Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling
Living Legends: Elvis Presley's Friend, Confidante & Business Partner Jerry Schilling On His Lifelong Relationship With The King
Jerry Schilling's tender friendship with the King is a core component of his identity, but his story wouldn't mean much if he wasn't a fascinating character in his own right. In this interview, he goes deep on how Elvis Presley irrevocably shaped him.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Jerry Schilling, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship and business relationship with Elvis Presley — and has worked as a manager of other pillars of American music, like the Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jerry Schilling holds a rare distinction in the music business, and in the human race writ large: he's possibly the one living person closest to Elvis Presley without being bonded by blood.
But as compelling as that story is — as Schilling lovingly detailed in his 2006 memoir, Me and a Guy Named Elvis — it's just as fascinating to wonder what Schilling would be doing had he never met the King, or if Elvis had never existed.
By the time he was quarterbacked by Presley at a 1954 touch-football game, Schilling had been throttled by circumstance. His mother died when he was a baby. A succession of illnesses stymied him at school. But he got physically and educationally back on track, with dreams of being a football coach and a history teacher.
All the while, the sounds of rhythm and blues inspired and galvanized him, charting the course for a life in music that would provide deliverance from his circumstances.
In other words, Schilling was made of stern stuff — which the perceptive Presley arguably picked up on early. That quality is partly what made Schilling a compelling character in his own right, rising from very little to work so closely with a foundational American figure. And after Elvis passed in 1977, he continued to carve out his unique place in music history.
Schilling went on to have fruitful business relationships with Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys and Lisa Marie Presley, and was depicted by Luke Bracey in Baz Luhrmann's 2022 film Elvis. (Note: this interview took place prior to the film's release.) But if you're curious about what it was really like to be around the King at pivotal points in his career, pick up Me and a Guy Named Elvis, which provides an exquisite glimpse into the King at his most human and vulnerable.
For a crystallized version of that story, read on for an interview with Schilling about his hard-knock origins, what it felt like to meet Presley and how he continues to carry the King around in his heart and mind.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Meeting Elvis was a fundamental pivot point in your life. But I'm curious: if you'd never met him, or if he never existed, where do you think your life would have gone?
My early childhood was so bad. Not having a mother, being sick all the time, missing so much school in the first grade that I had to repeat it, which was embarrassing. My grandparents were poor, just very poor — lower class, white, but just wonderful human beings.
I met Elvis about the time that my older brother had kind of forced me into football. I was playing grade-school football and I made the team in the fourth grade — fourth to eighth grade. And I don't know what's the chicken or the egg, but it's about the same time as when I met Elvis.
All of this is when I was 12 years old, between getting into sports, getting healthy, and becoming a friend of Elvis, before he was Elvis. Which, I guess, gave me a lot of confidence, too. That this guy took off immediately — the week that we met was the same week he recorded his first record.
So, if I hadn't met Elvis, to answer your question, I think because I became good at football through school, my scholastic [career got] better. I was president of the class for all four years of high school. I always wanted to go work for Elvis back in the '50s, but I was in grade school and high school. He went on the road and we kept a relationship.
When he came back to Memphis, we'd hang at the movie theater at night. When he bought Graceland, I was always welcome at Graceland at nighttime. I kind of went on with my own life. Forgot about working for Elvis. I got a football scholarship at Arkansas State University and majored in history. I was planning to be — hopefully — a football coach and history teacher.
You know, nothing wrong with that life either.
No, no, but I think I made the right choice. I got hurt in my junior year playing football, so I came back to Memphis and went to the University of Memphis for about a year and a half to finish my education.
I was chosen to practice teaching. They take one student out of education, and you practice teaching the last semester, a grade-school class. So, I was chosen to do that. I was loading trucks at night. I worked at the airport at the ticket counter in the daytime because my family didn't have money to send me to college.
So, when I would go home from the trucking company — which was 9:00 at night, or whenever — I would pass by the Memphian Theater. If Elvis and the guys were in town, I would go to a service station, change [out of] my trucking clothes, and act like I just showed up for the movie.
