The King and I
Today, Elvis Presley would have celebrated his 75th birthday. Kerry McKittrick talks to the impersonators and fans including one who had the singer cited in her divorce
Today Elvis Presley's family will host a little party in honour of what would have been the King's 75th birthday.
Tears will be shed, toasts will be made and, on the north lawn of Graceland, a cake will be cut. It will, one imagines, be a dignified tribute to one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. But the party plans don't stop there.
There will also be an exhibition of Elvis's stage costumes, a series of live concerts in Memphis, a free Elvis Mobile iPhone app and a career-spanning 75-track CD.
In Las Vegas, the Canadian circus group Cirque du Soleil will open Viva Elvis, their own tribute to the King, while Elvis the Concert, the show that unites the singer's former band-mates with a video projection of the singer, will embark on a world tour.
And if that's not enough, the toy manufacturer Mattel will, with the blessing of Elvis's estate, unveil its brand-spanking-new Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock Doll. Hardly impoverished during his lifetime, Elvis is a huge posthumous earner.
In 2008 he topped the Forbes list of highest-earning dead celebs — or ‘delebs’ — for the fourth consecutive year, generating $45m (£25m). However, Elvis and his progeny aren't the only ones making a profit on the back of a career that ended, in a very physical sense, over 30 years ago. A whole worldwide industry has flourished since his death in 1977, one that takes in live entertainers, record company executives, merchandise manufacturers, memorabilia collectors, retailers, tour operators, publishers, film-makers and writers. There are around 350 official Elvis fan clubs currently in operation and countless unofficial ones, each of them feeding the fervour of fans whose enthusiasm only seems to increase with time. So whether it's those who knew him, those who wish they had, or those who have simply spotted a business opportunity, there are scores of people for whom Elvis has become a full-time occupation. The King is dead. Long live the King!
Back in August 1953 an 18 year old boy wandered in to the offices of Sun Records in Memphis Tennessee, intending to record a couple of songs for his mother. No one could have guessed that the youth who styled his hair with rose oil and Vaseline would eventually become one of the most important and influential musical acts of the 20th century.
Presley's blurring of the line between ‘white' and ‘black' music in 1950s America fanned the flames of the civil rights movement. His special brand of rockabilly and gyrations which earned him the nickname Elvis The Pelvis, stunned middle-class America and drove their teenagers wild. Recording everything from rock and roll, pop, country and gospel music Elvis showed his versatility and spontaneity. He even hung up his guitar for two years to complete his military service. During this time he met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, seven years later she became his wife and they had a daughter, Lisa Marie.
Returning from the army Elvis continued to record but began his film career in earnest, starring in almost 30 films in the following decade during which time his music career declined. Presley revived his career with a number of TV specials starting with the '68 Comeback Special, featuring the star dressed in black leather. This was the first of many TV appearances featuring the now iconic jumpsuit.
To cope with the pressures of touring and movie-making Elvis turned to prescription drugs. In the last years of his life his weight ballooned and he overdosed on prescription medication at least twice. He was found dead on the bathroom floor of Graceland on August 16, 1977.
Thirty-two years after his death, without a shadow of doubt Elvis lives on. Conspiracy theories about his death not withstanding, his legacy is alive and kicking in his music, films and the palatial grounds of Graceland, his home in Memphis, Tennessee.
In a recent survey carried by an American magazine, 10% of Americans have visited Graceland and 84% say their lives have been touched by Elvis in some way. That's not bad for a country of 300 million people. There are hundreds of fan clubs across the planet and The King continues to produce the hits, most notably in 2002 with the JXL remix of A Little Less |Conversation which reached number one in the UK chart.
Elvis will never truly leave the building.
Mervyn Boyd (50) is a music promoter and entertainer living in Belfast with his daughter Carrie (20). He says:
The first time I saw Elvis was on British TV in the 1970s and I was instantly hooked. He looked like a god and sounded fantastic.
I've always been into music. I started my first band when I was at school, at the age of about 11 or 12. I wanted to do some kind of Elvis act even then, but no body else did. I've been in all kinds of bands since then but we didn't get to start up the Elvis Spectacular until 1996.
