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Almost everyone knows that Elvis Presley was a famous singer, but many people don’t fully understand what he contributed to popular music to earn his widespread fame. Elvis combined different types of music to form a style called rockabilly, which became one of the key sounds in rock ’n’ roll.

To form this musical style, he fused the country-western music of the South with the rhythm and blues of African Americans and the pop music that dominated the radio and recording industries.

The combination of musical genres and sounds into a new style of music was Elvis’s true gift and his contribution to popular culture. That this integration of musical styles took place just prior to the civil rights movement, prefiguring social integration, makes this moment in pop culture history seem momentous.

Elvis Presley's impact on pop culture

Elvis wasn’t the first to sing in a rock ’n’ roll style, so he can’t be credited with inventing it. But, his version of this new music became widely popular during the mid-1950s. He spread rock ’n’ roll music across the country, making it popular to a wide audience, especially teenagers. In that regard, he was a true innovator.

Elvis also yielded a strong influence on youth culture. During the 1950s, teenagers had begun to think of themselves as being different from their parents’ generation. Because of the economic prosperity of the period, teens enjoyed a disposable income that they could spend on themselves instead of contributing toward family survival.

With that money they dressed themselves in fashions marketed to their age group, went to movies that featured stars of their generation, and listened to music that appealed to them. So it wasn’t a surprise when Presley’s rock ’n’ roll music, his hairstyle, and his fashion sense became a part of this new culture for teenagers.

Later in his career, Presley changed his musical style and his personal look to keep up with the times and gain popularity among older audiences. He became a movie star during the 1960s and then returned to live musical performances during the 1970s.

Because his career went through so many changes, he was popular with different types of people for different reasons. Even after his death, his popularity remains strong among a wide variety of people. This wide popularity, as well as his important role in American musical history, makes him a cultural icon.

Elvis's early musical education

On January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aron Presley was born a half hour after his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. Thus, the occasion was a mixed blessing to parents Vernon and Gladys Presley, who lived in a two-room shotgun shack on the wrong side of the tracks in Tupelo. A true son of the South, Elvis never ventured far from his roots, physically or musically. While a young boy in Tupelo, Elvis learned to play the guitar from relatives, and then he fell under the influence of country-western singer Mississippi Slim.

It wasn’t until his family moved to Memphis that Elvis’s real musical education began. The diversity of music on Memphis’s radio stations exposed Elvis to a variety of genres, which eventually influenced his music. Several radio stations played country music, and big band music was broadcast from the famed Peabody Hotel. Rhythm-and-blues artists could be heard on two different radio stations: WDIA and WHBQ.

WDIA was owned by two white men, but it was mostly staffed by black disc jockeys who played the locally produced records of hometown bluesmen. WHBQ played a variety of music, but it’s best remembered for disc jockey Dewey Phillips’s Red Hot and Blue program that showcased the recordings of black artists.

Memphis also developed into the center for white gospel music during the 1950s, so the four-part harmonies of the gospel quartets who regularly visited the city became another influence on the teenage Elvis. He and his parents, and later he and his girlfriend, regularly attended the all-night gospel sings at Ellis Auditorium.

In addition, the city’s Beale Street district was home to the clubs and joints where African American musicians played blues and rhythm and blues. Elvis became familiar with the music of the well-known local R&B artists, including B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and Big Memphis Ma Rainey. All these Southern-based musical genres inspired Elvis’s early singing style, which turned out to be a true fusion of sounds.

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