A key figure in the development of rock and roll and its ascension to global mainstream culture, singer Elvis Presley helped to establish the blueprint of the music form-a fusion of country, blues and rhythm and blues with a visual element that drew equally on gospel fervor and after-hours bump and grind-which in turn gave him one of the most successful and enduring careers in popular music. He was born Elvis Aron Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi; his mother, Gladys, delivered his stillborn identical twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, 35 minutes before his birth. He found his initial musical inspiration in the Assembly of God church attended by his caring but desperately poor parents, and gave his first performance before an audience at the age of ten, when he sang Red Foley's "Old Shep" at a state fair contest. By the time the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, Presley had learned to play guitar and was slowly overcoming his shyness to give occasional performances at local competitions; country music and gospel formed the basis of his early repertoire, though he was also fascinated by blues and rhythm & blues recordings. After graduating from Humes High School in 1953, Presley had set his sights on a music career, and visited the offices of Sun Records, a record label and studio that had produced such proto-rock and roll tracks as "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. There, he recorded a two-sided acetate disc that featured covers of "My Happiness" and "That's Where Your Heartaches Began." Label chief Sam Phillips took note of the young man's soulful vocals, and in 1954, invited Presley to Sun to make some recordings. On July 5, 1954, Presley, accompanied by guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black recorded a cover of Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right" that seemed to perfectly encompass Phillips' long-standing desire to find a white performer who could sing with "the Negro sound and the Negro feel," as Sun receptionist Marion Keisker described it. Presley's version-which embraced the sultry vocals of R&B with a caffeinated, hiccupping take on "hillbilly" music-captured the attention of Memphis radio listeners when disc jockey Dewey Phillips played the acetate on his program; Sun quickly issued a single with "That's All Right" backed with Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" to meet the growing demand. Presley soon began performing at local venues, where his good looks and singular stage physicality produced eruptive reactions from female audience members. Presley's rising star brought him to the attention of country singer Hank Snow's manager, Colonel Tom Parker; the veteran promoter signed Presley to RCA Records, which issued his first major-label single, the moody rocker "Heartbreak Hotel," in 1956. It became his first No. 1 hit on the pop singles chart, and was followed quickly by three more chart-toppers-"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," "Don't Be Cruel" and a cover of Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog." Mainstream and adult audiences rolled their eyes over Presley's performing style-an appearance on "The Steve Allen Show" (NBC/ABC/syndicated, 1956-1964) was designed to embarrass him and earned withering criticism-but teenagers couldn't get enough of his music, and sent his self-titled debut album to No. 1 in both the United States and United Kingdom in 1956. Presley was soon a ubiquitous presence-on the radio, where he scored eight more No. 1 singles between 1957 and 1959, on television, and in movie theaters, beginning in 1956 with his screen debut in "Love Me Tender"-and his success and magnetism inspired a host of future musicians, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon and others, to take their first steps towards careers in rock and roll. The United States Army attempted to cut into his schedule by drafting him in 1958; Presley trained at Fort Hood, Texas and served his stint in Friedberg, Germany, where he was introduced to amphetamines, karate and a 14-year-old American teenager named Priscilla Beaulieu-he would remain devoted to the first two for the remainder of his life and marry Beaulieu in 1967. After completing his tour in 1960, Presley returned to his career and resumed his remarkable streak of hit singles, including "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and "Return to Sender," as well as a string of popular movies. But as the 1960s wore on, Presley's star seemed to dim: his screen projects slowly devolved from dramas like "King Creole" (1958) and "Flaming Star" (1960) that hinged on his intense screen presence to campy and increasingly inane fare like "Tickle Me" and "Paradise, Hawaiian Style" (1967), while his singles and albums were no longer guaranteed No. 1s, but instead hovered in the Top 20 or below. Unhappy with the direction of his career, Presley signed a deal with NBC to produce a one-hour special; the resulting broadcast, simply titled "Elvis" but more commonly known as the '68 Comeback Special, featured Presley tackling old and new material with remarkable confidence and a flash of the danger and elation that his early career had promised. The success of the special led to a hit single, "If I Can Dream," which reached No. 12, and a new album, From Elvis in Memphis (1969), which found him embracing a country-soul vibe, as embodied by its Top 5 single, "In the Ghetto" and subsequent hits like "Suspicious Minds," which became his first No.1 single in seven years, and his last. Colonel Parker, however, was eager to get Presley back on the road, and for a period of time, the excitement of his special and new recordings translated to his live shows, which were hailed by critics and audiences. But as Presley entered the '70s, much of that fire appeared to sputter out; his marriage to Beaulieu, which had produced a daughter, Lisa Marie, in 1968, had fallen apart, and a steady diet of barbiturates left him in declining health. His recording career had again fallen into decline, though he remained a consistent presence on the country and adult contemporary charts, and his live performances were marked by exhaustion and incoherence. On August 16, 1977, Presley was found dead in the bathroom of his Memphis mansion, Graceland; he had suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 42. The outpouring of grief from all corners of the globe that followed Presley's death seemed to indicate the end of an era, but in truth, Presley's popularity was inextricably entwined with that of rock and roll, and as such, remained not only a cultural touchstone for both the heights and excesses that came with the music form, but also a remarkable hitmaker, even four decades after his death. As late as 2002 and 2003, remixes of his 1968 single "A Little Less Conversation" and 1969's "Rubberneckin'" reached No. 1 in the UK and No. 1 in America respectively; in 2016, he ranked sixth among the highest-earned deceased celebrities with earnings of $35 million.
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