Long Live The King

Thirty years after the death of Elvis Presley, the company that owns his name seeks new ways to keep his memory -- and his merchandise -- in public view

August 16, 2007|By Rafer Guzman

Humorist Dave Barry once wrote, "Eventually everybody has to die, except Elvis."

Barry was being funny, as always -- but was he right?

As America marks the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death today, the singer is still very much with us. Perhaps you've seen the new commemorative DVDs of Jailhouse Rock and Viva Las Vegas, or the custom-made Elvis bikes that Harley-Davidson is offering, or the Elvis banana-and-peanut-butter cups Reese's is selling. Perhaps you bought some of these things with your prepaid Elvis Visa.

One of the most personal items just may be a new video of Lisa Marie Presley singing "In the Ghetto," accompanied by her late father. It will be posted tomorrow on the AOL Internet site Spinner.com, a company spokesman said Tuesday.

Lisa Marie Presley's voice was added to the original version of her father's hit song from 1969. The video duet also features images of her late father.

Spinner.com will post the video along with the transcript of an interview with Lisa Marie Presley, AOL spokesman Kurt Patat said.

In the interview, she says, "We had two hours to lay down my vocals. The next morning, I heard the rough ... and ... I've never cried when I've done anything ... ever ... but I just lost it when I heard it."

Proceeds from the new song and video will be used to help build temporary housing for the homeless in New Orleans, she said. The project is to be similar to Presley Place, a 12-unit apartment building for the homeless built in Memphis, Tenn., by Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. in 2001.

Elvis Presley Enterprises handles the licensing of the singer's name, image, movies, merchandising and Presley's mansion, Graceland, in Memphis. In 2005, Lisa Marie Presley sold her majority ownership in the company for more than $100 million to Robert F.X. Sillerman, the billionaire media mogul. Sillerman, whose company CKX Inc. also owns the television show American Idol, wants to turn Elvis into an even bigger brand by making huge improvements to the Graceland complex and also by exerting greater control over the Elvis image.

"His influence is increasing, not decreasing," Sillerman says of Presley.

Among Sillerman's plans for Graceland are an 80,000-square-foot visitors center, plus additional hotels and nightlife offerings that he hopes will keep tourists on the grounds longer than the usual day-trip. "We're not touching the mansion," Sillerman says. "That is sacrosanct."

What isn't off-limits, however, are the various small businessmen who have, in their own way, been keeping Presley's legacy alive. Sillerman has already announced plans to close two independent shops near Graceland and a museum in Las Vegas to make room for official Elvis Presley Enterprises establishments. (Cirque du Soleil is reportedly working on an Elvis-themed show at the Las Vegas MGM Mirage.)

Even Elvis impersonators began to fear a crackdown from Sillerman after he appeared on MSNBC's Countdown last year and announced he wanted to license impersonators, which the company likes to call "Elvis tribute artists." Sillerman has since stated that he won't persecute "unofficial" Elvises. "It's not clear that they're not infringing on the likeness, but that's fine," Sillerman says. "It perpetuates the image."

Born Jan. 8, 1935, in East Tupelo, Miss., Presley became the world's first true rock 'n' roll star. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips described Presley as "a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel."

Presley established a race-based blueprint for rock music that would last for generations. Dreamily handsome but with the rough edges of a working-class boy, he injected a startling sexual energy and sense of rebellion into his music. Eventually he evolved (some would say disintegrated) into a flashy, fleshy, Las Vegas showman. But even in this incarnation, Presley defined a certain aspect of American culture.

Thanks in part to his infamously shrewd manager, Col. Tom Parker, Presley also became one of the first mass-marketed superstars, lending his name to nearly every kind of object from lipstick to luggage to automobiles. Besides his music, Presley made more than 30 feature films, several television specials and concert films. When he died at Graceland on Aug. 16, 1977 (of heart failure, possibly caused by prescription drug abuse), he left an imprint on the world that's still difficult to measure.

But is that imprint fading? Even with Sillerman's strict oversight, Presley faces some challenges in the years ahead. The rock memorabilia business has in recent years taken a hit thanks to eBay, which is making once-rare items seem common. Presley's music has historically sold well posthumously, but overall CD sales have dropped 25 percent since 2000. And although Sillerman says 40 percent of Graceland visitors are younger than 35 (and unaccompanied by parents), there is no question that Presley's original fans are getting older.

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