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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Elvis and Graceland

 My article on Elvis and Graceland was in the April issue of Treasures magazine. Here it is, reprinted:

Despite the fact that Elvis Presley died nearly three-and-a-half decades ago (the 35th anniversary of his death is Aug. 16, 2012), The King of Rock and Roll is everywhere. He appears in roadside cafes, posh concert halls, beer-soaked bars, and other venues on a regular basis, shaking his once-controversial hips, flashing his Vegas-era bling, and belting out such beloved hits as “All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Suspicious Minds.”

Of course, we’re talking about Elvis impersonators here, but certain more devoted (deluded?) fans claim that they’ve seen the real deal shopping at Walmart, eating a hamburger at McDonald’s, or cruising down the highway in his patented 1956 purple Cadillac Eldorado, his trademark shades covering his dark (and some might say dreamy) eyes.

While most rational Elvis fans acknowledge his tragic death, all of them will tell you that the spirit of Elvis is indeed very much alive and well, which, in the United States, translates to merchandising. Elvis routinely appears on coffee mugs, bobble head dolls, tin signs, musical statues, pajamas, salt-and-pepper shakers, key chains, compact mirrors, notebooks, gift bags, bottle openers, and countless other items. There’s even a 1968 Comeback Special Mr. Potato Head, complete with removable appendages.
 
The aforementioned kitsch is readily available through such online retailers as elvispresleymart.com, elviscollectibles.net, truelegends.com, and giftopalis.com. Most of these types of items range in price from $5 to $35 or so (though there are limited edition dolls and such that sell for much more), meaning most any Elvis fan can own a piece of The King.

When it comes to vintage material—particularly items released during the 1950s and’60s, when few fans had the foresight or desire to hold on to such items beyond their faddishness or usability—things tend to get a little pricey.

Below is a listing of some of the more interesting Elvis ephemera produced in 1956, which is when Elvis became popular and the original merchandising avalanche began (pricing for mint condition items courtesy of Elvis Memorabilia, published in 2001 by TODTRI Book Publishers):

*Record case: $450-600.
*Scrap book: $400-500.
*Photo album: $400-500.
*Autograph book: $450-550.
*Diary: $450-500.
*Bubble gum cards: $1,000 for the 66-card set.
*“Elvis for President” sheet music published by Vernon Music Corp.: $100.
Elvis merchandising subsided somewhat in 1957, but there were still plenty of cool collectibles produced, including: a Jailhouse Rock flip book ($85); Charlton’s Young Lovers #18 comic book ($400); The Elvis Presley Game ($1,200); and a super rare Paint by Numbers Set ($1,500).
The late 1950s also saw the proliferation of magazines with Elvis Presley on the cover, including an issue of Theater Pictorial ($300) that was devoted to Love Me Tender, The King’s first film. Other Elvis magazines from this time include Elvis Presley in Hollywood (1956, $150),
Record Whirl (June 1956, $100), Rock ‘n’ Roll Roundup (Jan. 1957, $100), and too many others to mention (including numerous issues of TV Guide).
Most Elvis fanatics are familiar with the rock legend’s time with Sun Records and his subsequent rise to fame, but for casual fans, a little history is in order. Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and he moved with his family to Memphis, Tennessee when he was 13 years old. In 1954, when he was 19, Elvis recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Records, a Memphis recording studio founded by Sam Philips in 1952. With “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the B side, “That’s All Right” was released as Elvis’s debut single.

Philips had been looking for a white artist who “had the negro sound and the negro feel,” and he found it in Elvis.

In 1956, RCA Victor acquired Presley’s Sun contract for a then-unheard-of $40,000, resulting in his first album, Elvis Presley, which featured 12 tracks, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” which was a rousing cover of the Carl Perkins hit. The LP spent 10 weeks at number one on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, it was the first rock ‘n’ roll record to top the Billboard charts, and it was the first rock album to sell a million copies. In 2003, it ranked #55 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time.

No Elvis collection is complete without at least a few records, the most desirable of which are the five LPs Elvis recorded for Sun. During a 2008 April Music & Entertainment Memorabilia Signature Auction hosted by Heritage Auction Galleries, a complete original set in pristine condition sold for an impressive $11,950.00 (which included a buyer’s premium of 19.5%).

