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The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley
By the time of Elvis Presley's death in 1977 he already had an estimated 170 tribute acts. By 2000, according to one calculation, this figure had ballooned to around 85,000. Taking this growth rate to its logical conclusion, it won’t be long before there are more Presley copycats than the current world population.
These figures, like so many others quoted in Ted Harrison’s factoid-heavy trawl through the posthumous career of Elvis, are designed to be met with a raised eyebrow and curled lip. Much hokum, as well as genuine insight, abounds in this short, occasionally fascinating, often improbable book about Presley's life after death. Perhaps the main thing you need to know is that Harrison has also written a book about Princess Diana (Diana: Myth and Reality).
There are some facts that are indisputable. Elvis is more lucrative and popular in death than he ever was in life. Everything he once touched has since turned to gold: a paper target riddled with bullet holes, fired at by Elvis at his personal shooting range, fetched $27,500 at auction a couple of years ago. According to Forbes, the Elvis Presley Estate (EPE) pulled in $55m in 2013 alone, making him the second highest-earning dead celeb after Michael Jackson. Although crucially, Jackson's estate also made money through its stake in the Beatles back catalogue, among other things. Presley's has to rely on the 'enduring appeal' of its namesake alone. Besides, Elvis is more famous globally than Jackson. Or Diana. Or Marilyn. Arguably, the only more recognisable brand in the world is Coca-Cola.
What Harrison sets out to ask is: why? Why has the mania for Elvis grown to such epic proportions in the nearly 40 years since his death? Sure, he had a nice voice and a pretty face, but so did so many other young rock'n'roll singers. True, he was in the right place at the right time, fusing black and white culture to create something new, sexually charged and perfectly aligned to capitalise on the postwar rise of teenage culture and the civil-rights challenges to racial segregation that began in 1950s America.
All of which explains only why he enjoyed success in his own lifetime. But Elvis died fat, drug-addled and teetering on insolvency, his affairs having been grossly mishandled by his manager Colonel Tom Parker - exposed, after Elvis's death, as a gambling addict and an illegal immigrant from Holland on the run from the IRS. Hardly the solid foundation for the globe-straddling empire that Brand Elvis was about to become.
In fact, says Harrison, it was the estate's dire financial straits that created the commercial imperative to reimagine Elvis' legacy: 'The Elvis story might have been very different if his family had been left the fortune they might have expected when he died.'
When Elvis died, even the probate judge presiding over the will observed that once all his assets had been valued it would probably be the largest estate that the state of Tennessee had ever recorded. It was widely rumoured that Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis' nine-year-old daughter stood to inherit $150m. In reality, Elvis had been down to his last $1m in the bank. Before long, the estate would also be hit with an inheritance-tax bill of $10m. Worse still (thanks to the catastrophic, short-term deals the colonel had made to cover his gambling debts), there was no royalty income due from Elvis's music made prior to 1973. In that year, Parker had sold all future royalties that would be due to Elvis from the record company RCA for $5.4m, a fraction of their worth.
It wasn't until Presley’s father died in 1979, and Elvis’s former wife, Priscilla, took control of the estate on their daughter's behalf that things began to look up. '[Priscilla] had no background in business, but she did have an untutored flair and an innate toughness,' says Harrison. The first thing she did was turn Graceland, Elvis’s Memphis home, into a tourist attraction, inspired by Randolph Hearst’s extravagant faux castle in San Simeon, a 56-bedroom monument to his own hubris, which his family opened to the public after his death. Within 40 days of opening, Graceland had recouped the $500,000 invested in it. Today it is one of America’s most popular attractions, visited by more than 500,000 people every year.
Priscilla's other job was to take control of the Elvis brand. The estate clamped down on the unofficial souvenir hawkers (Love Me Tender Dog Chunks, anyone?) with such legal voracity that it became known as the 'Darth Vader of the merchandising-licensing business'.
Perhaps the estate's greatest trick, though, has been its continual targeting of young fans. Elvis's music is constantly 'rereleased, remixed and recycled'. It has been used to soundtrack a Nike commercial and a Disney film. In 2015, he topped the UK album chart for the 12th time, a new record for a male solo artist dead or alive.
Elvis’s star credentials mean he is likely to be at the vanguard of many future technological developments, too. An Elvis hologram, which will allow him to 'live' again onstage in a walking-talking-crooning digital recreation of the King's likeness, is already in the works. Meanwhile, there is a gadget called a 'haptic device' in experimental stages at Sussex University, which can simulate the sensations of touch. 'What type of technical, ethical and moral issues would this raise? If fans are able to feel Elvis caressing them, where might such foreplay lead?' asks Harrison, not unreasonably. So expensive are such developments that they will only get wheeled out for a star with a substantial fanbase guaranteed to part with cash - 'and none is bigger than Elvis'.
However, it is spiritual rather than technological advancements that preoccupy Harrison most. He spends an awful lot of time and chapters wondering if the deification of Dead Elvis might one day metamorphose into a bona fide religion; regrettably, it is neither interesting or convincing.
Undoubtedly, Elvis attracts fanatics: the book is littered with tales of dramatic conversion experiences and lives dedicated to the worship of the King. Why they behave as they do, rather than whether they are right to, is perhaps the better question.
In this secular, celebrity-obsessed age, perhaps Elvis has become 'a very effective religious substitute', nourishing souls by helping fans to 'explore their own potential and purpose. Their lives are given meaning… through their relationship with Elvis and their loyalty to their Elvis friends,' reckons Harrison.
Or perhaps he just had a nice voice and finally, in Priscilla, a very good manager.
In the King's footsteps
The first Elvis impersonator is acknowledged to be Jim Smith, a 16-year-old Canadian who mimed Elvis songs on the television show House Party in 1956. In 2004, Robert Sillerman, then owner of Elvis Presley Enterprises, claimed that more than 84,000 people listed their main occupation as 'Elvis impersonator' on their tax returns.
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