'The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley'

By Ted Harrison

Book Review by Susan MacDougall

(from the publicity) - Elvis Aaron Presley is more popular today than ever, yet he died nearly forty years ago. Elvis's Graceland home and Tupelo birthplace have become places of pilgrimage. His relics command astounding prices at auction.

Elvis is the subject of some truly astonishing rumours and legends, including the one that he never actually died. Author Ted Harrison asks what lies behind the remarkable resurrection in popular culture of the King of Rock 'n' Roll.

The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley tells the story of Elvis after Elvis. It shows how his estate, which was pillaged by his manager, was saved through the business acumen and financial vision of his ex-wife Priscilla Presley.

It explores a spiritual dimension to the Elvis revival, where fans create a fantasy quasi-religion through which they blend and confuse Elvis and Jesus. And underpinning the whole story is Elvis's extraordinary charisma.. This is a must-read for the many millions of loyal followers, as well as those who are more critical of the King.


EIN book reviewer Susan MacDougall explores this fascinating new book ...

The death and resurrection of Elvis Presley, by Ted Harrison.  - Reaktion Books, London, -- 2016. 268 pp. B & w photos, references, bibliography, index.

Is Elvis Presley worship developing into a religion or quasi-religion?  Is Elvis a hero, a saint or a messiah?  How do myths develop and why do people need them?  What is their sociological significance?  Why Elvis in particular?  Why not John Lennon, Princess Diana or Michael Jackson?  

Elvis hasn’t left the building yet, due to a combination of brand Elvis and spiritual Elvis.   Harrison investigates the myth that has grown up around Elvis since his death nearly forty years ago.

This is a thoroughly researched book that brings us up-to-date with recent developments.  Harrison draws on existing publications on the same topic, as well as web sites and correspondence, conversations and interviews with many Elvis fans and associates conducted over 25 years, to make a well-argued case.  He finally proposes possible future directions for this extraordinary Elvis phenomenon.

The death and resurrection of Elvis Presley contains 13 chapters with intriguing headings and an index (alas, woefully short for a serious work - only four pages long, mainly proper names with little subject analysis).

Famously, George Klein once said, "If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; if you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."   The phenomenon of Elvis, his lasting popularity and appeal are difficult to articulate and understand.  Harrison puts it in the broader context of people’s need to understand the meaning and purpose of life, which is something people often find in religion.

Elvis’s Rise and Fall and Rise

Elvis was an only child, a lonely teenager who developed his own unique style, bringing the African American music he had heard as a child to a broader audience.  His performances shocked white middle class Americans in the mid-1950s – they considered him a threat to the morals of young people.  Their attitudes reflected the racism of the time and their attitude towards African American music, which they considered overly sexually explicit and superficial.  After military service Elvis’s image had softened.  He grew and matured.  He ended up “tossed to the publicity mill, nutted, and homogenized, turned from prodigy to product, and eventually to parody, sold before his time”.   He died young, partly through over-use of prescription drugs and partly for inherited genetic reasons.  In his final months he was a sad shadow of his former self.  But he has since made a grand come-back.

The Myth

The myth started growing as soon as Elvis died.  Larry Geller related how Vernon claimed to have seen a blue light over the house where Elvis was born.  It was said that, as a child, Elvis would walk alone in the fields where ‘beings’ would talk to him.  George Klein called Elvis “Jesus-like”.  People were very conscious of his presence and personal magnetism.  He was said to have had an aura.  One-time girl friend Sheila Ryan said that Elvis knew what she was feeling before she felt it.  There were even reports of healings.

Was a new religion growing?  A new religion or sect needs a leader.  Despite various interesting parallels between Elvis and Jesus, Elvis never set himself up as the leader of a sect or religious movement; he always deferred to God.  There is no separate Elvis religion.

Elvis’s Appeal

So, why Elvis in particular?  Elvis was the right person in the right place at the right time.  He had the looks, the talent and the music background, having absorbed African American music from an early age.  He also had a religious upbringing and was interested in spiritual matters.

More than that, his voice and his singing appealed to many people.  He had a wide repertoire of songs for all moods and occasions.  Women felt he was “singing to them alone, comforting, understanding and empathetic”.  His appeal transcended gender: men saw him as a role model and wanted to emulate him.

Elvis’s gospel singing was another factor.  It was inspirational and spiritually uplifting.  

Even now his voice is still fresh and immediate, still capable of being remixed, rearranged and re-branded for modern and future generations.

Elvis has an “archetypal appeal to the collective consciousness”.  For Americans, he exemplifies the American ‘rags to riches’ dream that hard work can result in wealth and success.  Other archetypes are quoted but, as Harrison explains, “Elvis is more than a collection of archetypes, more than a modern hero, god or saint.  He is fun!”  Harrison sees being an Elvis fan and keeping it in perspective as a healthy antidote to the stresses of modern living.

Despite some resentment and backlash from African Americans, Elvis was a unifying influence.  The song American Trilogy contains symbolism that many may not be aware of.  It quotes from three songs that refer back to the Southern Confederate and Northern Union armies during the American Civil War over the abolition of slavery.  

In the first song Elvis identifies his roots in the South, Dixieland, the Land of Cotton.  The second song has roots in the music of the slaves: “So hush little baby, Don’t you cry. You know your daddy’s bound to die”.  The third part is taken from the marching song of the Northern Federal Army: “Glory, glory, hallelujah!”

The interpretation for fans has religious overtones: – Elvis was born in the South. Christ-like, he was destined to suffer and die, then ultimately triumph: his truth would go marching on.


