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Episode
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The Crazy Life of Elvis Presley

Jan 14, 2022
Arts & Culture
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32
minutes

He was told by countless people that he would never make it as a star, yet by his mid-20s he was the most successful musician in the world.

In this episode, we'll learn about how Elvis Presley defied all his critics, became the biggest star of the 1960s, created the category of rock and roll but then lost the battle with his personal demons.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part three of our three-part mini-series on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:32] In part one we learned about Ray Charles, the boy who was born dirt-poor and was completely blind by his 7th birthday, yet managed to become one of the most successful musicians of his generation.

[00:00:47] In part two we heard about Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black", and his wild and tragic life.

[00:00:55] And now, in part three it is on to the man they called “The King of Rock & Roll”, Elvis Presley.

[00:01:04] It’s the story of a cult generational icon, of what happens when you are the most famous young man in 1950s America, an object of love and adoration by millions of teenagers. 

[00:01:17] But it’s also a tale of excess, of huge tragedy and wasted talent, and all ended very sadly, in a bathroom when Elvis Presley was only 42 years old.

[00:01:31] OK then, Elvis Presley.

[00:01:37] Elvis was born on January 8th, 1935, three years after Johnny Cash and four and half years after Ray Charles.

[00:01:47] The America he was born into was not a prosperous one. 

[00:01:53] America was just getting back on its feet after the Great Depression, and Elvis’s parents were constantly struggling for money. 

[00:02:03] There’s even a legend that a 4-year-old Elvis, after hearing his parents yet again arguing over money, told them to be quiet and promised that he would buy them a Cadillac one day.

[00:02:17] Well, if he did indeed say this, he was correct, and this boy growing up in a poor family in a small town in Mississippi, in the deep south of the United States, would go on to be the highest selling artist of all time. 

[00:02:33] Although Elvis found success at a young age, he came up against plenty of hurdles on his way, and there are countless stories of people telling him he had no talent, that he couldn’t sing, and that there was no way he would be a star.

[00:02:50] He almost never even picked up a guitar in the first place.

[00:02:55] The story goes that for his 12th birthday he wanted either a rifle or a bicycle, but his mother refused, thinking that they were both too dangerous.

[00:03:07] Instead, she bought the young boy a guitar, and he started taking guitar lessons.

[00:03:15] Elvis had shown some talent for music before, but wasn’t anything special. 

[00:03:21] He had entered a singing competition the year before, but came fifth. His teachers, on his report card, considered him to be an average student, he certainly showed no signs of what he would later become.

[00:03:37] He was, by all accounts, just a normal student - a well-behaved young boy, he kept his hair short like other boys at the time, was polite, studied hard in school, but was nothing out of the ordinary.

[00:03:51] It was to be the following year, when the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis started to first cultivate his own image.

[00:04:02] Memphis was a big city, filled with new and intriguing types of music. It was very different from the small town Elvis had grown up in.

[00:04:14] People dressed in a different way, and the young Elvis started to cultivate his own image.

[00:04:21] He grew long sideburns and grew his hair longer. 

[00:04:26] He also started to add shoe polish to it to make it dark black. His natural colour when he was a boy was blondish. It was light.

[00:04:38] By this time he had set his sights on music as a career, and spent more and more time playing guitar, and jamming with friends.

[00:04:48] His style was a mixture of Southern-gospel and country, and he had this unique voice that sounded to many people like he was black.

[00:04:59] After he graduated from high school in 1953, he decided that he wanted to record himself, reportedly because he had never actually heard himself sing.

[00:05:12] He went to the studio of Sun Records, which incidentally was the record label that would go on to sign Johnny Cash a year later, and paid his $4 to record himself.

[00:05:25] Now, it’s thought that Elvis knew exactly what he was doing - he wanted to be spotted, and this was a great way of doing it. 

[00:05:34] He knew exactly what he sounded like, and there were far cheaper ways to record yourself, Elvis didn’t need to go to the studio of a record label.

[00:05:44] In any case, when he walked into the studio, guitar in hand, the receptionist asked him what kind of singer he was. He responded “I sing all kinds. I don’t sound like nobody”. 

[00:05:58] He recorded two songs, and was noticed by the boss of Sun Records and recorded as a “good ballad singer”. 

[00:06:06] But nothing happened after that.

[00:06:10] Presley was forced to take a job as a delivery driver, driving trucks, where he was paid $1 an hour. 

[00:06:18] He tried out for a few bands, but had no luck, even once being rejected by one singer who famously told him to stick to driving trucks because “you’re never going to make it as a singer”.

[00:06:33] It wouldn’t be until a year later, in 1954, that Elvis got his big break

[00:06:40] He was back in Sun Records, and after failing to play anything that excited the record label bosses, was fooling around in the studio playing a cover of a blues song called “That’s all right”. 

[00:06:55] When the boss of Sun Records, Sam Phillips heard it, he rushed into the studio. This was the sound he was looking for. 

[00:07:04] It was recorded, and played on the local radio station.

[00:07:08] It was such a hit that it was played multiple times, and people kept on calling in to the radio station to ask who it was.

[00:07:18] Elvis started touring, but he only really had one song, “That’s all right”. He would play the song over and over, there were literally concerts where this one song would be played on repeat.

[00:07:32] In 1954, by the way, when he first found success, he was only 19 years old.

[00:07:39] For his first stage performances, he was a shadow of the confident sex-icon Elvis that he became.

[00:07:49] Indeed, he was incredibly shy and nervous, he was not the confident man that you might imagine.

[00:07:56] And in fact it was a combination of being nervous and trying to keep the rhythm of the music that caused him to move his legs and hips from side to side. 

[00:08:08] But as soon as he did this, as soon as he moved his hips around, the crowd, especially the young female members of the crowd, cried out in joy. 

[00:08:21] This was something incredibly new and wild for 1950s America. Singers might click their fingers or move around a little bit, but not their hips, and nothing at all sexual.

[00:08:34] There was Elvis, a very good-looking young man with a guitar thrusting his hips around in a sexual manner.

[00:08:43] As the tours continued, the adoring female fans continued to grow in number, and would do anything to grab Elvis’s attention

[00:08:54] He would be mobbed by adoring fans, with girls just wanting to touch him. 

[00:09:00] This female attention caused him to become the target of a lot of male jealousy, and in some towns he would have to have a police guard to stop jealous young boys attacking him.

[00:09:14] It wasn’t only out of jealousy that some people disliked him.

[00:09:19] Religious ministers considered him to be leading the nation’s youth astray

[00:09:25] One reverend told his congregation that “Elvis Presley is morally insane” and another lamented that “his stage antics are intended to arouse the lower instincts. Apparently he is succeeding.”

[00:09:41] There was even a letter sent to the director of the FBI from a Catholic church warning that "Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. ... [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth.”

[00:10:00] Elvis Presley was certainly getting noticed.

[00:10:04] By 1955, shortly after his 20th birthday, he also got a new manager, a man named Colonel Tom Parker, who was to be a very powerful force in Elvis’ life and career.

[00:10:20] Although he claimed to be called Tom Parker and to have been born in the United States, he was actually born in the Netherlands, and his real name was Andreas Cornelis [Dries] van Kuijk.

[00:10:34] Parker, his new manager, cultivated this image of Elvis Presley as a sex symbol, making Elvis tell a reporter that he had 25 girlfriends, but don’t worry ladies, Elvis wants you to know that you too can become one of his twenty five if you buy a ticket to his show.

[00:10:53] This new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is thought to have controlled and squeezed Elvis, profiting greatly from his success. 

[00:11:03] Parker took between 25% and 50% of all of the money Elvis made, and exerted very tight control over the direction of Elvis’s career.

[00:11:14] Although he can justifiably be accused of exploiting Elvis, he was certainly an important part of Elvis’s success, and understood what the real appeal of Elvis was.

[00:11:28] By 1956, Elvis had several number one singles under his belt, and was popular on the radio, but to really experience Elvis you had to see him perform.

[00:11:41] And the best way for as many people as possible to see that was for him to go on TV.

[00:11:48] Parker managed to book Elvis to go on TV, on a popular show called the Ed Sullivan Show.

