BEFORE ELVIS THERE WAS NOTHING.

Saying that Elvis is an icon doesn’t quite cut it. There’s really never been anyone else who’s come along since that could fill his mammoth shoes in terms of talent, looks, style, presence and star power– and likely never will be. Don’t even think the words “Michael Jackson,” no way. Not. Even. Close. Jackson took a lot of style cues from Elvis, from his trim black pants, white socks, and black loafers– and obviously his slick dance moves were a tribute to the King’s infamous gyrations first unleashed back in ’56 on “The Milton Berle Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Those infamous performances (for which he was paid handsomely for, and drew ratings that were off the charts) instantly made him public enemy #1 with parents (who feared the effect that his racy “colored” music would have on their kids) as well as self-appointed decency censors and morality police across the nation.

Looking back on these epic Images of “The King of Rock & Roll”– it’s easy to see what all the fuss was about. Electrifying music, intense energy & sexuality– complete with bad boy sneer & stellar style. Elvis created a bold & sexy Rock Star image unrivaled by anyone– back when the fashion landscape was sterile and buttoned-up. And he did it all through sheer originality, determination and attitude.  The signature slick-backed hair was died so black– it actually had a blue tint.  The clothes went from fierce, flashy Rockabilly Badass to uber-Vegas Lizard King– yet through it all he was and still is, the one and only “King of Rock & Roll”– warts and all.

photo by the multi-talented Kate McQueen

“I happened to come along in the music business when there was no trend. “

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The hair, the eyes, the sneer, the pelvis… Elvis

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Memphis, 1956– Elvis Presley outside Jim’s Barber Shop on South Main Street. Looks like he’s gettin’ a ticket and funnin’ with the cop as only Elvis could.

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Memphis, 1956– Elvis Presley outside Jim’s Barber Shop on South Main Street.

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Elvis in the front yard of his home at 1034 Audubon Drive in May 1956. When this photo was taken, Elvis had just returned from touring; the band’s instruments were still packed on the roof of his car. His famous pink Cadillac can be seen over his right shoulder.  via

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1955, Cleveland, Ohio– Rockers Bill Haley & Elvis Presley. –Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

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Elvis Presley posing at CBS studios. Check the pop-over sportshirt, side-belt action, and cool western belt loops. Elvis had it going’ on.

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Memphis, 1957– Elvis Presley and one of his prized Cadillacs.  Looks like a silk sportcoat he’s sportin’.

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1956– Elvis and the Jordanaires in a Nashville studio –Don Cravens / Time Life Pictures / Getty-via

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Shot of Elvis Presley on his ’56 Harley-Davidson KH motorcycle that was featured on the May, 1956 cover of Harley-Davidson’s “The Enthusiast” magazine.

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1956, Memphis, Tennessee– Colonel Tom Parker & Elvis Presley. –Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

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1956, Las Vegas– Heart-String Strummers: Ladies’ idols Liberace and Elvis Presley cut loose in a jam session at Las Vegas, where Presley opened at a night club. A Memphis truck driver until a few months ago, Presley has strummed and moaned his way into the hearts of millions of teenagers with his guitar playing and singing. He reportedly earns some $25,000 a week now. Like pianist Liberace, Presley has a big following among the women. –Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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May 15th, 1956– Elvis Presley performing at the Ellis Auditorium as the headliner for the Memphis Cotton Carnival. The demand to see Elvis was so great that both sides of the auditorium, North and South Halls, were opened to accommodate the overflow.  –photo Robert W. Dye / Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc.

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Elvis Presley in an undated photograph at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, probably 1956-1957. He appears to be wearing the same shoes, socks and ring he wore the night of his May 15, 1956 concert.  –photo The Commercial Appeal

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1957, New York– Elvis Presley Rehearsing at the Maxine Elliot Theater for the Ed Sullivan Show. –Image by © Michael Ochs Archives /Corbis

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1957– Elvis and other recruits wait to be processed at an induction station in Memphis.  –photo by Don Cravens / Time Life Pictures / Getty

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October 1958, Freiburg im Breisgau, West Germany– Elvis Presley poses for the camera during his military service at a US base in Germany. –Image by © Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis

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Elvis Presley while in the Army– strumming the guitar during some downtime.

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Elvis’ future wife Priscilla, just 16 yrs old at the time, joins him upon his release from the military.  –photo by James Whitmore / Time Life Pictures / Getty-

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1962– Elvis with his infamous TCB (Take Care of Business) Memphis Mafia entourage playing cards.

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March 7th, 1965– Elvis Presley chillin’ on electric bass inside Graceland. –photo The Commercial Appeal.

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1966– Elvis Presley in “Spinout.”  Diggin’ that double-breasted sweater jacket.

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May 1967, Las Vegas– Newlyweds Elvis and Priscilla Presley, who met while Elvis was in the Army, prepare to board their private jet following their wedding at the Aladdin Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. –Image by © Bettmann/Corbis

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1968– Elvis Presley in his comeback TV Special –Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

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Great shot of Elvis, Joe Esposito, Frank Sinatra & Fred Astaire. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall…

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Colonel Tom Parker & Elvis Presley. Elvis looks pretty great in this pic.