One night, Elvis was at the screening. He just looked really tired. He was down in front of the screen — these private showings at night. I walked in and thought, "You know what? I'll see them tomorrow. I'll come back tomorrow night." I didn't want to bother him.
One of the guys that worked for him said, "Jerry, do you want to go back to the film exchange with me, and then we'll have an early breakfast?" Elvis had access to the mid-South film exchange, and he could pick movies.
We got to the film exchange, and Elvis called Richard and said, "You know where I can find Jerry?" He says, "Well, he's here with me." He said, "Would you ask him if he'd come out to the house?" We never called it Graceland. It was always "the house." I go out there; Rich is living at Graceland. He goes to bed, and Elvis and his father walk down from upstairs.
His father leaves, and Elvis and I are out on the front porch. He said, "I need you to come work for me."
Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling.
Yeah. I said, "When?" He said, "Well, now." I thought for about 10 seconds, and said, "Well, can I go home and get some clothes?" He said, "Sure."
The next day, I had to quit two jobs. I had to tell the university that I wasn't going to practice to teach. I had to tell my father, respectfully, and he was so proud that I worked my way through college — because he only got through grade school.
He said, "Well, I've always trusted your judgment. You sure this is what you want to do? What are you going to do with them?" I said, "I don't know."
That night, I rush back to Graceland. Everybody's sleeping all day because they're very nocturnal — and what's now called the Jungle Room was a screened-in porch. I stood out there all day, and then people started loading up this little bus that Elvis drove. A Winnebago, believe it or not. And we set out for the 2,000-mile journey from Memphis to L.A.
That pretty much changed my life. We stopped at truck stops at nighttime. And when there were lights, Elvis would throw football passes to me, and we slept at the motels in the daytime. I went from the poor section of Memphis, and when we got to L.A., I was living in Bel-Air.
I couldn't go to sleep when we got there. There was a pool in the backyard There was this indirect lighting, and stuff I'd never seen in my life — not even at Graceland. That was the start.
And to flash back to that first football game, it seems like Elvis's personality and drive were immediately on display. The guy you would know for the rest of his life was right there.
Absolutely. I was unconsciously looking for a role model. I was a big fan of James Dean and [Marlon] Brando. When I went to the park by myself on a Sunday afternoon, the park was nothing but dirt, a little wading pool, and horses. A very poor part of Memphis.
I was there by myself, and one of the older guys, Red West, I knew was a big high-school football player. He said, "Hey, Jerry, do you want to play?' They only had five guys and needed a sixth player. They were all six or seven years older than me. So, I said "Yeah." It was three-on-three, go into the huddle.
Jerry Schilling and Elvis Presley. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling.
I had been listening to Dewey [Phillips'] "Red, Hot and Blue" since I was 10 years old, because he played rhythm and blues records — which was exciting. It was dangerous in the '50s, in the South, [and this was] Black music.
That night, before this day, Dewey played this record from a boy from Humes High, where my cousins went and my mother had gone. From my grade school, you could physically see Humes High, and vice versa. Dewey said "A boy from Humes High" when he played the record, to distinguish that Elvis wasn't Black.
The record kept getting requested, so Dewey got in touch with Sam Phillips, and they made a connection with the Presley family. Elvis knew they were playing the record that night. He was very nervous, so he went to this little movie theater in north Memphis. When this fellow went to interview him — that people liked his record — he just kind of stuttered, which was cool.
When I went into the huddle — me, Red and Elvis — I went, "Wow, that's the boy from Humes High. He had the rebel-ness of James Dean. If I remember correctly, he was in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. There weren't the rhinestones or anything. He didn't have a hit record.
Elvis didn't even have a hit record in Memphis. But he was somebody that I went, "Wow, I want to be like that guy." He would laugh if he heard me say that today. He had Dean, Brando, and a quiet little smile that was on the warm side, so you could like him. "OK, I know you're the young kid. Can you catch the ball?"
He made me feel comfortable. That was my first impression, and over the years, I got to meet, work with, be friends with a lot of well-known entertainers and actors and whatever. Elvis was the only one without credentials.
(L-R) Richard Nixon, Sonny West, Jerry Schilling, Elvis Presley. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
As a figure, Elvis has been unfortunately been flattened with time, but I think that's changing. Can you talk about how he was an absorber and fuser of disparate styles?