[00:11:56] Elvis’ first TV appearance came on September 9th of 1956, when he was a mere 21-year-old, and performed Hound Dog. 

[00:12:07] And 60 million people tuned in to see him, a record-breaking 83% of the entire TV audience.

[00:12:18] For many people, this was the first time they had seen Elvis. 

[00:12:22] They might have heard him, but they had never seen him on stage.

[00:12:27] And what they saw was shocking, shockingly provocative.

[00:12:32] In particular, what Elvis did with his groin and his crotch, his famous sexualised movement of his hips, was considered to be too provocative for mainstream TV audiences of the time

[00:12:47] The host, Ed Sullivan, complained about it, even saying that he thought Elvis had a coke bottle hidden in his trousers, and said “We can’t have this on a Sunday night - this is a family show”.

[00:13:01] But, being provocative, and being very handsome, sells, and after this TV appearance he was catapulted to household fame.

[00:13:11] His next record, “Love Me Tender”, had a record-breaking one million pre-orders, and he was simply the biggest and most in demand musician in the world.

[00:13:25] Elvis concerts were characterised by his walking onto the stage to the screams of young girls, then he would start playing, typically Hound Dog, to much more screaming. 

[00:13:38] The irony of this all was, perhaps, that he really wasn’t considered by anyone to be a very talented musician. 

[00:13:47] Reportedly he never actually wrote any of his own music - he was listed as a co-writer of most of his songs, but this is believed to have been a demand by his record label.

[00:14:00] And he was obviously quite good at the guitar, but nothing he did on the guitar was revolutionary

[00:14:07] Elvis’s talent and appeal came from Elvis Presley the performer.

[00:14:13] He looked and acted the part. He was an incredibly handsome young man, and had an amazing presence.

[00:14:22] It was, therefore, perhaps no surprise that both he and his manager thought the next logical step for him was Hollywood, to make it as a movie star.

[00:14:34] The idea was that the movies would help sell his music, and not only would Elvis’s fame grow even larger but he, and everyone involved with him, would grow fabulously wealthy.

[00:14:48] And so, starting in 1956 with Love Me Tender, he set out on a career as an actor, and starred in 31 films over the course of his career.

[00:15:01] They almost all did well commercially, because, well, he was Elvis and people wanted to see him. 

[00:15:08] But they were very poorly reviewed - they weren’t great films. They were formulaic, the stories were boring, and Elvis really wasn’t a very good actor.

[00:15:20] He was becoming fabulously wealthy though, and by the late 1950s, when he wasn’t even 25, he had more money than he could ever wish for. 

[00:15:31] He was rich enough to buy anything he wanted, and do anything he wanted.

[00:15:37] But no matter how rich he was, there was one thing he couldn’t avoid: military service.

[00:15:45] In 1958, shortly after his 23rd birthday, like hundreds of thousands of other young men his age, Elvis Presley was drafted into the US army and ended up serving two years as a soldier. 

[00:16:01] Contrary to many people’s expectations, he had joined very willingly

[00:16:06] Tens of thousands of young girls had pleaded for Elvis to be exempted from military service, for him to be allowed not to join, but Elvis had insisted on going. 

[00:16:19] This was a requirement for every young man of his age, he was a patriot, he wanted to serve his country and insisted that he be treated like any other soldier.

[00:16:32] He was sent to Germany, and was reportedly a popular member of his squadron. He was well-known for his generosity, and did things like buying extra TVs and clothes for his fellow soldiers.

[00:16:47] It was during his time as a soldier that he first met the woman he was to marry, Priscilla Beaulieu. 

[00:16:54] The only problem was, and this was a pretty serious problem, that she was only 14 years old when they met and started dating. He was 23.

[00:17:06] Although this might have been slightly less socially unacceptable back in 1958, it was just as illegal as it is now. 

[00:17:15] Elvis and Priscilla reportedly never actually had a sexual relationship when she was under 18, but this was still a case of a 23-year-old man, and one of the most famous, if not the most famous, young men in America dating an underage girl.

[00:17:34] While in military service Elvis also discovered prescription drugs, and this was to be a vice that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

[00:17:45] When he was eventually dismissed from military service, in 1960, he returned to the life of an entertainment star but things were never quite the same for Elvis Presley. 

[00:17:58] Sure, on his return he released two of his most commercially successful ballads - Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now Or Never both in 1960, but then he took a 7 year break from performing live to focus on his Hollywood career. 

[00:18:16] The problem was that his films were just not very good, and people started to view him as a bit of a joke, a bit of a has-been.

[00:18:26] In 1968, after a series of poorly received singles, he plotted his return to the stage. 

[00:18:35] He was only 33, but he had been out of the musical business for coming on a decade, and it was time to show the world that he was back.

[00:18:46] His manager, Colonel Parker, struck a deal with NBC, the TV network, to do an Elvis comeback special for Christmas 1968. 

[00:18:58] The programme was simply called “Elvis”, and it was a huge success. 

[00:19:03] It was watched by 42% of the entire American TV audience, and brought our protagonist back into the limelight.

[00:19:13] This was a different Elvis to the one the country had got to know though.

[00:19:18] His image had changed. Gone were the boyish good looks and charm, and for this performance he debuted, he first showed off what would become his trademark black leather suit.

[00:19:32] Elvis was nervous at first about returning to live performances, but when he saw the reaction of the audience he started to love it again.

[00:19:42] Elvis was, first and foremost, a performer - he thrived on the crowd.

[00:19:48] And so it was that, starting in 1969, he sealed a contract with the International Hotel in Las Vegas to play two shows every day for four weeks, every February and August for an annual salary of $1 million, which is about $7.5 million in today’s money.

[00:20:10] Put another way, this was over $100,000 a day in today’s money.

[00:20:16] Now, there are contrasting views about Elvis’s time in Las Vegas. 

[00:20:21] For some, it was his last shot at remaining a star. He certainly didn’t need the money - he was already wealthy beyond his dreams, but he wanted the status that came with being the most in-demand entertainer in the US’s entertainment capital.

[00:20:40] But for others it’s seen as a clever way for Elvis to reinvent himself, and that it was a monumental success. Indeed, over the next seven years he would play over 600 shows at the same hotel in Las Vegas, and every single one of them would sell out, all the tickets would be sold.

[00:21:01] It was to a different crowd though. The adoring teenage girls he had played in front of in the mid-1950s were now grown-up women, and the teenagers of the 1960s, well Elvis wasn’t quite so appealing to them.

[00:21:18] This was the era of The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Who. Elvis was, well, he was Elvis.

[00:21:26] Even though he might not be so appealing to the new generation, he continued to pull in the crowds, and Elvis concerts would always sell out.

[00:21:37] Off-stage, however, his personal life was falling apart

[00:21:42] He had married Priscilla in May of 1967, and their only child, Lisa Marie was born the following year. 

[00:21:51] But Elvis was deeply unhappy with the direction in which his career was going.

[00:21:56] Yes, he was famous, yes he was rich. 

[00:21:59] But he was a shadow of his former self. 

[00:22:03] The fans he had in the late 1960s were often the same fans as the ones in the 1950s, apart from now they were 15 years older, and were eating lobster dinners with their husbands at a Las Vegas hotel, they weren’t in love with him now, they were there at the show to experience what Elvis used to be.

[00:22:25] His new marriage was falling apart, and both he and Priscilla started having affairs.

[00:22:33] Elvis, first with a lady called Joyce Bova, and Priscilla with a man called Mike Stone, who was in fact her karate instructor, and had been introduced to her by Elvis himself.

[00:22:47] Elvis was incensed when he found out, he was incredibly angry, and became obsessed with the idea that Mike Stone, that Priscilla's lover, was trying to have him killed.

[00:23:00] Elvis became so fixated on this idea that he even had one of his bodyguards go and get a quote for how much it would cost for a professional assassin, a contract killer to murder Priscilla’s lover, but eventually decided against it, saying “Aw hell, let's just leave it for now. Maybe it's a bit heavy.”

[00:23:23] The Presleys divorced in 1973, and by this time Elvis was deeply addicted to two types of substances: prescription drugs and junk food.

