Cooking with Elvis

Elvis Presley Enterprises (“EPE”) has licensed a line of kitchen appliances to bear Elvis’ name. What kitchen appliances have to do with Elvis is beyond me, Elvis wasn’t known for popping into the kitchen and cooking up a mess of anything.

When Elvis first became famous, people just didn’t know what to make of him. He didn’t fit neatly in any established musical genre, he didn’t sing or perform like anyone else and he sold so many more records than anyone that the idea of presenting gold records for million selling albums became an industry standard.

Elvis was treated like a fad and the prevailing wisdom was to grab as much money as he could generate while he could generate – and for 23 years (from 1954 to 1977), Elvis Presley made money as fast as the American mint could produce it. Thirty four years after his death, Elvis is still generating more money than current day celebrities do.

The 2011 Forbes List of Dead Celebrity earnings places Elvis at number 2 with $55 million. Micheal Jackson gets his first number 1 spot with $170 million; Jackson missed the number 1 spot in his death year because of estate sales of Rogers and Hammerstein and Yves St. Laurent.

Elvis has been the number one earning dead celebrity in every year of the Forbes list, except for the last two years. However, it’s expected for him to retain his number one placement as Jackson is unlikely to continue “earning” at his present rate and will drop as time passes.

There’s a few things that are significant about the Forbes list calculations to consider:

On the Jackson side of the equation, besides the obvious that he’s a recently deceased celebrity, there’s the source of his earnings, which has a lot to do with his investment in The Beatles and other artist’s catalogs. Jackson’s earnings do not reflect the sales of his own work and related merchandise, but Elvis’ do – it’s all down to licensing the Elvis name and image, as well as Graceland tours and Elvis week events.

On the Elvis side, his earnings do not include any money from the sale of his catalog from 1954 to 1973, since Elvis had sold the catalog to RCA to refinance his divorce. This is the most valuable catalog that has proven repeatedly to have no upper limit for the number of times you can sell the same recordings and Elvis’ estate receives no royalties and so, the sales of the largest part of Elvis’ body of work, doesn’t get calculated into his earnings.

Elvis, in effect, is playing with a hand tied behind his back and he’s still coming out at the top of the list.

I think that this is a large part of his appeal, no matter how big and popular Elvis was and continues to be, there’s always a sense of him being the underdog – life was stacked against him and he succeeded despite all the impediments and improbabilities.

Parker selling Elvis photos to fans

Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, was a consummate huckster and was creative with elaborate side deals to maximize profits – and EPE continues that tradition of Elvis as a money machine rather than Elvis as an artist and human being.

Elvis wanting nothing more than to make something of himself as a performer and to achieve the middle class American dream. In early interviews, he talked mostly of being able to take care of his parents and was always genuinely grateful to his fans for his success. When Elvis said “Thank you, thank you very much” it was a sincere utterance, not a stage blanditude.

The response of the youth was to embrace Elvis as one of their own writ epic, the conquering underdog who ushered in a new era by making social distinctions between black and white, north and south, poor or middle class or wealthy all null and void. Elvis embodied the American Dream.

But being a visionary, even an unintentional one, is a hard road.

While the establishment was more than happy to rake in the money, Elvis was denigrated for being vulgar and a fad in the 1950’s, undermining his revolutionary artistry.

The 1960’s movie decade began with honest efforts of serious acting – Wild in the Country and Flaming Star, but these were eclipsed at the box office by the lighter Blue Hawaii and GI Blues – so the Elvis Presley Movie was cast – a pretty location, a fight, pretty girls, and as many songs as could be crammed into the running time of the movie.

It’s impossible to argue with money, so Elvis made three movies plus soundtrack records almost every year of the 1960s – churning out so much product that Elvis became the establishment that the youth audience rebelled against and moved onto other artists – who, as much as they wanted to make the money Elvis did – they wanted to say something, to stand for something, with their music – the way that Elvis once did in the 1950’s.

Before the licensing deals, before the merchandise, before Parker….

It’s hard to argue with success and that’s the way that the establishment rolls.

Not on what ratified abstract or artistically could be, but what hard cash there is, while it’s there.

Which explains why the establishment is so resistant to any change – they want to milk what they can, for as long as they can, until they can’t anymore. Big Business doesn’t like to change it’s business model or practise until it’s forced to.

Which is why there is such resistance to climate change and environmental protection – it’s not because they really doubt the science, it’s because they haven’t finished squeezing out all the money – but, like for Elvis, by the time he was taken seriously as an artist this decade under Sony’s stewardship, he’d been dead for over 30 years.

Because it doesn’t matter how talented or smart or attractive or successful you are, if you are unfulfilled as a person, you just withdraw, wither and die – and no matter what successes Elvis had – he was unfulfilled as an artist and performer, his dreams of being a serious actor thwarted by his management and his own inability to be assertive, and RCA’s push for quantity over quality recordings, ultimately, he went unfilled as a singer for many years.

It may well be too late for humans en masse to change our behaviours to ensure that we continue on as we are. But survival is to the best adapted, not to the most established.

Alpha, Elvis, Omega

One of the more controversial subjects in Elvisworld is Col. Tom Parker.

Was he a successful manager because of his client, or was his client successful because of the manager?

