Remembering Elvis Presley's Contributions to Music and His Culture Revolution

elvis presley
Posters of Elvis Presley on Elvis Presley Boulevard near Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, on May 28, 2015. The estate that was home to Elvis Presley receives over 600,000 visitors a year and was declared a National Historic Monument in 2006. The music icon died 40 years ago today. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "The Heartbreak Kid" on August 29, 1977. To commemorate 'The King of Rock & Roll,' who died 40 years ago, and his contributions to music, Newsweek is republishing the story.

The whole amazing story of Elvis is about heartbreak. His first giant hit just had to be "Heartbreak Hotel," in which Elvis mournfully rocked and rolled:

"Now since my baby left me/I've found a new place to dwell,/Down at the end of Lonely Street/At Heartbreak Hotel. /I'm so lonely, /I'm so lonely, /That I could die."*

That was in 1956, when Elvis was on fire with talent and success, but his "baby," all his babies, did eventually leave him—his adored mother, his wife, his child, the urgent energy that sparked his talent. At the end, his Memphis Xanadu, the Graceland mansion, had long since become a luxurious Heartbreak Hotel, and poor Elvis, bloated by the American ambrosias—peanut butter, Pepsi, pills and success—died in the midst of his own private lonely crowd.

It's no use sentimentalizing this story, but it's important to feel something for the man whose great contribution was feeling. An immortal moment in our cultural history materialized on TV screens before 54 million people when Ed Sullivan, puckered with befuddlement, introduced 21-year-old Elvis. "I don't know what he does," confessed Sullivan, "but it drives people crazy." And then Elvis was there, a baby slyness on his face, feinting once, twice, with his hips and guitar as the offscreen audience screeched each time, thinking he was going to start singing. And then he swiveled again, a Promethean twitch that brought a raunchy fire into the global village as he started to sing, "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog.…" Legend has it that Sullivan stood in the wings, watching the unseemly saturnalia in his studio, muttering over and over, "Sonovabitch, sonovabitch.…"

White Heat: Which was of course the only appropriate comment. Plato, almost two and a half millennia before, had predicted Elvis when he pointed out that "forms and rhythms in music are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways" and spoke of a new musical style that "goes on to attack laws and constitutions, displaying the utmost impudence." Elvis had the impudence and rock 'n' roll had the form and rhythm. America's postwar swarm of young people was a huge field of force—including economic—waiting to be mobilized. When Elvis exploded, kids were no longer just individual appendages on millions of American families. Rock 'n' roll fused their sensibilities—and their pocketbooks—together with the white heat of the music. A tribe was born.

This process of parturition really did scare Elvis's non-peers—the adults—and a kind of civil war was triggered that in different ways is still going on. But it began as the silliest of civil wars, epitomized by the minister who called Elvis "morally insane" and by Ed Sullivan's camera that chastely took Elvis in only from the waist up, like a host who stares fixedly at a dinner guest's face after noticing that his fly is open. The hue and cry was hardly logical. Elvis had incited a mass reaction, and that's what you get in a mass society. The grown-ups had been doing it for a long time—remember the Rudolph Valentino hysteria, and the middle-aged frenzy at political conventions, which have hardly been more edifying spectacles than the Dionysiac euphoria at Elvis's concerts.

Jackhammer Assault: Elvis really did start a revolution, but it was a revolution that should have had a broken heart as its shoulder patch, because it was both real and not real. The real part was the nearly total culture created for kids. At last they had their own music, their own whacked-out rituals involving cars, girls, everything that went with good old rock 'n' roll. The unreal part was that all of this would soon be absorbed into the system, including Elvis. At first all you saw was Elvis's aggression, his jackhammer assault on the dead-centrism of the Eisenhower years. But if you looked closely at Elvis—as pop artist Andy Warhol did—you saw the opposite of all this: you saw an almost androgynous softness and passivity in his punk-hood persona. Elvis and his revolution were vulnerability disguised as bravado.

Elvis was a rebel with two causes. The instigator of raunch-revolt was a good boy who loved his mother. The jailbird of "Jailhouse Rock" enjoyed ROTC training in high school and was a model draftee. Elvis played a Confederate in his first movie, "Love Me Tender." In one scene Mildred Dunnock tells him to drop his gun and he refuses. This simple scene required several retakes because Elvis instinctively kept dropping his gun as ordered. "You could see he was used to obeying older people, especially his mother," recalled the distinguished actress. "It was a touching thing." But rock writer Peter Guralnick has written that he and other Elvis fans couldn't reconcile the good-boy Elvis with the rebel: "We thought it was a joke. We thought that Elvis was putting us on; it seemed so clearly at odds with Elvis's rebel image and the mythology which…we had erected around a pop idol."

Innocence: When you lead a kids' revolution, the ironic part is that your subjects may grow up and get nostalgic about the good old rock 'n' roll days, but you still have to be King Kid. There have been many tragic figures in jazz, their lives cut short—Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday—but still they changed and developed as artists. As a force, as an artist—and he was one, a very special and powerful kind of contemporary folk-artist—Elvis really had just one moment, when he was a teenage truck driver recording for Sam Phillips's Sun Records in Memphis. You can experience that moment on Elvis's most wonderful record, "Elvis: The Sun Sessions" (RCA). An instinctive genius at synthesis, Elvis absorbed all the styles—black rhythm and blues, white country and Western, gospel, even the last, self-parodying groans of the crooners. What you hear is the energy of innocence, pure, pure rock 'n' roll.

There's still plenty of racial resentment at Elvis's unchallenged role as king of rock 'n' roll. Perhaps the greatest black rockers are Chuck Berry, still performing, and Little Richard, who's now a Seventh-day Adventist minister. They were measured, gallant and accurate last week in their appraisal of Elvis. "Blacks didn't have the airwaves Elvis had," said Berry, and then added, "He delivered what he obtained beautifully." "He was an integrator," said Little Richard. "Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn't let black music through. He opened the door for black music." Maybe Berry and Little Richard are lucky. The drug that killed Elvis was his own supersuccess. His very generosity was an attempt to shrink away the obesity of his affluence. "He was a rocker," said Little Richard, "I was a rocker. I'm not rockin' anymore and he's not rockin' anymore."

* Words and music by Mae B. Axton, Tommy Durden and Elvis Presley. Copyright 1956 by Tree Publishing Co., Inc. Used by permission.