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.