Was Elvis Presley an Artist?

Was Elvis Presley an “artist”? I’m not referring to the routine usage of the term. We’re all technically “artists” whenever we pick up a pencil and doodle on a piece of paper. I mean the term in its purest sense. Was Elvis the kind of “artist” whose body of work warrants enduring recognition for its vision and cultural significance? Certainly, at times through the years, assorted historians and journalists have acknowledged that Elvis was that kind of artist. Of course, just as many, if not more, have dismissed Presley as a mere reflection of a wacky cultural shift in the 1950s. So where does Elvis belong on the spectrum between dilettante and artist?

That question occurred to me recently when I came upon a short 1960 newspaper article concerning the most and least cooperative film actors during that year. At their annual December Luncheon, the Hollywood Women’s Press Club announced the winners of their Golden Apple award to the most cooperative actors and their Sour Apple award to the least cooperative. Neither Debbie Reynolds nor Elvis Presley was on hand to receive their Sour Apples. (Elvis would win another one in 1966.) 

Of course, that trivial award had no bearing on Presley’s eventual acceptance or dismissal as a true artist. What it did, though, was make another newspaper article two weeks later attract my attention. “Debbie, Elvis Must Expect Public Interest” was the headline over a comment piece in the Peoria, Illinois, Journal Star. The unnamed writer opened by linking Reynolds’ and Presley’s recent awards to their debatable status as “artists.”

“We’ll withhold congratulations, because the honor is a dubious one. What it means is that Debbie and Elvis just weren’t very cooperative when the girls from the papers called. We can’t get very excited over this development, but it may illustrate a basic difference between the world of art and entertainment.

“We don’t know what made Debbie and Elvis reluctant. Presumably they reasoned something like this: ‘I wish those gals would quit bothering me. I’ve got a right to privacy.’ Well, they have, but certainly to a far less degree than most of us. Debbie and Elvis—with all due respect to them—are not artists in the serious sense.”

The writer went on to explain his conclusion, but let’s put that on hold for now and consider the issue on our own first.

Elvis Presley experienced a tremendously successful career as a triple threat entertainer. Separately and combined, the numbers he put up in recordings, films, and concerts certainly make him the most popular all-around entertainer in modern times. Popularity with the masses, however, has never been considered enough to elevate a celebrity to the luminary status of a serious “artist.” So let’s go at this in a different way, by taking a close look at Elvis’ body of work separately in each of the three areas in which he excelled. Maybe the evidence will lead to the conclusion that he was a true “artist” in at least one of them.

• Was Elvis Presley a true recording “artist”?

Let’s start with his achievements in recording music. That’s promising when you consider that he was a “recording artist,” but then, that term is just a general title that the industry came up years ago to hype anyone who records any kind of music. So let’s go right to the numbers. Starting in 1956 and running through 1977, Elvis Presley placed 133 recordings on Billboard’s Top/Hot 100 pop music chart. Of those records, 14 (some say 18) reached #1. Another 24 made it into the top 10, and 23 more charted in the top 20.

From March 3, 1956, when “Heartbreak Hotel” first appeared on the Top 100 chart, until September 1, 1959, Elvis Presley had at least one single recording on Billboard’s main pop music chart for 134 consecutive weeks.

According to the research of Presley author Trina Young, as of July 2015, combined record sales of Elvis singles and albums in the U.S. totaled 186 million. To that can be added untold millions more Presley records sold worldwide.

The numbers, then, along with his longevity, suggest that Elvis Presley was the most popular recording artist of the vinyl era. As previously noted, though, popularity with the masses does not guarantee enduring recognition as a serious “artist.” Unfortunately, Presley’s colleagues in the recording business repeatedly declined to recognize his work as preeminent in the industry. The first Grammy Awards for the year’s best recordings were given out in 1959. That year Elvis’ “A Fool Such As I” was nominated in the Record of the Year category, and his “A Big Hunk O’ Love” received two nominations for Best Performance by a Top 40 Artist and Best Rhythm & Blues Performance.

Presley’s losses in all those categories that year started a trend over the rest of his career. In 1960, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was nominated in two categories, and “G.I. Blues” was up for two album awards. Both lost out. In 1961, “Blue Hawaii,” nominated for Best Soundtrack alum, was another Grammy loser. For the next five years, no Presley recordings were even nominated. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Grammy voters finally condescended to award Elvis a Grammy. And it was for “How Great Thou Art” in the Best Sacred Performance category. Elvis won two more Grammys in the sacred and inspirational recording categories, but he never won one in any of the important pop and rock music classifications.