He was so eclectic. He got stuff from everybody, and then he made it his own. He was the most eclectic human being I ever met in my life.
He could see somebody walking and go, "Hey, Jerry, look at that guy!" It might have been on a movie set. Now, I'm remembering this specifically. He said, "I'm getting ready to do the '68 special. I'm going to use that guy's walk." It was a good actor named Billy Murphy, who was quite a character.
By the way, Elvis loved characters to be around sometimes. You can think of a person that would get something from a famous person, right? But, a person that gets something from somebody that's not famous and puts it into his whole makeup? That was Elvis.
What about him would you like to correct? What do we get wrong about him today?
I think, most importantly, his genius in music. He was a very smart guy. I think what he didn't get were the opportunities to fully be the entertainer and actor he could have been.I've said this before — and I don't like to say the same thing twice — but I think I lost my friend at an early age because of creative disappointments.
I'm not blaming Colonel Parker. Being a manager is a big part of my career. If somebody can come in and make a deal with your artist, you're not going to be a manager for very long.
[Elvis] wasn't in good shape before the '68 special. Nobody would know that, but with that special, he went into training like Muhammad Ali and he looked great. Lost 25 pounds, got a suntan. Obviously, there were other problems, but they were caused by his embarrassment by some of the stuff he was doing.
He was 19 years old when all of this started to happen. By the time he was 21, he was the biggest star in the world. When he came back from the army and wanted to do meaningful stuff, the machinery was set up. He really didn't have an attorney; the attorney was controlled by the Colonel. The film companies, RCA, and the publishing companies were all controlled by the Colonel, who was doing what he thought was best.
The Colonel's going to get trashed, and has been. He was controlling, he was manipulative, but he was honest and hardworking and he had a lot of polish. No doubt about it.
Jerry Schilling in 1981. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images
Colonel Parker gets painted as the source of these disappointments and angst, but the more I read, I realize he was a genius who had the lion's share of the responsibility for all this success in the first place.
You're one of the few people that get that, Morgan, and you're right on it. I'm hoping everybody's going to get that at some point. I hope Peter Guralnick can do a book on the Colonel someday, since he got to know the Colonel quite well.
The Colonel's wife said that I was the closest person to him for the last 20 years of his life. The Colonel felt he could talk to me because I was the manager later on. Yeah, I miss the old guy very much.
You're reading my book, and it was one of the things that I'm so glad somewhat worked out. Loanne, his wife, had a problem with the book. I flew to Vegas just to meet with her, and she was a really good, smart lady. She said, "Jerry, I love your book, but when you talk about the creative disappointments, the fans will tend to think that the Colonel killed him." I said, "That was not my intent. That's not how I want it. We spent a whole day, and that was a really rough one."
I've spent a lot of time more recently with Tom Hanks, who played the Colonel. [The film] explains the other side of the Colonel. He was a good friend. If it was your birthday, he'd call and sing "Happy Birthday." Remember the answering-machine days? It was the Colonel singing "Happy Birthday" to you.
I was a loan-out to the Colonel one day a week, which I used to dread. It was just so different from my life with Elvis. He got up early and there were meetings. But every time I did that, I realized I really enjoyed it. It was really interesting.
I probably got a lot of who I am from Elvis, and from the Colonel — and a little bit from Sam Phillips, as well, who was the original genius.
