A Look Back…What really made Elvis so popular?

[By Monica Harris]

[Photo is the front cover of Elvis Presley’s debut album (1956).  Photo by William V. Robertson. Cover art copyright RCA/BMG]

Elvis Presley – a name synonymous with rock and roll. A seminal figure in music as well as pop culture.

As I’m currently studying Rock History, I thought I would share what I’ve learned on why Elvis was/is so darn popular.

And it turns out there are several factors that contributed to Elvis’ fame. It wasn’t just his good looks, charm and voice that made him a rock icon.

The media and its new outlets (such as the transistor radio and television), the breakdown of racism, the mass marketing – these had a lot to do with Elvis’ success.

Rock around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets was actually the first rock song to reach number one on Billboard’s charts. But Haley’s music, which preceded Elvis’, was too new and shocking to audiences over 30, leading to the suspicion that rock-and-roll was part of some communist plot to corrupt the minds of American teenagers.

But when Elvis’ first RCA single “Heartbreak Hotel” came out in 1956, it was perfect timing. There were specific historical changes that were taking place in American culture: First, remember, the 1950’s-1960s was the climax of the Civil Rights Movement. Elvis’ music and image helped bridge the gap of imaginary color lines. He was not afraid to sing and dance the way he wanted to, breaking loose the chains of “nice,” conservative White music. At that time, racism was prevalent, especially in the South, but blues and country music by African-American artists was extremely popular, although not readily available to White listening audiences. It was considered underground. What was available to white audiences was conservative musicians who played “nice” music, such as jazz and swing, appealing to mostly older audiences.

When Presley entered the picture with his first recording by Sam Philips, he changed what was acceptable to white audiences – he mixed country and gospel music into rockabilly, and he swayed his hips, letting loose on stage under the influence of the music’s passion. Presley gave people what they wanted: He was a good Southern boy with down home charm. At the same time, he danced and sang with soul like the Black artists, and brought R&B style to the forefront.

Another major change in American culture during the beginning of Elvis’ recording career, which helped plunge him into the mainstream, was the rise of new types of media outlets. During this time, transistor radios were new and extremely popular. You no longer had to attend a live concert in order to hear your favorite singers, or buy a large, heavy radio that stayed stagnant on your living room floor. Transistor radios were pocket sized and portable. They changed the listening habits of music lovers.

Radio stations capitalized on this craze and began pumping Billboard’s “Top 40” hits. Disk jockeys took advantage of their sudden power. In addition to the radio, television shows like the Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand featured more and more young rock singers which guaranteed their popularity and dramatic increase in record sales.

The third thing that impacted Elvis’ success was the extreme marketing skills of Tom Parker, his manager, who was a shrewd business man. Once it was realized how much money could be made from rock and pop songs, music managers and publicists became the norm (and necessary). But most music at the time that was geared toward a teen audience were written for clean-cut teen idols and girl groups. While Elvis’ music offered a more risqué approach, it gave teens music they could call their own. Teen listeners were easily influenced by not only the music but the “image” of Elvis.

Music managers knew they could cash in on this influence and sell other products besides records that marketed the singer’s name. This began the hype of music marketing which continues today. A lot of musicians only get popular based on their image and the hype around a new album, thanks to keen managers and publicists–even when the music is forgettable.

But Elvis is memorable. He is one of the most celebrated musicians of the 20th century. He is the best-selling solo artist in the history of recorded music, with estimated album sales of around 600 million units worldwide. And most of the above-mentioned factors contributed to his success and status as the King of Rock and Roll. ~


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