Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Caption from LIFE. Looking like it hurts, Elvis records new song in Nashville studio.Don Cravens—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Elvis Presley in Nashville 1956
Caption from LIFE. Looking like it hurts, Elvis records new song in Nashville studio.
Don Cravens—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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See Photos of Elvis on the Precipice of Fame

Jan 08, 2016

In 1954, Elvis Aaron Presley was working as a truck driver for $35 a week. Two years later, he was raking in $12,500 for a week’s work in Las Vegas. Before long, a surname was no longer required to invoke the megastar LIFE dubbed a “howling hillbilly success.”

Though he began recording music in 1953, it was in 1956 that Presley—born on Jan. 8, 1935—became a phenomenon. That was also the year he first appeared in the pages of LIFE, in a one-page story about the runaway success of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The magazine explained:

A lover’s lament called Heartbreak Hotel sung by Elvis Presley is the best-selling record in the country this week, and the 21-year-old hillbilly who howls, mumbles, coos and cries his way through it has overnight become the biggest singing attraction for teen-agers in the U.S.

A string of television appearances introduced the young singer to households across America, and within a short time he was inspiring frantic behavior among overwhelmed fans. “Shortly girls were quivering and fainting wherever he turned up to sing Long Tall Sally, I Got a Woman, and Blue Suede Shoes,” the magazine explained. “On a tour of Texas last week they kicked through a plateglass door in Amarillo to get him to autograph their arms and underclothes.”

Here, on what would have been Presley’s 81st birthday, is an intimate look at a Nashville recording session for a new star who would, in due time, become a legend.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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