[00:23:35] Despite having been a vocal anti-drug advocate, someone who said he never did drugs and even appeared with President Richard Nixon as part of an anti-drugs campaign, Elvis Presley had developed a severe dependence on a large range of drugs, including opiates and barbiturates

[00:23:57] He overdosed several times, and was hospitalised, but this was all tightly covered up by his entourage, it was hidden by the people around him.

[00:24:07] His other addiction was also killing him slowly.

[00:24:11] He had always eaten a lot, but by the mid 1970s he had developed a very strange relationship with junk food, whereby he would binge on it, he would eat vast amounts of it, then go on radical diets to try to lose the weight he had put on.

[00:24:30] He would eat all sorts of junk food, burgers, chips, pizza, but one of his favourite things to eat was something called Fool’s Gold. 

[00:24:41] This was a sandwich invented by a small restaurant in Denver, and it was made by hollowing out the middle of a loaf of bread, then putting an entire pot of jam, an entire pot of peanut butter and half a kilo of bacon inside. 

[00:25:00] Just one of the sandwiches contained 8,000 calories. 

[00:25:06] If you’re not familiar with how much 8,000 calories is, the recommended daily intake for a grown man is 2,500 calories, so this one sandwich contained more calories than are recommended for three days!

[00:25:23] There’s even a story about Elvis getting so hungry one night that he flew on his private jet from Memphis all the way to Denver, a two-hour flight away, just so that he could get one of these heart-attack-inducing sandwiches.

[00:25:40] And, as I’m sure you know, the prescription drugs and the junk food caught up with him.

[00:25:46] At two o’clock in the afternoon on August 16th of 1977 he was found dead by his then 20-year-old girlfriend, Ginger Alden on the bathroom floor.

[00:25:59] He was only 42 years old.

[00:26:01] Immediately after his death his entourage and his doctors tried to cover up his drug addiction. 

[00:26:09] He was taken to a hospital that was known to be more discreet

[00:26:14] Given how anti-drugs Elvis had claimed to be, and how he had been part of Nixon’s anti-drug campaign, Elvis’s family managed to persuade the doctors to not mention drugs, in a bid to protect Elvis’ reputation.

[00:26:30] And indeed, after the primary autopsy, the doctors declared that Elvis had died of a heart attack and that drugs were not involved. 

[00:26:42] But, after the toxicology report a few weeks later it was revealed that Elvis had vast amounts of prescription drugs in his body at the time of his death. 

[00:26:54] This was all enabled by his personal doctor, a man affectionately called Dr Nick, who would give Elvis anything he wanted. Indeed, in the first 7 months of 1977 alone, Dr Nick prescribed Elvis more than 10,000 doses of sedatives and amphetamines.

[00:27:14] It is a theme that is unfortunately all too familiar with some musicians, that of having a personal doctor enabling a drug addiction, and Elvis would be followed by other greats such as Michael Jackson and Prince.

[00:27:31] As for the legacy of Elvis Presley, he is the best-selling solo artist of all time, selling over 500 million records worldwide.

[00:27:41] A particularly unique aspect of his legacy is, of course, the fact that he invented an entire career of “Elvis impersonator”, of people who dress up as Elvis and perform as him. 

[00:27:56] Contrary to popular belief, these impersonators didn’t start after his death - the first known Elvis impersonator started in 1954, shortly after he released “That’s All Right”. 

[00:28:09] It’s probably a testament to how unique his style of performance was, that almost as soon as he started performing, people wanted to copy him.

[00:28:20] And then after his death, after there was literally no possible way to experience the real Elvis again, the number of Elvis impersonators continued to grow, and it’s estimated that now there are anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 Elvis impersonators worldwide.

[00:28:40] There’s also a famous story about Elvis entering into an Elvis lookalike competition and only coming in third place, but unfortunately this is an urban legend, it just isn’t true.

[00:28:54] When we come to look back at the musical career of Elvis Presley, there is a definite split, which came when he joined the army.

[00:29:03] In the years leading up to joining the army, he was the fresh-faced boy rock star, swinging his hips, having number one single after number one single, and touring the country to crowds of adoring fans.

[00:29:17] And then after returning from military service, in 1960, he had some commercial success, and he certainly made a lot of money, but he was never quite the same again. 

[00:29:30] It was perhaps this inability to recreate his success as a young man that drove him towards the erratic behaviour, the junk food and drugs, and without anyone to really tell him no, he drove himself to an early grave.

[00:29:48] He might not have been the most talented musician of his time, but he was certainly one of the greatest performers. 

[00:29:55] He was the sound of a generation, he was for many the first musical icon, the first real star, he made playing the guitar “cool”, and he went on to influence countless other artists and bands.

[00:30:10] So, you can think what you want about Elvis Presley, but it’s hard to argue that there is anyone more deserving of the title “The King of Rock and Roll”.

[00:30:23] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Elvis Presley, and with that comes the end of this three-part mini-series on musical icons of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:30:36] As a reminder, in part one we learned about the life and times of Ray Charles, in part two, which was one of our member-only ones, it was Johnny Cash, and part three was what you’ve just listened to, Elvis Presley.

[00:30:51] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:30:57] Given that we are talking about the best-selling solo artist of all time, I imagine that we might have some Elvis-fans listening. 

[00:31:05] And even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:31:10] So, what other amazing stories from the life of Elvis Presley do you know about?

[00:31:15] What are your favourite Elvis songs?

[00:31:17] And did he ever actually make any movies that you thought were any good?

[00:31:22] I would love to know. 

[00:31:23] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:31:32] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:31:38] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part three of our three-part mini-series on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:32] In part one we learned about Ray Charles, the boy who was born dirt-poor and was completely blind by his 7th birthday, yet managed to become one of the most successful musicians of his generation.

[00:00:47] In part two we heard about Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black", and his wild and tragic life.

[00:00:55] And now, in part three it is on to the man they called “The King of Rock & Roll”, Elvis Presley.

[00:01:04] It’s the story of a cult generational icon, of what happens when you are the most famous young man in 1950s America, an object of love and adoration by millions of teenagers. 

[00:01:17] But it’s also a tale of excess, of huge tragedy and wasted talent, and all ended very sadly, in a bathroom when Elvis Presley was only 42 years old.

[00:01:31] OK then, Elvis Presley.

[00:01:37] Elvis was born on January 8th, 1935, three years after Johnny Cash and four and half years after Ray Charles.

[00:01:47] The America he was born into was not a prosperous one. 

[00:01:53] America was just getting back on its feet after the Great Depression, and Elvis’s parents were constantly struggling for money. 

[00:02:03] There’s even a legend that a 4-year-old Elvis, after hearing his parents yet again arguing over money, told them to be quiet and promised that he would buy them a Cadillac one day.

[00:02:17] Well, if he did indeed say this, he was correct, and this boy growing up in a poor family in a small town in Mississippi, in the deep south of the United States, would go on to be the highest selling artist of all time. 

[00:02:33] Although Elvis found success at a young age, he came up against plenty of hurdles on his way, and there are countless stories of people telling him he had no talent, that he couldn’t sing, and that there was no way he would be a star.

[00:02:50] He almost never even picked up a guitar in the first place.

[00:02:55] The story goes that for his 12th birthday he wanted either a rifle or a bicycle, but his mother refused, thinking that they were both too dangerous.

[00:03:07] Instead, she bought the young boy a guitar, and he started taking guitar lessons.

[00:03:15] Elvis had shown some talent for music before, but wasn’t anything special. 

[00:03:21] He had entered a singing competition the year before, but came fifth. His teachers, on his report card, considered him to be an average student, he certainly showed no signs of what he would later become.

[00:03:37] He was, by all accounts, just a normal student - a well-behaved young boy, he kept his hair short like other boys at the time, was polite, studied hard in school, but was nothing out of the ordinary.

[00:03:51] It was to be the following year, when the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis started to first cultivate his own image.

[00:04:02] Memphis was a big city, filled with new and intriguing types of music. It was very different from the small town Elvis had grown up in.

[00:04:14] People dressed in a different way, and the young Elvis started to cultivate his own image.