• Grammys couldn’t ignore Elvis’ records forever

Despite snubbing him for years, in 1971 the Grammy in-crowd honored Elvis with the Bing Crosby Award (later renamed the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award). After his death, a handful of Elvis’ single recordings from 1956 and 1957 were added to the Grammy Hall of Fame, but it did little to make up for two decades of ignoring his body of work in the recording studio. When his colleagues disdained to recognize Elvis as a significant recording “artist,” it made it difficult for American cultural historians to accept him as one.

In fairness to the Grammy crowd, Elvis diluted the quality of his own record catalog with dozens of mediocre recordings for his movie soundtracks in the 1960s. Still, Presley produced many classic recordings that had a definite “artistic” feel to them, including “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”, “It’s Now or Never,” “Surrender,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” “If I Can Dream,” and “In the Ghetto.” 

Presley's entitlement to be classified as a true “artist” of recorded music also is diminished somewhat by the fact that he was not a songwriter. (Some claim that he was co-writer of a song or two, but nothing of consequence.) Singer-songwriters, like Chuck Berry in the fifties, Lennon and McCartney in the sixties, and Neil Diamond in the seventies, have earned increased renown for writing their own songs. Still, it’s left to Elvis’ fans to decide whether or not his work in the recording studio is enough to christen him a true “artist.” I don’t think American popular culture is there yet. Maybe it will be in another hundred years or so.

• Was Elvis Presley a real “artist” in his feature film career?

Elvis Presley never realized his youthful dream of becoming a serious actor, but he surely attained the status of  “movie star.” Between 1956 and 1969, Presley appeared in 31 feature films. He was the top marquee star of all but the first one. As in his recording career, Elvis’ movie career statistics are staggering.  According to Trina Young’s research, Elvis’ 31 films generated total box office earnings of $189.4 million. Viva Las Vegas led the way with $11.33 million at the box office, followed by Blue Hawaii at $10.34 million. The overall average ticket sales for the 31 films was nearly $6 million.

Presley’s draw as a leading man was so strong that nearly all the top Hollywood studios bid for his services. Working the studios against each other to increase his client’s fee, Colonel Parker wound up spreading the Presley screen magic around among seven studios. MGM made 12 Presley films, Paramount 9, United Artists 4, 20thCentury Fox 3, and 1 each by Allied Artists, National General, and Universal.

During the 1960s, 27 Presley films were released, at least 2 each year. From 1964 through 1969, 3 new Presley movies came to American theaters annually. No other Hollywood movie star came near to working as much as Elvis in the sixties. Presley compensation of $1 million or more per film, plus a percentage of the profits, easily made him Hollywood’s highest paid movie star in the 1960s. While some snooty performers vowed never to appear in a Presley film, hundreds of actors found welcome work in Elvis’ movies.

Elvis had his moments as a serious actor during his career. His first four films—Love Me TenderLoving YouJailhouse Rock, and King Creole—all had plenty of music, but still included dramatic scenes for Elvis. For King Creole, critics gave Presley his first positive acting reviews of his career. The tipping point between Elvis the actor and Elvis the musical comedian came in 1960, soon after his army discharge. Paramount’s musical comedy G.I. Blues and MGM’s Western drama Flaming Star were made in quick succession and released just a month apart at the end of year. When moviegoers made G.I. Blues a smash hit at the box office while Flaming Star drew only average crowds, producers learned that Presley’s destiny in Hollywood was to star in musical comedies.

• The Academy ignored Elvis and his films

In the early sixties, Elvis had a few other opportunities to show his acting chops in films like Wild in the Country and Follow That Dream, but when Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas became the biggest box office films of his career, Elvis knew his dreams of becoming a serious actor were fading away. 

Like the Grammys with his recordings, the Academy Awards snubbed Elvis’ commercially successful films. Neither they nor he was ever nominated for an Oscar. In an interview on the set of Live a Little, Love a Little in 1968, Elvis revealed that the Academy had at least reached out to him. “Yes, they invited me,” he said, “but I’ve never gone.” He laughingly added, “I’ll go when I get a nomination.” The interviewer sensed that Elvis doubted that would ever happen.

