Elvis’ impact was far greater than merely music. I’d go so far to say that it was his fourth most important impact.
1. Racial barriers
Elvis broke racial barriers by merging the rigidly defined musical genres of the time – his Sun records were r&b songs recorded as country and country songs recorded as r&b. The first “title” he was given was Hillbilly Cat and King of Western Bop.
Interestingly, when Elvis was first touring in 1954 and 55 – before the Colonel came along – Elvis played the country music circuit on the showbill with country performers. There wasn’t controversy about his wild act or different music – so funnily enough, it wasn’t Southern prejudice against sexuality and R&B music that became the problem – it was Northern prejudice against not only open sexuality, R&B music but also Southerners.
Elvis came from a social class that didn’t make seeing skin colour as anything significant. After all, you can’t really look down on people when you’re at the same level both looking up and there isn’t anyone below either of you.
There’s so many tales of pre-fame Elvis being at black churches, hanging out around BB King in his pre-fame DJ days, and black clubs, listening to R&B records that his school friends didn’t.
Elvis was painfully aware of his poor Southern social class and he most likely felt closer socially with black people around him – than middle class Southerners and Northerners of any level. Even after he was famous, perhaps especially after. It’s not that hard to realize that these same “upper class” and Northerners were the same ones looking down on you before fame and as you attained it. Elvis the Pelvis indeed.
You only have to watch the Elvis appearance on the Steve Allen show – the discomfort at being put in a tuxedo, singing to a dog, not allowed to move – although that made the performance almost sexier – and the terrible hillbilly skit. It wasn’t that Elvis was a bad actor there, it was that he was so humiliated that he could barely say the lines.
A big part of the prejudice against Elvis was not only that he didn’t sing and perform white – but that he was poor, southern, achieving fame the wrong way (not rising through the Tin Pan Alley route – he came out of the South, not NY or LA) all making the sexual threat even more so – Hillbilly today remains a freely used pejorative after all.
People didn’t (and still don’t) get that he got his performance style honestly – his Mom was known for her sensual dancing as a younger woman, Elvis grew up in a church where the minister played guitar and jumped all around dramatically.
Also, I think you can be in a time and not be of the time.
After all, none of the civil rights advances for any group would have moved through society and through the courts unless a few people had the sensibility to push for change and other people weren’t willing to change until there was critical mass and change happened.
But the desegregation wasn’t not only in his music – watching all of his 1960’s movies it’s surprising to see the ethnic diversity of the various casts – especially given other musical comedy movies of the day – also, the 68 special, if you look at the audience for the leather portions – there’s a huge mix of ethnicities.
2 Elvis changed public morals and sex
Before Elvis, performers didn’t move around much and audiences were behaved. Yes, the bobby-soxers of the 1940’s swooned over Sinatra – but they didn’t tear at their faces and his clothes. Or jump up on the stage just to be close to him.
Sinatra made you swoon, but Elvis electrified.
And Elvis made everyone talk and think about sex – the more the “grown ups” tried to ban him and not talk about sex, the sexier Elvis got.
3. Marketing and packaging
Before Elvis, a singer or group put out a 45 single (one song each side) and then after five 45s were out, they’d be collected an album (aka LP or Long Play record) – or maybe a couple of Extended Plays (aka “EPs”) (45s with 4 songs on them).
With Elvis, the standard became a single, a second single, collect them on an EP, then do an album with the EP and some filler tracks – so, you could have the same song on a 45, an EP and an LP.
Elvis showed that there was no end to reselling the same material. He also proved that the artist transcends even the worst of material.
Elvis remains not only the template for how to be a rock star, but how to be a cross over artist into other entertainment media.
Entertainers transcend one area of entertainment; and Elvis was a multiple threat – his singing on the radio, his performances on TV and in Concert, and his movies.
Just a note about his movies – Elvis was the first actor who’s salary included part of the box office. He made 31 movies and 2 concert documentaries. Of the 31 movies, he was the lead role in 30 of them. The movies ranged from Westerns (Love Me Tender, Flaming Star, Charro) to dramas such as Wild in the Country or Change of Habit to comedies like Follow that Dream and the Elvis As Star genre, which was the majority of his 60’s output.
The movies play out this way – if you can see the movie being made with someone else in the title roll – that is the movie can stand on the script with a different cast then it wasn’t an Elvis vehicle. When the purpose of the movie is just to put Elvis in an exotic career in an exotic location and lots of pretty girls to sing to under odd circumstances, then it was an Elvis vehicle.
And hey, how many singers turned actors can lay claim to having their own genre of films?
After all, what is Eminem’s 8 Mile movie than an update of Loving You?