[00:04:21] He grew long sideburns and grew his hair longer. 

[00:04:26] He also started to add shoe polish to it to make it dark black. His natural colour when he was a boy was blondish. It was light.

[00:04:38] By this time he had set his sights on music as a career, and spent more and more time playing guitar, and jamming with friends.

[00:04:48] His style was a mixture of Southern-gospel and country, and he had this unique voice that sounded to many people like he was black.

[00:04:59] After he graduated from high school in 1953, he decided that he wanted to record himself, reportedly because he had never actually heard himself sing.

[00:05:12] He went to the studio of Sun Records, which incidentally was the record label that would go on to sign Johnny Cash a year later, and paid his $4 to record himself.

[00:05:25] Now, it’s thought that Elvis knew exactly what he was doing - he wanted to be spotted, and this was a great way of doing it. 

[00:05:34] He knew exactly what he sounded like, and there were far cheaper ways to record yourself, Elvis didn’t need to go to the studio of a record label.

[00:05:44] In any case, when he walked into the studio, guitar in hand, the receptionist asked him what kind of singer he was. He responded “I sing all kinds. I don’t sound like nobody”. 

[00:05:58] He recorded two songs, and was noticed by the boss of Sun Records and recorded as a “good ballad singer”. 

[00:06:06] But nothing happened after that.

[00:06:10] Presley was forced to take a job as a delivery driver, driving trucks, where he was paid $1 an hour. 

[00:06:18] He tried out for a few bands, but had no luck, even once being rejected by one singer who famously told him to stick to driving trucks because “you’re never going to make it as a singer”.

[00:06:33] It wouldn’t be until a year later, in 1954, that Elvis got his big break

[00:06:40] He was back in Sun Records, and after failing to play anything that excited the record label bosses, was fooling around in the studio playing a cover of a blues song called “That’s all right”. 

[00:06:55] When the boss of Sun Records, Sam Phillips heard it, he rushed into the studio. This was the sound he was looking for. 

[00:07:04] It was recorded, and played on the local radio station.

[00:07:08] It was such a hit that it was played multiple times, and people kept on calling in to the radio station to ask who it was.

[00:07:18] Elvis started touring, but he only really had one song, “That’s all right”. He would play the song over and over, there were literally concerts where this one song would be played on repeat.

[00:07:32] In 1954, by the way, when he first found success, he was only 19 years old.

[00:07:39] For his first stage performances, he was a shadow of the confident sex-icon Elvis that he became.

[00:07:49] Indeed, he was incredibly shy and nervous, he was not the confident man that you might imagine.

[00:07:56] And in fact it was a combination of being nervous and trying to keep the rhythm of the music that caused him to move his legs and hips from side to side. 

[00:08:08] But as soon as he did this, as soon as he moved his hips around, the crowd, especially the young female members of the crowd, cried out in joy. 

[00:08:21] This was something incredibly new and wild for 1950s America. Singers might click their fingers or move around a little bit, but not their hips, and nothing at all sexual.

[00:08:34] There was Elvis, a very good-looking young man with a guitar thrusting his hips around in a sexual manner.

[00:08:43] As the tours continued, the adoring female fans continued to grow in number, and would do anything to grab Elvis’s attention

[00:08:54] He would be mobbed by adoring fans, with girls just wanting to touch him. 

[00:09:00] This female attention caused him to become the target of a lot of male jealousy, and in some towns he would have to have a police guard to stop jealous young boys attacking him.

[00:09:14] It wasn’t only out of jealousy that some people disliked him.

[00:09:19] Religious ministers considered him to be leading the nation’s youth astray

[00:09:25] One reverend told his congregation that “Elvis Presley is morally insane” and another lamented that “his stage antics are intended to arouse the lower instincts. Apparently he is succeeding.”

[00:09:41] There was even a letter sent to the director of the FBI from a Catholic church warning that "Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. ... [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth.”

[00:10:00] Elvis Presley was certainly getting noticed.

[00:10:04] By 1955, shortly after his 20th birthday, he also got a new manager, a man named Colonel Tom Parker, who was to be a very powerful force in Elvis’ life and career.

[00:10:20] Although he claimed to be called Tom Parker and to have been born in the United States, he was actually born in the Netherlands, and his real name was Andreas Cornelis [Dries] van Kuijk.

[00:10:34] Parker, his new manager, cultivated this image of Elvis Presley as a sex symbol, making Elvis tell a reporter that he had 25 girlfriends, but don’t worry ladies, Elvis wants you to know that you too can become one of his twenty five if you buy a ticket to his show.

[00:10:53] This new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is thought to have controlled and squeezed Elvis, profiting greatly from his success. 

[00:11:03] Parker took between 25% and 50% of all of the money Elvis made, and exerted very tight control over the direction of Elvis’s career.

[00:11:14] Although he can justifiably be accused of exploiting Elvis, he was certainly an important part of Elvis’s success, and understood what the real appeal of Elvis was.

[00:11:28] By 1956, Elvis had several number one singles under his belt, and was popular on the radio, but to really experience Elvis you had to see him perform.

[00:11:41] And the best way for as many people as possible to see that was for him to go on TV.

[00:11:48] Parker managed to book Elvis to go on TV, on a popular show called the Ed Sullivan Show.

[00:11:56] Elvis’ first TV appearance came on September 9th of 1956, when he was a mere 21-year-old, and performed Hound Dog. 

[00:12:07] And 60 million people tuned in to see him, a record-breaking 83% of the entire TV audience.

[00:12:18] For many people, this was the first time they had seen Elvis. 

[00:12:22] They might have heard him, but they had never seen him on stage.

[00:12:27] And what they saw was shocking, shockingly provocative.

[00:12:32] In particular, what Elvis did with his groin and his crotch, his famous sexualised movement of his hips, was considered to be too provocative for mainstream TV audiences of the time

[00:12:47] The host, Ed Sullivan, complained about it, even saying that he thought Elvis had a coke bottle hidden in his trousers, and said “We can’t have this on a Sunday night - this is a family show”.

[00:13:01] But, being provocative, and being very handsome, sells, and after this TV appearance he was catapulted to household fame.

[00:13:11] His next record, “Love Me Tender”, had a record-breaking one million pre-orders, and he was simply the biggest and most in demand musician in the world.

[00:13:25] Elvis concerts were characterised by his walking onto the stage to the screams of young girls, then he would start playing, typically Hound Dog, to much more screaming. 

[00:13:38] The irony of this all was, perhaps, that he really wasn’t considered by anyone to be a very talented musician. 

[00:13:47] Reportedly he never actually wrote any of his own music - he was listed as a co-writer of most of his songs, but this is believed to have been a demand by his record label.

[00:14:00] And he was obviously quite good at the guitar, but nothing he did on the guitar was revolutionary

[00:14:07] Elvis’s talent and appeal came from Elvis Presley the performer.

[00:14:13] He looked and acted the part. He was an incredibly handsome young man, and had an amazing presence.

[00:14:22] It was, therefore, perhaps no surprise that both he and his manager thought the next logical step for him was Hollywood, to make it as a movie star.

[00:14:34] The idea was that the movies would help sell his music, and not only would Elvis’s fame grow even larger but he, and everyone involved with him, would grow fabulously wealthy.

[00:14:48] And so, starting in 1956 with Love Me Tender, he set out on a career as an actor, and starred in 31 films over the course of his career.

[00:15:01] They almost all did well commercially, because, well, he was Elvis and people wanted to see him. 

[00:15:08] But they were very poorly reviewed - they weren’t great films. They were formulaic, the stories were boring, and Elvis really wasn’t a very good actor.

[00:15:20] He was becoming fabulously wealthy though, and by the late 1950s, when he wasn’t even 25, he had more money than he could ever wish for. 

[00:15:31] He was rich enough to buy anything he wanted, and do anything he wanted.

[00:15:37] But no matter how rich he was, there was one thing he couldn’t avoid: military service.

[00:15:45] In 1958, shortly after his 23rd birthday, like hundreds of thousands of other young men his age, Elvis Presley was drafted into the US army and ended up serving two years as a soldier. 

