We all know Elvis Presley as the King of rock and roll, but how did this Mississipi-born boy go from life in a trailer park to an international superstar? We're telling his life story through a series of rare photographs. 

The twinless twin

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A young Elvis with his parents Gladys and Vernon, shortly before his father's arrest in 1938. Image via Storify

Elvis Aron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935. His identical twin brother Jesse, was delivered stillborn 25 minutes before him.

Presley’s parents married when his father Vernon was 17 and his mother Gladys was 21. They had to lie about Vernon’s age for the ceremony because he was underage.

The pair originally met because they were dating each other’s siblings. When it became clear they were more fond of each other, the foursome simply switched and the two sisters married the two brothers.

Elvis was the couple’s only child so he formed a strong bond with his parents, especially his mother. She became his primary carer when Vernon was jailed for eight months over fraud in 1938

 

 

First notes

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Elvis sits at the back of his biology class at Humes High School in the 1950s. Image via Elvis Collectors

Presley was 10 years old when he entered his first singing contest, at the Mississippi-Alabama state fair. He was encouraged by a teacher who had heard him sing the country song 'Old Shep' during morning prayers.

Dressed as a cowboy and standing on a chair to reach the microphone, he placed fifth. A few months later he received his first guitar, a gift for his birthday. Little Elvis had hoped for a bicycle or a rifle but after lessons from his uncles and pastor he soon began taking the guitar to school each day. After that, he learned to play by ear.

By this time Elvis was a devoted fan of local radio and country music star Mississippi Slim. Slim’s younger brother was in his class at school, and after being dragged to the studio a couple times, Elvis managed to get himself two on-air performances. Presley was just 12.

 

 

A teenager in Memphis

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Dancing to his first recordings with then girlfriend, Barbara Hearn in 1956. Image via Elvis.com

Teenage Presley stood out from his classmates. When a music teacher told him he didn’t have the talent for singing, he brought in his guitar and sang a recent chart hit ‘Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me’ to try and prove her wrong. He didn’t succeed.

He was also styling his hair with rose oil and Vaseline, growing out his sideburns and wearing flashy clothes that he bought from the infamous Lansky Brothers store.

Another talent show finally won him success with his peers. Looking back on the performance, Presley reflected; “nobody even knew I sang. It was amazing how popular I became after that.”

 

 

A fledgling star

The Sun studios
Elvis Presley, Sam Phillips, Leo Soroka, Robert Johnson at Sun Recording Studios. Image via Rolling Stone

In August 1953, Elvis Presley paid to record a two-sided disc at Sun Records. Asked by the receptionist what kind of singer he was, he simply replied, “I sing all kinds” and when she pressed him, “I don’t sound like nobody.” After he finished, head of the studio Sam Phillips asked the receptionist to note down his name.

Presley continued to audition and perform throughout 1954, but was constantly rejected because he “couldn’t sing”.

Sun meanwhile, was searching for a singer who could bring the sound of black musicians to a wider audience. In fact, Phillips himself said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” When Presley came by the studio, Phillips asked him to sing as many songs as he knew and subsequently booked him for a recording session.

The session ran way into the night, with little success. Just as the band packed up to go home, however, Elvis burst into a performance of the blues song, ‘That’s Alright’. Phillips was still working, and with the studio door open he overheard the performance. This was the sound he’d been waiting for. ‘That’s Alright’ became Presley’s first single.

 

 

“A strip-tease with clothes on”

Elvis dance
Dancing with Ann-Margaret in Viva Las Vegas

In 1956, Presley made his first recordings for RCA in Nashville, including ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. It was his first number one hit, and his self-titled debut album was released on March 23 of the same year.

The album went on to define the emerging sound of rock and roll with tracks including ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

After a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a letter was sent from a local Catholic diocese’s newspaper to the then FBI director, Edgar J Hoover.

It claimed that Presley was “a definite danger to the security of the United States… His actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth… Indications of the damage Presley did just in La Crosse were the two high school girls… whose abdomen and thighs had Presley’s autograph.” They called the show nothing more than “a strip-tease with clothes on”.

One critic from the New York Daily News reported that music had “reached its lowest depths in the ‘grunt and groin’ antics of one Elvis Presley.”

To his displeasure, the singer was already becoming known as Elvis the Pelvis.

 

 

Fighting off fans

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Excited fans try to get 21-year-old Elvis's autograph. Image via Smithsonian

Elvis’s audiences were becoming increasingly frenzied. When he performed at the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair, 50 National Guardsmen joined the police security detail in order to control the crowds.

By the end of his first full year at RCA, Presley’s music was already accounting for over 50 percent of the label’s sales.

Two days after a provocative performance of ‘Peace in the Valley’ on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957, the Memphis draft board announced that Presley would be conscripted into the army later that year.

Before he was deployed, he purchased Graceland, an 18-room mansion where he intended to live with his parents. He lived there until his death and would add a trophy room, TV room (where he could watch several TV shows at once) and several sports courts over time. 

