Elvis Presley, often credited as the single performer to introduce the mass white audience to the black boogie and blues rhythms of his native south, died yesterday at age 42, possibly of a heart attack.
Presley’s apparently lifeless body was found in his elegant Memphis mansion, Graceland, at 2:30 p.m. by his road manager, Joe Esposito, who went to wake him. Performer’s father, Vernon Presley, and other relatives were present in the house and summoned an ambulance, but the singer never regained consciousness. An hour later, his personal physician, Dr. George Nichopoulos, abandoned efforts to revive him at Baptist Memorial Hospital.
Nichopoulos said heart attack was a possible cause of death, but an autopsy was in progress late in the day.
Presley was to appear today in Portland, Maine, and his longtime manager, Tom Parker, was there when the singer died. He also had a sold-out concert set for Aug. 27 in Memphis.
Elvis Aron Presley was born in Tupelo, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1935, the son of farmworker Vernon Elvis Presley and the former Gladys Smith. A twin brother, Jesse Garon, died at birth. His family was strongly religious, and Presley was a regular churchgoer; singing along at Assembly of God camp meetings, revival tents, and church conventions. When he was still a boy, he asked his parents for a bicycle; so poor that they couldn’t afford one, they volunteered to buy him a $12.95 guitar, instead. That investment was to change the course of popular music.
When Presley was 13, his family moved to Memphis. He attended L. C. Humes High School, working as an usher at Loews State Theatre evenings for $15 a week. When he was offered a job with the Crown Electric Company, driving a truck for $35 a week, he took it immediately.
Presley was sufficiently talented as a singer that he was able to work occasional engagements with bands, at church and social functions. His first recording session, however, was a strictly private affair — a song for his mother as a birthday present. For $4, he cut two songs — “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” at the Memphis Recording Services studios.
A secretary liked what she heard and saw, and recommended Presley to studio owner Sam Philllps. He listened to the crudely cut disk, and passed. A few months later, on Jan. 4,1954, Presley cut two more sides at the studio. This time, Phillips was present, and somewhat more impressed.
Two months after that, Phillips tracked down Presley, to try his voice on a song the studio owner had liked. Presley was unable to record an acceptable take of that song or any of several others. Phillips arranged for Presley to meet a local guitarist, Scotty Moore, who brought in a neighbor, bassist Bill Black. On July 6, 1954, the three returned to the recording studios. The first song taped was a country ballad standard, “I Love You Because.”
During a break in the session, Presley began to sing a country blues tune by black singer Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, “That’s All Right.”
Phillips knew that what he heard had tremendous potential. For years, Phillips had been telling friends, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Presley met those requirements like nobody who had been heard before.
The second song recorded at that session was an uptempo version of a bluegrass tune, Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon Of Kentucky.” That disk would set Presley’s style for years; a fast, rhythmic tune backed by a slow, country number. Presley’s most recent single, currently on the charts, was a turn on that formula: a fast, gospel-flavored tune, “Way Down,” backed by the rhythm and blues classic, “Pledging My Love.”
At first, local disk jockey reaction was slow to come. And when it did, the reaction was often one of confusion and dislike for what was, by all current standards, a most unusual record. Fans, however, took to Presley immediately. The first single, on Phillips’ soon-to-be-historic Sun label, became a regional hit on both country and rhythm and blues stations.
Presley’s success as a live performer came quickly. Billed as “The Hillbilly Cat,” he toured the south incessantly with Moore and Black, driving crowds to hysteria with his vocalizing and hip-swinging theatrics.
His first single to reach the national country charts was another Crudup tune, “Baby, Let’s Play House.” It reached No. 10 nationally.
Presley released five singles on Sun; for the last sessions, Moore and Black were joined by drummer D. J. Fontana, who became a regular member of Presley’s backup band until the unit broke up in 1960 (Black went on to become a successful bandleader until his death in the mid’ 60s; Moore and Fontana are currently recording engineers in Tennessee).
It was at about that time that Presley’s management was picked up by Col. Tom Parker, a former carnival owner and medicine show huckster, who had been involved with country music performers like Eddy Arnold.
In 1906, RCA Victor Recordd purchased Presley’s recording contract, plus all existing master tapes, from Phillips for $35,000. Presley himself received a $5,000 bonus from the company.
With a major label behind him, Presley was in short order booked on national television programs hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan. Offended by Presley’s hip-swinging, tv directors ordered his image cut off at the waist. It didn’t matter. Presley became a national superstar overnight.
In the ensuing years, Presley released more than 80 singles for RCA, and nearly that number of albums — including two boxed sets of 50 “golden hits” and various recouplings. In 1965, Daily Variety estimated that Presley’s recordings had grossed $100,000,000 for RCA. Presley’s most recent album, “Moody Blue,” was pressed in a blue-vinyl “limited edition” of some 250,000 copies; after those are sold, says the label, disk will be pressed on regular black compound.