[00:16:01] Contrary to many people’s expectations, he had joined very willingly

[00:16:06] Tens of thousands of young girls had pleaded for Elvis to be exempted from military service, for him to be allowed not to join, but Elvis had insisted on going. 

[00:16:19] This was a requirement for every young man of his age, he was a patriot, he wanted to serve his country and insisted that he be treated like any other soldier.

[00:16:32] He was sent to Germany, and was reportedly a popular member of his squadron. He was well-known for his generosity, and did things like buying extra TVs and clothes for his fellow soldiers.

[00:16:47] It was during his time as a soldier that he first met the woman he was to marry, Priscilla Beaulieu. 

[00:16:54] The only problem was, and this was a pretty serious problem, that she was only 14 years old when they met and started dating. He was 23.

[00:17:06] Although this might have been slightly less socially unacceptable back in 1958, it was just as illegal as it is now. 

[00:17:15] Elvis and Priscilla reportedly never actually had a sexual relationship when she was under 18, but this was still a case of a 23-year-old man, and one of the most famous, if not the most famous, young men in America dating an underage girl.

[00:17:34] While in military service Elvis also discovered prescription drugs, and this was to be a vice that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

[00:17:45] When he was eventually dismissed from military service, in 1960, he returned to the life of an entertainment star but things were never quite the same for Elvis Presley. 

[00:17:58] Sure, on his return he released two of his most commercially successful ballads - Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now Or Never both in 1960, but then he took a 7 year break from performing live to focus on his Hollywood career. 

[00:18:16] The problem was that his films were just not very good, and people started to view him as a bit of a joke, a bit of a has-been.

[00:18:26] In 1968, after a series of poorly received singles, he plotted his return to the stage. 

[00:18:35] He was only 33, but he had been out of the musical business for coming on a decade, and it was time to show the world that he was back.

[00:18:46] His manager, Colonel Parker, struck a deal with NBC, the TV network, to do an Elvis comeback special for Christmas 1968. 

[00:18:58] The programme was simply called “Elvis”, and it was a huge success. 

[00:19:03] It was watched by 42% of the entire American TV audience, and brought our protagonist back into the limelight.

[00:19:13] This was a different Elvis to the one the country had got to know though.

[00:19:18] His image had changed. Gone were the boyish good looks and charm, and for this performance he debuted, he first showed off what would become his trademark black leather suit.

[00:19:32] Elvis was nervous at first about returning to live performances, but when he saw the reaction of the audience he started to love it again.

[00:19:42] Elvis was, first and foremost, a performer - he thrived on the crowd.

[00:19:48] And so it was that, starting in 1969, he sealed a contract with the International Hotel in Las Vegas to play two shows every day for four weeks, every February and August for an annual salary of $1 million, which is about $7.5 million in today’s money.

[00:20:10] Put another way, this was over $100,000 a day in today’s money.

[00:20:16] Now, there are contrasting views about Elvis’s time in Las Vegas. 

[00:20:21] For some, it was his last shot at remaining a star. He certainly didn’t need the money - he was already wealthy beyond his dreams, but he wanted the status that came with being the most in-demand entertainer in the US’s entertainment capital.

[00:20:40] But for others it’s seen as a clever way for Elvis to reinvent himself, and that it was a monumental success. Indeed, over the next seven years he would play over 600 shows at the same hotel in Las Vegas, and every single one of them would sell out, all the tickets would be sold.

[00:21:01] It was to a different crowd though. The adoring teenage girls he had played in front of in the mid-1950s were now grown-up women, and the teenagers of the 1960s, well Elvis wasn’t quite so appealing to them.

[00:21:18] This was the era of The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Who. Elvis was, well, he was Elvis.

[00:21:26] Even though he might not be so appealing to the new generation, he continued to pull in the crowds, and Elvis concerts would always sell out.

[00:21:37] Off-stage, however, his personal life was falling apart

[00:21:42] He had married Priscilla in May of 1967, and their only child, Lisa Marie was born the following year. 

[00:21:51] But Elvis was deeply unhappy with the direction in which his career was going.

[00:21:56] Yes, he was famous, yes he was rich. 

[00:21:59] But he was a shadow of his former self. 

[00:22:03] The fans he had in the late 1960s were often the same fans as the ones in the 1950s, apart from now they were 15 years older, and were eating lobster dinners with their husbands at a Las Vegas hotel, they weren’t in love with him now, they were there at the show to experience what Elvis used to be.

[00:22:25] His new marriage was falling apart, and both he and Priscilla started having affairs.

[00:22:33] Elvis, first with a lady called Joyce Bova, and Priscilla with a man called Mike Stone, who was in fact her karate instructor, and had been introduced to her by Elvis himself.

[00:22:47] Elvis was incensed when he found out, he was incredibly angry, and became obsessed with the idea that Mike Stone, that Priscilla's lover, was trying to have him killed.

[00:23:00] Elvis became so fixated on this idea that he even had one of his bodyguards go and get a quote for how much it would cost for a professional assassin, a contract killer to murder Priscilla’s lover, but eventually decided against it, saying “Aw hell, let's just leave it for now. Maybe it's a bit heavy.”

[00:23:23] The Presleys divorced in 1973, and by this time Elvis was deeply addicted to two types of substances: prescription drugs and junk food.

[00:23:35] Despite having been a vocal anti-drug advocate, someone who said he never did drugs and even appeared with President Richard Nixon as part of an anti-drugs campaign, Elvis Presley had developed a severe dependence on a large range of drugs, including opiates and barbiturates

[00:23:57] He overdosed several times, and was hospitalised, but this was all tightly covered up by his entourage, it was hidden by the people around him.

[00:24:07] His other addiction was also killing him slowly.

[00:24:11] He had always eaten a lot, but by the mid 1970s he had developed a very strange relationship with junk food, whereby he would binge on it, he would eat vast amounts of it, then go on radical diets to try to lose the weight he had put on.

[00:24:30] He would eat all sorts of junk food, burgers, chips, pizza, but one of his favourite things to eat was something called Fool’s Gold. 

[00:24:41] This was a sandwich invented by a small restaurant in Denver, and it was made by hollowing out the middle of a loaf of bread, then putting an entire pot of jam, an entire pot of peanut butter and half a kilo of bacon inside. 

[00:25:00] Just one of the sandwiches contained 8,000 calories. 

[00:25:06] If you’re not familiar with how much 8,000 calories is, the recommended daily intake for a grown man is 2,500 calories, so this one sandwich contained more calories than are recommended for three days!

[00:25:23] There’s even a story about Elvis getting so hungry one night that he flew on his private jet from Memphis all the way to Denver, a two-hour flight away, just so that he could get one of these heart-attack-inducing sandwiches.

[00:25:40] And, as I’m sure you know, the prescription drugs and the junk food caught up with him.

[00:25:46] At two o’clock in the afternoon on August 16th of 1977 he was found dead by his then 20-year-old girlfriend, Ginger Alden on the bathroom floor.

[00:25:59] He was only 42 years old.

[00:26:01] Immediately after his death his entourage and his doctors tried to cover up his drug addiction. 

[00:26:09] He was taken to a hospital that was known to be more discreet

[00:26:14] Given how anti-drugs Elvis had claimed to be, and how he had been part of Nixon’s anti-drug campaign, Elvis’s family managed to persuade the doctors to not mention drugs, in a bid to protect Elvis’ reputation.

[00:26:30] And indeed, after the primary autopsy, the doctors declared that Elvis had died of a heart attack and that drugs were not involved. 

[00:26:42] But, after the toxicology report a few weeks later it was revealed that Elvis had vast amounts of prescription drugs in his body at the time of his death. 

[00:26:54] This was all enabled by his personal doctor, a man affectionately called Dr Nick, who would give Elvis anything he wanted. Indeed, in the first 7 months of 1977 alone, Dr Nick prescribed Elvis more than 10,000 doses of sedatives and amphetamines.

[00:27:14] It is a theme that is unfortunately all too familiar with some musicians, that of having a personal doctor enabling a drug addiction, and Elvis would be followed by other greats such as Michael Jackson and Prince.

