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The Elvis legacy

Forty years on: Elvis Presley’s legacy
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By Gillian G. Gaar

I’d just arrived in Memphis. And as soon as I stepped off the plane, there it was — Elvis Presley’s voice, singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” filling the air over the PA system. As I made my way to baggage claim, I passed by the Sun Studio Café, where you can enjoy a fried catfish platter while looking at a vintage 45 of the first single Elvis recorded at Sun, “That’s All Right.” Luggage claimed, I made a quick call to the Guest House at Graceland to request a shuttle pick up. “Look for the blue van with Elvis on the side,” I was told. I said I thought I’d be able to recognize it.

Elvis was everywhere, and I hadn’t even been in town half an hour. That’s not a surprise in Memphis, of course, where Elvis tourism plays a major factor in the city’s economy (bringing in an estimated $150 million a year). The excitement was due to ramp up soon; two months after my visit in June, thousands of fans will descend on the city for “Elvis Week,” held around the anniversary of Elvis’ death on August 16, 1977. And this year, the 40th anniversary of his death, is set to draw record crowds.

Graceland’s makeover

In 1977, it seemed unlikely that Elvis’ life and legacy would be so publicly celebrated four decades later. No longer a musical innovator, he wasn’t a force on the pop charts either (though he was faring very well on the country charts). There was a surge of record sales after he died, but for the next few years, Elvis’ story was more likely the focus of controversy.

Right at the beginning of August 1977, the tell-all book “Elvis: What Happened?” was published. Co-written by three of his former bodyguards, the book shocked readers with its details of Elvis’ violence, womanizing, and drug use that had heretofore not been public knowledge, and sales exploded after his death. In 1979, Elvis’ purported drug use came under scrutiny on ABC’s program “20/20,” in an episode entitled “The Elvis Cover-Up.” And 1981 saw the publication of Albert Goldman’s biography “Elvis,” which many felt was a cruel and mean-spirited depiction of him.

But if Elvis’ image was momentarily tarnished, it has also been successfully rehabilitated. And fittingly, it began with the efforts of those whose love of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll has never wavered: Elvis’ fans.

Naomi Stiers was a 54-year-old nurse living in Houston when she first saw Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on January 6, 1957. “He seemed to be singing just to me, and I felt like his eyes were begging me to love him,” she said in the memoir she co-wrote with her daughter, Mary Lou Anderson, “Elvis By Candlelight.” She founded Houston’s first Elvis Presley fan club, and remained a devoted fan throughout her life, even traveling to Memphis and meeting Elvis on numerous occasions.

On August 15, 1979, Stiers joined Georgann Reynolds, president of the Elvis Country Fan Club, and other fans to hold a vigil for their departed King outside Graceland’s gates. A guard let the group go up to the Meditation Garden, where Elvis and his relatives are buried; they lit candles and laid flowers on the grave. It was the first Candlelight Service at Graceland; a completely organic, fan generated event. The Candlelight Service became a public event in 1986, and continues today, with members of the Elvis Country Fan Club, bearing torches, heading up a procession of fans that walk up to the Meditation Garden on the evening of August 15, continuing through night into the early hours of the morning.

By 1986, Graceland had been opened to the public as well. Elvis’ father Vernon, and his daughter Lisa Marie had inherited Elvis’ estate. When Vernon died on June 26, 1979, Lisa Marie became the sole heir. Now her mother, Priscilla Presley, who’d divorced Elvis in 1973, found herself looking after her daughter’s interests. Cash flow was an immediate problem. Sales of records and merchandise had dropped off since Elvis’ death, and there were considerable expenses; inheritance taxes, a hefty bank loan, and the half a million dollars a year it cost to maintain Graceland.

Priscilla was advised to sell the home. But she wanted to find some way to hang onto the house where Lisa Marie had grown up. She hired former investment manager Jack Soden (today the President and CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE), and the two devised a plan to arrange tours of Graceland. There was some redecorating, with the red carpet and furnishings that had been installed in 1974 replaced by the more subdued white carpeting and blue drapes that had been in use in the 1960s. Elvis’ Trophy Building was also redesigned to better accommodate visitors.

Graceland opened on June 7, 1982, with tickets $5 for adults, $1 for children. Within 38 days, Graceland was turning a profit, and there were over half a million visitors during the first year of operation. In 1984, EPE acquired the shopping center across the street, redesigning it for their own museums, shops, and restaurants (the most extensive redevelopment has led to the opening of a new complex for visitors this year; see related story on page 58). Elvis’ planes the “Lisa Marie” and the “Hound Dog II,” which had been sold, also returned to Graceland in 1984. On November 7, 1991, Graceland was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. It’s now the most visited house in the U.S. after the White House.

So Elvis had become a tourist attraction. But what of his musical legacy? That too has changed over time.

In the aftermath of Elvis’ death, his records soared up charts, his last single, “Way Down,” reaching No. 18 and selling half a million copies, his last album, “Moody Blue,” reaching No. 3 and selling over two million copies. “Elvis In Concert,” released in October 1977, reached No. 5 and went platinum, and the single “My Way,” released in November 1977, reached No. 22 and went gold.

After that, sales tapered off. There were some interesting box sets (“Elvis Aron Presley” and “A Golden Celebration”), and 1987’s “The Complete Sun Sessions” was certainly welcome, but artistically, Elvis’ stock had dropped. “In 1989, the only Elvis that existed was the ‘National Enquirer’ Elvis,” says producer Ernst Jorgensen.

