Elvis' 75th birthday special: Meet the fans, artists and entrepreneurs behind the $45m Presley industry
Next week, the King would have celebrated his 75th birthday. Fiona Sturges talks to the fans, artists and entrepreneurs keeping a legend alive
Saturday 02 January 2010
Next week 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!
Martyn Dias, aka Elvis Shmelvis
Elvis tribute artist
I worked in electronics and computers for years before becoming a tribute artist. I was in and out of various cover bands and singing in pubs and clubs in the evenings. I didn't have any ambitions other than to have a bit of fun. I certainly wasn't doing it for the money. We'd get £35 at the end of the night which would have to be divided between the whole band. When I was growing up I was more into Slade, The Sweet and T-Rex. I used to jump up and down with a tennis racket on the bed when I was a teenager and pretend I was a rock star like any other kid.
I didn't get to know Elvis's music properly until the Nineties when I met another computer engineer who sang and played guitar and was a big Elvis fan. We formed a musical duo, and to start with he sang the Elvis songs and I did songs by other singers. I could impersonate pretty much anyone. I would do Neil Diamond, Buddy Holly, Cliff Richard, all sorts. Then I started copying him doing Elvis and it turned out that I was pretty good at it. Eventually I went solo just singing Elvis songs and discovered that I could make a living from it. So in 1992 I gave up computers and did Elvis full-time.
When I first started, I bought a wig and a jumpsuit from a fancy dress shop and thought: "I'm Elvis!" Looking back, I didn't look very good at all. After a while I gave up on the wig. All my life I'd had short blond hair but I dyed it blue-black and grew some sideburns. My wife did a hairdressing course and now she looks after my hair. And I have my own jumpsuits made by the same people who made Elvis's.
In the past 15 years I've performed in Trafalgar Square in front of a crowd of 25,000, I've played Milton Keynes Bowl to 30,000 and I've been on Holby City, The Weakest Link and The One Show. I do hotels, corporate functions, bar mitzvahs. I've even done a couple of funerals where I sang "Always on my Mind". During weekdays I do restaurant shows, mostly at curry houses. I'm a good reader of people and if I think that someone's not going to react in the right way then I keep my distance. I've come to admire Elvis hugely since doing this, and am thankful to him that I make a great living – but I'm not an Elvis nut. Other tribute artists live and breathe Elvis but I don't. When the jumpsuit comes off, I'm Martyn again.
Singer in The Elvis Imperials and author of 'The Gospel Side of Elvis'
We started singing with Elvis in the late Sixties in the recording studios in Nashville. Then in 1969 we got the call from Colonel Parker's office telling us that Elvis was going to open in Vegas and he wanted us to be the back-up voices. Of course we said, "Yes". We already knew him pretty well, but we didn't appreciate the impact of him until the opening night. He would walk up and down the stage like a caged animal. The flashbulbs would be popping around him and people would be screaming. Some people fainted they were so overwhelmed. He really did take your breath away. It's like nothing I've seen before or since.
I published a book in 2007 about my interest in the gospel side of Elvis, because in my mind he was the greatest gospel singer that ever lived. Gospel was his first love, and when we gathered behind the scenes during tours he never wanted to sing his hits, he just wanted to sing a spiritual song.
I feel that there is so much trash written about him – about his life and his habits and his shortfalls – that it's time to give out the right message about Elvis, about his music and his generosity and the real person that he was.
Of course, I never imagined when I first met Elvis that he would be as important as he has become. My life would be very different if that hadn't happened. When he was alive we thought it would go on for ever. Then he died and nothing really happened for 20 years, apart from fan-club events. The Imperials didn't have a reunion until 1997, which was the 20th anniversary of his death. That was when the estate called everyone back together. Someone had this idea of Elvis the Concert, where we would perform behind a 30ft screen of Elvis. We toured with it for several years and now it's back by popular demand. It's amazing what they've done, isolating Elvis's image and voice so you get a very real sense of seeing him in concert. Apart from Elvis's voice, the music is all live – you've got the TCB Band, The Sweet Inspirations and us, and we're all actually accompanying Elvis, larger than life like he always was.
This year seems to be one of our biggest yet. We already have 50 concerts booked so far. It's a phenomenon, it really is. We're sold out, and Elvis won't even be there!