[00:27:31] As for the legacy of Elvis Presley, he is the best-selling solo artist of all time, selling over 500 million records worldwide.

[00:27:41] A particularly unique aspect of his legacy is, of course, the fact that he invented an entire career of “Elvis impersonator”, of people who dress up as Elvis and perform as him. 

[00:27:56] Contrary to popular belief, these impersonators didn’t start after his death - the first known Elvis impersonator started in 1954, shortly after he released “That’s All Right”. 

[00:28:09] It’s probably a testament to how unique his style of performance was, that almost as soon as he started performing, people wanted to copy him.

[00:28:20] And then after his death, after there was literally no possible way to experience the real Elvis again, the number of Elvis impersonators continued to grow, and it’s estimated that now there are anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 Elvis impersonators worldwide.

[00:28:40] There’s also a famous story about Elvis entering into an Elvis lookalike competition and only coming in third place, but unfortunately this is an urban legend, it just isn’t true.

[00:28:54] When we come to look back at the musical career of Elvis Presley, there is a definite split, which came when he joined the army.

[00:29:03] In the years leading up to joining the army, he was the fresh-faced boy rock star, swinging his hips, having number one single after number one single, and touring the country to crowds of adoring fans.

[00:29:17] And then after returning from military service, in 1960, he had some commercial success, and he certainly made a lot of money, but he was never quite the same again. 

[00:29:30] It was perhaps this inability to recreate his success as a young man that drove him towards the erratic behaviour, the junk food and drugs, and without anyone to really tell him no, he drove himself to an early grave.

[00:29:48] He might not have been the most talented musician of his time, but he was certainly one of the greatest performers. 

[00:29:55] He was the sound of a generation, he was for many the first musical icon, the first real star, he made playing the guitar “cool”, and he went on to influence countless other artists and bands.

[00:30:10] So, you can think what you want about Elvis Presley, but it’s hard to argue that there is anyone more deserving of the title “The King of Rock and Roll”.

[00:30:23] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Elvis Presley, and with that comes the end of this three-part mini-series on musical icons of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:30:36] As a reminder, in part one we learned about the life and times of Ray Charles, in part two, which was one of our member-only ones, it was Johnny Cash, and part three was what you’ve just listened to, Elvis Presley.

[00:30:51] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:30:57] Given that we are talking about the best-selling solo artist of all time, I imagine that we might have some Elvis-fans listening. 

[00:31:05] And even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:31:10] So, what other amazing stories from the life of Elvis Presley do you know about?

[00:31:15] What are your favourite Elvis songs?

[00:31:17] And did he ever actually make any movies that you thought were any good?

[00:31:22] I would love to know. 

[00:31:23] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:31:32] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:31:38] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part three of our three-part mini-series on troubled but iconic American musicians of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:00:32] In part one we learned about Ray Charles, the boy who was born dirt-poor and was completely blind by his 7th birthday, yet managed to become one of the most successful musicians of his generation.

[00:00:47] In part two we heard about Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black", and his wild and tragic life.

[00:00:55] And now, in part three it is on to the man they called “The King of Rock & Roll”, Elvis Presley.

[00:01:04] It’s the story of a cult generational icon, of what happens when you are the most famous young man in 1950s America, an object of love and adoration by millions of teenagers. 

[00:01:17] But it’s also a tale of excess, of huge tragedy and wasted talent, and all ended very sadly, in a bathroom when Elvis Presley was only 42 years old.

[00:01:31] OK then, Elvis Presley.

[00:01:37] Elvis was born on January 8th, 1935, three years after Johnny Cash and four and half years after Ray Charles.

[00:01:47] The America he was born into was not a prosperous one. 

[00:01:53] America was just getting back on its feet after the Great Depression, and Elvis’s parents were constantly struggling for money. 

[00:02:03] There’s even a legend that a 4-year-old Elvis, after hearing his parents yet again arguing over money, told them to be quiet and promised that he would buy them a Cadillac one day.

[00:02:17] Well, if he did indeed say this, he was correct, and this boy growing up in a poor family in a small town in Mississippi, in the deep south of the United States, would go on to be the highest selling artist of all time. 

[00:02:33] Although Elvis found success at a young age, he came up against plenty of hurdles on his way, and there are countless stories of people telling him he had no talent, that he couldn’t sing, and that there was no way he would be a star.

[00:02:50] He almost never even picked up a guitar in the first place.

[00:02:55] The story goes that for his 12th birthday he wanted either a rifle or a bicycle, but his mother refused, thinking that they were both too dangerous.

[00:03:07] Instead, she bought the young boy a guitar, and he started taking guitar lessons.

[00:03:15] Elvis had shown some talent for music before, but wasn’t anything special. 

[00:03:21] He had entered a singing competition the year before, but came fifth. His teachers, on his report card, considered him to be an average student, he certainly showed no signs of what he would later become.

[00:03:37] He was, by all accounts, just a normal student - a well-behaved young boy, he kept his hair short like other boys at the time, was polite, studied hard in school, but was nothing out of the ordinary.

[00:03:51] It was to be the following year, when the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis started to first cultivate his own image.

[00:04:02] Memphis was a big city, filled with new and intriguing types of music. It was very different from the small town Elvis had grown up in.

[00:04:14] People dressed in a different way, and the young Elvis started to cultivate his own image.

[00:04:21] He grew long sideburns and grew his hair longer. 

[00:04:26] He also started to add shoe polish to it to make it dark black. His natural colour when he was a boy was blondish. It was light.

[00:04:38] By this time he had set his sights on music as a career, and spent more and more time playing guitar, and jamming with friends.

[00:04:48] His style was a mixture of Southern-gospel and country, and he had this unique voice that sounded to many people like he was black.

[00:04:59] After he graduated from high school in 1953, he decided that he wanted to record himself, reportedly because he had never actually heard himself sing.

[00:05:12] He went to the studio of Sun Records, which incidentally was the record label that would go on to sign Johnny Cash a year later, and paid his $4 to record himself.

[00:05:25] Now, it’s thought that Elvis knew exactly what he was doing - he wanted to be spotted, and this was a great way of doing it. 

[00:05:34] He knew exactly what he sounded like, and there were far cheaper ways to record yourself, Elvis didn’t need to go to the studio of a record label.

[00:05:44] In any case, when he walked into the studio, guitar in hand, the receptionist asked him what kind of singer he was. He responded “I sing all kinds. I don’t sound like nobody”. 

[00:05:58] He recorded two songs, and was noticed by the boss of Sun Records and recorded as a “good ballad singer”. 

[00:06:06] But nothing happened after that.

[00:06:10] Presley was forced to take a job as a delivery driver, driving trucks, where he was paid $1 an hour. 

[00:06:18] He tried out for a few bands, but had no luck, even once being rejected by one singer who famously told him to stick to driving trucks because “you’re never going to make it as a singer”.

[00:06:33] It wouldn’t be until a year later, in 1954, that Elvis got his big break

[00:06:40] He was back in Sun Records, and after failing to play anything that excited the record label bosses, was fooling around in the studio playing a cover of a blues song called “That’s all right”. 

[00:06:55] When the boss of Sun Records, Sam Phillips heard it, he rushed into the studio. This was the sound he was looking for. 

[00:07:04] It was recorded, and played on the local radio station.

[00:07:08] It was such a hit that it was played multiple times, and people kept on calling in to the radio station to ask who it was.

[00:07:18] Elvis started touring, but he only really had one song, “That’s all right”. He would play the song over and over, there were literally concerts where this one song would be played on repeat.

[00:07:32] In 1954, by the way, when he first found success, he was only 19 years old.

[00:07:39] For his first stage performances, he was a shadow of the confident sex-icon Elvis that he became.

[00:07:49] Indeed, he was incredibly shy and nervous, he was not the confident man that you might imagine.

[00:07:56] And in fact it was a combination of being nervous and trying to keep the rhythm of the music that caused him to move his legs and hips from side to side. 

[00:08:08] But as soon as he did this, as soon as he moved his hips around, the crowd, especially the young female members of the crowd, cried out in joy. 