The Spectacular is basically an Elvis concert with a totally live band. We feature an Elvis impersonator who chooses what kind of Elvis they want to be — rockabilly from the 50s or the comeback years with the jump suits. Since we started we've been all over the UK and Ireland. We've played big venues like the Waterfront Hall and once we even performed for U2. I though it would go on for six months but 14 years later we're still going strong. We've had quite a few different Elvis's come and go.
I've seen all of the documentaries and films about Elvis' death. Some make a very convincing case for him still being alive, but others are convincing in the other direction. I've met his bodyguards though and they've all said he is dead. I don't think Elvis is the kind of guy who could stay hidden for 30 days anyway, never mind 30 years. It all started because people don't want him to be dead, but he'll always live on through his music. There's already a church of Elvis Presley in the States and I reckon in a few decades it will have turned into a full blown religion.
I have lots of Elvis stuff, but I keep it limited to one wall in the house, so you can see Elvis as you go up my stairs. My collection isn't bad. I have things like bootleg recordings and DVDs and books.”
The Elvis impersonator
Jim Brown (41) is a musician and entertainer who lives with his wife and their five grown-up children. He says:
I discovered Elvis when I was about six years old when there was a repeat of the ’68 Comeback Special on TV — it blew me away. No one else in the family liked him, it was just me.
I had no ambition to be a singer or an Elvis impersonator, it was a fluke how it all happened. I went out with my wife to the Belfast Dockers Club one night. They have a live band which calls people up to sing with them and my wife put my name down.
I had never sung in public before and I really didn't want to but I went up and did a couple of Elvis songs and the place came alive. Everyone was on their feet dancing.
The band leader told me if I learned six songs he had a gig for me the following night. That was 13 years ago and I haven't looked back since.
I toured with the Elvis Spectacular. I have never been a fan of dressing up but that show is all about the theatrics though. I preferred to do songs from the 1950s and 1960s, when he was still in his jeans before the jumpsuits came in. The Spectacular has been going for years so I did my stint and then let someone else take over.
I don't want the memory of Elvis to be a joke. I was asked to do a TV interview recently and they wanted me to sit dressed in a jumpsuit but I refused.
I've recorded an album of cover versions of other artists songs performed in the style of Elvis. I also recorded three songs for the soundtrack of a movie called Lonely Street, which is about Elvis if he had still been living.
I am in no doubt that Elvis is dead. All you have to do is look at photos of him from his last days. You can see he was really ill and he had lost all interest in life.
The thing about Elvis was his versatility. The man could sing a shopping list to you and make it sound good. They called him the King of rock ‘n’ roll but in reality he could sing any style from blues to country. His charisma was legendary.”
Kim Forsythe (45) is a retired civil servant living in Dundonald with her children Rachael (19) and Andrew (16). She says:
I know that Elvis is dead, I really do, but I turn on Ceefax every morning just to see if he's been found. It really is wishful thinking though.
I was 12-years-old when Elvis died and it broke my heart. My dad told me about it the next morning because I was already in bed when the news broke. I started collecting things then. I cut out all of the newspaper articles about him and put them into scrap books. My mum and dad bought me some vinyl records for Christmas and my collection has taken off ever since. My collection now fills my garage. I have everything from a pink panther dressed in an Elvis jump suit to an old jukebox I have filled with Elvis records. I have concert tickets, vinyl and even the commemorative drink bottles Pepsi produced in 2000. The garage has Elvis tiled into the floor and my jukebox stands in pride of place.
The most important part of my collection would be the scrap books I put together after he died in 1977. They're not precious for their monetary value, but for the childhood memory they represent to me. You tend to throw things away when you get to that age. I must be one of the few people who has had Elvis cited on my divorce papers, because my ex husband wanted half of the collection.
I've been to Graceland three times now. The first time I went was on the 20th anniversary of his death and I found the whole thing very emotional. Just being there and seeing and touching the same things that he did was amazing.
