Elvis Presley’s Impact On Popular Music Culture

From the time Elvis recorded “That’s All Right Mamma” for Sun Records in 1953, to his subsequent and astonishing rise to fame, he reinvented the concept of rock star and has made a bigger impact on popular music culture than any other act. That is saying a lot considering that the Beatles and Rolling Stones and others like Elton John have been huge superstars. But looking at Elvis’s impact, as this paper does, one can clearly see that he influenced all of those acts. John Lennon said that “Before Elvis there was nothing” and the Rolling Stones have indicated that they were hugely influenced by Elvis.

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When Elvis Started Out — Launching his Career as a Musical Rebel and Icon

An article in the Public Broadcasting Service (KCET) website (“Culture Shock / Music and Dance) traces Elvis’s early beginnings in terms of how he became so influential in the popular music genre. He only sold about 20,000 records for his first recording, “That’s All Right Mamma,” but by 1956, his first record for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” went to the top of the charts. All of a sudden many television hosts wanted Elvis to appear, but because he was controversial (with those swinging hips and trusting pelvis moves) he was curtailed somewhat as to how he could perform live.

For example, when he appeared on the Milton Berle Show (June 5, 1956), he went into his full-on hips-swiveling mode, and following that appearance (during which he sang “Hound Dog”), “Television critics across the country slam[ed] the performance for its ‘appalling lack of musicality’ and for its ‘vulgarity’ and ‘animalism’” (KCET). Even the , that paragon of good values and good taste, ripped Elvis; the Catholic Church’s weekly newsletter said, “Beware Elvis Presley” — and that was only one of the institutions that ridiculed and attacked Elvis’s performance. Still, while the criticism was widespread and harsh, for young people who really loved Elvis’s style and his voice, they couldn’t care less about what formal institutions were saying. In other words, Elvis was setting a new, wildly popular tone for the generation that loved this new rock and roll music, because it represented a kind of rebellion against old values and stogy parental control.

After the Milton Berle Show, Elvis was invited to Steve Allen’s “The Tonight Show,” and rather than stir more controversy, Allen had Elvis do a spoof; he had Elvis singing to a basset hound when he did “Hound Dog.” Ed Sullivan had said he would never bring Elvis to his stage, but Sullivan changed his mind and brought the hot rock act to his show albeit Sullivan asked the camera man not to show Elvis’s gyrations — and he was shown from the waist up. Elvis was now known for his rhythm and blues (an ), his country influences, and of course he helped launch rock and roll.

Rolling Stone’s Biography of Elvis

Rolling Stone asserts that Elvis was “one of the most important cultural forces in history”; Elvis was important in terms of culture because he was a Caucasian southerner who sang “blues laced with country, and country laced with gospel.” What that did was to bring music to the American youthful audience that came from “both sides of the color line.” Elvis was, in the beginning, sending a message to the mainstream American culture that “it was time to let go,” Rolling Stone’s writer Mark Kemp explains.

How hot was Elvis in 1956? He had top-40 hits with the following songs: “Heartbreak Hotel” (number one); “I Was the One” (number 19); “Blue Suede Shoes” (number 20); “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” (number one); “Don’t Be Cruel / Hound Dog” (number one); “My Baby Left Me” (number 31); “Love Me Tender” (number one); “Anyway You Want Me (That’s How I Will Be)” (number 20); “Love Me” (number two); and “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold” (number 19). That’s not all Elvis did in 1956 to become a huge cultural impact person — he began filming his first movie, “Love Me Tender,” just the first of many movies that would help him continue to be the music icon of the youth culture. In fact the movie “Love Me Tender” was such a huge hit that it recouped its total cost of production ($1 million) in three days of ticket sales (Kemp).

In 1960, Elvis had five number one hit records: “It’s Now or Never,” “Stuck on You,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “Surrender,” and “Good Luck Charm” (Kemp). And after an eight-year absence from performing live on stage, Elvis did a television special that was broadcast on December 3, 1968. Kemp of Rolling Stone said it was a “surprisingly raw, powerful Elvis special [and] its soundtrack reached number eight on the top 40.” In all Elvis performed over 1,100 concerts, but that television show in 1968 “still stands as one of the most powerful performances in rock history” (Kemp).

His Impact on Popular Music Culture

Growing up in the funky southern town of East Tupelo, Mississippi (he was born January 8, 1935), and moving to Memphis as a young man, Elvis was making a cultural statement well before he was a huge rock star. His “rebellion on Beale Street was a manifestation of a cultural urge that remains prevalent today,” according to the peer-reviewed journal History Today. Elvis was acting out a style as a young man who needed to “fashion an identity apart from those around him,” and hence, he was a white male who dressed more like black folks, and he also interacted with African-Americans (and their music) during the Jim Crowe days in the south. That set him apart in a culture that looked down on blacks.

When he met Sam Phillips (who founded Sun Records), their collaboration became what History Today refers to as “a pillar in the mythology of rock music.” Phillips had been looking for a white singer to emulate the “Negro sound and the Negro feel,” and Phillips was an integrationist who “wanted to change the world” (History Today). This is an important point to make in the context of Elvis becoming a cultural icon that hugely impacted popular music, because Phillips “worked with the young singer over many weeks, patiently drawing out and shaping the music later called rockabilly” — all in the interest of Phillips promoting Civil Rights by helping a white artist infuse the popular music genre with black rhythm and blues themes (History Today).

So, besides becoming an impressive musical icon, Elvis became a sexually provocative cultural star, and he was seen as “another role model [following Marlon Brando and James Dean, movie stars who were seen as rebellious] of generational misunderstanding,” History Today reports. The millions of teens and young people in their early twenties were part of the popular music culture in America that was drawn to Elvis and his antics on stage, and were charmed by the strong and wonderfully masculine voice his music put forward. While millions of middle-class youths were uncomfortable “with the newly-won affluence of their parents, Elvis was uncomfortable with the poverty that was his legacy” in East Tupelo, Mississippi (History Today).

In conclusion, according to History Today, after the Beatles took much of the glory away from Elvis in the early 1960s, he had nonetheless become a “cultural counter-revolutionary for many who were bewildered by the 1960s,” History Today continues. The social and cultural movements in twentieth-century America “allowed him to imagine a new one,” and in doing so, Elvis has become, what Marcie Wallace calls, “The single most significant figure in rock and roll history,” a man whose influence “changed the entertainment industry forever” (Wallace, 2000).

Works Cited

History Today. (2007). Elvis: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s reluctant rebel. Retrieved December 24, 2013,]

From http://www.historytoday.com.

Kemp, M. (2001). Elvis Presley Biography. Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 24, 2013, from http://www.rollingstone.com.

Public Broadcast Service. (1956). Elvis Presley, 1956. KCET. Retrieved December 24, 2013,

from: http://www.pbs.org.

Wallace, M. (2000). History / Elvis Presley: A Revolutionist. Retrieved December 24, 2013,

From http://www.lagrange.edu.