Hucksters, Pilgrims, and Scholars
By Mark Jordan
SEPTEMBER 2, 1997: It may have been, as poet and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu said, "the most surreal week in American history."
From August 10th through 16th, at least 75,000 people made the pilgrimage to Memphis for International Elvis Presley Tribute Week '97, marking the 20th anniversary of the King of Rock-and-Roll's death at the age of 42. No one knows exactly how many people came. For months, Graceland officials had estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 people would flock to Memphis for all or part of the week. But in the weeks leading up to the actual event, that number swelled to 75,000, with some media sources even predicting 100,000 to 200,000 expected travelers.
As unlikely as those last figures are, this much is certain: By the beginning of Elvis Week, every hotel room in Shelby County was booked solid for the week, and the RV parks were filling up quickly. There definitely were more pompadours, lambchop sideburns, and jumpsuits than usual. And it was increasingly difficult to sit down at a restaurant without hearing a foreign accent -- French, Dutch, German, Japanese, Brazilian -- coming from the next table. Avoiding the microphones, television cameras, and notebooks of approximately 250 media outlets was equally difficult.
At the presentation of the gold and platinum discs representing Elvis' European album sales, it was revealed that he has sold more than 1 billion records worldwide, more than any other artist ever.
"What was that they were saying the other day: Garth Brooks has sold something like 95 million records," said Elvis Worldwide Fan Club president James McBride. "That's great. But you could string quite a few Garth Brooks together and still not come up with what Elvis did. That's one billion records sold. That's one-fifth of the world."
Polls also show that Elvis is the third-most-recognized icon in the world, behind Mickey Mouse (first) and Jesus Christ. Fitting company since, like Jesus, Elvis has an almost church-like cult and, like Mickey, he is at the center of a global commercial operation.
In fact, perhaps the number-one reason Elvis' star continues to rise is because of an ingenious and aggressive strategy to market his legacy. As he was in rock-and-roll, Elvis is a pioneer in the world of celebrity licensing. At virtually every Elvis Week event, hucksters from around the world, who of course pay a fee for using Elvis' name, likeness, and imagery, were selling a bewildering array of products.
And at the end of the money trail was Elvis Presley Enterprises, the $75 million-a-year corporation founded out of the remnants of Elvis' estate, owned by his daughter Lisa Marie and headed by his ex-wife Priscilla. When Priscilla took over Elvis' estate, it had an estimated worth of less that $5 million and massive, rapidly accumulating debts. With the help of Kansas City money manager Jack Soden, she turned it into a company now worth $250 million. And EPE has ambitious plans to become an even larger force in the hospitality and entertainment industry, with a chain of Elvis Presley restaurants, casinos, and hotels in the works. It seems that EPE has managed to give Elvis in death one of the things that eluded him most in life -- a well-managed career.
On the 20th anniversary of Elvis' death, EPE debuted what could prove to be two of its most lucrative holdings. Elvis In Concert '97 was a multimedia spectacular that combined concert footage of Elvis singing with live accompaniment from many of his former backing musicians, a sort of lip-synching in reverse. Organizers are so keen on the concept that, if feasible, they have said they would like to take the show on the road, giving Elvis, in the words of producer Todd Morgan, "the world tour that eluded him his whole career."
The first show was a sellout, full of memorable performances, including an appearance by Elvis' original guitarist Scotty Moore. But it's possible that one song from the show might prove to be more popular than a concert tour could ever be. At one point Priscilla Presley herself took the stage to present fans with a special gift: a video of a grown Lisa Marie and her long-dead father singing a duet version of the latter's hit "Don't Cry Daddy," a lá Natalie and Nat Cole's "Unforgettable" of a few years ago. The song was the highlight of the concert, receiving an encore and earning Lisa Marie a huge ovation when she took the stage to briefly say thanks. The potential seemed obvious. The "Don't Cry Daddy" single could sell millions and result in the ultimate Elvis resurrection, placing him at the top of the charts again.
ONE OF THE REASONS FOR EPE's success lies in the simple virtue of treating the customer as king. And all throughout Elvis Week, the attention EPE lavished on its customers was evident. At the front of the customer-service line were officers of the approximately 300 Elvis Presley fan clubs from around the world. Several events were geared specifically toward them. They were invited to the presentation of the gold and platinum records. Graceland hosted a dinner for them at the Marriott, where they were showered with trinkets and prizes. And the fan clubs themselves held various events throughout the week, from auctions to tours of Humes Jr. High School to just plain old Elvis get-togethers and memorabilia swaps.
The culmination for most of these most devout pilgrims was the Candlelight Vigil. Thousands were lined up outside the gates of Graceland hours before they opened at 9 p.m. And between then and when Graceland cut it off at 7:30 the next morning, more than 30,000 people filed past Elvis' gravesite to pay their respects, three times as many as at any previous vigil.
The vigil itself was an event unlike anything else. Part street party, part memorial service, it always attracts the devout, the casual fans, and the gawkers. Elvis interpreters (the word impersonator is strictly forbidden among this sect) were constantly stopped to have their pictures taken. Many visitors, down just for the day and unable to find a place to stay, camped out on any bare patch of grass they could find. Some were waiting for the line to thin. Others, having already been through, were just reluctant to leave. The gawkers, mostly younger locals, drank beer and cracked jokes, but even they were occasionally awed by the expressions of devotion going on before them.
