Another comeback for Elvis

Presley: An unexpected hit is leading the push to introduce the King of Rock 'n' Roll to a new generation 25 years after his death.

August 16, 2002|By Glenn Gamboa | Glenn Gamboa,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Elvis Presley is crooning over a synthesized dance beat. Again.

"A little less conversation, a little more action," he sings, as another van filled with tourists rolls off toward the Graceland mansion.

The song blares all around Memphis. It greets guests checking into Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel -- which is, of course, down at the end of Lonely Street. It greets shoppers cruising the Graceland Crossing for discount souvenirs. It greets diners at Elvis Presley's Memphis Restaurant, where it helps the Elvis-approved fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches go down a bit easier.

Presley recorded the song for a 1968 movie, but it never gained widespread popularity until recently, when an electronically remixed version appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Oceans Eleven. It's been an unexpected hit, climbing the charts here and abroad.

Fans of the late musician hope it signals a resurgence in the popularity of his work. He is in the midst of a career makeover, you see, trying to reclaim popularity that slipped when the artist went from musical pioneer to bloated butt of late-night jokes in a short life that ended 25 years ago today.

"We are out to remind people of his greatness," says Richard Sanders, executive vice president and general manager of RCA, the company that holds the rights to Presley's recordings.

"Over the years, his image has overshadowed his music, and we're trying to remind people about the music," Sanders said.

Sanders knows there is a lot to overcome.

Walk into a record store these days, and you won't find Presley in the "Rock" or "Pop" sections, where the Beatles, who stopped recording together long before Presley did, still reside. No, the King of Rock 'n' Roll is usually found under "Easy Listening" or "Oldies."

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, the King doesn't get much respect from visitors, either. Teen-agers boogie right past the Elvis display, usually grooving to the soundtrack of the "One Hit Wonders" exhibit it shares space with. Older fans who actually stop to look at the collection -- which includes the spangled Tiger stage suit Presley wore in Las Vegas, an assortment of photos, documents, menus and other related collectibles.

"I don't think you can overemphasize Elvis' importance," says Terry Stewart, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's president and CEO. "He is the demarcation point. He is the cornerstone from whom all this came. He's a force of nature ... but he's always had his share of detractors. And in the '70s, it became easy for them to poke fun at him."

Thanks to decades of his distinctive, powerful voice, swoon-inducing hip shaking and hepped-up combination of blues, gospel and country, he is arguably still the most recognized man on earth. He has sold more than 1 billion records around the world, making him pop music's indisputable king.

Even his staunchest detractors would agree that Presley changed the face of music forever when he burst into the mainstream in 1956 with "Hound Dog," when he had 10 singles on the Top 100 at the same time. He became the first rock 'n' roll icon -- with all the pluses and minuses that entails.

With all the jokes about Presley, it became easier for the American mainstream to ignore him. When he died in 1977, of what doctors called a heart attack (though eventual reports would point to the presence of 14 drugs in his system) at 42, he couldn't battle all the rumors and criticism.

The success of the Beatles' 1 album last year showed that there is a mass market for veteran artists. It's simply a matter of convincing the public that the artists still matter.

"In a lot of ways, his catalog was mismanaged," Sanders says. "That hurt his image and his integrity. It was all very confusing. There were compilations of platinum hits and gold hits and lead hits. There were multiple box sets. All these variations didn't give him the proper respect. We're in the middle of a renewed corporate effort to take hold of this now. We want to preserve its value."

This problem is strictly an American one, though. In the years that Presley was lambasted by American comedians, it was material that did not transfer overseas.

Therefore, around the world, Presley, who has received more than 40 percent of his sales from outside the United States, remained the King even after his death -- resulting in a weird dichotomy of respect that continues today.

Dutch DJ JXL's remix of "A Little Less Conversation" already has hit No. 1 in Britain, Japan, Hong Kong, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Australia and Mexico, while still climbing the charts in the United States.

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