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Kempo Karate great Ed Parker & Elvis Presley. Was Elvis really a real deal 8th degree Black Belt? Well, was Col. Tom Parker really a Colonel?

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December 21, 1970– Elvis Presley, at his own request, met President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office of The White House.  Elvis reportedly expressed his patriotism along with his contempt for the hippie drug culture, and that The Beatles, whose songs he used to perform in concerts, exemplified what he saw as a trend of anti-Americanism and drug abuse in popular culture.  Elvis also requested and received a Bureau of Narcotics badge. –photo by White House photographer Ollie Atkins (then chief White House photographer) via

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Elvis & entourage with Nixon at the White House where he was awarded his  “honorary” Narc badge.

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Vegas, baby–  Elvis style.

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Elvis on his trike built by none other than Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

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26 thoughts on “BEFORE ELVIS THERE WAS NOTHING.

    • Those are two of my personal faves. The Liberace/Elvis pic is priceless- especially when you look closely at Elvis’ face, which seems to be barely veiling his dismay, and maybe even disgust.

  1. Before Elvis there may have been “nothing” for white teens as far as white guys that performed black music well but there were a helluva lot of great black musicians – both Elvis and Michael Jackson took their cues from the likes of Wynonie Harris and Jackie Wilson. Elvis looked great, moved great and was white but there’s no way one can say he was a talent to compare to Chuck, Little Richard, Bobby Bland, Big Mama Thornton and so many others. He never claimed to be. MJ may have admired Elvis but he took nothing from him as far as music or dance: he came straight out of the chitlin’ circuit – James Brown was his true mentor: Elvis also loved JB. Who couldn’t? The blackest music, the greatest dancer! Elvis had talent, sure, but most of all he was in the right place at the right time with the right producer and right musicians and right music to draw upon. And a massive teen audience waiting to embrace a sound that, until Elvis, was foreign to most (especially teens in lilly white Liverpool). I post this because overlooking where Elvis got his sound and moves from does our understanding of rock’n’roll no help.

    • Garth,

      I hoped this would spark a lively conversation on the origins of Rock & Roll, and the largely under-credited black forefathers.

      I’m glad to see your comment here, thank you.

      JP

  2. lost MY virginity IN marin county the week ELVIS dead. Met the karen di pasqua @ great america theme park & visited her in novato, elvis died she drove ME home 2 sunnyvale & got LUCKY THX elvis!

  3. I have to agree with Cartwright – If it weren’t for Sam Philips, Elvis would have just recorded a record for his mother. Philips who had already been searching for a “white” version of the greats he recorded knew full well what kind of man he needed – someone as dangerous as Ike Turner but as energetic as James Brown. He needed a “white” bridge for “white” America. Elvis just happened to have the unique soul background, right inspirations and right timing to make it. He essentially popularized “black” music, the “black” rock aesthetic for white audiences. His entire overnight success had essentially been planned from the beginning. All Elvis had to do was really go along, which he happily did once he realized the extent of his success. I’m sure Sam Philips still kicks himself for selling his contract for such a small amount.

  4. I can’t stand to give Sam Philips so much credit either, knowing that his estate still makes money off the rights to so many songs written by black musicians who eventually died broke or incredibly poor, but it’s unfortunately true.

  5. Great exposé. Thanks for sharing—also enjoying the intelligent backchannel discussion on the origins of rock ‘n’ roll that goes beyond the cliché “he was ripping people off” statements.

  6. Before Elvis there was nothing and after Elvis there was Michael Jackson. I think the “borrowing” that you speak of came from black musicians and dancers so it makes sense that Michael would not have to steal what was his heritage to begin with.

    By the was I adored Elvis!

  7. The blues and negro spiritual influences of black America on Rock ‘n Roll is not really a debate, merely a fact. It’s also more or less a fact that “Rock n’ Roll” originated with an Ike Turner single called “Rocket 88″ and the stylistic combination of blues and country a la Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins.

    The only debate I see here is “who is the King of Rock ‘n Roll.” Elvis exploded like a bomb on white America because he was a beneficiary of the right place-right time syndrome, and of course because he did indeed have all of those star qualities in spades. But as far as him having the “Rock ‘n Roll” attitude that the appointed King should have, to me it always just seemed a bit contrived and tongue in cheek. Oh he went ALL SORTS of “Rock ‘n Roll” in the most cliched of ways later on with the drug use, but are addiction and gluttony the linchpin of the attitude or merely a side-effect?

    I’ve already spent enough time spewing my opinion, so here is the finish.

    THE KILLER

    ’nuff said

  8. If there was a scene on which I could have come, it didn’t appear until long after all these arguments started; I was born around the time The King passed. So I can only talk for my own experience. But he was IT for me, right up there with the Beatles. One of my favorite possessions is a huge framed print of him in all his Las Vegas Comeback, black leather glory. I’m sorry to have missed out on the real thing. Thanks for the photos.