[00:08:21] This was something incredibly new and wild for 1950s America. Singers might click their fingers or move around a little bit, but not their hips, and nothing at all sexual.

[00:08:34] There was Elvis, a very good-looking young man with a guitar thrusting his hips around in a sexual manner.

[00:08:43] As the tours continued, the adoring female fans continued to grow in number, and would do anything to grab Elvis’s attention

[00:08:54] He would be mobbed by adoring fans, with girls just wanting to touch him. 

[00:09:00] This female attention caused him to become the target of a lot of male jealousy, and in some towns he would have to have a police guard to stop jealous young boys attacking him.

[00:09:14] It wasn’t only out of jealousy that some people disliked him.

[00:09:19] Religious ministers considered him to be leading the nation’s youth astray

[00:09:25] One reverend told his congregation that “Elvis Presley is morally insane” and another lamented that “his stage antics are intended to arouse the lower instincts. Apparently he is succeeding.”

[00:09:41] There was even a letter sent to the director of the FBI from a Catholic church warning that "Presley is a definite danger to the security of the United States. ... [His] actions and motions were such as to rouse the sexual passions of teenaged youth.”

[00:10:00] Elvis Presley was certainly getting noticed.

[00:10:04] By 1955, shortly after his 20th birthday, he also got a new manager, a man named Colonel Tom Parker, who was to be a very powerful force in Elvis’ life and career.

[00:10:20] Although he claimed to be called Tom Parker and to have been born in the United States, he was actually born in the Netherlands, and his real name was Andreas Cornelis [Dries] van Kuijk.

[00:10:34] Parker, his new manager, cultivated this image of Elvis Presley as a sex symbol, making Elvis tell a reporter that he had 25 girlfriends, but don’t worry ladies, Elvis wants you to know that you too can become one of his twenty five if you buy a ticket to his show.

[00:10:53] This new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, is thought to have controlled and squeezed Elvis, profiting greatly from his success. 

[00:11:03] Parker took between 25% and 50% of all of the money Elvis made, and exerted very tight control over the direction of Elvis’s career.

[00:11:14] Although he can justifiably be accused of exploiting Elvis, he was certainly an important part of Elvis’s success, and understood what the real appeal of Elvis was.

[00:11:28] By 1956, Elvis had several number one singles under his belt, and was popular on the radio, but to really experience Elvis you had to see him perform.

[00:11:41] And the best way for as many people as possible to see that was for him to go on TV.

[00:11:48] Parker managed to book Elvis to go on TV, on a popular show called the Ed Sullivan Show.

[00:11:56] Elvis’ first TV appearance came on September 9th of 1956, when he was a mere 21-year-old, and performed Hound Dog. 

[00:12:07] And 60 million people tuned in to see him, a record-breaking 83% of the entire TV audience.

[00:12:18] For many people, this was the first time they had seen Elvis. 

[00:12:22] They might have heard him, but they had never seen him on stage.

[00:12:27] And what they saw was shocking, shockingly provocative.

[00:12:32] In particular, what Elvis did with his groin and his crotch, his famous sexualised movement of his hips, was considered to be too provocative for mainstream TV audiences of the time

[00:12:47] The host, Ed Sullivan, complained about it, even saying that he thought Elvis had a coke bottle hidden in his trousers, and said “We can’t have this on a Sunday night - this is a family show”.

[00:13:01] But, being provocative, and being very handsome, sells, and after this TV appearance he was catapulted to household fame.

[00:13:11] His next record, “Love Me Tender”, had a record-breaking one million pre-orders, and he was simply the biggest and most in demand musician in the world.

[00:13:25] Elvis concerts were characterised by his walking onto the stage to the screams of young girls, then he would start playing, typically Hound Dog, to much more screaming. 

[00:13:38] The irony of this all was, perhaps, that he really wasn’t considered by anyone to be a very talented musician. 

[00:13:47] Reportedly he never actually wrote any of his own music - he was listed as a co-writer of most of his songs, but this is believed to have been a demand by his record label.

[00:14:00] And he was obviously quite good at the guitar, but nothing he did on the guitar was revolutionary

[00:14:07] Elvis’s talent and appeal came from Elvis Presley the performer.

[00:14:13] He looked and acted the part. He was an incredibly handsome young man, and had an amazing presence.

[00:14:22] It was, therefore, perhaps no surprise that both he and his manager thought the next logical step for him was Hollywood, to make it as a movie star.

[00:14:34] The idea was that the movies would help sell his music, and not only would Elvis’s fame grow even larger but he, and everyone involved with him, would grow fabulously wealthy.

[00:14:48] And so, starting in 1956 with Love Me Tender, he set out on a career as an actor, and starred in 31 films over the course of his career.

[00:15:01] They almost all did well commercially, because, well, he was Elvis and people wanted to see him. 

[00:15:08] But they were very poorly reviewed - they weren’t great films. They were formulaic, the stories were boring, and Elvis really wasn’t a very good actor.

[00:15:20] He was becoming fabulously wealthy though, and by the late 1950s, when he wasn’t even 25, he had more money than he could ever wish for. 

[00:15:31] He was rich enough to buy anything he wanted, and do anything he wanted.

[00:15:37] But no matter how rich he was, there was one thing he couldn’t avoid: military service.

[00:15:45] In 1958, shortly after his 23rd birthday, like hundreds of thousands of other young men his age, Elvis Presley was drafted into the US army and ended up serving two years as a soldier. 

[00:16:01] Contrary to many people’s expectations, he had joined very willingly

[00:16:06] Tens of thousands of young girls had pleaded for Elvis to be exempted from military service, for him to be allowed not to join, but Elvis had insisted on going. 

[00:16:19] This was a requirement for every young man of his age, he was a patriot, he wanted to serve his country and insisted that he be treated like any other soldier.

[00:16:32] He was sent to Germany, and was reportedly a popular member of his squadron. He was well-known for his generosity, and did things like buying extra TVs and clothes for his fellow soldiers.

[00:16:47] It was during his time as a soldier that he first met the woman he was to marry, Priscilla Beaulieu. 

[00:16:54] The only problem was, and this was a pretty serious problem, that she was only 14 years old when they met and started dating. He was 23.

[00:17:06] Although this might have been slightly less socially unacceptable back in 1958, it was just as illegal as it is now. 

[00:17:15] Elvis and Priscilla reportedly never actually had a sexual relationship when she was under 18, but this was still a case of a 23-year-old man, and one of the most famous, if not the most famous, young men in America dating an underage girl.

[00:17:34] While in military service Elvis also discovered prescription drugs, and this was to be a vice that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

[00:17:45] When he was eventually dismissed from military service, in 1960, he returned to the life of an entertainment star but things were never quite the same for Elvis Presley. 

[00:17:58] Sure, on his return he released two of his most commercially successful ballads - Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now Or Never both in 1960, but then he took a 7 year break from performing live to focus on his Hollywood career. 

[00:18:16] The problem was that his films were just not very good, and people started to view him as a bit of a joke, a bit of a has-been.

[00:18:26] In 1968, after a series of poorly received singles, he plotted his return to the stage. 

[00:18:35] He was only 33, but he had been out of the musical business for coming on a decade, and it was time to show the world that he was back.

[00:18:46] His manager, Colonel Parker, struck a deal with NBC, the TV network, to do an Elvis comeback special for Christmas 1968. 

[00:18:58] The programme was simply called “Elvis”, and it was a huge success. 

[00:19:03] It was watched by 42% of the entire American TV audience, and brought our protagonist back into the limelight.

[00:19:13] This was a different Elvis to the one the country had got to know though.

[00:19:18] His image had changed. Gone were the boyish good looks and charm, and for this performance he debuted, he first showed off what would become his trademark black leather suit.

[00:19:32] Elvis was nervous at first about returning to live performances, but when he saw the reaction of the audience he started to love it again.

[00:19:42] Elvis was, first and foremost, a performer - he thrived on the crowd.

[00:19:48] And so it was that, starting in 1969, he sealed a contract with the International Hotel in Las Vegas to play two shows every day for four weeks, every February and August for an annual salary of $1 million, which is about $7.5 million in today’s money.

