On the hot August night of August 16, 1977, a man died. Today we mark the 45th anniversary of the death of The King of Rock and Roll. History recorded this man’s existence as someone who made great contributions to the world. An ordinary man; beloved the world over. His name was Elvis Aron Presley.
At the time of his death and even today, the mention of just his first name throughout the corners of the world would elicit a knowing response from most. Everyone today either knows of or has heard his name. At the time of his death, he was known the world over by ordinary people and celebrities alike. He was revered by civic, religious, and world leaders and millions adored him. His name, if spoken, in most cases, would evoke a positive response.
He had a career in music, but he also had a great career as an actor. However, in the music industry, he was a legend. He had personally inspired many of the greats who came after him. The Beatles, Bob Dillon, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. Each traces their roots to this single person.
Elvis: The King of Rock and Roll
In history, Elvis Presley is remembered as an ordinary man who achieved enormous success. Despite his youth and lack of experience, he overcame whatever obstacles before him to rise to one of the most beloved entertainers in world history. When he died in 1977, Elvis Presley was known in almost every country in the world. His music is played across the entire globe. At any moment in the day, a song sung by Elvis Presley can be heard playing somewhere. A radio show on SIRIUS XM Satellite Radio plays Elvis Presley songs 24x7x365 days a year–without commercial interruption.
In my book Elvis Presley: The King of Rock and Roll, I explain why on September 9th, 1956, he was crowned the King of Rock and Roll.
Kings are usually known for who they are, as well as the legacy they leave behind. It is important to understand that as a king, Elvis was the least prepared to be one. However, he was also the most elegant and humble king there ever was. His focus was one thing, his fans that made him famous. I do not believe that Elvis ever uttered an impolite word or was upset at a fan. Even the photographers – now called paparazzi, were never treated harshly. Elvis knew from his humble beginnings that stardom could be an elusive dream. Many entertainers came and went in an instant. 65 years later, and after his death 45 years ago, Elvis Presley still reigns as King, and that does not look like it will ever change. His legacy has been engraved. His legend grows.
The term The King of Rock and Roll holds an altogether different meaning today than when Elvis was a young teenager over 65 years ago. From today’s perspective, it is difficult for an individual to see Elvis’s effect on music culture and the revolutions he ushered in. Rock and Roll music evolved so much since the early 1950s that the revolution does not seem distinct today. Looking at a legend from the end result is different from witnessing the event and what caused him to be a legend.
The Context of History
The term King of Rock and Roll, cannot be understood in context, people must look at the term in the historical perspective that conceived it. To understand the enigma and the term the “King of Rock and Roll,” we must look at the overall effect he had on music, the industry itself, and the entirety of popular culture. One might say that Elvis altered the trajectory of history from that single moment in July of 1954 when he strummed a little-known rhythm and blues song to stop from fidgeting. It was a distinct moment that changed the world.
Anyone looking at the Elvis Presley mystique must look beyond the hype that started from reactions to seeing his live performances. That is another course of the transformation of the culture.
Unfortunately, the sexual connotation and vehement reaction to him obfuscate his impact on the music industry. It also clouds the effect he had on the culture over the course of time. Of course, the swiveling hips and the raw sexual nature of his persona took the proverbial covers off of a generation. A generation repressed and looking for someone to lead them. On that point, there could be no debate. However, something more was happening that is quite often overlooked. Elvis Presley changed the world.
The Revolution was in the Music
Elvis Presley and the revolution that he unwittingly ushered in, would alter our culture. The magnitude of Elvis’ performances, along with his personal charm and poise, merged two different and opposing cultures, both musically and culturally. In the early 1950s, black or “negro” rhythm and blues music was socially unacceptable in some white communities in the south. Rock and Roll music’s prominence was occurring during a time when music was segregated as much as the culture to which it belonged.
In many homes in the USA, the cultural divide was too great and was disruptive. However, Elvis Presley was able, through his performances and his raw magnetism, along with his charming presence, to blend these sounds, and with it the culture. Allowing the integration of music, for a youth audience thirsting for something new.
Altering the Trajectory of History
Elvis Presley, even if no one had ever seen him perform, caused the most dramatic change of trajectory in the history of not only popular music but in the culture of this country as well. Leading a cultural awakening of our entire society. August 16, 2022, marks the 45th anniversary of his untimely death. It is the implausible effect of Elvis on the landscape of society, that is lost in the translation.
