COMMENTARY: Forty years after his demise, Elvis is still the king

The circumstances of how a famous person departs the bounds of Earth often leads to commemorating the date of that person’s death rather than the date of birth. So it is with Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, who passed unexpectedly on Aug. 16, 1977.

Elvis’ status as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century was well-earned. What made Presley so unique was his ability to make his mark on existing fields of music as well as to fuse different forms. He is credited with developing everything from “rockabilly” to the “vocal stutter.” Elvis ended up dominating the fields of music, which influenced him growing up: country, gospel, and blues, while becoming a leading force in the maturation of rock and roll. It is no coincidence that he is the only major musician who is an inductee in the Hall of Fame of all of the aforementioned music areas.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

He had 18 singles which went to No. 1 on music charts and his fans have bought over 1 billion of his records worldwide. Not bad for a lad who never had formal musical training and could not read music.

Clearly, Elvis’ rise to stardom coincided with the popularity of television. In the late 1950s, he used appearances on The Milton Berle Show, Steve Allen Show, and Ed Sullivan Show to highlight new songs. During most of the 1960s, Presley starred in a series of “campy” movies, usually centering on music, women, and fun. Starting with his 1968 Comeback Special, Elvis performed a series of live shows over the next several years, culminating in the 1973 “Aloha From Hawaii” special, regarded as the first live global concert satellite broadcast.

Though a worldwide superstar, Elvis retained a sheepish shyness. Actor and TV host Steve Allen once described Presley as having a “country-boy charisma,” “hard-to-define cuteness,” and “charming eccentricity.”

Elvis admitted he was a mama’s boy, for which he used to be bullied.

As confident a performer that he would become, Elvis’ first recording gig at a radio station was a bust, as he was overcome with stage fright. Certainly, Elvis’ rural upbringing among working class folks endeared him to generations of fans with a similar background. So did his stint in the military. Drafted in 1958, Elvis started as a private and was discharged two years later as a sergeant. Though he insisted on being treated as everyone else, Elvis donated his military salary to charity and bought items for his unit while stationed in Germany.

Elvis’ last few years, which followed his divorce from Priscilla in 1973, were painful for both him and his fans. Elvis, who swore off alcohol and drug use growing up, had become dependent on a series of prescription pills to battle pain, depression, constipation, insomnia, glaucoma, and diabetes. Further, was overweight from a deep-fry diet and realized too late the need for constant exercise.

Toward the end, Elvis forgot the words to songs, canceled tours, and overdosed on two occasions, only to be revived. On the day of his death, he was scheduled to fly out of Memphis to begin another tour. Instead, his then-girlfriend found him unconscious in the bathroom, and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Elvis should be resting soundly in the heavens. There is no other major musician in history whose mannerisms, attire, and voice have been copied more.

Today, 40 years after his passing, Elvis is still a phenomenon: his estate sells $50 million worth of products annually; there are an estimated 15,000 licensed Presley items; Elvis ranks among the top deceased celebrities in sales; and his Graceland estate in Memphis is second only to the White House in annual visitors.

Born in the midst of the Depression, Elvis Presley was both a catalyst and representative of the decades which followed. Though he lacked the staying power of other rock musicians such as Elton John due to his early demise, Elvis lives in the hearts and heads of those who loved him as a person and who continue to celebrate his achievements as an artist.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He is a native of Williamsport, Pa., where he grew up watching Elvis movies during the 1960s.

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