Elvis Presley was first heard on radio 60 years ago on July 8, 1954. Presley sold over one billion record units worldwide — making him the best-selling solo artist in record industry history. Known for his moves that earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” and that were considered scandalous at the time (but are tame by today’s standards), Presley was the undisputed king of “rock ’n’ roll” even though he never learned to read music and was told repeatedly in his youth that he couldn’t sing and would “never make it as a singer.” He made it in his singing career — big time — but his personal life was a disaster throughout and especially at the end.
Numerous contemporaries recall Elvis being very interested in singing. The boy who couldn’t sing became the subject of a 2012 book — now sold out — by Ernst Jorgensen, who spent more than a decade writing The Boy From Tupelo, a book/CD package that ended up “as a massive 530 pages, around 1,000 photos and weighing nearly 5 kilograms.”
Presley’s official site lists a record of achievement in music that is unparalleled. He had nearly 150 songs hit Billboard’s top 100, 114 were in top 40, 40 were in the top ten, and 18 went to number one! His number one singles stayed at #1 for 80 weeks! More than 90 albums reached the charts with 10 reaching #1. He was also the nation’s leading artist in country, R&B, and gospel. In addition, Elvis was paid an unprecedented $50,000 to make three appearances on the Ed Sullivan television show and $125,000 to appear on Frank Sinatra’s show — historic payments at the time. Presley starred in 31 feature films and, at one time, was “one of Hollywood’s top box office draws and one of its highest paid actors.” His 1968 television special remains one of the “most critically acclaimed music specials of all time,” and his 1973 special from Hawaii made television history for being seen in “more American homes than man’s first walk on the moon.” His Las Vegas shows broke existing attendance records as did his Astrodome and Madison Square Garden appearances. He became the first artist to sell out four straight concerts at Madison Square Garden.
In spite of his achievements and fame, few people today know of his church background and the fact that Wikipedia claims, “It is well known that Elvis Presley was a devout Christian.” Presley could definitely “talk the talk.” He objected to being called “King” and would explain to audiences, “There is only one King and that is Jesus Christ.” Rolling Stone magazine noted, “Gospel pervaded Elvis’ character and was a defining and enduring influence all of his days.” During the 1960s, according to elvisgospel.com, he held Bible studies in his home while making films in Hollywood. Even after he was famous, he continued to attend Gospel singing events and conventions.
According to Christian Century, he wrote more than 50 Gospel songs. Plus, we know that he recorded many Gospel songs and classic hymns, including “How Great Thou Art,” for which he won a Grammy Award in 1974. He also won a Grammy for the album “He Touched Me,” his last Gospel recording.
Sadly, Presley’s life, especially his last years, did not reflect the truth of the songs he loved. Nor was he willing to be accountable to the tenets of Christianity. He moved away from Christianity and “turned to spiritualism,” though contemporaries said he never fully left his Gospel background. He read his numbers and mysticism books as often as he read the Bible. His life became increasingly more “bizarre,”and his performances more “sloppy and listless.” Toward the end, he held recording sessions where he walked in unprepared and concerts when he could barely stand and slurred his way through the lyrics.
But he remained the “most popular entertainer in the world,” having 111 gold records and 33 movies to his credit. The last song he performed showed his remarkable voice and talent, as well as his sad personal decline. More than 80,000 people lined the road for Elvis’ funeral procession to watch the hearse and 16 white limousines as they passed. Elvis’ former wife, Priscilla, took over the management of his on-the-verge-of-bankruptcy estate and “built Elvis Presley Enterprises into a multi-billion dollar empire.”
His life disintegrated on every front. Elvis lived on fried foods and sugar, sleeping all day and partying all night. Presley’s personal doctor lost his medical license for over-prescribing drugs for a singer who ended up a drug addict with nearly 200 “prescriptions totaling more than 10,000 doses of sedatives, amphetamines, and narcotics in the first 8 months of 1977.”
At the end, instead of relying on the faith that sustained his youth, he sought self-fulfillment through Eastern mysticism and New Age gurus. Lost in doubt and confusion and caught up in “new ways of finding mystical meaning,” he supposedly told an acquaintance, “Look, we’ve got only this moment together, so let’s have it completely. No holding back. No wasting time on trivialities. I’ve got the word; I want to give it to you. I’m not a man; I’m not a woman — I’m a soul, a spirit, a force. I have no interest in anything of this world; I want to live in another dimension entirely.”
Elvis’ life epitomized sexual liberation as he tried out “other dimensions.” The book Hungry for Heaven described Elvis’s religion as a “personalized religion” constructed “out of what he’d read of Hinduism, Judaism, numerology, theosophy, mind control, positive thinking and Christianity.” His biographer, Peter Harry Brown, in Down at the End of Lonely Street, described Elvis as standing for “everything rock ’n’ roll stands for: sexual license, rebellion against authority, self-fulfillment, if it feels good, do it and don’t worry about tomorrow, debauchery glossed over a thin veneer of shallow, humanistic spirituality.” Brown sadly notes, “The rock ’n’ roll philosophy created Elvis Presley, and it killed Elvis Presley.”