Jackson Tops Dead Earners List
Jackson Tops Dead Earners List
GRAMMY winner and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Michael Jackson topped Forbes' annual list of top-earning dead celebrities with $275 million, earning more than the combined total of the other 12 celebrities on the list. Elvis Presley ranked second with $60 million, John Lennon placed fifth with $17 million and Jimi Hendrix tied for 11th place with $6 million. Forbes compiled the list based on gross earnings between October 2009 and October 2010. (10/26)
UK Arts Council Announces Budget Cut Plans
Following a previous report, Arts Council England has revealed plans to implement the 30 percent cut to the UK's arts funding budget. The cuts will include a 7 percent cash cut for UK arts organizations in 2011–2012, a 15 percent cut for the regular funding of arts organizations by 2014–2015 and a 50 percent reduction to the council's operating costs. (10/26)
GRAMMY Winners To Perform At World Series
GRAMMY winners Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum and John Legend are scheduled to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" during Major League Baseball's 2010 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. Legend and Lady Antebellum will perform at games one and two in San Francisco on Oct. 27 and Oct. 28, respectively, and Clarkson will perform at game three on Oct. 30 in Arlington, Texas. (10/26)
Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com
The Week In Music: Elton Rocks Rush
The Rocket Man performs at talk show host Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding
We're guessing he didn't play anything from his album A Single Man. According to a People.com report, flamboyant rocker Elton John was the musical guest (for a cool fee of $1 million) at conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding, this one to 33-year-old Kathryn Rogers, who is reportedly a direct descendant of President John Adams. Regarding the couple's age difference, Rogers said, "I'm sometimes not able to relate to the average person my age." It would seem the 59-year-old Limbaugh is neither her age nor the average person.
Here's a concert that went to the dogs. Performance artist Laurie Anderson staged a show outside the Sydney Opera House for an audience of canine music lovers on June 5. The show took place as part of the city's Vivid Live festival, which is being co-curated by Anderson and her husband, Lou Reed, and featured music for mutts including high-pitch squeals and even sounds only dogs could hear. Anderson called the show, which was born from a conversation with cello master Yo-Yo Ma, "a highlight of my life." For man's best friend, it may have been the best dedicated music since the Singing Dogs' version of "Jingle Bells."
If you think Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle — the four-part opera based on Teutonic and Norse mythology that can run as long as 15 hours over four nights for the full cycle — carries some pretty heavy artistic heft, you'd be right…and literally right. For a new Metropolitan Opera staging over the next two years, the Met had to install 65-foot steel girders to support the 45-ton set. This might make Wagner the biggest current heavy metal act in music. The opera is set to open Sept. 27.
Coldplay's own artistic heft just got heavier...and freakier. In 2002 guitarist Jonny Buckland and frontman Chris Martin starred as a murder-solving duo in Irish rock band Ash's self-made slasher flick, appropriately titled Slashed. Unfortunately, the project was shelved, but footage has made its way into the band's new video for "Binary." Meanwhile, Coldplay bassist Guy Berryman is steering clear of axe-wielding killer ghosts to restore Scandinavian furniture with his brother Mark. Berryman's Antiques specializes in tables, seating, cabinetry, and even a Swedish bridal chest. Customers who find their purchased antiques haunted should contact Buckland and Martin immediately.
Now you can love him tender, love him mashed, or even love him au gratin. The Elvis Presley estate has teamed with Hasbro and PPW Toys to launch an Elvis version of the classic Mr. Potato Head toy. The first release will be a Las Vegas jumpsuited Elvis, scheduled to debut during Elvis Week in Memphis, Tenn., in August, and will be followed by a leather-clad Elvis spud. The Elvis potato follows a Kiss version released last year.
Bon Jovi launched an impressive 12-night, sold-out residency at London's O2 Arena on June 7, marking a return to the venue they officially launched three years ago. The GRAMMY-winning New Jersey natives also recently christened their new hometown digs, New Meadowlands Stadium, with three concerts in late May. AEG Live is predicting tickets sales for the band's current tour will eclipse their 2007–2008 Lost Highway trek, which was Billboard's highest-grossing tour in 2008. Not bad for a band Rolling Stone magazine once described as a "bad fourth-generation metal, smudgy Xerox of Quiet Riot." Jon Bon Jovi's take? He recently smirked, "Like it or not, we're one of the biggest bands in the world." No word on a JBJ Mr. Potato Head, however.
Looks like international singing sensation Susan Boyle will be making a holy trip later this year. The Roman Catholic Church says Boyle will likely perform for Pope Benedict XVI at an open-air papal Mass in Glasgow's Bellahouston Park on Sept. 16. An unidentified spokesman said negotiations are still taking place. "Likely" and "negotiations still taking place"? Could be a tour rider issue brewing…
Have the the Melvins gone commercial? The band's latest album, The Bride Screamed Murder, sold 2,809 units this past week, good enough for the bottom spot on the Billboard 200 and marking the first time the Seattle indie rock legends have placed on the album chart in their 25-plus-year career. With another 2,000 units, they would have reached the chart's upper echelon and passed the likes of Beyoncé, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Nickelback, Pink Floyd, and Timbaland. Asked for his comment on the milestone, singer/guitarist Roger "Buzz" Osborne said, "Top 200 what?"