The Graceland Legacy

When Elvis died, the family was surprised to find how near insolvency his estate was.  Vernon handed affairs over to ‘Col.’ Tom Parker.  After Vernon’s death, the probate judge ordered the estate to sue Parker for improper management.  Parker filed a counter-claim as a delaying tactic, hoping to bankrupt the estate.  As a result, the estate had to settle out of court.  Then Priscilla took over management on behalf of the beneficiary, Lisa Marie.  Rather than sell Graceland, the decision was made to open it as a museum.

Priscilla and Jack Soden took a tough line on intellectual property, which helped turn the finances around but made them unpopular with fans and they lost control of the mythical Elvis.  After failing, in a court case, to stop tribute artists from performing, Priscilla decided to organize Elvis tribute artist contests to generate money for the estate.

If Elvis had died leaving a large amount of money there would have been no imperative to develop the Elvis business.  Graceland might well have remained a private family home and not been opened up as a pilgrimage site. Arguably, the growth of the legend might not have occurred.

The business empire was consolidated in stages.  The private jets that had been sold by Vernon were back on long term display, the Automobile Museum opened in 1989, Graceland was registered as a historical place in 1991, Elvis postage stamps were issued in 1993 and 1995, Heartbreak Hotel opened in 1999, etc.  When Lisa Marie turned 25 in 1993 she inherited her father’s estate in her own right and formed the Elvis Presley Trust to manage it with the same management team (Priscilla and Jack Soden).  She made a prenuptial agreement when marrying Michael Jackson to ensure that Elvis’s assets remained independent and intact in case of divorce.  Elvis’s image was airbrushed and bland – too sanitized and commercial for many fans and the true spirit of Elvis was suppressed.  Both the estate and the fans were concerned about protecting Elvis’s image, but from different perspectives.

Because of debts and the 2008 recession, management of the Graceland estate changed hands a few times: first to Robert Sillerman of CKX, then Apollo Global Management, followed by the Authentic Brand Group, in association with National Entertainment Collectibles Association (NECA).  Throughout, the deeds to Graceland and ownership of family and personal property remained with Lisa Marie.  Major redevelopments were put on hold.

The downside of being part of an extended business empire was that the fortunes of the Elvis subsidiary could rise or fall with those of the wider business.  This is still a matter of concern.  Harrison suggests a solution – that the core Graceland enterprise could be bought by a consortium of fans who would become shareholders.

As far as remixing, repackaging and marketing are concerned, there are numerous possibilities using new technologies.  The number of visitors to Graceland fluctuates, depending on the economy, people’s ability to pay, and milestone anniversaries.  It’s encouraging that more than half the visitors are estimated, by visual assessment, to be under 35 years old.  So marketing should be directed at a younger audience.

Who Are The Fans?

It’s a misconception that the fan base consists mainly of undereducated women from a lower socioeconomic background.  Among Elvis fans are Bill Clinton and former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, as well as musicians Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan.  There are different degrees of being a fan, from being interested to being obsessed.  There are officially-approved fan clubs in 31 countries, Elvis festivals around the world, and Elvis tribute artists (ETAs) numbering in the tens of thousands.

A Virtual Kingdom

Elvis is also very much part of the digital age.  He has a presence on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, iTunes, online specialist radio stations, etc.  An Elvis hologram is under development: we’ll be able to see him perform in 3D.  Elvis is present in live theatre and, of course, in ETA shows.  Indeed, Elvis is everywhere.


The Way Ahead?

Despite the uneasy relationship between the estate and the general fan base, there exists a mutual dependence.  The Elvis world needs a centralized business arm with marketing skills to keep Elvis’s name in the public eye.  Moreover, if Graceland itself were closed, the fans would lose their primary pilgrimage site.

The real question in the end is: would the Elvis myth survive and thrive if brand Elvis goes under, or will his fans world-wide keep him resurrected with fan clubs, ETA performances and contests, web sites, and radio, albeit in a more fragmented and uncoordinated way?  Would fans be prepared to form a conglomerate to take on the estate as shareholders and hire their own management team?

There’s so much more information in The death and resurrection of Elvis Presley - you’ll have to read it yourself!


Review by Susan MacDougall.
-Copyright EIN October 2016 - DO NOT COPY -
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

Comment on this review

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'Down At The End Of Lonely Street' - Book Review: This 1997 published fan favourite 'Down at the End of Lonely Street: The Life and Death of Elvis Presley'
promised an "intimate portrait of Elvis Presley, America’s favorite music idol, chronicling his remarkable life from a dirt-poor schoolboy in Memphis through his rise as a Rock n’ Roll superstar to his final days in Las Vegas. Drawing on exclusive interviews with Elvis’s closest friends and new documentary evidence, this biography reveals secrets about his relationships with his addictive mother Gladys, his ruthless manager Colonel Tom Parker, his musical rivals The Beatles, and the truth behind his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu."

EIN reviewer Susan MacDougall checks out this old classic to see how it stands the test of time, look at some of the interesting issues addressed and investigates how the book sees Elvis as a "person" rather than an image.

(Book Review, Source: EIN, January 2016)

'Nashville Chrome' - Book Review: In the late fifties the Country Music group The Browns - Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed - were enjoying unprecedented international success, rivaled only by their longtime friend Elvis Presley. The book 'Nashville Chrome' by author Rick Bass presents a vivid evocation of an era in American music, while at its heart it is a wrenching meditation on the complexities of fame and of one family who experienced them firsthand.

Just two months ago it was announced that The Browns would be inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame. With immaculate timing, EIN contributor Susan McDougall reviews the 2010 publication 'Nashville Chrome' about this fascinating group.

The connection between The Browns and Elvis is an intersting topic - and as always Susan presents both the positives and negatives about publishing a book about such a well-researched period.

Read Susan's full review

(Book Review, Source: EIN, May 2015)

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