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More Than 30 Years After His Death, Elvis Presley Remains A Big Star

For the second year in a row, Elvis Presley is at the top of Forbes magazine's list of dead celebrities with the biggest earnings. Presley, who died in August, 1977, made $52 million last year.There are a number of things that contribute to his continuing popularity and one of them is his status as the world's first rock star. VOA's Greg Flakus has more in this report from Elvis' hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

The song "That's All Right, Mama" launched the career of the world's first rock star. Elvis Presley recorded the song in the Memphis Recording Studio run by Sam Phillips on July 5, 1954. It was one of the most important moments in Rock and Roll history.

The song was written and originally recorded by an African-American singer named Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Elvis took the feel of this Rhythm and Blues song and combined it with a Country and Gospel style of singing that forever changed the music world.

Visitors from around the world come to Memphis to visit Elvis Presley's home, called Graceland, and to stand in the small studio where he made his first recordings, most of which were released under the Sun Records label created by Phillips in the mid-1950s.

Sun Studios tour guide Jane White, 25, had not even been born yet when Elvis died, but she knows his role in creating the music she and her friends love . "My generation looks at it as the guy who started it all, pretty much… There would not be any American music at all if it were not for Rhythm and Blues and Country music."

She says most contemporary rock stars have great reverence for the studio where Elvis made his first recordings. She says Bob Dylan came there once and kissed the floor where Elvis once stood. Jane White says she senses the historic importance of the studio every time she enters it. "I work in there everyday and every time when I am telling the story I get chills, I can't help it."

Some black artists have criticized Elvis Presley for taking a style of music developed by African-Americans and making it his own. But that view is countered by many of the black performers who were around in the 1950s, when the South and even some other parts of the country were racially segregated. Some of them credit Presley for helping to break down racial barriers by opening the way for their music.

Elvis came from a poor family, living his first 13 years in a small house in Tupelo, Mississippi, close by a black neighborhood. Memphis-based tour guide Jim Browder says the young Elvis was friendly with everyone. "Elvis did not see color. He treated everybody equal."

Browder says Elvis started down his musical path of discovery by visiting nearby black neighborhoods to hear their gospel singers. "He would sneak off and go over to the black churches and listen to the music and he really liked the beat."

Ted Ownby teaches Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He says Presley's appeal also has to do with people's desire to connect with the energy of youth. "For an awful lot of people, Elvis represents a connection, through music and his life, too, represents some kind of connection to that excitement, the excitement of rebellion or good music or good times or reflecting on some of the deepest emotions that they have had."

Ownby says the tragic end for the King of Rock and Roll also added an element of lost promise to his story that has, at times, taken on religious overtones. Drug addicted and overweight, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42, leaving his grieving fans with nothing more than his records and movies to remember him by.

Although there have been many imitators, the real Elvis Presley continues to thrill people today and he is appreciated by a whole new generation of rock fans. This month, a photo of Elvis taken in the mid-1950's graces the cover of the Rock music magazine "Rolling Stone."