Elvis Presley may be the single most important figure in 20th-century popular music. Not necessarily the best, and certainly not the most consistent, but no one could argue with the fact that he was the musician most responsible for popularizing rock & roll on an international level. Viewed in cold sales figures, his impact was phenomenal. Dozens upon dozens of international smashes from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s, as well as the steady sales of his catalog and reissues since his death in 1977, make him one of the highest-selling performers in history. More important from a music lover's perspective, however, are his remarkable artistic achievements. Elvis' recordings during the '50s established the basic language of rock & roll, his explosive and sexual stage presence set standards for the music's visual image, and his vocals were incredibly powerful and versatile. Unfortunately, to much of the public, Elvis is more icon than artist. Innumerable bad Hollywood movies, increasingly caricatured records and mannerisms, and a personal life that became sheltered from real-world concerns gave his story a mythic status. By the time of his death, he'd become a symbol of gross Americana rather than cultural innovation. The continued speculation about his incredible career has sustained interest in his life and supported a large tourist/entertainment industry that may last indefinitely, even if the fascination is fueled more by his celebrity than his music.
Words: Richie Unterberger