Most of those there, however, were avowed fans for whom Elvis had been a part of the lives for years. There was the Oklahoma man whose love of Elvis' music helped get him through the death of his wife. And there was the Missouri woman who, as a teenager, once stood in front of Graceland for 12 hours hoping to catch a glimpse of Elvis. "He finally came down about midnight," she says. "He asked us where we were from and we told him. And then he asked how long we were staying, and we told him we were heading back as soon as he left. He laughed, and gave us all pecks on the cheek, and just walked away."
At its greatest length, the line for the vigil snaked a half-dozen times up and down the 100-yard stretch of Elvis Presley Boulevard that had been closed off. The wait from end of the line to the gravesite averaged about three hours. Once in the Meditation Garden, where Elvis, his parents, and grandmother are buried, the queue was silent. Most would place something -- a flower, a card, a teddy bear -- on Elvis' gravestone and pause, as if not sure what to do next. Many held up the line to take pictures; many more burst into tears. By dawn the pile of tributes on the grave was 4 feet high.
But with the morning came the vigil's pre-ordained cutoff time of 6 a.m. Graceland officials worried that not everyone in line would get through in time, something that had never happened before.
"I hate to think that some of them might not get through," said one Graceland usher who stood watch in the Meditation Garden. "These people have been waiting so long and have come just for this."
With a day of sold-out tours, expected to bring as many as 8,000 more people through the gates of Graceland, scheduled to begin at 7 a.m., Graceland officials made a tough call. They announced that anyone in line at 6:30 a.m. would be guaranteed to get through. They would attempt to conduct the vigil and regular tours at the same time.
At 7:30 a.m. the fan-club presidents, traditionally the last in the procession, were preparing to make their pass. Of course, a few stragglers were cut off. "I'm just sick that I didn't get through," said one woman. "I'll never have an opportunity like this again."
When asked why they loved Elvis so much, many fans at the vigil, while denying the spiritual allusions others like to make ("Elvis always said there was only one King, and he wasn't him" was a particularly popular response), nevertheless reduced Elvis to the embodiment of a number of noble, god-like qualities -- kindness, gentleness, tolerance, he loved his mother.
As vague and ineffable as Elvis' appeal may be to some, however, there was another contingent that had no problem explaining the E phenomenon because it is their job to explain such things. Memphis was host to not one but two academic conferences on Elvis last week, though the majority of Tribute Week participants were either unaware or indifferent.
The University of Memphis' "Elvis: Now and Then" conference proved to be the more popular of the two, reportedly attracting a few hundred participants. It could also boast perhaps the best, certainly the best-known speakers, including Sam Phillips, Scotty Moore, critic Greil Marcus, and Peter Guralnick, author of what is generally considered to be the definitive Elvis bio, Last Train To Memphis, the second volume of which is due to be published in 1998.
At the Memphis College of Art, meanwhile, Ole Miss professor Vernon Chadwick, having been effectively booted out of his event's original home in Oxford for inviting a lesbian Elvis interpreter, presented his Third International Conference on Elvis Presley, titled "Elvis: 20/20." But despite boasting such titillatingly titled talks as "Elvis and the Elasticity of Gender" and "Elvis Was A White Negro," the conference was atrociously attended, with most sessions drawing less than two dozen participants.
The only thing that went worse for Chadwick was the concert series he had booked at the nearby Overton Park Shell, where the poor turnout for original rockabilly artists like Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess, and the Sun Rhythm Section seemed proof that Elvis' appeal has transcended nostalgia and even music.
Of course, Chadwick had bigger problems than that. His conference lasted six days compared to the U of M's one-day session. The concert series, which lasted five days, cost $8 in advance and $15 at the gate, a hefty cover in Memphis. And his Midtown location was out of the way for most tourists.
"Elvis: 20/20" also suffered from the vagaries of media coverage. For instance, one of the speakers on Tuesday was University of New Orleans professor Douglas Brinkley, whose article relating President Jimmy Carter's tale of the time he received a phone call from a clearly inebriated Elvis, seeking a presidential pardon for a friend, had just appeared in that week's New Yorker. Despite the fact that that story had been all over the papers and evening news the day before, none of the media picked up on the fact that the article's author was in town. Few, however, missed the story when MCA stupidly pulled an affiliated Elvis-themed art exhibit because the president of a local fan club complained and threatened to protest, a move that may have planted a perception among the uninformed of the conference being a sordid, Robert Mapplethorpe-ish affair.
In all, there were far too many Elvis Week events for one person to digest. And in the final analysis, what was it all about? Was it a tribute to a man, to rock-and-roll, or to an era? Was it really a tribute at all? Was it just a commercial event, like Woodstock II? Or was it a communion recognizing something historically, maybe even spiritually, significant? It was probably all of those.
David Brinkley, one of the most un-rock-and-roll of newscasters, once began a tribute to Elvis by saying, "It didn't really matter much if you liked Elvis Presley. The fact is, he changed things."
And you know, it probably doesn't matter much if you like Brinkley -- he was right.
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