1969 and December 1976.
The concerts started off well. The artistic freedom Elvis enjoyed in Vegas rejuvenated him as a performer. But things started to fall apart as the pressures of fame caught up to him. He divorced his wife, Priscilla, in 1973. His relationship with the colonel deteriorated as he once again felt trapped by his contractual obligations. He abused drugs and ate his way to obesity to cope with singing and dancing through his two-shows-a-night, seven-days-a-week regimen.
“We’re caught in a trap,” he lamented in “Suspicious Minds,” his last number-one single. Though his triumphant 1973 Aloha From Hawaii broadcast kept his myth alive, it wasn’t enough for the man himself. Elvis died of a heart attack on August 16, 1977, at his Graceland estate in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 42 years old.
Elvis, in his artistry, grandeur and contradictions, was a living embodiment of the American dream. In remembering his life and times and attempting to parse the man from the myth, audiences come closer to understanding the multivalent meanings of American culture.
“I always say to people who weren’t alive in 1956, when Elvis hit the national scene, you cannot imagine the before and after [of] American culture,” says Nash. “It was a seismic change. It was as if a bomb had blown up that engulfed the entire world.”
Hamilton adds, “It’s impossible to imagine a world of popular music in which Elvis doesn’t exist. [He] was as much—if not more—a cultural phenomenon than a musical one.”
Rock critic Greil Marcus put it best in his 1975 classic Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music:
At his best Elvis not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about [America]: a delight in sex that is sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but always open; a love of roots and a respect for the past; a rejection of the past and a demand for novelty; the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a powerful affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness; a burning desire to get rich, and to have fun; a natural affection for big cars, flashy clothes, for the symbols of status that give pleasure both as symbols, and on their own terms. Elvis has long since become one of those symbols himself.
We should care about Elvis—the man and the myth—because he was Elvis Presley, a true American original.