August 11, 2007 / 12:06 AM / 12 years ago

Elvis, the enterprise, looms bigger 30 years on

DETROIT (Reuters) - Thirty years ago, on the eve of his sudden death at 42 at his Graceland mansion, a bloated and drug-addled Elvis Presley was also unintentionally on the threshold of the ultimate career make-over.

An Elvis Presley fan, Randall Houser of Cincinnatti, Ohio, stands near a painting of Presley, in front of the gate of the Presley's Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee in this August 15, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

Since the mid-1950s, Elvis had recorded dozens of seminal songs, starred in more than 30 Hollywood movies and reinvented himself in Las Vegas as a kind of all-American superhero in a gilded jumpsuit.

Towards the end, “The King” was a shadow of the performer who electrified audiences and revolutionized popular music.

But the post-mortem phase of his career has been even bigger and run even longer, with remixes of lesser-known songs “Rubberneckin’” and “A Little Less Conversation” becoming No. 1 hits in the last five years.

As legions of fans prepare to gather next week in Memphis, Tennessee, to mark the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death on August 16, 1977, it is clear that Elvis is still taking care of business.

“We’re gearing up for the best Elvis Week we’ve ever had,” said Todd Morgan, spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises, the Memphis-based firm that manages his lucrative estate and has organized a packed calendar of events.

For a start, there is the Elvis Expo at the Memphis convention center that features sold-out appearances by members of his TCB Band and former wife Priscilla.

The Presley birthplace is just down Highway 78 in Tupelo, Mississippi, including the hardware store where his mother Gladys bought Elvis his first guitar.

The main event is a candlelight vigil at Graceland starting on Wednesday that will be covered live by the all-Elvis-all-the-time Elvis Radio channel on Sirius Satellite. Some 50,000 fans are expected to attend.

Elvis-branded merchandise abounds, including a new, banana-creme-flavored Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from The Hershey Co. that encourages buyers to “Live Like The King,” with a playful nod to Presley’s penchant for excess.

Former pop star Marie Osmond, who knew Presley, is selling a limited-edition doll that imagines an infantile Elvis in pompadour, clutching a microphone and sporting his familiar American-eagle jumpsuit.


Colonel Tom Parker, the Dutch-born wheeler-dealer who managed Presley, predicted after the singer’s death that the legend — and the marketing — would live on.

“Elvis didn’t die. The body did,” Parker was quoted as saying 30 years ago. “This changes nothing.”

Forbes magazine ranks Elvis as the second-highest-earning dead celebrity after Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, with an estimated $42 million from licensing deals in 2005-2006.

That represents a 40-fold rise in revenue from 1979, when Priscilla Presley stepped in as an executor of the estate after the death of Elvis’ father Vernon.

Since opening to the public in 1982, Graceland — the ornately appointed Memphis home Elvis bought for $100,000 in 1957 — has become a major tourist magnet with some 600,000 visitors each year and more growth planned.

Entertainment mogul Robert Sillerman bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005. Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie owns the other 15 percent.

Sillerman has described a vision for a new Graceland visitors center, convention hotel and digital museum intended to create the effect that Elvis never left the building.

As part of that transformation, Sillerman, chief executive of CKX Inc., is attempting to take the company private in a partnership with “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller.

Spanish singer Abelardo Navarro, dressed up as Elvis Presley, performs during a concert tribute in Almeria, southeast Spain January 19, 2007. Thirty years ago, on the eve of his sudden death at 42 at his Graceland mansion, a bloated and drug-addled Elvis Presley was also unintentionally on the threshold of the ultimate career make-over. REUTERS/Francisco Bonilla/Files

In an Idol-style departure, the Presley estate has sponsored a contest for Elvis imitators — rebranded as “tribute artists” — culminating on Friday in Memphis.

“There have been impersonators of all shapes and sizes and nationalities for years, but the estate never recognized them,” said Joe Moscheo, a member of gospel quartet The Imperials that played in Las Vegas with Presley and one of the “Ultimate Elvis” contest judges.

“They didn’t want anything to do with the guys with the wigs with the sideburns. They thought it cheapened the image,” he said. “Now they look at it and say: ‘If they’re going to be out there, let’s control the thing’.”

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