 

 

The singing sergeant

Elvis getting his medical checks
Getting his army medical checks. Image via Buzzfeed

Presley’s personal life underwent many changes while he served in the army. First, his mother was diagnosed with hepatitis. He was granted emergency leave but she passed away just two days after he returned home. He was devastated.

It was also during his time in the army that Presley met his future wife, Priscilla Beaulieu. She was just 14-years-old .

In her memoirs, Priscilla remembers the Elvis she knew then as a passionate, but not overtly sexual man. She says he insisted they waited until their wedding night (seven years after their initial meeting) to consummate their marriage, and indeed their first daughter was born almost exactly nine months after the ceremony.

Elvis was discharged from the army with the rank of sergeant in 1960. In the decade that followed, he would make an impressive 27 feature films.

 

 

The King of Hollywood

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Having his makeup touched up on the set of Love Me Tender. Image via Tumblr

Elvis’s first film was Love Me Tender, released in 1956. The film was originally titled The Reno Brothers but when sales of his single surpassed one million—the first song ever to do so—the title was changed to match.

Presley’s desire to be an actor actually predated his music career and went back to his youth, where he worked as a cinema usher and dreamed of following in the footstep of his screen idols like James Dean and Marlon Brando.

On the first day of filming, Presley turned up having perfected not only his lines, but everyone else’s as well. His only hesitation was that his character died in the film.

He was convinced that this would mean audiences remembered his part more, but after seeing his mother crying during test screenings, he promised he would never again die on screen.

Though all of Presley’s films were commercially successful, the media panned them; in fact, one critic named Andrew Caine, called them a “pantheon of bad taste”. 

 

 

The Priscilla proposal

Elvis Prisilla
At their wedding in 1967. Image via Kiss the Bride

Elvis proposed to Priscilla in 1966. They married the following year in a short ceremony in a suite at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas.

In 1985, Priscilla wrote a memoir about her marriage entitled Elvis and Me. In it, she notes that he was addicted to prescription drugs from the very first time she visited him in America. Their marriage was a tumultuous one, and Elvis had several affairs, most notably with the singer and actress Ann-Margaret, who he co-starred with in Viva Las Vegas.
 

Elvis wedding

Though Presley denied any rumours of an affair, the scandal came to a head when Ann-Margaret announced to the Los Angeles press that they were engaged. Outraged, Priscilla hurled a vase across the room at Elvis and screamed that Ann-Margaret should “keep her ass in Sweden where she belongs.” Two weeks later, Elvis returned to Graceland, admitted the affair and promised it was over.

The couple only had one child, Lisa Marie, and Priscilla was so anxious about weight gain during the pregnancy that at the time of giving birth she weighed less than she had before becoming pregnant.

On 9 October 1973, the couple divorced, sharing custody of their daughter. They remained so close throughout proceedings that they were even photographed holding hands when they left court.

The Depeche Mode song 'Personal Jesus' was inspired by the couple’s relationship. Martin Gore, the song's composer, told Rolling Stone, “It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships. How everybody's heart is like a god in some way, and that's not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”
 

 

 

From pop to politics

Elvis Nixon
Meeting the President in 1970. Image via Slash Film

In December 1970, Presley secured a meeting with President Nixon where he expressed his growing anxiety over the drug usage and counterculture that had grown during the 1960s.

He requested a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge and explained his suspicion of The Beatles, who he saw as anti-American.

Hurt by the comments, Paul McCartney later said, “the great joke was that we were taking [illegal] drugs, and look what happened to him.”

Read our review of the film that captured this strange meeting, Elvis and Nixon 

 

 

Final years

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Elvis in his later years. Image via Rebecca Clark

By the start of the 1970s, Presley’s health had rapidly deteriorated. Towards the end of 1973—the same year as his divorce—he was hospitalised in a semi-comatose state. He had already overdosed twice on barbiturates a few months before, once spiralling into a three-day coma in his hotel suite.

He had played 168 concerts in 12 months and embarked on an equally gruelling tour schedule in 1974.

His guitarist at the time, John Wilkinson, recalls in Elvis: The Final Years, a performance where “[he] was all gut. He was slurring. He was so f*cked up… It was obvious he was drugged. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad that the words to the songs were barely intelligible… I remember crying.”

 

Elvis Shirley Diew
With his friend Shirely Diew in 1977. Image via Pinterest

The singer was now noticeably overweight, described as a “grotesque caricature of his sleek, energetic, former self” by journalist Tony Scherman. He was gripped by paranoid obsessions, including the suspicion that Priscilla’s new partner—karate instructor Mike Stone—was out to kill him. He had glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage and an enlarged colon.

On the evening of August 16 1977, he was scheduled to begin another tour. Instead, he was found by his then fiancée, Ginger Alden, unresponsive on his bathroom floor.

The King of rock and roll’s funeral was held at Graceland, where he was buried next to his mother. 80,000 people lined the processional route. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, thousands still gather at Graceland for a candlelight ritual which celebrates his memory. 

 

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Header image via NY Daily News

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