It often surprises people who know even a little bit about LIFE to learn that the magazine didn’t cover Elvis Presley all that much. One might think that a publication so devoted to keeping its millions of weekly readers in the know would frequently feature, celebrate, analyze and dissect a phenomenon as stirring as the career of The King.
And yet . . . LIFE didn’t.
It’s not that the magazine completely ignored the man who quickly became — and, in some very fundamental ways, has remained — the biggest rock and roll star of the 20th century; but one gets the sense that the magazine was sometimes more fascinated by what might be called the ancillary impact of Elvis, rather than by the performer, or by his music. Little kids getting Elvis haircuts? Teens trying to dance like their idol? That sort of thing can be found in the pages of the magazine — while Elvis himself appears somewhat rarely.
In 1956, though, LIFE did publish a feature on the young Mississippi native whose voice, looks and live performances were causing girls to scream and swoon; armies of boys to pick up guitars of their own; and legions of commentators, guardians of public morals and pop-culture critics to predict the end of civilization as they knew it if Elvis’ ungodly onstage gyrations were allowed to continue unchecked.
For its part, LIFE reported rather drily on the uproar, choosing to remain above the fray — perhaps in hopes that Elvis would, eventually, just go away:
Up to a point [LIFE wrote in August 1956] the country can withstand the impact of Elvis Presley as a familiar and acceptable phenomenon. Wherever the lean, 21-year-old Tennessean goes to howl out his combination of hillbilly and rock and roll, he is beset by teenage girls yelling for him. They dote on his sideburns and pegged pants, cherish cups of water dipped from his swimming pool, covet strands of his hair, boycott disc jockeys who dislike his records (they have sold some six million copies). All this the country has seen before — with Ray, Sinatra and all the way back to Rudy Vallee.
But with Elvis Presley the daffiness has been deeply disturbing to civic leaders, clergymen, some parents. He does not just bounce to accent his heavy beat. He uses a bump and grind routine usually seen only in burlesque. His young audiences , unexposed to such goings-on, do not just shout their approval. They get set off by shock waves of hysteria, going into frenzies of screeching and wailing, ending up in tears.
In Miami, one newspaper columnist called Presley’s performance “obscene.” In Jacksonville, he was threatened with jail. His impact had brought Presley a welcome taste of wealth and fame. But now it was bringing him some unwelcome attention.
Here, LIFE.com presents photos of Elvis — several of which never ran in LIFE magazine — when he was a young, reckless, charming, thrilling and, for some, downright frightening rocker.
We all know his gruesome, terribly sad fate: dead on a bathroom floor at the age of 42: utterly alone, yet surrounded by sycophants; addicted to drugs; a bloated caricature of his early self. That is how one American legend came to a close. Here, we choose to remember how the legend itself began. . . .