I've been a member of the English Elvis Presley club since I was 12-years-old and I've met lots of friends through Elvis, people I wouldn't normally be friends with, like a 65-year-old man living in Lurgan. Elvis even brings people together. I met my boyfriend Mervyn because of Elvis, as he runs the Elvis Spectacular show that tours the country. I'm looking forward to a Northern Ireland fan club because it will bring other like minded people together.
Elvis was the whole package, he had the looks, the voice and the moves, and he appealed to everyone. You can see it in the videos of his concerts. Everyone's there, men and women, children and old ladies.”
The music industry boss
Charlie Stanford is the senior marketing director at Sony. He says:
I’ve been marketing Elvis and his music for 11 years. I create the albums that different countries will release and my job is to find ways to get new audiences interested in his music. His 75th birthday is a big opportunity for us. In the UK we're releasing a 75-track definitive hits collection.
We have a thing called artist DNA, which is essentially taking apart what makes an artist appealing. We use our own assumptions about what people want, and take them to focus groups to see if they are correct. Then we come back, modify the product and re-test it again and again until we get it right. Lately we discovered that Elvis in his jumpsuit is far less appealing to people than fifties-era Elvis.
Colonel Parker sold RCA the rights to all Elvis's music in the ‘70s, and later the catalogue came to Sony. We don't need to get the estate's approval to put out new products but we do need their co-operation. They own all the imagery and there's a mutual interest to make sure that we're marketing Elvis in the right way.
When you market a living artist they generally come in, do some interviews and make themselves visible. With dead artists you have to use other tools and find different ways to make consumers interact with them. We try to appeal to younger audiences where possible, and the JXL remix of Elvis's “A Little Less Conversation” in 2002 was a great example of when it goes well.
Record companies have come to realise the value of their back catalogue. It is the engine room that drives the business. Elvis is one of our best-selling catalogue artists. It's a real mark of quality that, whether we are actively marketing a new product or not, he's always in the top 10. Our job is to nurture an artist's catalogue and keep it alive. But at the end of the day, it's down to how good the music is. You can work a certain amount of magic with good marketing but if the music isn't right, it won't work.”
The fan club president
Stuart Baxter (38) is an entertainer living in Belfast with his wife Janet. He says:
We always had Elvis on in the house as I was growing up so I've been a fan since I was five or six years old. That was around 1977 so it was after he had died. My wife is a huge fan too and in August 2009 we got married in Graceland (right). We decided that if we were going to get married then Graceland was the only place we wanted. They have a chapel and we brought a couple of friends and Janet's parents over for the occasion, then went on to Las Vegas.
I've been on the cabaret circuit in Belfast since about 1991 and I've even taken part in the Elvis Spectacular. They always have an Elvis impersonator and you choose what era you want to perform. I had a replica of the eagle jumpsuit made by the original manufacturers because I wanted it to be authentic and I performed songs from his ‘70s comeback shows.
I've always been a member of the Elvis Fan Club of Great Britain and for the last couple of years every time I come home from a meeting I've talked about starting one here. There are 350 official fan clubs worldwide, including one in the Republic but there's never been one in Northern Ireland.
We launched the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club Northern Ireland this week with an event at a club in Belfast. There will be an Elvis disco and we'll have projections with the footage of Elvis playing throughout. It will be a chance for fans to meet up and talk about Elvis. There is constantly new information and footage coming to light.
There's a misconceptions of Elvis fan clubs and conventions being full of people in badly made jumpsuits. That's not the case. In fact we instructed the doormen to quietly ask anyone who showed up in costume if they would change, because it's not the image we want to convey.
I'm looking forward to having the club up and running. We have very little budget so the monthly events will mostly be in working men's clubs, but it's a cross-community group so they will be in different venues in different areas each time.
The stories of Elvis still being alive are utter nonsense. I've met Joe Esposito who was his bodyguard and one of the people who found him. He said he definitely was dead and that's good enough for me. I think Elvis was dead long before 1977 though, metaphorically speaking. He had overdosed on drugs a couple of times and was really unhappy.