4 The Music
This is one area that is Elvis’ absolutely, and yet many people get hung up on the songwriting as a requirement in some way. It’s not. The vast majority of singers do not write their own songs and the majority of songwriters are not singers.
I disagree that the whole package means writing as well as performing (or playing and dancing); since, we don’t expect actors to write the scripts and direct the movie to be an actor.
Singing is just that – the singing – you don’t have to play an instrument or dance or move at all to sing. Sade was rather successful in the 80’s with her stage gimmick of standing still – it set her apart from the overproduced dance numbers that were typical in the 1980’s.
I also think it’s more impressive to take someone else’s words and make them your own, after all Patsy Cline never wrote a song and no one has replaced her as the Queen of Country or dissed her for it.
Elvis could sing – and not only in a wide range of octaves through the years, but also pretty much any genre of music there was and everything in between.
Elvis’ musical output includes 50’s rock n roll, ballads, R&B, country, 70’s stadium rockers, funk and gospel. He even recorded two protest songs. He is the only singer in three industry Musical Halls of Fame – Rock, Country and Gospel.
Despite being dead for 33 years, new music product formats (CD and downloads), Elvis remains the biggest selling recording artist of all-time worldwide, bar none, and has more record certifications in the U.S.A. than any other musical act, including The Beatles.
This RIAA article lists highest rated artists by decade – and Elvis continues to make the list for decades he was dead and not recording in. Additionally, Elvis’ releases have often not qualified for certification, RIAA rule changes make it difficult to count in addition to record companies accounting creativity – all detailed here. And, of course, Elvis’ two biggest sale years 1956 and 57 were before the RIAA even existed.
When you compare artists from different decades, you also need to account for the media of the day. In the 50’s and early 60’s the 45 single was the main format which gave way in the later 60’s to album. We are sort of coming back to the single with the advent of downloadable single tracks.
One unsung aspect of Elvis’ musical career: while he didn’t write songs, he did have input into the songs through his selections, rewriting some of the lyrics, added things here and there, rhythm patterns, harmonies, musical arrangements, etc.
Most of all, he did arrange and produce most of his recording sessions. He was the man that should have been credited as: music arranged by Elvis Presley as well as THE Producer, on 90% of his albums.
He’s probably also inspired more novelty songs, tribute records, outright impersonations or influenced more artists who followed than anyone else. Because how can one person claim to be inspired by The Beatles, without acknowledging that they were inspired by Elvis?
5 The Fans
Elvis fans are like no other fans. The Grateful Dead had the Deadheads who followed them around, Queen had The Royal Family of fans that followed them around.
Elvis played Vegas, where the international fans came to him.
While Elvis had gates on his residences, he often spent time at the gates in the middle of the fans. Even in Germany, he had posted hours when he’d come outside and sign autographs.
Elvis fans not only have no upper limit for buying the same songs over and over, but we also have no bottom limit – we want every single take, in between banter, soundboard recording and any scrap of video or audio no matter the quality of the recording or content.
Most fans are content to play records and watch the movies – others enjoy the Elvis Impersonators – or Tribute Artists – and some insist that he’s never left the building.
A note about the impersonators – Elvis is the most impersonated person in the world. Not only the actual impersonators who perform Elvis tributes- and tens of thousands claim “Elvis impersonator” as their profession on tax forms – but Elvis is referenced or used symbolically in TV shows, Films, Stage Plays/Musicals and even TV Advertisements.
If you go to the Internet Movie Database and search for Elvis Presley as a character in a show, there’s just over 150 listings. Most of those are someone playing Elvis fictionally involved in the world of the movie or show – not a biography of Elvis. Although, there’s probably been more movies about his life than any other performer.
There’s a lot that can be said about Elvis – he was different things to different people. He made sex public, challenged the powers that be by being famous the wrong way and for the wrong things, yet, he put his career on hold to legitimately serve in the military and amassed a huge collection of police badges, he ignored the artificial boundaries of musical genres yet ended up being a rigid movie genre of his own, he was known for being generous to strangers with the Cadillac gifts, yet kept most of his charitable donations out of the press, he tried to live his life privately, but often put himself forward for causes such as polio vaccines and the March of Dimes as well as doing many 70’s concerts as fundraisers for cancer foundations or hurricane/tornado disaster relief.
It’s because Elvis is so contradictory, so nuanced, that anything can be projected onto him and his image by anyone.
I’ve always thought that the verse from the Kris Kirstofferson song, The Pilgrim best described Elvis:
He’s a poet, he’s a picker, he’s a prophet, he’s a pusher He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned He’s a walking contradiction partly truth and partly fiction Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
Elvis is every where,
Elvis is every thing,
Elvis is in everybody,