“The sideburns,” Sam Phillips told Variety a few years back, detailing the one thing that stood out about Elvis Presley the first time he met him. Phillips knew the singer had style but he wasn’t sure how to best expose it on record. He found it while Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black were fooling around with a blues number. And between July 5, 1954, and October 1957 — the recording of “That’s all Right” for Sun Records through “Heartbreak Hotel” for RCA — Presley changed the look and direction of American popular music.
He was the first artist to synthesize the energy of jump blues, the sentiment of country music and the passion of gospel into one unique package and then dress it up with a pompadour, a curl of the upper lip and a swivel of the hips. Presley’s stage act caused riots, his TV appearances rattled censors and when Phillips sold his contract to RCA for $35,000 in November 1955, losing bidders said no singer was worth that much. Presley proved them wrong almost immediately: advance orders for his first album hit 362,000, making it RCA’s biggest seller before it was even in stores. The King is the best selling solo artist in U.S. history, having sold 117.5 million albums. Seven of his singles have gone multi-platinum, 20 have hit platinum status and 24 are gold.
In the years since Presley’s death in 1977, his legend has only grown. His songs have been repackaged, remixed and reassessed; he’s been forgiven for the goofball movies in the 1960s and gems from those soundtracks have been uncovered by hipsters (“You’re the Boss”) and hitmakers (“A Little Less Conversation”).