TIME Magazine’s first-ever consideration of Elvis Presley, a snippet review of the single Heartbreak Hotel in 1956, did not contain many clues about what was to come.
“A new singer with a new twist: a double voice that alternates between a high, unpleasant quaver, reminiscent of Johnnie Ray at his fiercest, and a rich basso that might be smooth if it were not for its spasmodic delivery,” the reviewer quipped. “Heartbreak Hotel, yelps the high voice, is where he’s going to get away from it all. Answers the basso: he’ll be sorry.”
It didn’t take long, however, for that critic to be put in his place. One reader wrote in to say that TIME had better watch its mouth when talking about “the new god of the beanie brigade and the kiss-me-quick clique” or else the magazine would have “all of young America” to answer to. A group of 43 Elvis fans from Connecticut penned a group letter to just that effect: “If you think the teen-agers of this country are taking the slander you printed about our man Elvis you are sadly mistaken,” they wrote.
Sure enough, in the two decades that followed, the world would hear that once-dismissed voice from every radio and jukebox around. Even though the man died 40 years ago, at age 42, on Aug. 16, 1977, his influence continues to this day.
Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior photo editor at TIME.