Elvis Presley's death deprives our country of a part of itself. He was unique and irreplaceable. More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.
– President Jimmy Carter, 1977-08-17
Author Samuel Roy has written: "Elvis' death did occur at a time when it could only help his reputation. Just before his death, Elvis had been forgotten by society."
Biographer Ernst Jorgensen has observed that when Presley died, it was as if all perspective on his musical career had been lost. His latter-day song choices had been seen as poor; many who disliked Presley had long been dismissive because he did not write his own songs. Others complained—incorrectly—that he could not play musical instruments. Such criticism of Presley continues. The tabloids had ridiculed his obesity and his kitschy, jump-suited performances. His film career was mocked. (In 1980, John Lennon said: "[Elvis] died when he went into the army. That's when they killed him, that's when they castrated him.") Acknowledgment of his vocal style had been reduced to mocking the hiccuping, vocalese tricks that he had used on some early recordings—and the way he said "Thankyouverymuch" after songs during live shows. This was only countered by the uncritical adulation of die-hard fans, who had even denied that he looked "fat" before he died. Any wish to understand Elvis Presley—his genuine abilities and his real influence—"seemed almost totally obscured."
However, in the late 1960s, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had remarked: "Elvis is the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century. He introduced the beat to everything, music, language, clothes, it's a whole new social revolution... the 60's comes from it."
It has been claimed that his early music and live performances helped to lay a commercial foundation which allowed other established performers of the 1950s to be recognised. African American acts, like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, came to national prominence after Presley's acceptance among White American teenagers. Little Richard commented: "He was an integrator, Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn't let black music through. He opened the door for black music." It has also been claimed that Presley's sound and persona helped to relax the rigid color line and thereby fed the fires of the civil rights movement.
Presley's recorded voice is seen by many as his enduring legacy. Henry Pleasants writes: "Elvis Presley has been described variously as a baritone and a tenor. An extraordinary compass... and a very wide range of vocal color have something to do with this divergence of opinion. The voice covers two octaves and a third... Moreover, he has not been confined to one type of vocal production. In ballads and country songs he belts out full-voiced high G's and A's that an opera baritone might envy. He is a naturally assimilative stylist with a multiplicity of voices—in fact, Elvis' is an extraordinary voice, or many voices."
Gospel tenor Shawn Nielsen, who sang backing vocals for Presley, said: "He could sing anything. I've never seen such versatility... He had such great soul. He had the ability to make everyone in the audience think that he was singing directly to them. He just had a way with communication that was totally unique."
Other celebrated pop and rock musicians have acknowledged that the young Presley inspired them. The Beatles were all big Presley fans. John Lennon said: "Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn't been an Elvis, there wouldn't have been a Beatles." Deep Purple's Ian Gillan said: "For a young singer he was an absolute inspiration. I soaked up what he did like blotting paper... you learn by copying the maestro." Rod Stewart declared: "People like myself, Mick Jagger and all the others only followed in his footsteps." Cher recalls from seeing Presley live in 1956 that he made her "realize the tremendous effect a performer could have on an audience."
By 1958, singers obviously adopting Presley's style, like Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard (the so-called "British Elvis"), were rising to prominence in the UK. Elsewhere, France's Johnny Hallyday and the Italians Adriano Celentano and Bobby Solo were also heavily influenced by Presley.
The singer continues to be imitated—and parodied—outside the main music industry. Presley songs remain very popular on the karaoke circuit, and many from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds work as Elvis impersonators ("the raw 1950s Elvis and the kitschy 1970s Elvis are the favorites.")
Presley's informal jamming in front of a small audience in the '68 Comeback Special is regarded as a forerunner of the so-called 'Unplugged' concept, later popularized by MTV.
In 2002, The New York Times observed: "For those too young to have experienced Elvis Presley in his prime, today’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of his death must seem peculiar. All the talentless impersonators and appalling black velvet paintings on display can make him seem little more than a perverse and distant memory. But before Elvis was camp, he was its opposite: a genuine cultural force... Elvis’s breakthroughs are underappreciated because in this rock-and-roll age, his hard-rocking music and sultry style have triumphed so completely."