Katy Perry's "California Gurls," featuring Snoop Dogg, reclaimed the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, as well as the top spot on the iTunes singles chart.
Any news we've missed? Comment below.
Stars Align On Capitol Hill
Music at presidential inaugurations provides entertainment and unifying moments of patriotism
(On Jan. 21 President Barack Obama will be inaugurated into his second term as president of the United States with a celebration in Washington, D.C., featuring performances by GRAMMY winners Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, Brad Paisley, Usher, and Stevie Wonder, among others. This feature is taken from the fall 2012 issue of GRAMMY magazine and offers a brief history of notable musical performances at past presidential inaugurations.)
Being elected the leader of the free world is a pretty good reason to strike up the band. Ever since George Washington first danced a celebratory minuet after his inauguration in 1789, music has played an ever-increasing role in the gala events surrounding presidential inaugurations.
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson had the U.S. Marines band play him along as he made his way from the Capitol to the White House after taking the oath of office. James and Dolley Madison threw the first official inaugural ball in 1809. Jumping to the 20th century, in 1977 Jimmy Carter invited such music luminaries as John Lennon and Yoko Ono to his inaugural ball and allowed rock and roll — or at least the Southern rock variety — to become a part of his inauguration backdrop when he invited the Marshall Tucker Band and the Charlie Daniels Band to share a concert bill with Guy Lombardo And His Royal Canadians. (Lombardo's group was something of an inauguration ball house band, having played for seven presidents.)
Today, inaugurations are presented as both massive public live events and televised productions, complete with a concert featuring a roster of star talent. The musical performances at inaugurations not only provide entertainment, they also help set the tone for a new presidency and bring the country together in a unifying moment of patriotism over partisanship.
"It wasn't about one side or the other. We just had this overwhelming feeling of being proud to be American," recalls Ronnie Dunn, formerly of the GRAMMY-winning duo Brooks & Dunn. He and then-partner Kix Brooks performed their hit "Only In America" at a concert as part of George W. Bush's first inauguration in 2001.
"Right away you could feel it was an emotionally charged crowd, and when you're standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking across to the Washington Monument, you can't help but tear up a little," says Brooks. "I remember there was this chaos during the big encore when all the musicians and all the presidential VIPs were onstage together. I turned around and there's Colin Powell shaking my hand. It turned into one of the wildest photo ops ever because all the music people and all the political people were pulling their cameras out to take pictures of each other."
One of the most memorable unions of political and musical star power at an inaugural gala occurred in 1993, when a reunited Fleetwood Mac performed "Don't Stop," a hit from their GRAMMY-winning album Rumours, for President-elect Bill Clinton. Clinton had used "Don't Stop" as the theme song to his presidential campaign, but the payoff live performance almost didn't happen.
"At that point we were as broken up as we'd ever been," says Stevie Nicks. "When our management received the request for us to play, they said, 'No.' I heard about that and thought to myself, 'I don't want to be 90, looking back and trying to remember why my group couldn't play the president's favorite song for him.' I told management to let me handle it."
Nicks successfully coaxed her bandmates into a one-night, one-song reunion, a performance she remembers as truly exceptional.
"For one thing we'd never seen security like that," she says. "The Secret Service makes rock and roll security feel like a bunch of grade school hall monitors. But the performance felt really important. It felt like we were a part of history, and that the song itself was becoming a piece of American history. It was a fantastic night in all of our lives, and I'm really glad the band was able to come together for that one."
The Beach Boys played Ronald Reagan's second inauguration after a somewhat confused relationship with the White House. The band had headlined a series of Fourth of July concerts at the National Mall until 1983, when U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt accused the group of attracting "the wrong element" and booked Wayne Newton in their place. Watt later apologized, and the Beach Boys were reinstated and invited to play Reagan's inaugural gala in 1985.