Presley was inducted into the Army in 1958. Fears that his recording career would slow down proved false. Serving in an armor unit in Germany, passing up an opportunity to sing in Special Services at Army pay, he had stockpiled enough tapes to see him safely through. His first poatservice single, “Stuck On You,” reached No. 1 within weeks of release.
Presley’s film debut, “Love Me Tender,” was released by 20th-Fox in 1956. A Richard Egan-starrer originally titled “The Reno Brothers,” the pic was quickly retitled to capitalize on the fame of the singer, whose role was relatively minor. He went on to make 33 films, of which the last two were documentaries of the singer on tour. Ensuing Presley vehicles were generally released by Paramount and MGM. Presley maintained a longstanding relationship with producer Hal Wallis, though he made several films for others.
Though Presley’s acting style was often praised, particularly in “King Creole,” directed by Michael Curtiz, and Don Siegel’s “Wild In The Country,” the singer seemed to prefer spending as little time as possible on the set; films were often shot around Presley’s scenes, so that he would have to work only one or two weeks at a time. It was said the he always knew his lines and the flow of the story as it concerned other characters.
Recording sessions for these quickies were also generally throwaways, and the soundtrack albums issued in limited quantities (causing several to become valuable collector’s items, though often of dubious musical merit). Presley’s costars through the years included Dolores Del Rio, Barbara Stanwyk, Nancy Sinatra, Ann-Margret, Carolyn Jones, Juliet Prowse and Mary Tyler Moore. Walter Matthau played a gangster in “King Creole.” Presley played his own cousin in “Kissin’ Cousins.”
The Presley television career was spotty after the initial rush of variety-show appearances. A relative lapse in his career during the mid-’60s brought about a special for NBC in 1968, produced and directed by Steve Binder and featuring a combination of live footage and elaborate production numbers. He later appeared on a special with Frank Sinatra, and his own 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii,” recorded at a concert in Honolulu.
CBS filmed two midwestern concerts earlier this year, originally slated for broadcast Oct. 3; the date rnay now be moved up. Shortly after the 1968 “comeback” special, Presley returned to live appearances. His last concert had been a date in Hawaii just prior to his army induction In 1908. Presley’s return was at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, ironic in light of the fact that he had bombed terribly in that city in the mid-’50s, with the older audience not yet ready for his music or stage presence.
By 1969, Presley’s audience had grown up and were ready to see him perform there. He entered a profitable agreement with the hotel, now the Las Vegas Hilton, that was still in force when he died; he was due to return to the Hilton later this year.
Following the successful International engagement, Presley embarked on a series of sold-out cross-country tours. Unusual aspect was that p.a.’s were promoted by RCA Victor special division, set up for that purpose and that performer only. Presley never appeared outside of the U.S.
Presley was a legendary character as well as a legendary performer. Forced by his fame to live a reclusive life at his Memphis Grace land manse (at the foot of Elvis Presley Blvd.), his rare forays into public would always cause commotion.
A favorite Presley move, combining a goodwill gesture with a kind of prank, would be to purchase new Cadillacs for total strangers; something he did on many occasions, as recently as this year. He would also gift his staff and girlfriends extensively and expensively.
Never forgetting his downhome roots and solidly religious upbringing, Presley gave extensively to charities. In 1961, he raised $51,000 for various Memphis funds. In 1965, he gave $1,000,000 to the Motion Picture & TV Fund. In 1968, one of his several gold Cadillacs was exhibited in Australia, raising $128,000 for local charities. And so on. Presley recorded a number of religious-oriented albums, considered to be among his very finest efforts.
In recent years, Presley’s career boomed while his personal health fared far less well. He became noticeably obese, up as much as 70 pounds from his 175- lb. fighting weight.
Associates point to his steady diet of junk food, especially soft drinks, jelly doughnuts, and banana splits. Climax may have occurred in Baltimore May 29, when Presley walked off stage after 20 minutes, later returning pleading “twisted ankle.” Concert grossed $180,000 with Civic Center seating expanded to 12,900.
Though Presley was under continuous medical treatment, often entering Memphis hospital for “fatigue” and once for “eye surgery,” seriousness of his ailment wasn’t apparent to even closest associates.
Presley had been married, to the former Priscilla Beaulieu, and has one daughter, Lisa, 9. The marriage lasted from 1967 until 1973; the former Mrs. Presley currently lives in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, Presley was living in Memphis, though he maintained a home in Palm Springs. He had, until recently, owned houses in Los Angeles, as well.
Louis Couttolenc, president of RCA Records, said late yesterday, “Elvis Presley was the greatest legend of the modern entertainment world. He ushered in the rock music era, forever changing the taste of the music-loving public.
“The legend is lost to us, and all the hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives were in some way touched by his music can only be greatly saddened by his death. We at RCA Records are proud to have been associated with this great artist for the past 22 years.”