Elvis Presley is one of the most well-known and recognizable figures in music with his songs becoming classics. His music was always on in my grandparent’s house, to be honest, there was a lot of music being played, but Elvis was one of my Grandpa’s favorites. His music holds a special place in my heart and is also the soundtrack to one of my favorite Disney movies, Lilo & Stitch, which made me appreciate him more.
In part one we will explore Elvis Presley’s early life and his career through the 1950s. Also included throughout his history will be our top ten favorite songs of his from 1950s, curated by myself and my mother, each one will include a ranking and the music video.
Before He Became ELVIS
Elvis Presley was born Elvis Aaron Presley on 8th January 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi, 35 minutes after his twin brother, who was unfortunately stillborn. This would lead him to become very close to his parents, especially his mother. This became even more apparent when in 1938 his father, Vernon, was jailed for eight months after altering a check. This would result in them losing their house and living with relatives.
By September 1941 Presley had entered his local school and despite being an average student he would impress his teachers with his singing voice. In October 1945 he would place fifth in a talent competition at the state fair and receive his first guitar for his birthday in January 1946.
“I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it.”
He would move schools that September becoming a bit of a loner but did find solace in his guitar, which he began taking to school on a daily basis. He was teased by his fellow students but I’m sure they ate their words once he ascended to the top of the charts and became one of the most popular performers in the world. When he reached twelve, after the tutorage of Slim, who had his own radio show Mississippi Slim’s. he has his first on-air performance. Well, the first time he had terrible stage fright but would perform the following week.
He would move from rooming houses with his family into public housing and enrolled at the local high school, L.C. Humes High School in November 1948. He would receive a C in music with his teacher claiming he didn’t have an aptitude for it, which in retrospect makes it seem that the teacher didn’t know what they were talking about. He was also bullied again at this school, with his classmates claiming the young Elvis Presley was a “mama’s boy”. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
1950 to 1955: Elvis Presley’s Small Steps To Stardom
Elvis Presley entered the 1950s forming a loose musical collective that included Lee Denson and brothers Dorsey and Johnny Brunette performing locally. That September he would begin working jobs around town while maintaining his attendance at school. His junior year would see the young Elvis grow out his trademark sideburns and begin to style his hair in the way we know him for. In 1953 he would overcome his fear of performing outside of his local area and would perform at the Humes’ Annual “Minstrel” show.
Presley couldn’t read music and learned to play and write music by ear. His influences were deeply rooted in southern gospel, the blues, and country music. He was a huge fan of black gospel blues pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and would go on to record one of her songs, Hound Dog. He met B.B. King during his time on Beale Street performing and upon graduating in June of 1953 Presley knew he wanted music to be his future.
In August 1953 Elvis Presley would head to Sun Records to record a two-sided acetate disc: My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin. If you wanted to be discovered by the boss Sam Phillips getting in and recording at Sun Records was what you needed to do. And that’s what he did, he would go back and record two more songs, I’ll Never Stand in Your Way and It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You, in January 1954 but yet again nothing came of it. He would later contact Eddie Bond, who he auditioned for but was told “you’re never going to make it as a singer”.
Phillips asked Presley to come in and record a Jimmy Sweeney ballad, but he wasn’t quite the right fit. He sang all the songs he knew, at the request of Phillips and they would bring in two local musicians, guitarist Winfield “Scotty” Moore and upright bass player Bill Black, to start working towards recording some music together. It would be late into the night on 5th July 1954 when history would be made, Elvis Presley would pick up his guitar and start playing and singing a blues song by Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right.
“All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.'”Scotty Moore
#8. That’s All Right | 1954 | That’s All Right / Blue Moon of Kentucky
That’s All Right was released two weeks later with Blue Moon of Kentucky as its B-Side. This was also around the time that the trio would go on tour and Elvis would show off his “Rubber Legs” dance move. Soon after both Moore and Black would join Elvis’s backing band full time. On 2nd October he would play his only show at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, which is the center for country music. That November he would perform on Louisiana Hayride and did such a good job that he was hired to appear for a year every Saturday night. He would also make his first appearance on television on KSLA-TV.
1955 would see Elvis Presley become a regional star, sign Bob Neal as his manager, and meet the man who would have the biggest influence on his life and career, Colonel Tom Parker. He would book Presley on a tour with Hank Snow, and this would be when Roy Orbison, at age 19, first saw Elvis perform.
“His energy was incredible, his instinct was just amazing. … I just didn’t know what to make of it. There was just no reference point in the culture to compare it.”
In August Sun Records released a number of records under the credit of Elvis Presley, Scotty, and Bill. Despite his obvious talent and the group being popular, it was hard for them to get radio play due to the many different styles and sounds their music fitted into. This blend of styles would eventually create the rockabilly sound that Elvis is known for.
The trio was soon joined by drummer Fontana full-time and played some shows as the support act for Bill Haley. In November he was voted the most promising male artist as major labels were clamoring to sign the young 20-year-old. Parker and Phillips made a deal with RCA of $40,000 to buy out his Sun Records contract, his father signed his contract as Presley was still a minor. Along with this Parker arranged two entities to handle the publishing of Elvis’ work, Elvis Presley Music and Gladys Music. Songwriters were also obliged to forgo one-third of their customary royalties in exchange for having him perform their compositions.