"What I remember most about that night is that I got to meet Elizabeth Taylor," says Jerry Schilling, the band's then-manager. "But I also remember being extremely proud of the group. Things had been hard for Brian [Wilson], and the group wasn't always getting along. But they stood there together in front of the president and sang perfect five-part a capella harmony on 'Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring.' It was a big moment — we all felt that. It wasn't just another gig. The guys were truly honored to be there and they brought it when it mattered."
A new musical standard for inaugural events may have been established in 2009 when Barack Obama's presidency was kicked off with the "We Are One" concert. The patriotic spectacular featured a who's who of performers ranging from Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and U2 to Usher, Sheryl Crow and will.i.am. An all-star lineup usually adds an all-star production element, but this particular concert was unique.
"Dealing with top artists, there's usually a lot of negotiating," says Don Mischer, one of the concert's producers, whose list of credits also includes Super Bowl halftime shows and Olympics ceremonies. "Who needs a private jet? How much does their 'glam squad' cost? What kind of security do they need? Putting together 'We Are One,' we said to every artist, 'This is a historical moment we'd love for you to be a part of, but you have to pay your own way and take care of your own security.' Right away, people like Beyoncé and Bono and Springsteen and Stevie Wonder all said, 'Yes.' They wanted to be there. There was a true camaraderie right from the start, and it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences any of us have ever had."
While Washington's minuet may have simply been a matter of dancing, Mischer says music has become as powerful a symbol of America as any other part of Inauguration Day.
"When you bring the music and the significance of an event like this together, it really reflects the strength of our cultural diversity and the strength of our country," he says. "In fact, at times when we seem to be going through confrontational political campaigns, I wish we would listen to the music a little more."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)
Photo: John Springer Collection / Getty Images
5 Ways Elvis Presley Forever Changed The Music Industry, From Vegas Residencies To Cultural Fusion
The music industry would be unrecognizable without Elvis Presley. Along with Colonel Tom Parker, the 20th-century innovator activated divergent spaces, helped architect the modern-day Las Vegas residency and so much more.
Is it possible to undersell someone by calling them "the King"? It might be when you're talking about Elvis Presley.
Despite rising from nothing to become one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century — and posthumously weathering periods of wrongheaded associations, from "fat Elvis" to rumors of racism — Presley didn't emerge simply as a monarch, or an icon baked into culture and taken for granted. These days, it's more edifying to consider him as an innovator.
That's how Panos A. Panay, the co-president of the Recording Academy, views the three-time GRAMMY winner and 14-time nominee. Instead of regarding Presley as a figurehead reigning over rock's development, Panay calls him "a multi-faceted superstar" who, along with his savvy yet misunderstood manager, Colonel Tom Parker, drew the blueprint of the multidimensional pop titan of today.
"I think people forget that this is a kid who grew up dirt-poor in the heart of the old south," Panay, who co-authored the 2021 book Two Beats Ahead, about the intersection of business acumen and musical artistry, tells GRAMMY.com. "He fused all the different things around him — from styles to music — to create something that literally took the world by storm."
Need a reminder of how seismic Presley's impact was? Turn to the first few pages of almost any rock bio, and you'll find the artist as a young man or woman, hearing "Heartbreak Hotel" or "That's All Right" or "Jailhouse Rock" for the first time. Chances are, they described that moment in the language of natural phenomena: a meteor strike, a tsunami, a thunderclap.
Every star in his wake who repeatedly overhauled their image, staked claims in wildly various media spaces, and fused divergent cultural signifiers owes Presley a debt of gratitude — from the Beatles to Beyoncé, from Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga.
Of course, Presley wasn't the first rock star. He didn't invent the music, and he arguably walked so others (namely the Beatles, who worshipped him) could run. But the fact remains: there's never been another Presley before or since. Here are five ways he irrevocably changed the music-industry landscape.
He Helped Braid Disparate Cultural Threads
Granted, rock 'n' roll was a colorless cultural interchange years before Presley showed up.
For decades prior, musicians both Black and white — from what we might designate "country" and "R&B" and "gospel" and "rock 'n' roll" spheres, but who were really parts of the same primordial soup — perpetually inspired and influenced each other.
