Generations: The Impact of Elvis

1958 hit song Trouble by Elvis Presley

1958 hit song “Trouble” by Elvis Presley

Kamryn Dumas


   You know who I’m talking about. He’s so iconic that he stands second to none. Elvis made a name for himself and single-handedly changed American culture. After he died in 1977, Elvis left behind a legacy. We recognize his look: sideburns, jumpsuits, gold sunglasses, pompadour. We know his hits: “Jailhouse Rock”, “Hound Dog”, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. Even after all these years, Elvis remains worthy of our attention. 

Early Beginnings

   Everything from Elvis’ humble rise to fame to his glamorous lifestyle piques curiosity today. Elvis signed with his first record deal when he was only 19 years old. Clayton Perry, a fan born in 1944, was right in the thick of it. He recalls Elvis’ ascendance: “Elvis was like the perfect storm of music for young kids. Up to that point, there were other artists that we just put up with, because our parents listened to it.” Later in 1956, Elvis got his big break. Elvis’ versatile voice crossed boundaries and broke barriers. He refreshed the 1950s. He was a Southern nobody going national. He had sexual heat. He sang traditionally black music. Perry (1944) said, “Even though they had a lot of talent with black musicians, there were people like [his managers] who thought, ‘Well God, if we can get a white kid doing this kind of music and really causing a commotion, we’re on to something.’ He just happened to be the good looking boy with the talent at the right time and the right place.” 

On-Stage Persona

   Elvis easily entranced an audience. He not only sang his music, but became it. “He’s a bad boy, getting up there and shaking his hips doing all of these gyrations and getting everybody upset,” Perry (1944) said. Michelle Williams, an Elvis fan born in 1954, wasn’t old enough to remember Elvis’ rise to fame. However, she can remember Elvis’ stage presences and performances. “When he sang the song, you just knew he was relating to the lyrics. A lot of it was his performance, his passion for his material,” Williams said. 

Swoon-Worthy Looks 

   On top of being a natural performer, Elvis’ looks could draw a crowd too. “It wasn’t like he was a good looking guy with a little bit of talent. He was a real good looking guy who had a lot of talent. It was just a perfect deal,” Perry (1944) said. The women adored him. Perry (1944) remembers how his friends used to hate Elvis because of how much the girls liked him. Perry said, “Well God, that kind of made me like him all the while, I wanted to be like him. I didn’t hate him. I wanted some of this stuff that he’s got.” 

The Music 

   With the looks, performance, and talent, Elvis produced incredible music. Perry (1944) described Elvis’ music at first listen: “It was just so good. It touched down on just about every emotion and I think even the young kids of my time, we knew right out of the sheet how great that music was.” 

   Interestingly, though, Elvis majorly sang covers of other artists’ songs. Steve Williams, an Elvis fan born in 1958, noted that although Elvis sang other people’s music, he was still one of a kind. “He did it with such a flare that it didn’t really matter what he was signing,” Steve Williams (1958) said. Elvis performed multiple genres of music, including blues, pop, R&B, country, holiday, soul, country, gospel, alternative, jazz, and folk. He didn’t just play these genres; he conquered them. Michelle Williams (1954) realized that Elvis’ music remains popular, because it brings people together. “People could dance to his music, so there was a fun element. There was a social element,” Michelle Williams (1954) said. Listeners today still can’t help but bust a move. McKenzy Hogan, an Elvis fan born in 2004, loves many of his classics like “Suspicious Minds” and “If I Can Dream”. “They’re so catchy and every time I listen I want to get up and dance around the room,” said Hogan. 

Bigger Than Music

   Elvis means more to people than just his music, though. He lived the rags-to-riches story line. “He came across as a really relatable guy. He lived the American dream,” Michelle Williams (1954) said. “He came out of nowhere, from nothing, became the big star. People can relate to that,” Steve Williams (1958) said. On top of that, Elvis enlisted in the U.S. military for 2 years. “He went to the war. He came back. He bought his mama a house. There was a lot of stuff going on with Elvis that people just loved,” Steve Williams (1958) said. The U.S. Jaycees named Elvis one of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans in 1970. He held benefit concerts, where he would donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to a charitable organization. America loved his talent, but even more, they loved his kindness and humility. Fans also appreciate what he stood for. Many of Elvis’ songs embedded political and social messages. Hogan (2004) said, “Learning about the meaning behind ‘If I Can Dream’ really makes listening to it even more enjoyable.”

A Devastating End

   Because Elvis was such an important artist and icon of his time, his death in 1977 devastated fans. He died young at 42 years old. “It was certainly a sad thing to lose that talent. I was pissed off at him. I didn’t want to lose Elvis,” said Perry (1944). His death was a loss for music then and now. “It would’ve been interesting, if he wouldn’t have died as young as he did, what would music look like today. From 40s to the 50s, there was a huge change in music. It would’ve been interesting to see and to hear if he would’ve made more music into the 70s and 80s. Like look at Elton John. He’s 75 years old. He was still writing hit songs when he was 50. Elvis would’ve had a lot of good years ahead of him,” said Ryan Dumas, an Elvis fan born in 1973.  

   Elvis remains important to young and old today. His music is the backbone of American culture. In fact, his music is timeless. Perry (1944) said, “Sometimes I have a hard time with oldies stations because I’ve heard these songs so many times. But, a good Elvis song, I always listen to it and don’t change the channel.” Younger generations appreciate the classics too. Dumas (1973), said, “Now that I’m older and know about his songs, they’re just memorable tunes. They all stand the test of time, because they’re just catchy tunes and catchy lyrics.” Even new fans like Hogan (2004) feel the magic in Elvis’ songs. “There is something about these songs that never gets old no matter how many times you listen to them,” said Hogan (2004). 

Elvis & Music Today

   So how does Elvis compare to today’s artists? The truth is, no artist can live up to him. Elvis made such a dynamic impact on culture, music, language, clothing, and dance. No other artist has conquered a feat as large as this. Perry (1944) said, “ You could take a rapper fan and ask what their great song was 2 years ago, and I bet you they couldn’t tell you. It’s not that impactful music wise.” Elvis changed how music sounded while paving the way for new genres to exist. Although it’s old, Elvis’ music still draws in new fans. He recorded more than 700 songs, so there’s still so much for old and new fans to explore today. Hogan (2004) said, “Especially now after the Elvis movie came out, a new wave of fans have discovered Elvis and his music, which includes myself. Elvis himself, his life, and music is so captivating it is almost impossible to forget about him and his impact on society.” 

A Decorated Artist 

   Although his popularity surged 66 years ago, Elvis remains on top. Frankly, he remains untouched. Elvis lives on as the best selling artist in history with more than one billion records sold worldwide. More than 150 of Elvis’ albums and songs reached top of the charts. In return, he has 150 certified gold, platinum, or multi-platinum albums and singles. He received 14 Grammy Nominations and was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement Award when he was only 36 years old. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Science’s Hall of Fame inducted 6 of Elvis’ recordings. Elvis is the first artist to have been inducted into the country, rock and roll, and gospel hall of fame. Simply put, Elvis is the most successful solo artist of all time. Elvis’ legacy and sheer talent live on for all generations to enjoy. Steve Williams (1958) said it best: “Elvis was not just a star. He was THE star. I don’t know if there will be anybody bigger.”