[00:20:10] Put another way, this was over $100,000 a day in today’s money.

[00:20:16] Now, there are contrasting views about Elvis’s time in Las Vegas. 

[00:20:21] For some, it was his last shot at remaining a star. He certainly didn’t need the money - he was already wealthy beyond his dreams, but he wanted the status that came with being the most in-demand entertainer in the US’s entertainment capital.

[00:20:40] But for others it’s seen as a clever way for Elvis to reinvent himself, and that it was a monumental success. Indeed, over the next seven years he would play over 600 shows at the same hotel in Las Vegas, and every single one of them would sell out, all the tickets would be sold.

[00:21:01] It was to a different crowd though. The adoring teenage girls he had played in front of in the mid-1950s were now grown-up women, and the teenagers of the 1960s, well Elvis wasn’t quite so appealing to them.

[00:21:18] This was the era of The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Who. Elvis was, well, he was Elvis.

[00:21:26] Even though he might not be so appealing to the new generation, he continued to pull in the crowds, and Elvis concerts would always sell out.

[00:21:37] Off-stage, however, his personal life was falling apart

[00:21:42] He had married Priscilla in May of 1967, and their only child, Lisa Marie was born the following year. 

[00:21:51] But Elvis was deeply unhappy with the direction in which his career was going.

[00:21:56] Yes, he was famous, yes he was rich. 

[00:21:59] But he was a shadow of his former self. 

[00:22:03] The fans he had in the late 1960s were often the same fans as the ones in the 1950s, apart from now they were 15 years older, and were eating lobster dinners with their husbands at a Las Vegas hotel, they weren’t in love with him now, they were there at the show to experience what Elvis used to be.

[00:22:25] His new marriage was falling apart, and both he and Priscilla started having affairs.

[00:22:33] Elvis, first with a lady called Joyce Bova, and Priscilla with a man called Mike Stone, who was in fact her karate instructor, and had been introduced to her by Elvis himself.

[00:22:47] Elvis was incensed when he found out, he was incredibly angry, and became obsessed with the idea that Mike Stone, that Priscilla's lover, was trying to have him killed.

[00:23:00] Elvis became so fixated on this idea that he even had one of his bodyguards go and get a quote for how much it would cost for a professional assassin, a contract killer to murder Priscilla’s lover, but eventually decided against it, saying “Aw hell, let's just leave it for now. Maybe it's a bit heavy.”

[00:23:23] The Presleys divorced in 1973, and by this time Elvis was deeply addicted to two types of substances: prescription drugs and junk food.

[00:23:35] Despite having been a vocal anti-drug advocate, someone who said he never did drugs and even appeared with President Richard Nixon as part of an anti-drugs campaign, Elvis Presley had developed a severe dependence on a large range of drugs, including opiates and barbiturates

[00:23:57] He overdosed several times, and was hospitalised, but this was all tightly covered up by his entourage, it was hidden by the people around him.

[00:24:07] His other addiction was also killing him slowly.

[00:24:11] He had always eaten a lot, but by the mid 1970s he had developed a very strange relationship with junk food, whereby he would binge on it, he would eat vast amounts of it, then go on radical diets to try to lose the weight he had put on.

[00:24:30] He would eat all sorts of junk food, burgers, chips, pizza, but one of his favourite things to eat was something called Fool’s Gold. 

[00:24:41] This was a sandwich invented by a small restaurant in Denver, and it was made by hollowing out the middle of a loaf of bread, then putting an entire pot of jam, an entire pot of peanut butter and half a kilo of bacon inside. 

[00:25:00] Just one of the sandwiches contained 8,000 calories. 

[00:25:06] If you’re not familiar with how much 8,000 calories is, the recommended daily intake for a grown man is 2,500 calories, so this one sandwich contained more calories than are recommended for three days!

[00:25:23] There’s even a story about Elvis getting so hungry one night that he flew on his private jet from Memphis all the way to Denver, a two-hour flight away, just so that he could get one of these heart-attack-inducing sandwiches.

[00:25:40] And, as I’m sure you know, the prescription drugs and the junk food caught up with him.

[00:25:46] At two o’clock in the afternoon on August 16th of 1977 he was found dead by his then 20-year-old girlfriend, Ginger Alden on the bathroom floor.

[00:25:59] He was only 42 years old.

[00:26:01] Immediately after his death his entourage and his doctors tried to cover up his drug addiction. 

[00:26:09] He was taken to a hospital that was known to be more discreet

[00:26:14] Given how anti-drugs Elvis had claimed to be, and how he had been part of Nixon’s anti-drug campaign, Elvis’s family managed to persuade the doctors to not mention drugs, in a bid to protect Elvis’ reputation.

[00:26:30] And indeed, after the primary autopsy, the doctors declared that Elvis had died of a heart attack and that drugs were not involved. 

[00:26:42] But, after the toxicology report a few weeks later it was revealed that Elvis had vast amounts of prescription drugs in his body at the time of his death. 

[00:26:54] This was all enabled by his personal doctor, a man affectionately called Dr Nick, who would give Elvis anything he wanted. Indeed, in the first 7 months of 1977 alone, Dr Nick prescribed Elvis more than 10,000 doses of sedatives and amphetamines.

[00:27:14] It is a theme that is unfortunately all too familiar with some musicians, that of having a personal doctor enabling a drug addiction, and Elvis would be followed by other greats such as Michael Jackson and Prince.

[00:27:31] As for the legacy of Elvis Presley, he is the best-selling solo artist of all time, selling over 500 million records worldwide.

[00:27:41] A particularly unique aspect of his legacy is, of course, the fact that he invented an entire career of “Elvis impersonator”, of people who dress up as Elvis and perform as him. 

[00:27:56] Contrary to popular belief, these impersonators didn’t start after his death - the first known Elvis impersonator started in 1954, shortly after he released “That’s All Right”. 

[00:28:09] It’s probably a testament to how unique his style of performance was, that almost as soon as he started performing, people wanted to copy him.

[00:28:20] And then after his death, after there was literally no possible way to experience the real Elvis again, the number of Elvis impersonators continued to grow, and it’s estimated that now there are anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 Elvis impersonators worldwide.

[00:28:40] There’s also a famous story about Elvis entering into an Elvis lookalike competition and only coming in third place, but unfortunately this is an urban legend, it just isn’t true.

[00:28:54] When we come to look back at the musical career of Elvis Presley, there is a definite split, which came when he joined the army.

[00:29:03] In the years leading up to joining the army, he was the fresh-faced boy rock star, swinging his hips, having number one single after number one single, and touring the country to crowds of adoring fans.

[00:29:17] And then after returning from military service, in 1960, he had some commercial success, and he certainly made a lot of money, but he was never quite the same again. 

[00:29:30] It was perhaps this inability to recreate his success as a young man that drove him towards the erratic behaviour, the junk food and drugs, and without anyone to really tell him no, he drove himself to an early grave.

[00:29:48] He might not have been the most talented musician of his time, but he was certainly one of the greatest performers. 

[00:29:55] He was the sound of a generation, he was for many the first musical icon, the first real star, he made playing the guitar “cool”, and he went on to influence countless other artists and bands.

[00:30:10] So, you can think what you want about Elvis Presley, but it’s hard to argue that there is anyone more deserving of the title “The King of Rock and Roll”.

[00:30:23] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Elvis Presley, and with that comes the end of this three-part mini-series on musical icons of the 1950s and 60s.

[00:30:36] As a reminder, in part one we learned about the life and times of Ray Charles, in part two, which was one of our member-only ones, it was Johnny Cash, and part three was what you’ve just listened to, Elvis Presley.

[00:30:51] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode, and of this mini-series in general.

[00:30:57] Given that we are talking about the best-selling solo artist of all time, I imagine that we might have some Elvis-fans listening. 

[00:31:05] And even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, I would love to know what you thought of this episode.

[00:31:10] So, what other amazing stories from the life of Elvis Presley do you know about?

[00:31:15] What are your favourite Elvis songs?

[00:31:17] And did he ever actually make any movies that you thought were any good?

[00:31:22] I would love to know. 

[00:31:23] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:31:32] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:31:38] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]