Jorgensen, who’s based in Denmark, had been interested in Elvis’ music since he first heard “Little Sister” in 1963. Due to his extensive knowledge of Elvis’ recordings (he’s the author of the excellent “Elvis Presley: A Life in Music”), he became involved with the “Essential Elvis” rarities series, and by 1988 he was working for BMG, who then owned RCA Records (BMG was later purchased by Sony Music Entertainment). Soon he had a bigger project in mind; a box set that encompassed all of Elvis’ 1950s recordings.

In part, the idea was to revamp Elvis’ image from the “National Enquirer” one of “goofy stories,” as Jorgensen puts it. While helping Peter Guralnick on his landmark biography of Elvis, “Last Train to Memphis,” the two men discovered they “felt the same sense of injustice,” about such depictions of Elvis: “Why are they treating our hero so poorly? I think we saw ourselves as coming to the rescue.”

When Jorgensen and his BMG colleague Roger Semon first suggested doing the 5-CD ‘50s set, the company was less than enthusiastic. “They looked at us as if we were absolutely insane,” Jorgensen remembers. Sales of “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Complete 50’s Masters,” were only projected to be in the range of 10,000 units. So when Jorgensen went to Los Angeles in June 1992 to meet with BMG’s new president, Joe Galante, he was startled to be greeted with a hug. Then he learned that advance orders of “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” were already at 100,000. “So I thought, Hey, maybe I have a job with a future,” Jorgensen jokes. The set would go on to sell over 400,000 copies.

“The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” shifted the focus back to what made Elvis a legend: his music. “Over the course of these 140 tracks Presley the singer emerges as a workhorse, a student — finally, unarguably, an artist,” wrote Alan Light in his five star review in “Rolling Stone.” Never before had Elvis’ most innovative period been so lovingly documented. Two years later came the publication of “Last Train to Memphis,” the first in Guralnick’s masterful two volume series about Elvis (the second, “Careless Love,” was published in 1999), which also presented Elvis and his work as something to be taken seriously — and celebrated.

A steady stream of thoughtfully compiled Elvis releases followed, deepening the understanding of the breadth of Elvis’ work. “In the 90s we could just walk in the door at RCA, my partner Roger and I, and say, ‘We think we should do this,’ and they all nodded,” says Jorgensen. The sets “From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60’s Masters” and “Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential 70’s Masters,” highlighted Elvis’ best work of those decades. “Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings” and the “Double Features” series of film soundtracks covered other important areas of Elvis’ career. Jorgensen and Semon also founded the Follow That Dream label, which focuses on previously unreleased studio and live recordings.

The new century has also seen the release of a number of well thought out packages, including “The Complete ’68 Comeback Special,” “Elvis at Stax (Deluxe Edition),” and, most recently, “A Boy From Tupelo: The Complete 1953-1955 Recordings,” along with comprehensive sets like “The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” and “The Album Collection.” But the biggest sellers remain those releases with the broadest general interest, like 2002’s “ELV1S: 30 #1 Hits,” which became Elvis’ first No. 1 album since “Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite,” and was a worldwide smash.

Yet Jorgensen sees the success of “30 #1 Hits” as something of a doubled-edged sword, simply reducing Elvis’ story to its highpoints. “If in 1992 we got people to focus on Elvis’ music again, then I think to some extent we derailed them (with ‘30 #1 Hits’),” he says. “It was as if we again lost the in-depth look at Elvis that we have tried to re-establish. The underlying thing that happens in people’s minds is they think, ‘Then that’s what I’m really going to need.’ But with Elvis, that’s not what you’re really going to need; it’s got nothing to do with ‘Elvis Is Back’ or ‘Elvis Country’ or ‘How Great Thou Art,’ the ultimate classic albums of his career. So if you think you can buy a hits package on Elvis Presley, and then you get what he’s about, then you don’t.”

To a historian like Jorgensen, it’s important that people not overlook the rich detail of Elvis’ story. “Can we see the artist for the icon? It’s a bit blurred to many people I think,” he says. “Then you end up with ‘Well, Elvis just got lucky, and went on TV, and went in the army, and did some lousy movies, and got fat and overweight and died.’ If you don’t keep pushing for the detail, the story gets shorter and shorter. Elvis’ legacy will disappear if there’s nobody to keep pushing for it to be acknowledged again.”

Forty years after Elvis’ death, his legacy doesn’t seem in danger of disappearing anytime soon. Jorgensen notes a difference in the tenor of how Elvis’ music is regarded today. “Some of the prejudice that was in the media has disappeared,” he contends. “New writers move forward, and there’s a greater acceptance of who he was, and the music he created, than there was during both his lifetime and the days after he died.”

And there’s still a commercial interest too. Last year’s “Way Down in the Jungle Room” release sold over 80,000 copies, “remarkably well, in this day and age, where you hardly sell anything because people just download it,” says Jorgensen. “And now, with a release like ‘Boy From Tupelo,’ or for that matter, the HBO documentary (a three hour documentary set to air next year), we’re trying to turn the whole thing around again and say we need to look into the detail. That’s where the beauty is.”

It’s been said that Elvis wondered if he’d created any work that would be remembered. That he did, though his accomplishments were buried for a time in favor of stories about an “Elvis sighting” at the local Burger King. The hardcore Elvis fans still love him; they always did. Now, as the tabloid noise fades into the background, Elvis’ broad palette of work emerges to stand on its own merits. And one can more readily appreciate the remarkable legacy of a career that spanned 23 years, with all of its disappointing lows, ecstatic highs, and moments of transcendence.

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