Elvis is easily one of the most popular entertainers in history, selling more than a billion records worldwide. He’s had 18 number one hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop Chart, and he’s the only performer who’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Elvis starred in 31 feature films, plus two theatrically released concert documentaries. His 1973 television special, Aloha from Hawaii, was seen in 40 countries by more than a billion people. On Jan. 8, 1993, Elvis appeared on a U.S. stamp, and it became the top selling commemorative postage stamp ever released.

And those are just some of the highlights of Elvis’s incredibly successful career, which is memorialized at Graceland, the 23-room mansion where Elvis lived from 1957 until his untimely death in 1977. Located at 3734, Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Graceland, which became a tourist attraction in 1982, boasts more than 600,000 visitors per year, which lags only behind the Biltmore Estate and the White House in terms of private homes visited in America.
Graceland houses thousands of rare and valuable Elvis items, including gold records, drinking glasses, trophies, Billboard plaques, photos, movie scripts, and factory sealed LPs. Some of the more standout items include his 1957 gold lamé suit, his army uniform, the red shirt he wore during the filming of Viva Las Vegas, the double-necked Gibson guitar he played in the movie Spinout, the iconic black leather outfit from the ’68 Comeback Special, and Priscilla’s wedding dress (along with Elvis’s tux).
         (Charis and I standing outside the gates of Graceland)

The house itself is a wonder to behold as well.

The labyrinthine hallways of Graceland herd throngs of audio-guided tourists by a series of themed areas of the house, including the music room, the billiards room (the walls and ceiling of which are covered with 350 yards of fabric), the media room (with three TVs so Elvis could watch all three major networks at once), and, of course, the far-famed jungle room, which features a running waterfall and shag carpeting on the floor and ceiling. Visitors also get a peek at the kitchen and dining room, where Elvis undoubtedly put away more than his fair share of peanut butter and banana sandwiches.
Diehard Elvis fan Pam Burnett, who is on a mission to see all his films, has only been to Graceland once, but she’ll never forget the experience and is anxious to revisit the popular tourist attraction. “I remember sitting in the van, riding up the driveway of Graceland, and over the headset they were playing ‘Love Me Tender,’” she said. “I felt like a fool because I was overcome with emotion, and tears were streaming down my face.”

None of the older items in Graceland are for sale, of course, but fans can purchase Elvis items of recent vintage at the historic site’s various gift shops, including mugs, T-shirts, post cards, toy cars, puzzles, dolls, magnets, mints, and Christmas ornaments.

Better yet, any given day finds lots of Elvis items—both new and old—up for auction on eBay. Here’s a listing of recently ended eBay auctions:

*Elvis Autograph RCA 45 RPM Phonograph with accompanying SPD-23 Triple EP (1956): $2,200.
*Hawaiian shirt once owned by Elvis (1966): $676.
*Elvis Presley 75th Birthday Abalone folding hunter knife manufactured by Case (2010): $400.
*Graceland 2011 Christmas CD sent only to Elvis Presley fan club presidents: $355.
*Elvis Presley Enterprises overnight case (1956): $300.
*Signed scarf from concert (1960): $233.50.
*Ultimate Elvis 18-pack VHS set packed in guitar case (1997): $189.99.

Clearly, though he shuffled off this mortal coil almost 35 years ago, Elvis mania shows no signs of slowing down. But why? Why has he maintained such popularity while many other performers from the 1950s have faded into obscurity?

Pam Burnett sums up his appeal thusly: “Elvis had the widest vocal range of anyone I have ever heard,” she said. “He could sing a song and make you believe it. He was a passionate singer, verbally and physically, often moving around in ways that were inappropriate for the time period. He was as handsome as they come and had a great stage presence, but for me the thing that I like most is his voice: his range, his projection, his ability to make you feel the song.”

Today there are more than 600 active Elvis Presley fan clubs. In 2006, Graceland became a National Historic Landmark.

In short, The King is dead; long live The King!

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