A list of the most influential artists in history chosen by country stars themselves, another honoree is named each week on CMT Hot 20 Countdown.
Known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Presley began his career as a 19-year-old rockabilly singer in Memphis, Tennessee, and by 1956 earned his first No. 1 hit, “Heartbreak Hotel,” igniting the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll genre.
His cool confidence, devilish good looks and sexually suggestive stage moves made him a cultural phenomenon and ushered in rock as the dominant form of pop music.
Presley is the best-selling solo artist in history with worldwide sales of roughly 600 million units. His musical style evolved over the years, drawing in fans with a variety of tastes and leading to hits as diverse as “Hound Dog” and “Suspicious Minds.”
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998. Presley died at age 42 in 1977 and is still mourned around the world today.
Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Trace Adkins, the Oak Ridge Boys and Frankie Ballard are just a few of the artists who named Presley as one of the biggest influences in country music history.
“I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t like Elvis,” Parton said. “I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Oh, I don’t like his singing.’ Everybody loved Elvis, and I just think that’s incredible. He was so different in every way — his voice, his style, the way he moved, the way he looked. He just had this charm and charisma and a lot of sex appeal.”
Jackson remembers touring with Elvis and the moment she realized music had changed forever.
“I’d done my show, and I was back in a room,” she recalled. “My daddy was in there with me, and we’re hearing screaming, and it was kind of scary. Daddy said, ‘Well, heck, there might be a fire or something. I’ll go check. You get your purse and stuff gathered up.’
“So I did, and daddy left. And in a few minutes, he came back, stood there in the doorway and said, ‘Wanda, you’re not going to believe this. You’ve got to come see it for yourself.’
“He took me to the wings of the stage, and I look out and here’s Elvis doing all these gyrations and all these girls around the stage screaming and reaching for him and crying, and I thought ‘What in the world?’ That was a first for me. No one had ever had a screaming (audience) for a performance.”
Lee agreed that after Elvis broke out, nothing was the same.
“It was Elvis that really changed everything, and I think we knew he would go down in history as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and that the title would never be taken away from him,” she said. “I don’t think there will ever be anyone like him again. I could be wrong about that because like I always say, ‘Records are made to be broken.’ But he was one of a kind.
“The love that people had for him in every age — from children to mothers and fathers and grandmothers, even foreign people that didn’t even speak English — I always say that music is the great unifier, and he certainly did that all over the world and especially here in my country.”
“Elvis came along and changed the world,” Adkins added. “I mean, really changed the world. Penn Jillette said to me one day when we were doing The Apprentice, ‘If you ever get in an argument with a European or someone from any other country on this planet and they’re touting the benefits and the virtues and how great their country is, you can defeat their argument with one word: ‘Elvis.’ We’ve got Elvis, so shut up.”
Before joining the Oak Ridge Boys, bass singer Richard Sterban had the chance to record and tour with Presley and witnessed his star power first hand.
“I’ll never forget it. We were in the rehearsal hall, and all of a sudden, we heard this commotion coming down the hall and there was this entourage of people coming into the room,” he recalled. “When Elvis walked into the room, my mouth dropped. I’m like, ‘Wow, I now understand why this guy is the biggest star in the world.’ He had magnetism. He filled the room. He really did. And to be able to sing with him for about a year and a-half of my life was an amazing experience.
“He was just a great singer,” Sterban continued. “When you listen to Elvis’ records, back in the day when he recorded, everything was recorded analog. There were really no computers to tune your voice or anything. He just had a natural talent. And he recorded in a recording studio just like he sang onstage. He held a microphone in his hand. He walked around the recording studio, and it was like he was doing a live performance. And he hardly ever shaded a pitch. He was just so talented, he really was.”
Even today’s young country singers look up to Presley — just ask Frankie Ballard.
“I might be the biggest Elvis fan you’ve ever met,” he boasted. “I mean, I’ve seen it all. … We had the ’68 Comeback Special on VHS, we had Aloha From Hawaii on VHS, and I wore them out. I had the whole routine down, I mean, move for move. And I just loved him. I don’t know what it was. I mean, probably the same reason everybody loved Elvis. ‘Cause he was electric. He was just electric.
“He’s the greatest entertainer I’ve ever seen,” Ballard said. “And I think the reason why was because — and I heard him say it many times in interviews — he always did what he felt. Genuinely did what he felt. It wasn’t choreographed. It wasn’t, ‘OK, well, I’m gonna do this move at this time.’ It was coming up from inside of him, and it was coming out. That’s what it was, and that’s why people connected with it. ‘Cause it was the real deal.”