The King of Rock and Roll or The Fab Four – Who was bigger?
Ever since The Beatles started competing with Elvis on the pop charts in the 1960s, enquiring minds have often wondered which musical phenomena had more success, achievement and fame. The question lingers because the popularity of both musical acts endures over 40 years after Elvis Presley died and almost 50 years after The Beatles broke up.
The answer may be found in the research of two computer scientists, Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward. In 2013, they ranked the most significant people in history. They performed quantitative analysis to compare historical reputations of politicians, entertainers, scientists and other famous people by aggregating the traces of millions of opinions on the internet. The algorithm also took into account how important people will be 200 years after their death.
Jesus ranked number one as the most significant person in history, and Shakespeare was number 3. For singers, Elvis Presley was the highest ranking entertainer at number 69 with Madonna (#121), Bob Dylan (#130) and John Lennon (#162) trailing behind.
“The long-term historical significance of Elvis Presley rivals that of the most famous classical composers,” stated Skiena and Ward in their book, Who’s Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank. “Roll over Beethoven [#27], and tell Tchaikovsky [#63] the news!”
Notably, only individual people were ranked in the Who’s Bigger? main list, so that means that group entities like The Beatles were not included. However, the authors also compiled detailed statistics for special categories including Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
On that list, Elvis Presley outranks The Beatles in terms of “significance” (Presley’s ranking is 7.116 and The Beatles ranking is 6.707). However, The Beatles outrank Elvis in terms of “fame”: The Beatles scored 4.423 vs. Elvis at 3.592. In terms of achievement (referred to as “gravitas”), Presley ranks at 3.523 vs. The Beatles at 2.284.
“We rank historical figures just as Google ranks webpages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation (including PageRank, article length, and readership) into estimates of their fame, explained by a combination of achievement (gravitas) and celebrity,” explained Skiena and Ward.
Combining all three attributes of reputation, fame and achievement, the Who’s Bigger? list for Rock Hall inductees ranks Elvis Presley slightly above The Beatles, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney holding their own just a few slots below their own group.
But does a tabulation of fame and popularity really answer the question of “Who was bigger”?
In 1975, John Lennon made perhaps the most accurate prediction about The Beatles musical legacy: “I think a lot of the Beatles records can stand up in any period, unless music really changes… You can pick most of The Beatle records – a few of them are obviously of an era – but most of them, doesn’t matter what period, what era, that will go down in 200 years, it’s the same… when it gets down to the nitty gritty, it’s the song.”
Lennon hit the nail on the head. The true test of the lasting influence of his band and also Elvis Presley is the longevity of the music. To quantify the popularity of the two biggest acts in show business, the most accurate proof is in the record sales, which continue to grow up to the present day. But as simple as this may seem, there are many complications to this tabulation.
The question is explored further in ELVIS AND THE BEATLES: Love and Rivalry Between the Two Biggest Acts of the 20th Century which compares the record sales of Elvis Presley to the Beatles by calculating sales of albums and singles throughout their career. [Read a free excerpt here]
The Beatles’ breakup “was probably the best thing that ever happened to the Beatles myth,” said John Lennon in 1980. “I read this book about Mick [Jagger] where he said after the breakup, ‘At last, we’re No. 1.’ What he didn’t realize was that when we split, we created a much bigger thing than if we had stayed.”
The Beatles disbanded in 1970 when all four members were 30 years old or younger. In the public’s mind, this was way too early and everyone yearned for a Beatles reunion. Similarly, Elvis Presley died way too young at the age of 42, leaving his fans to wonder what The King of Rock and Roll could have accomplished in the next 30 years of his life.
Maybe the fact that both musical acts were “gone too soon” contributes in part to their long-lasting popularity many decades after their careers ended.
“It’s nice to think that we made such an impression that people still want more,” said John Lennon in the late 1970s. “That’s the best way to leave things, with people wanting more.”
Read more about the behind-the-scenes relationship between The Beatles and The King of Rock and Roll in the author’s new book, ELVIS AND THE BEATLES: Love and Rivalry Between the Two Biggest Acts of the 20th Century
For more fascinating Elvis Presley facts, check out the author’s first book, ELVIS: Behind The Legend: Startling Truths About The King of Rock and Roll’s Life, Loves, Films and Music