Elvis Presley was one of the most charismatic and popular musicians of the modern era. His records have sold an incredible one billion copies worldwide, and he still holds the record for most top 40 hits. Aside from his mainstream success, Elvis led a very interesting life. Elvis would have turned 85 on January 8, and to celebrate his birthday, here are ten things you might not have known about the King.

He started playing guitar at 11 years old

Person playing a guitar with a pick
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For his 11th birthday, Elvis wanted two things that are common desires for 11-year-old boys. He wanted either a rifle or a bicycle. His mother, being protective of her little boy, took him to the department store and spent $6.95 on a new guitar instead. Elvis started strumming the guitar by ear, he never received formal training, and his love of music pushed him to change the course of the musical world forever.

He was too shy to sing on radio at first

Microphone in stand with lights in background
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In 1947, when Elvis was just 12 years old, he was given the opportunity to sing and play his guitar on the radio. Despite his charismatic stage performances later in life, Elvis wasn’t very confident in his younger years and was too shy to sing in public. He turned down the radio spot and continued playing for himself and his mother at home.

He was turned down for a gospel quartet

Elvis Presley Family Church, The Assembly of God in Tulepo, Mississippi
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Surprisingly, Elvis didn’t do well in music classes at school. He repeatedly failed and eventually earned a “C” grade to pass the class. After he graduated, he decided to pursue music as a career. He auditioned for a gospel quartet called The Songfellows. Just like his music teachers in school, they turned him down, saying that he “couldn’t sing.” Luckily for the music world, one rejection couldn’t stop the future King.

His first record was a gift to his mother

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In 1953 when Elvis was 18 years old, he wanted to do something special for his mom’s birthday, so he decided to head down to the recording studio and make her a record. He sang two songs: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” The former is the only known Elvis recording of the song.

He recorded the songs at Sun Records’ studio. The assistant was so blown away with Elvis’s performance that he noted the singer’s name and phone number for future use. He then shared the record with Sun Records’ president, Sam Phillips, and the rest is history.

His first album spent 10 weeks at #1

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After his success at Sun Records, Elvis was signed to RCA for an unheard-of $35,000 and began recording his first official album. It was so popular upon its release in 1956 that the album spent ten weeks at the number one spot on the charts.

The self-titled album contained many re-recordings of his songs from Sun Records along with a few new ones added in. It went on to become certified gold and platinum.

He only played 3 shows outside of the U.S.

Up close view of Elvis Presley's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, California
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Despite the worldwide success of his albums, Elvis never toured outside of the U.S. other than three shows performed in Canada. It’s believed that his Dutch-born manager had immigrated to the United States illegally, which meant that if he ever left the U.S., he would be in danger of being deported. To stay on the safe side, he never scheduled an international tour. Toward the end of his life, it was rumored that Elvis would play shows in Britain and Japan, but those plans never came to fruition.

He served in the military

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On January 8, 1957, on his 22nd birthday and at the height of his career, Elvis was informed that he had been drafted to serve in the military. Instead of using his fame and influence to get out of service, Elvis embraced it. All the different branches of the military wanted him and offered to give him special treatment so that they could use him for recruiting efforts, but he turned them all down. He chose to enlist in the Army as a standard G.I.

He inspired a prison inmate to start a career in music

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In 1960, Elvis recorded yet another hit entitled “It’s Now or Never,” which, like most of his songs, shot to the #1 spot on the charts and played throughout the country. The song eventually made it to a prison in Texas where it was heard by an inmate who decided to change his life forever and pursue a career in music. That inmate’s name was Barry White.

He never wrote a song

Elvis Presley vinyl record cover
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Despite having recorded around 784 songs, Elvis never wrote a single one. He was given co-writing credit on a few, but that was mostly due to a clause in his recording contract. Since he had never been formally taught how to play, Elvis also couldn’t read or write music. Everything he sang and played was entirely by ear.

He helped eradicate polio

Street view of Elvis Presley Statue in Elvis Presley Plaza, Memphis, Tennessee
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In 1955, scientists had invented a vaccine for polio that offered 90% protection. It was a major milestone in medicine. The problem was that people, especially teenagers and adults, didn’t want to get vaccinated. They needed someone with immense star power to support the cause, and Elvis was up for the task. He got his vaccine publicly in front of a media crew for everyone to see. After that, polio decreased by 90% in the United States.