  9. As soon as there is something about Elvis people starts jabbing about “Elvis just stole from black people”. Well, yes he did, no doubt about it. But really? Do you always have to shout it? The thing is that every dude that ever made music stole most of it from some other dude that stole most of his stuff from some other dude and so on…

    For example, one of Elvis’s best known songs, Hound Dog, that he stole from Big Mama Thorton (That probably stole it from Leiber, Stoller & Otis since she probably heard it before recording it), is a very simple 12 bar blues.
    By 1952, probably about a million songs similar to that had been written. So by logic, we should give all the credit to the dude who was first writing a 12 bar blues or maybe to the guy invited the chords. But they would have been pretty useless without the dude who decided in what frequencys that are supposed to be clean notes and so on until start jabbing about the guy who first started clapping his hands.
    So, if you wan’t to give anyone credit besides some hairy caveman you should look on what impact there actions had instead of what originality there actions were of.

    Finally we can agree on that Elvis didn’t invent Rock n’ Roll any more than Henry Ford invented the car. But Ford did bring the car to the public, and Elvis did the same thing with Rock n’ roll. Elvis also designed the Rock n’ Roll-lifestyle template. By which all Rock n’ Rollers after him are measured. You can whine all you want if you think that it’s not fair, but it’s always about being the right guy, doing the right thing, at the right place at the right time!

    • Could not have said it better myself. These posts always bring out the race mongers who have to jump all over the “black people invented eveything and it was stolen by the white guy” nonsense. Musicians take what they hear and know and try to move it forward, make a sound of their own. Then the next guy moves it further along. You hhear the same crap about Jimmy Page, and it’s just that-crap. Usually spouted by people who do not understand music or music history, they just want to jump on the bandwagon appear to be so politically correct and progressive.

      • I think the thought behind “Elivs stole from black people.”, is that to everyone around, Elvis seemed to fall from the sky as this Rock God with no previous history, and definitely not one involving learning from an already fully developed art form and style or entertainment.

        To amplify this issue, consider how heavily underrepresented said art form was to the mainstream, this means that many of those who established all that Elvis (and countless subsequent others, of any race) built his success on were never able to support themselves doing so, let alone get a sliver of the critical acclaim and reverence that Elvis did.

        The issue is that the majority of those listening to and heavily praising Elvis have no inkling that anything actually came before him. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t talented or even that he didn’t contribute in a major way to the art form. This (unverified) quote might also have something to do with it:

        “I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to. ”

        The problem on both sides of the argument is going to unreasonable extremes. “Elvis stole everything from black people and has no talent” is just as wrong as “BEFOrE ELVIS THERE WAS NOTHING”.

  10. @ Gareth–I love all those guys, too, but are you saying that Elvis was not as talented as Chuck Berry or Big Mama Thornton? I repesctfully disagree. Elvis moved effortlessly from rockabilly to pop to soul (give a listen to the 1969 Memphis sessions with Chips Moman—incredible!). Little Richard was amazing, his “comeback ” in the late 60′s/early 70′s was great (he even called his ’71 album The King of Rock and Roll!), and Wynonie Harris never got the credit he was due (Louis Prima should have given Wynonie half of the money he ever made, but that’s another story…), but when Elvis was on his game he was unapproachable. Elvis released a lot of crap (thanks, Colonel), but I feel that he could do anything when he put his mind to it, or was challenged by someone like Moman. But point well taken, Elvis fans would do themselves a favor by looking at the roots of Elvis and the amazing music there (and don’t forget the great gospel groups that influenced Elvis…)

    @ K Sam Phillips had to sell Elvis to pay his Hound Dog/Bear Cat copyright infringement lawsuit (again, Big Mama Thornton here, too). And Elvis’ Sun contract would’ve been up soon and he would’ve left anyway. Phillips selling Elvis kept Sun going, and tho now it seems like a pittance, back then it was a good business deal for Phillips.

  11. I like the photo of Parker pointing at the typwriter…he’s telling Elvis “see, this here’s the part where you give me everything you make…”

  12. So fucking cool. I’m trying to do the female equivalent of Elvis’s mid 1950′s quiff right now, is that vaseline he used? I’m not gonna do that but woah.

    Can you imagine being there? On say, the March 7th, 1965 photograph – holy crap.

  13. oi monsieur, I really don’t know if I’m right, can’t say, but I was thinking about all this, all that cool stuff you’re displaying for everbody, and I thought, don’t you like john belushi ? I think that man deserves a place on your wall of fame. hum hum.

    ps : but I duno ! maybe you hate his guts, and I don’t wanna be like : tell you what to do, but I’d like it if you like it ! and I got big blue eyes so that’s a good reason for you being unable to say no, hé hé hé. and I hope you read your comments man, hey.

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