Elvis Presley didn’t do his best work in Hollywood. But his story is coming to the big screen in the form of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, a musical biopic that explores his complicated relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks. (Austin Butler plays Presley.)
When it comes to music, though, Elvis never left the building: He remains one of the best-selling artists of all time, with 25 top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, plus numerous hits that precede it. Billboard followed him from his rise at Sun Records, through his days in Las Vegas, until his 1977 death in Memphis.
Hound Dog, Cash Cow?
Hailing a 21-year-old from Tupelo, Miss., as a “country cat” who was “powerfully inspired by authentic R&B,” an article in the April 14, 1956, Billboard noted that Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” was moving “between 25,000 and 30,000 disks per day.” The King’s men didn’t waste time cashing in: The Aug. 25 issue reported on a deal for “Presley-endorsed… rock and roll jewelry” under the headline “Thar’s Gold in Them Side Burns.”
All Shook Up
The King of Rock’n’Roll left some shaken and rattled. In the Nov. 10, 1956, Billboard, one radio station owner declared, “We do not consider rock and roll music.” But “stations have had to concede that this is no ‘fad’ that will vanish with the wave of a wand. Therefore, it has been necessary to come to terms with it.” Capitulating to the “Presley avalanche,” one Nebraska station said it “rations the ‘moonstruck’ adolescents only one Elvis Presley disk a day.”
Taking Care of Business
When Presley’s fortunes waned, his 1968 TV special came to the rescue. “The singer, who has amassed an unprecedented sale of well over 200 million records for RCA domestically, is now being primed by the company for its biggest promotional effort,” the Nov. 30, 1968, Billboard reported. The blitz worked. “There has been a landslide on Presley product,” an executive from RCA told Billboard. “The stores are ordering his new single and album like early Monkees singles.”
Viva Las Vegas
Presley’s resurgence was tested by a four-week, 57-show Las Vegas residency. The Aug. 9, 1969, Billboard called his opening July 31 set “Elvis’ toughest musical challenge since he rocked out of the South with long sideburns, rotating pelvis and a banged-up guitar.” Reporting that Presley’s “eagle-eyed manager” pulled the deal together while “working over the roulette tables,” Billboard described the performance as “polished, confident and talented,” adding that “it was not the Elvis with the rough edges of the middle 1950s.”
The King Is Gone, But He’s Not Forgotten
“The shock waves linger after Elvis Presley, who had the lead role in spawning a new form of American music, died of an apparent heart attack at Graceland,” reported the Aug. 27, 1977, Billboard. An article in the same issue titled “Mourning Fans Boom Elvis’ Sales,” quoted an RCA spokesman saying “it would be inappropriate” to discuss marketing plans. The Sept. 3, 1977, Billboard reported that “demand for Elvis product is running 30 times ahead of supply,” by which point “retailers waiting impatiently” had pushed RCA’s spokesperson to assure them that “the label was trying to fill every order.”