President of The Elvis Show Fan Club, the official Swiss fan club
I became interested in Elvis after seeing [the televised concert] Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii in 1973. A few years later I was with my mother and her husband in the car and they played nothing but Elvis. I thought it was lots of different bands but they told me at the end of the trip that it was just one guy. I couldn't imagine that one person could sing in so many styles. After that I started learning everything about him. When he died on 16 August 1977 I cried and all my friends sent their condolences to me.
After his death I was worried that no one would talk about him any more, that Elvis would be forgotten for ever. I was in a real panic and so I started collecting anything related to him. If he came on the television I would hold up a tape recorder to the TV and try to record it. It was a lonely time for me. I wore black every 16 August. I felt like the only Elvis fan left in the world.
I got married when I was 20 and put all my memorabilia into two suitcases and gave them to a friend to keep for me. I kept my records, though, and played them when my husband wasn't home. We got divorced in 1989 and soon after I decided to go to an Elvis fan-club event in Germany. When I got there I realised that this was what I loved and needed. I saw that all these people were thinking the same way as me. So I started organising concerts and getting in touch with impersonators and fans. I went to Graceland and it was wonderful. Later on the Swiss fans asked me to set up a fan club. By 1993 it was up and running.
I remember that as a child I looked up to Elvis as a father figure and when I was a teenager I saw him as a lover. Now I'm 46 I see him as a friend who has helped to make my life better. The fan club is a labour of love for me. We now have around 70 active subscribers and over 1,000 people on our mailing list. We have monthly meetings where we talk about any Elvis developments, listen to his music and organise events. Now I take people to Memphis, Tupelo and Nashville once or twice a year. I've also opened a shop in Basel where people can buy Elvis shirts, bags, belts and little things like jewellery. I've never been so busy.
Over the years Elvis has become one of the most famous brands in the world, like Coca Cola or Mickey Mouse. This is work that the fans have done and it makes me proud.
Senior marketing director at Sony
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, all-encompassing 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. We also employ a series of Elvis experts as consultants.
Colonel Parker sold RCA the rights to all Elvis's music in the Seventies, 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. We generally know what they're up to, and vice-versa.
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. I would say that was 50 per cent luck and 50 per cent skill. The remix was originally created for an advert but it was so good that it was released in its own right. It was a global smash and went to number one in around 24 countries. If Radio 1 ever play an Elvis song, it's that one.
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.
Owner of Elvisly Yours, the Elvis memorabilia shop
My first experience of Elvis came from listening to Radio Luxembourg. Prior to that, all you ever heard on the radio was wimp music – Perry Como, Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra. Then came Elvis, the rock'n'roller. He shook the world and changed the 20th century. He revolutionised everything from the way you dressed to the music you listened to. You couldn't even wear your hair long before he came along. People who say they don't like Elvis, don't like music. He did everything – gospel, rock'n'roll, country, ballads, the lot. I've heard "Jailhouse Rock" probably 5,000 times and it's still fresh. Today's music doesn't compare.
I've had lots of jobs, but after Elvis died I set up my shop. I only had £3,000 and that was soon gone. I ran tiny ads in Melody Maker and NME and got a little bit of business that way. Then I got a knock on the door from a German man who wanted some merchandise to take back to Germany – £7,000-worth of goods. That was a lot of money in those days, so with his money I was able to buy a huge amount of stock and get the business going. In 1980 I went to Memphis and met the senior staff at Graceland. It turned out that they wanted to buy my merchandise, since what they had over there was total rubbish. In the end I shipped over four tons of British Elvis merchandise to Graceland. It was like selling coal to Newcastle.
My first shop was in Shoreditch, east London – we were there for 17 years – and it became a landmark for fans. Then we moved to the Trocadero and then to Baker Street, where we are now. At the moment we sell around 440 different items and I've sold over 3,000 different items over the years. I say to people: "These are tomorrow's antiques today." Most of it increases in value. We've got a clock where Elvis tells you the time every hour. In years to come it'll be on the Antiques Roadshow. We've got a fabulous Elvis duvet and towel. We hope to be doing jumpsuits soon, as well. The most popular product are the Elvis glasses. What's in the shop has got to be something that I wouldn't mind having in my own home and I consider to be in good taste. I don't do tacky stuff, I do items which honour Elvis. I'm just keeping the memory alive. Elvis would never begrudge what I do.
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