From the vantage point of history, he is the indisputable King of Rock & Roll. But he earned that title through his ability to perform country, blues, and R&B successfully, and it is often his impact as a country artist that is most easily overlooked.
Presley was born into deep poverty in Mississippi, laying the groundwork for his exposure to American roots music. By his teenage years, he was living in Memphis, and it is in that city where he would be discovered by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips. His work for Sun Records cannot be overstated in its significance. On those early recordings, he brought together elements of country, blues, and R&B into a sound called rockabilly, which created the very foundation for what would soon be known as rock and roll. His cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was among these early recordings, as were his first big country hits: “Baby, Let’s Play House”, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget”, and “Mystery Train.”
Presley toured the south during this period, often performing with fellow future legends like Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson. As he toured, his regionally successful records grew more popular, and his stage show more intense. He scored his first #1 country hit in 1955 (“I Forgot to Remember to Forget”), and RCA Records bought out his contract from Sun. His first single for RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel”, was a career-defining smash, topping the pop and country charts for several weeks. For the remainder of the fifties, Presley’s hit streak was unparalleled, and his particular blend of genres was being called Rock & Roll.
Throughout the years that followed, which included countless hits, film roles, TV appearances, and a stint in the Army, Presley continued to include country material among his repertoire. Though the genre remained loyal to him during his initial rock stardom, he found less success at country radio in the early sixties. But by the end of that decade, he was playing more country than he had in years, setting the groundwork for the seventies, when Presley took the same path as fellow rockabilly stars Jerry Lee Lewis and Brenda Lee, and made country music his primary genre.
A mere two years before his death in 1977, The Sun Collection was released in the United Kingdom, with an American release under the title The Sun Sessions following in 1976. This collected his seminal work for Sun on LP for the first time, while his newer material was dominating the country charts. And with his death, his country career reached new peaks, and he scored a series of big posthumous hits, a run that continued through 1981 with the #1 hit “Guitar Man” and the top ten “Loving Arms.”
He was among the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, though Nashville caught up a few year later, inducting him into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998, alongside George Morgan and Tammy Wynette. Even today, he’s viewed primarily as a rock artist, but his impact on country music has been undeniably significant.
- I Forgot to Remember to Forget, 1955
- Heartbreak Hotel, 1956
- Don’t, 1958
- Hard Headed Woman, 1958
- There Goes My Everything/I Really Don’t Want to Know, 1971
- Always on My Mind, 1972
- I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby, 1974
- Moody Blue, 1976
- Way Down, 1977
- Guitar Man, 1981
- Elvis Presley, 1956
- Elvis, 1956
- Loving You, 1957
- Elvis Country, 1971
- Promised Land, 1975
- The Sun Collection (a.k.a. The Sun Sessions), 1975/1976
- Moody Blue, 1977
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