But nobody elevated that fusion to the world stage than Presley, and his large-scale disregarding of easy racial and sexual categorization was highly jarring to buttoned-up 1950s America.
Hip-swiveling shock value aside, what would pop music sound like without his revved-up amalgam of gospel, blues, country, and R&B? What would it look like without his tousled hair, twisted visage and skin-tight black leather?
It's anyone's guess what an Elvis-free world would be like, but it wouldn't include disciples like the Beatles, the Stones, or scores of other greats. In other words, it would be a drag beyond belief.
He Galvanized A Nascent Teenage Market
According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstram, Presley could scarcely have arrived at a better time.
"A new young generation of Americans was breaking away from the habits of its parents and defining itself by its music," Halberstram wrote in his 1993 book The Fifties. And with the advent of new technology — namely the transistor radio — came a paradigm shift in authority.
"The important figures of authority were no longer mayors and selectmen or parents," the author continued. "They were disc jockeys, who reaffirmed the right to youthful independence and guided teenagers to their new rock heroes."
Who was the ideal leader for this emerging market? In the cinema space, you had Marlon Brando and James Dean as brooding avatars for the post-WWII cultural milieu.
Then, in music, you had Presley, who landed in culture like an ambassador from Andromeda, ready to lead a teenage exodus from suburban monotony to frenzied, life-affirming joy.
He Activated Film & TV Spaces Like Never Before…
When Panay considers how to shepherd the Recording Academy into the future in the 2020s, he looks to what Presley accomplished on small and large screens during his career.
"If you want to know the future of the business, man, look at Elvis Presley," he says. "Look at all the artists that followed the guy. He set the mold for what a prototypical superstar is."
One way Presley did this, Panay says, was by transcending the boundaries of a record or concert and strolling into your TV screen in any number of films — especially during the '60s, when he focused on that component of his work with flicks like G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii and Girl Happy.
While Presley's films are sometimes contemporaneously criticized as formulaic dreck that stalled his creative evolution, the man did have serious aspirations as an actor — and presence in that space was important to pop's multimedia development.
…And Paved The Way For The Modern Music Video
As Panay says, Presley's participation in film wasn't just proof musicians could be actors. The entire point of a music video — to make an artistic statement while selling a record — is crystallized in Presley's films.
Through that lens, there's a direct thread from Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, Prince's Purple Rain and more.
Still, Presley's onscreen innovation extends beyond cinema: 1973's "Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite" was revolutionary in that it was the first live satellite broadcast to feature a single performer.
When you take it with the unforgettable "Jailhouse Rock" video and "'68 Comeback Special," a case can be made that Presley's DNA is encoded deep within in this modern artform.
Thank Elvis For The Las Vegas Residency, Too
Think the format of the Las Vegas residency is the province of wash-ups? Think again: This month alone, 2022 GRAMMY performers BTS, Silk Sonic and Lady Gaga will delight audiences in Sin City. (The 2022 GRAMMYs were held there, too.)
"People used to make fun of the Las Vegas residency," Panay says. "But name an artist right now who doesn't want a Las Vegas residency."
As Richard Zoglin explained in his 2019 book Elvis in Vegas: How the King Reinvented the Las Vegas Show, Presley's first Vegas run in 1969 — and more than 600 shows in the city afterward — set the stage for loftier, glitzier affairs.
This was a marked turn from the era's typical, intimate nightclub shows featuring older performers, like Nat "King" Cole or Judy Garland. "It opened the door to big shows," Zoglin told The New York Post. "All the modern residencies in Vegas, from Celine Dion to Lady Gaga — Elvis was the first of those kinds of shows."
So, next time Presley seems hopelessly fossilized in the past, a frozen face on a lunchbox, simply stream his greatest songs — they'll set your head straight.
"He sang from his heart," Panay says, summarizing Presley's genius. "He was an amazing interpreter of songs in a way that, frankly, few people before and after have ever been."
From there, consider how the pop universe would be unrecognizable without Presley — complete with the performers who never fail to wash away the drudgery of daily life, making it more vibrant, more colorful, more meaningful.
He was the King, indeed. But he was also something more.