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'Elvis was much more than just a rock 'n' roll star, but he was never taken seriously'

The King is dead but his legacy lives on thanks to ex-wife Priscilla. She talks to Andy Welch about protecting his image and why she doesn't want him turned into a hologram

Published 17/12/2015

Priscilla Presley
Priscilla Presley
Priscilla Presley with Elvis on their wedding day
Elvis Presley

Nothing could stop Elvis. Not joining the army, not a raft of terrible films, not even death. Now, in the year that would have seen him turn 80, he's back at the top of the charts with a new album, If I Can Dream, which features a host of old recordings embellished by an orchestra, and duets with current stars including Italian pop opera trio Il Volo and Michael Buble.

Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla - the couple divorced in 1973 though remained close afterwards - has had a large part in keeping his music alive since he passed away. This most-recent endeavour has sold more than 500,000 copies in the UK since its release in October, and has remained in the top three after its initial two weeks at the very top of the chart.

"The album is to show how versatile Elvis was as a singer and the sorts of music he liked," says Priscilla.

"We all know he was in rock 'n' roll, but he was so much more than that, not that there's anything wrong with rock 'n' roll. He just didn't feel he was taken seriously for his craft."

She goes on to explain that her former husband's record collection went from Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven right through to gospel, blues, soul via the likes of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, and he often talked of his desire to have full orchestras on stage with him. This, she reasons, would've been a possibility during his lifetime had he not been so busy with his Vegas shows, and had his manager Colonel Tom Parker not ruled the roost with such an iron fist.

The first she knew of his passion for orchestras was while channel surfing one night in a faraway hotel room.

"There was an orchestra on the TV and suddenly Elvis dived up and started copying the conductor and was lost in it, completely lost in the drama and the fullness of it," she says.

She talks about what Elvis was like, his frustrations with his record label, RCA, and his belief other artists were getting better songs from established writers than he was.

"He was very frustrated as an artist," says Priscilla. "Song choices, particularly, upset him. He wanted to experiment, to be daring and be an artist, but he was a commodity to the record label. It was the same with his films. After the fourth film, he was done, but Colonel had signed a long deal and he had to carry on making them. They saw the money coming in and that was all they cared about.

"If he stood up to the Colonel, he'd just mention the money Elvis was making as proof of their success and say that nothing could change. But the thing is, Elvis didn't care about money."

She does sound sad when talking about him - and this is by no means her only interview in something of a heavy promotional schedule - but she counters any melancholy by imagining Elvis with a big smile on his face at the sound of hearing his voice backed by a full orchestra.

Of course, it's very easy to be cynical about such a project.

This is, after all, The King, to some the greatest singer of all time, reduced to having the likes of Eurovision entrants Il Volo digitally inserted alongside him. At best, you could say it's unnecessary; at worst, mawkish karaoke. There are purists angered by the album, but, to use Colonel Parker's yardstick, you only have to look at the sales figures to see there's still a huge appetite for Presley's music.

Priscilla, too, has another answer for the naysayers.

"They don't have to listen. The music they love is still there, no one's taking that away, and this is something Elvis wanted to happen - I have proof, after living with him and hearing him talk about it," she says.

And if there are people annoyed by this album, they're going to hate what's coming next. Priscilla hopes If I Can Dream is the first in a series of similar albums.

"I would love it, to be able to expose Elvis as the great artist he was. He was never appreciated for what he was. I'll never forget walking out of the studio with him after he'd approved of how something should sound and told no one to touch the recording. Then we'd hear the song on the radio and he'd freak out because it had been changed and his voice was way out front.

"He used to say, 'You don't change an artist's work like that,' but it would happen continually. But this new album is something else and I think it's something Elvis would want to try if he were here.

"We're not changing anything, we're embellishing. And we're not forcing it on anyone, the old songs exist. Here's something new to try, if you want to."

She does draw the line, though, and aside from Priscilla who heads up the Elvis estate, there's a team of other people on the lookout for new opportunities, but also to stop things going too far.

She doesn't, for example, like the idea of Elvis becoming a hologram, as Frank Sinatra has in a recent West End musical.

"There are partners looking into that sort of thing, and there's a lot of talking, but I'm not quite convinced by anything I've seen. Elvis' image is a very precious thing to protect. For now, this is what we're concentrating on, and it's something I'm proud of because it allows him to do what he always wanted. And I'm still here, fighting his corner."

Belfast Telegraph

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