Unfortunately our society, while celebrating a life lived, only judges the end result; adopting an entirely new musical genre. The hype and hoopla, lost. Elvis Presley had stopped regularly interviewing after 1956, so the only words we heard from him were early on. Words he had spoken when he was quite young and more apt to open himself to the interviewer.
Elvis altered a sound and transformed it. In a candid, unscripted moment of his 1968 television special, Elvis describes Rock and Roll as the “fusion between gospel and rhythm and blues.” Rock and Roll music started a change in how people who lived at the time saw themselves. Changing how the nation saw and would eventually see itself, and ultimately, the entire world was affected.
The Impact on our Culture
Elvis Presley’s impact within the music industry is the first effect. Ultimately the message started spreading to the culture of the time. The impact led to a consequential effect on civil rights and desegregation. Elvis Presley and his music began a change not only in the United States, but started a chain reaction, first in Britain and then ultimately the entire world. His natural way of handling himself, was seen as the cause of the ripple effect. An effect that is felt even today.
Arguably, Elvis had as much of an impact on the civil rights movement as any one person that preceded him. An effect that occurred without Elvis talking about it as a movement or his effect on it. The catalyst effect was very much understated, and just the fact that he blended the sounds of rhythm and blues, hillbilly, and gospel music, had an immense effect on the culture of the time. This effect was something that the world has not seen before or ever since.
Elvis saw people and music as singular. Elvis did not see skin color as the definition of people. To Elvis, it was all about character and loyalty. It was how he opened the world to the new musical genre. An uncontrived innocent moment. It became a sound that would ultimately become color blind. Regardless of who sang a song or what color/race the performers were. That was the revolution.
Ushering in a Revolution
Elvis Presley single-handedly broke the color barrier, resulting in a revolution of sound, pop music, and culture at the same time. Before that moment, the color of the performer’s skin would define a song’s success. Afterward, the song’s content and melody became the reason for its acceptance, it became the new deciding factor, ultimately becoming the norm for accepting a song as well as the performer.
Elvis Presley is seen as the single spark ushering in the largest musical, sexual, and cultural revolution the world had or would possibly ever see. When you think of cultural revolutions, you think of battles for thought and struggles for ideology. In history, the result of a revolution occurs in the realignment of societal norms.
History has shown us that revolutions are mostly violent, based on a grassroots demand for change. Unfortunately, they are always ushered in at the barrel of a gun or knife. They are usually subject to riots, great upset, and upheaval. People take to the streets to demand change and acceptance. Society pushes back, and the wars begin.
History tells us that revolutions do not occur quietly, regardless of if the message may be peaceful. The people who deliver peaceful messages (Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr) end up sparking political and cultural anarchy. That did not happen with this musical revolution called Rock and Roll. Music was leading the charge. Elvis became the pied piper, and the youth followed him – much to their parents’ consternation. Music was the beginning of the baby boomer revolution for identity and ownership of the culture.
Elvis Presley’s Effect on the World
Elvis Presley ushered in a revolution that changed the world as it stood in 1954. The effects on our society are still felt today. Simultaneously, the existing culture refused to accept or acknowledge the ultimate effects by blaming the effect on an evil and sinister reality. It really was a peaceful, almost surreal change. Along with the music, Elvis Presley brought with him peaceful change and optimism, optimism he single-handedly brought to the world. The only tool for this revolution was a voice and a guitar. Elvis Presley might have been the first person who changed the world peacefully without a single shot fired or murder occurring. After his first song, he became known at that moment the world over by his single distinct name: Elvis.
Elvis Presley ultimately would bring change to the world, altering the trajectory of history like few before him or after him could ever do. As a matter of fact, the effect he had was lasting, as the embers of his life and the fire he ignited are still burning today. In this case, the revolution Elvis created was both substantial and covert in its effects. Before anyone knew it, the effects of his sound and presence permeated every part of American society.
On August 16, 1977 Elvis died, and the entire world wept. It is tragic that he died at the young age of 42 years old. Elvis’ death was, in a way, similar to how he performed. He left the world wanting and yearning for more. Unfortunately, the flame may have died, the embers of his life and legacy left smoldering. Actually, they have been raging to this day and will continue forever.