The Tragic Real-Life Story of Elvis

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
Elvis Presley lived through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. For this video, we'll be looking at the life and career of the King of Rock and Roll. Our countdown includes Life in Mississippi, Commercial Success & Controversy, The Comeback & Downfall, and more!

The Untold Story of Elvis Presley

Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re discussing The Untold Story of Elvis Presley.

For this video, we’ll be looking at the life and career of the King of Rock and Roll.

Are you a big Elvis fan? Let us know in the comments.

Life in Mississippi

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935, to parents Vernon and Gladys. Sadly, Jesse Garon, Elvis’ twin brother, who was delivered half an hour before him, was stillborn. The Presleys were a working-class family struggling to survive during the Great Depression. Vernon worked odd jobs until he was convicted of altering a check in 1938. He was sentenced to three years, though he only served 8 months. But while he was in prison, the Presleys lost their home, forcing Gladys and her son to move in with relatives.

The Presleys attended the First Assembly of God Pentecostal Church where Elvis became mesmerized by gospel music, and when he was 11 years old, he was gifted his first guitar.

The Music of Memphis

In November 1948, 13-year-old Elvis and his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, a big change from life in small town Mississippi. The family moved to the Lauderdale Courts public housing complex. By the time he was in high school, Elvis frequented the Beale Street blues scene and all-night gospel performances.

Elvis graduated from Humes High in Memphis in 1953, and worked as a truck driver for some time. He made his first recording at the age of 18 in the summer of that year. He bought some recording time at Sun Records to make a special two-sided acetate disc for his mother, recording the songs “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” This was how he was discovered by Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. In July 1954, Philips had local musicians Winfield “Scotty” Moore and Bill Black audition Elvis, and record a few songs together. The session wasn’t going so well until Elvis started playing Arthur Crudup’s (CREW-dup) 1946 blues song “That's All Right.” Days later, the song played on the radio and was an instant hit.

Presley, Black, and Moore’s first live performance was at the Bon Air club on July 17, but it was their show at the Overton Park Shell later that month that proved Elvis was a star. He debuted his “rubber legs” moves that would become his signature dance style, causing women to literally scream in the audience. Not long after, the trio started performing and recording regularly together, managed by promoter Bob Neal. After a lackluster response to his first and only performance at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in October, Elvis performed on Louisiana Hayride, and became a regular there on Saturday nights. He was able to trade in his old guitar for a much more expensive one worthy of his musical talents.

Commercial Success & Controversy

In 1955, Elvis was discovered by music promoter Colonel Tom Parker, who became the singer’s “special advisor” and landed him a record deal with ​​a bigger label, RCA Victor. Elvis’ first million-seller “Heartbreak Hotel” debuted on January 27, 1956, and the next day he made his national television debut on “Stage Show”. In March, Parker officially became Elvis’ manager and quickly took control of everything, making sure he earned a big paycheck with every deal. Later that month, Elvis’ first studio album was released, and the singer went on to appear on “The Milton Berle Show”. He also did a two-week Vegas residency, although the older, conservative audiences there were decidedly unimpressed.

But Elvis wasn’t only into music. He also wanted to be a movie star. Parker secured him a seven-picture deal with Paramount, and clearly they made the right decision because his first film 1956’s “Love Me Tender” was a hit. Before it was released in November, Elvis had already appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” which arguably cemented his status as a celebrity.

Elvis Presley’s style put him at the center of controversy with the older crowd, including politicians, producers, and even other artists. His sound was his own version of the Black gospel music and rhythm and blues that he loved growing up, but for white audiences, it was something new and different. Elvis’ provocative moves and gyrating hips sent fans into a frenzy. He was told to tame his act, and was filmed from the waist up during his third “Ed Sullivan” appearance on January 6, 1957.

Military, Movies & Marriage

Elvis received his draft notice in December 1957, but was able to defer until he wrapped filming on “King Creole.” He was officially drafted into the U.S. Army on March 20, 1958, much to fans’ dismay. But RCA made sure to plan for this hiatus and released pre-recorded music while Elvis was overseas. That August, his mother Gladys passed away at the age of 46, and after threatening to go AWOL, her son was granted time to be with his mother for her last days and funeral.

After serving two years, Elvis was honorably discharged and returned home on March 2, 1960. He jumped right back into the studio to record, and in April, he released his fourth album “Elvis Is Back!” However, the star continued churning out movies too, releasing both the film and soundtrack for “G.I. Blues” in 1960. In fact, he dedicated much of the decade to movies, starring in roughly three productions a year while also recording soundtracks for many of them. “Blue Hawaii”, “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and “Viva Las Vegas” are three of the most well-known in his filmography.

While stationed in Germany, the 24-year-old soldier met a then 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu (bole-YUR). The two married on May 1, 1967, in Las Vegas, when Priscilla was 21, though she had moved in with the star several years earlier. The couple had daughter Lisa Marie nine months later on February 1, 1968.

The Comeback & Downfall

After years in Hollywood, Elvis wanted to get back to his music. He did the “68 Comeback Special” and revived his music career, reminding audiences that King still had it. In 1969, he began performing consistently sold out shows in Las Vegas. But Elvis’ growing substance use disorder marked the beginning of the end.

Problems in Elvis and Priscilla’s marriage led to infidelity, allegedly on both sides, and after separating in February 1972, their divorce was finalized in October 1973. The performer’s health was in decline, and he appeared heavily under the influence on several occasions. In 1973, he overdosed twice, with one time resulting in a coma. But Elvis didn’t want to slow down and instead continued to perform while suffering from a myriad of health issues, including hypertension and glaucoma.

After a few more years of grueling tour schedules and concert specials, Elvis performed what would be his last concert. On June 26, 1977, the King played in Indiana and closed out the night with “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

Tragic Death

On August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley was found unresponsive by his then girlfriend Ginger Alden. Though people continue to speculate and theorize, his cause of death was determined to be heart failure, most likely related to his substance use issues and poor health. A funeral was held two days later at his home Graceland (grace land not grace lind), where he was buried next to his mother and grandmother on the property. He was just 42 years old.

Legacy & Cultural Impact

Elvis Presley is one of – if not the – most influential and recognizable artists of all time. His records, live performances, television appearances and movies made him a staple in pop culture, and with countless covers, remixes and tributes, the King’s legacy lives on.

Unfortunately, Elvis has also become a punchline, particularly because of how his appearance changed in his later years as his health suffered.

Elvis’ only child Lisa Marie also got into the entertainment business as a singer/songwriter. Lisa’s late son Benjamin Keough was musically gifted as well, and his sister, actress and filmmaker Riley Keough has a successful career of her own.

Elvis has been the subject of numerous documentaries, shows, and films. Baz Luhrmann’s musical biopic “Elvis” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, receiving a 12-minute standing ovation. The film follows the rising star from his youth into older adulthood, with actor Austin Butler in the titular role. Luhrmann focuses on the relationship between Presley and his controlling manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.

No matter the medium, Elvis Presley continues to be a celebrated music icon with a dedicated, and still growing, fan base spanning all ages.