Elvis Presley, the Original Rock Star, Did Everything First
When Elvis Aaron Presley had the classic coming-of-age conversation with his parents about what he wanted to be when he grew up, Presley’s father had the typical parental response. “You should make your mind up to be a guitar player or an electrician," he said. "But I never saw a guitar player that was worth a damn.”
Instead of grasping for the safety of a toolbox, Elvis followed his heart, subsequently changing the world by popularizing the rock and roll genre. More than four decades after his death, Presley is still a cultural icon. HBO recently produced a new documentary on him, the alternative rock band Twenty One Pilots had a viral hit with their cover of his classic "Can't Help Falling In Love With You," and his home is still a wildly popular tourist attraction in Memphis, Tenn. Most notably, however, Elvis constructed the rock star template.
I recently took a trip to Elvis’ iconic Memphis home, where "The King" spent the last 20 years of his life. I toured exhibits dedicated to the man’s childhood, his time in the Army, a step-by-step journey throughout his entire music career, a special exhibition celebrating the legendary Sun Records, and much more filling the 200,000 square foot complex.
While staring into a bullet hole Elvis infamously shot into one of his many TV sets, I couldn’t help but reflect on the most evident takeaway from my time at Graceland — Elvis did just about everything first.
Before radio stations refused to play the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” because it was “too suggestive,” Elvis was being censored because of his “indecent” hip gyrations. Dubbed "The Pelvis" by American media, Presley's moves caused a national panic — forcing The Ed Sullivan Show to only film him from the waist up.
Before anyone had coined the phrase "rock star," Elvis was already living the lifestyle. During his lifetime, he purchased and traded over 200 cars. Presley also unloaded giant stacks of cash on motorcycles, boats, go-karts, snowmobiles, horses, pinball machines, pool tables, custom furniture, TVs for every room, gold-plated guns with mother of pearl handles, a racquetball court in his home, a pool with a diving board, and a shooting gallery to blast anything Elvis saw fit. While Led Zeppelin were renting out their legendary Starship plane, Elvis straight-up bought not one, but two, jets for his own private use.
These facets of Elvis’ life are somewhat common knowledge, but it’s what I didn’t know that affirmed Elvis’ place in my mind as the most revolutionary trailblazer in rock history. Years before the Beatles used their spiritual journeys to spearhead rock’s psychedelic movement, Elvis had already found a spiritual advisor -- his hairstylist, Larry Geller -- and built a meditation garden (where he was later laid to rest) at his home to utilize as a space for contemplation. Thanks to Geller's guidance, Elvis flew through books on esoteric Christianity, Middle-Eastern poetry, the biography of India’s first yoga master, and much more… all while the Beatles were still singing “Help!” and “Ticket to Ride.”
Decades before U2 singer Bono became the face of rock star philanthropy, Presley was donating giant portions of his riches to charity. Having come from very humble beginnings, Elvis dedicated much of his life to helping the less fortunate, donating over $100,000 every Christmas since 1961 and spreading the money across 50 or more charities at a time. Copies of checks Elvis wrote to St. Jude, the YMCA, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and other organizations are lovingly framed at the Elvis Presley’s Memphis exhibit.
Elvis was also a radical through song, but beyond paving the way for rock and roll in the mainstream, Presley was one of the few members of the "Silent Generation" to address political issues through music. During his ’68 Comeback Special, Presley debuted “If I Can Dream.” The tear-jerking song was a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., premiering just two months after the civil rights leader was gunned down -- in Memphis, no less. Elvis’ home state of Tennessee wasn’t the most progressive place, but still, Elvis shared his respect for Dr. King through the Earl Brown-penned track. Sung with the soul of gospel, “If I Can Dream” touched Elvis so deeply, he swore to never again sing a song he didn’t believe in.
Presley was also a pioneer of technology, becoming the first solo entertainer to hold a live concert broadcast internationally via satellite. The King’s 1973 Aloha from Hawaii special was the most expensive entertainment special ever at that time, costing a whopping $2.5 million. Airing the same night as the Super Bowl, 51 percent of televisions switched on in the United States were tuned to the Aloha special, reportedly being seen in more households than the moon landing was.
The stories of Graceland could fill a library, especially since the attraction changes every few months, but beyond Presley's extravagant lifestyle, the story of his influence is told at the Icon Exhibit. Pieces of history from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, KISS, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and more sonic immortals have been donated to Graceland out of respect for Elvis’ influence on each artist. Presley praise fills the room, leaving no doubt that Elvis was indeed the King:
“Before Elvis, there was nothing.” - John Lennon
“He was a unique artist - an original in an area of imitators.” - Mick Jagger
“There’ll never be another like him, that soul brother.” - James Brown
“None of us could have made it without Elvis.” - Buddy Holly
"There have been pretenders. And there have been contenders. But there is only one king.” - Bruce Springsteen
Check out the gallery below for more incredible photos from Graceland. To learn more about the Mecca of Elvis, head over to Graceland’s official website.