Look, The Beatles are #2 ALL-TIME in influence and if this was confined strictly to musical influence they'd be #1. But Presley kills them in cultural influence and has a ton of musical influence and performance influence.
Why? IMO The Beatles win in cultural influence, by little, but they win.
Are you serious?
Okay, try everyway possible. There was no teenage market that was paid any attention to prior to Presley's arrival. You had products aimed at kids (toys, coonskin caps, etc.) which were obviously bought by their parents, and then products aimed at the parents themselves, adults. Madison Avenue did not believe teenagers had disposable income, nor the impulse of younger kids, nor the need of adults, to spend enough money on products to make it worthwhile to target them specifically. Presley, and rock 'n' roll in general, but primarily Presley in terms of actual dollar sales, immediately altered that. It opened the door for EVERYTHING being aimed at teenagers, which frankly has caused a huge drop in quality according to many, as television, movies, fashion, et. all, is now done with that market in mind. Capture the teenage interest and you are guaranteed to make a profit ever since. Presley was far more responsible for that than any other figure, not just musician. Not a big deal to you? It's a a multi-billion dollar deal to corporate America per YEAR since then.
He changed the way middle America had to deal with two of the most uncomfortable issues of the conservative 50's - sexuality and race. He was the most overtly sexually threatening male figure ever in popular culture in relation to his time. Remember, it was his IMAGE on television, and stories about his stage antics, that really propelled him to noteriety among those who didn't listen to his music. That's why many adults thought and hoped he was a passing fad, because they felt it was just a titillating sensationalism he was peddling. He almost literally thrust sex into the face of people who wouldn't even say the word in public. Remember at that time you couldn't even say a woman was PREGNANT on the airwaves. You couldn't show a bathroom on television. Fictional couples on TV shows slept in seperate beds. Then along comes Elvis The Pelvis doing a striptease act basically on national television on Milton Berle's Show and the cat's out of the bag, you can't put it back in. This wasn't a woman being objectified by males, as had always happened, even if what was shown was less than what later got shown, this was unbridled animal lust itself on stage for the world to see. The adult horrified reaction to Presley was mostly over the sex aspect, but as with anything sexual, once it gets into the public consciousness, be it topless women in movies, to porn on home video, to downloadable images online, there's never any turning back, you can't suddenly return to an earlier puritism and Elvis shocked America's senses to the point where the sexual revolution that followed had its pants unzipped in the first place by Presley.
Race... Elvis was white singing black music. Black artists who'd been exceedingly popular before (Nat Cole, Ink Spots, Louis Armstrong, etc.) were toned down to the point where racial connotations were either eliminated or caracitured. The black acts of early rock that crossed over were stifled with pale white cover versions and not surprisingly most of the early crossover records were nonsensical lyrically (Sh-Boom, Gee, etc.) and thus more easily passed off as gimmick. Little Richard wasn't going to be put on TV, not in 1955 American where Emmitt Till was lynched for whistling at a white woman and the school's had only been legally desegregated the year before. But Presley's popularity brought a culture that was previously unknown and unwanted by white America directly into its living rooms where they HAD to confront it and let it register in their collective consciousness. Now he achieved this BECAUSE he was white (had he been black and done the same thing, he'd have never made the airwaves), but what it did was introduce the culture from which it came to the mainstream they'd never been allowed to enter before. Once that door broke down, you couldn't nail it back up and from that point forward black culture's influence on American popular culture overall has dramatically risen. It's a shame it took a white face to get them in the door, but the point is they got in.
Presley basically established the prototype for the modern hype machine and if you don't see the cultural impact of that when you're walking through a mall or watching TV being bombarded with all sorts of things, then you must be deaf and blind. Companies don't want to settle for slowly building a product (or music) through word of mouth and gradual sales and interest, they want an explosive arrival. Movies that don't have a huge opening weekend won't be in theaters two weeks later. TV Shows that don't hit the Top Ten in the first two months will get pulled off the air. Artists that don't go gold their first time out aren't always around long enough for a follow-up. Everything is hyped to death in the effort to grab people's attention immediately. Presley started this. He was so big, so fast that it became the standard goal. He used, inadvertantly but still used, controversy to sell - sound familiar? That was copied. Visual imagery for an aural medium? Presley. Cross marketing - movies, souveniers, trinkets... Elvis. Press conferences for his every move, even when there was nothing to report... yeah, Presley, Presley, Presley. What you see, how you see it - look no further than Elvis Presley. Sickening, isn't it?
Put it this way. The Beatles cultural influence was large, and it encompassed a lot of smaller historical turning points that are noteworthy indeed, but they, or anyone else to follow, could never possibly be as large overall because all of the really huge major obstacles for affecting pop culture in the media age - race, sex, age, and how it was all presented - had been demolished by Presley once and for all. Take the next ten biggest cultural impact artists on the list and combine them and you might get halfway to Elvis Presley's total for it, but probably not.
Thank you, Sampson. I've been arguing this for years, in your absence. It's great to see such a massive and detailed expansion of my arguments. Thank you, thank you, thank you.