After a couple final shots at some serious acting in Charro! and Change of Habit, Elvis withdrew from Hollywood and returned to the concert stage. However, during an interview on the day he began shooting his 1968 “Comeback” TV special, Elvis revealed he had not yet abandoned his dream of becoming a serious actor. “I am getting more and more interested in acting,” he declared. “We’re constantly looking for better scripts for the pictures. I want more mature roles. Movies without as many songs.”

It’s known that Barbara Streisand wanted him as her co-star in 1976’s A Star Is Born, but for whatever reasons, he declined that last opportunity to become a serious actor. Many fans believe Elvis had it in him to become a credible serious actor on the big screen. However, although he was undeniably a full-blown “movie star,” it’s doubtful he will ever be widely recognized as a dramatic “artist.”

• Was Elvis Presley a true “artist” on the concert stage?

Although his record sales and movie box office numbers are among the highest ever recorded, they pale in comparison to the magic that drew crowds to his personal appearances during his career. As with his recordings and his films, amazing statistics marked Elvis’ concert appearances. In the pre-army years from 1954 through 1957, he performed on stage around the country 526 times. To that his 28 shows in 1956 at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas have to be added. He returned to the stage twice in 1961 for benefit shows in Memphis and Honolulu. When he opened at the International Hotel in 1969, it was the first of 641 shows he performed in Las Vegas through 1976. During those years, there were 98 more shows at showrooms in Stateline Nevada. Between Las Vegas engagements, he went back on the road across the country for 380 more shows between 1970-77.

That’s a total of 1,675 stage shows in Elvis Presley’s career. Certainly, no other entertainer before or since can come anywhere near matching that record. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to calculate the crowd sizes at all those shows, but it surely was in the millions.

First off, let’s agree that it’s a stretch classifying what Elvis did on stage as “art.” During the 1950s, music had little to do with his act. The screams from the audience usually drowned out what Elvis sang. His goal on stage then was to drain the last bit of emotion from his audience by raising its excitement to a fever pitch, then bringing it down, only to drive it back up again. He was a master at sensing and controlling passion in a crowd. 

While he could still whip up excitement when he returned to the stage a decade later, his shows then were more about the music than manipulating crowd emotion. Twice I saw him on stage in those years, but neither time did I come away feeling I had seen an “artist” at work. What I saw was a talented singer, to be sure, but, more than that, he was a bigger than life cultural icon, one of those rare people who just being able to see is something you never forget.

• Elvis Presley—“artist” or just a personality”?

Taking all of that into consideration, then, can Elvis Presley be considered a true, serious “artist” in all or any part of his career? I honestly doubt that cultural historians will ever view him in that context. To understand why, let’s now go back to that 1961 comment piece in The Peoria Journal Star. The writer concluded that Elvis and Debbie Reynolds were “not artists in the serious sense.” He offered the following explanation.

“Actually, they’re personalities, not artists. What they offer is themselves. The serious artist is different. When he writes a book, composes a symphony, or paints a picture, his work is judged solely on its merits. If (artists) want to peddle personality along with their work, it’s their business. But the point is this—the serious artist doesn’t have to do this. He can demand his privacy and tell the Hollywood Women’s Press Club members to go to the devil, and in no way contradict his basic artist’s relationship with the public.

“Not so with the Debbies and Elvises of the world. They are committed to a different kind of relationship. Without public interest in their private lives, they would cease to exist as entertainers.”

It’s hard to argue with that last distinction. Certainly, both Colonel Parker and Elvis understood the importance of publicity in the making and maintaining Presley’s star value as a singer, actor, and stage performer. That publicity included satisfying the public’s appetite for information about his private life. Consider, for example, how the death of his mother and his marriage to Priscilla both were major news stories that drew Elvis’ fan base closer to him. Did anybody care when artist Salvador Dali got married? Did the value of his paintings go up when he did? No.

Whether or not Elvis Presley can be seen as a true “artist,” then, comes down to personal perception. I rather like  Hollywood columnist Vernon Scott's viewpoint on the issue, as stated in his syndicated newspaper article about Elvis in September 1968.

"He changed the world of music just as surely as Picasso wrought changes in painting. Granted, the impact may not be so great artistically, but Elvis revolutionized pop music. And the revolt goes on." 

— Alan Hanson (© August 2019)

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"Elvis Presley experienced a tremendously successful career as a triple threat entertainer. Separately and combined, the numbers he put up in recordings, films, and concerts certainly make him the most popular all-around entertainer in modern times."