Triumph and tragedy: how Elvis remade the musical landscape

Austin Butler in a scene from the movie Elvis.

Austin Butler in a scene from the movie Elvis.

John Bishop is a veteran politician from Wellington.

OPINION: The movie Elvis brought attention to the greatest entertainer of the 20th century, a man who single-handedly changed popular music and culture.

The Life of Elvis Presley is a story of struggle, triumph and tragedy on a Shakespearean scale, one of the epic tales of the 20th century.

In the 1950s I was too young for Elvis, but in the 1960s I saw many of his films and reveled in his early music.

I lament the tottering, drug-ridden wreck he has become at the end, but I welcome the start of Elvis, rebellious, sexy, and so someone of our generation.

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Forty-five years after his death, it’s easy to forget what he achieved: over a billion records sold; no one else comes close. Thirty-four films, including two pioneering worldwide television specials.

Elvis grew up in poverty, born in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi. His music mixed blues (almost exclusively for black people) with country and western (the music of a white person) with gospel (common to both races).

His presentation raised fears, as Baz Luhrmann’s excellent film Elvis shows. The hip twists, bent knees, and provocative twists and thrusts were unmistakably carnal and adults and their teens both knew it.

Elvis Presley performs at the Tupelo Fairgrounds in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1956.


Elvis Presley performs at the Tupelo Fairgrounds in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1956.

The crowds had gone crazy for the singers before. Frank Sinatra drove his female fans, the bobby soxers, crazy in the 1940s, but his stage presence was static. Elvis was anything but.

In a scene from the film depicting one of his early performances, the women in the audience go wild; as the New York Times reviewer put it, “every woman in the room is screaming at the top of her voice, having feelings she’s not sure she should enjoy.”

Elvis was literally sex on a stick. He knew it. Fans knew it, and white parents knew it. And they feared his music would encourage teenage sex, rebellion and, even worse, the mixing of races.

Anyone who doesn’t know how sexy he was should watch Trouble, a song from his 1958 film King Creole (often considered one of his best). The song is a stop-time riff reminiscent of blues standards like Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man.

“If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for trouble, just look me in the face.

Even a crooning ballad like “Are you alone tonight?” was imbued with erotic ardor.

The shaking and swirling evoked the blues, the devil’s music, with its distinct racial overtones. Here was a white boy who sang and moved like a black man, and in the 1950s South, that was totally unacceptable.

John Bishop: The presence of Elvis on stage was very different from that of Frank Sinatra.


John Bishop: The presence of Elvis on stage was very different from that of Frank Sinatra.

I visited Elvis’ home in Memphis, Graceland, twice, and each time was deeply moved by the memorial garden, where he and his brother, Aaron, and his parents, Gladys and Vernon, are buried.

This is the final leg of the house tour before visitors cross the road, called Elvis Presley Boulevard, to the main compound. Graceland is Memphis’ biggest attraction, and the city has provided generous tax incentives to encourage new investment.

By my second visit, in 2019, $100 million had been spent showcasing Elvis the cultural icon and how he remade the musical landscape.

Stars are quoted on his contribution. Keith Richards says Elvis “changed the world from black and white to color”. John Lennon says “before Elvis there was nothing”, which isn’t entirely true but speaks to his lasting impact on music and entertainment.

I am often sad that his life ended like this.

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