Elvis Presley didn't invent rock 'n' roll, but he was its most important figure and primary symbol.
The 12-day tour that he was to begin today had been sold out for weeks. It didn't matter to Presley's audience whether he had a hit on the charts; they flocked to see him. He represented a link with their youth and their dreams.
Depending on who is estimating, Presley sold between 250 million and 300 million records. But sales are not really important in his case. Neither are sold-out shows. Legends in pop aren't made by music alone. His original impact was so spectacular that his audience remained fiercely loyal.
Presley served as a catalyst for a generation of Americans seeking to express themselves in the changing sociological structure of the 1950s. His music was wild, defiant, challenging, adventurous. His long hair, sideburns, loud clothes and uncompromising manner offered a symbol for teenagers desiring to state their own identity.
Presley's musical influences were simply the natural outgrowth of the working-class heritage of his Mississippi childhood. It was a synthesis so original and strong that radio station did not know how to handle it. Country music stations dismissed it initially as too "black" sounding. Black stations figured it was too country in tone. Pop stations, used to the slick sounds of Eddie Fisher and Perry Como, just ignored it.
But Presley developed a regional following and, with the help of manager Tom Parker, began an assault on a wider audience. His early 1956 appearances on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's "Stage Show" TV program made him a star. His "Heartbreak Hotel" went almost immediately to No. 1.
Rock was never the same. Even those, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who would help push the music in still new directions, have cited Presley as an influence.
"Nothing really affected me until Elvis," John Lennon once said.
Added McCartney, "That was the biggest kick. Every time I felt low, I'd just put on Elvis and I'd feel great, beautiful."
But Presley's artistry wasn't recognized for years. He was first dismissed as a fad, novelty, freak. "Elvis the Pelvis," sneered commentators, referring to his hip-swinging movements onstage.
When rock criticism came of age in the mid-1960s, Presley still didn't receive the credit he deserved. His music, by then, was subdued, bland, without passion. Much of his attention was devoted to a series of largely unambitious, formula-coated films.
Presley's serious reentry came in 1969. Through a highly acclaimed NBC-TV special and then a series of shows in Las Vegas, he reestablished himself. The new records — "Suspicious Minds," "In the Ghetto," "Burning Love" — made him important all over again. The music bristled with with the old energy and bite. It wasn't unusual to see mothers and daughters both cheering him in concerts.
But gradually, the passion began to leave his work. Perhaps there was no longer a challenge. The records were uneven. The concerts were often sloppy. Some complained about his increased weight. But there was rarely a night when he didn't show signs somewhere during the concert of his greatness.
One night in Vegas, Phil Spector, the most respected record producer of the rock era, chided someone at the table for criticizing Presley's performance.
"Hey, he's doing us a favor being up on that stage," Spector said. "He may be overweight and he may not move like he used to, but he doesn't have to be here. He doesn't need the money. We're lucky to be able to see him. Some day we're all going to say, 'Damn, I wish I could still see him.'"