Parker once boasted that Elvis got 50% of Parker’s earnings. Parker clearly saw himself as the businessman and Elvis was just his product.

In the 50’s Parker didn’t like or understand Elvis’ music, but he understood the public’s reaction and he knew that nothing sells like sex and controversy.

Parker brought Elvis to the national stage riding a wave of frenzied fans and controversy then slowly turned Elvis into family entertainment.

Parker was a savvy promoter

The real question is, why Elvis didn’t stand up for his career more?

When Elvis did, the results were electric. If Parker had had his way, the 68 TV special would have been walk on, sing 20 Christmas songs then walk off – into oblivion.

Elvis sided with Steve Binder and the result was a foreshadowing of many things to come – not only Elvis’ career revitalization, but the Singer Presents Special was one of the first one person musical TV specials and it included production numbers with story lines – what would become music videos – and the amazing sit down black leather portions of the show is the first unplugged broadcast.

I think that as long as Parker appeare to be doing a good job, then Elvis didn’t want to question it. Partly lack of confidence/self esteem – but also a wish to avoid anything like business that requires long term attention and commitment to detail.

Elvis was a southern boy from the lowest economic niche known to white people at the time. Elvis came from the defeated and down and out – this is why he saw himself as no different and certainly no  better than the black families in the same economic niche.

In his mind, Elvis was always that poor boy, rejected by society and only loved by his mother – the one constant in his early formative years. He never forgot his beginnings and, on occasion, took friends to Tupelo to show them and remind himself of how far he had come.

For Elvis to move from the southern country performing circuit to national television – he had to leave the familiar world of the south taking all the cultural baggage to culturally dominate the Northern audiences and more critically, the Northern dominated entertainment industry.

An industry that Parker had experience and connections in, as the former manager of Eddie Arnold.

The norther was too alien and hostile to Elvis, opening him up to being taken advantage of by Parker by Elvis’ consent.

Parker talked big, walked big and was big – Parker to Elvis was larger than life – he appeared to be a southern man, who had gone through the carny circuit, got a governor to name him a colonel – and air of authority he never earned.

On one level, Elvis knew Parker was a con artist – and why Gladys was against Parker, she never trusted him. Vernon’s personality of avoiding responsibility made him a prime sucker for Parker.

Parker played on Elvis’ dreams – enough money and power to make a difference to his mother’s material quality of life. Her intangible quality of life was made whole by Elvis himself. So, when he was most vulnerable to be taken away from her – first her fear of Elvis being hurt by girl fans or jealous boyfriends – a threat she could understand – to the army, the ultimate authority, she could no longer cope with the separation from her own purpose of life.

Elvis was a man, successful and now in service to his country, and, on a level, she felt he didn’t need her anymore. And she died.

Elvis at his Army drafting, kissing his Mom goodbye

But Elvis did still need her – he was stuck in grief and never got over her loss. Gladys was why he worked to achieve fame and fortune, he wanted to give his best girl the whole world and anything else he thought she deserved. With her death, Elvis’ purpose in life gone – care taking his mother in an extravagant way, he was adrift and even easy for Parker to control.

Elvis’ career was dynamic and vital while it was for his mom – and afterward, it was the hollow shell because the purpose – Gladys – was gone.

That way, it didn’t matter what he did, the reason was no longer. Parker made Elvis mainstream and his public image in the 60’s was the reverse of his 50’s image.

Elvis had to find a new purpose in life – in 1968, Lisa was born and Elvis was reborn. He took control of his career, and sided with people who were on the leading edge – Steve Binder, Stax Records.

Parker made Elvis into a Parody

Lisa was Elvis’ reason for living, but his artistic work became the purpose for itself – so we have that wonderful 1968 to 1973 pinnacle.

In 72-73, his marriage fell apart and in 86 his career was reborn and in 73, the Aloha special became the pinnacle of success – a worldwide live TV one man show broadcast – Elvis ushered in the new technology – and career wise, there was no where for him to go.

He’d done records, radio, concerts, TV, movies, he started humble and small, became world famous – and then after the 73 special that broadcast on the global scale – Elvis left the building and slowly checked out of life. It took just 4 short years for his life to pass and culturally, we’ve been trying to figure out what he really was to us, what he meant, what his real legacy was.

Like his artistic ability, Elvis’ legacy is legion. He’s the American dream, he’s a nightmare, he’s the career template for all around entertainers, he’s the alpha and omega


Everything wonderful and gaudy about America - at the same time

Elvis vs Artists, Studios and his management

As one of the people lucky enough to have pre-ordered Elvis 77: The Final Curtain, I have come to rely on bootleggers for Elvis.

Bootleggers are far more in tune with the core Elvis fans and they’ve been delivering better product as far back as when RCA was pumping out hits collections in the 80’s.

To my mind, Elvis accomplished his career goals despite his manager, his label and the Hollywood Studios.

Elvis changed everything so much that even today, we have not yet understood his impact – largely because Elvis has never been given his due.

The movie and music establishment considered Elvis a cash machine to underwrite their real artists and artistic efforts.

Elvis himself portrayed himself as a young man trying to take care of his family – while other artists of the day and later talked about themselves as artists.

Elvis seemed to view the music and movies more as a means to an end – supporting family and friends, charitable works, and whatever else the artistic work would support.

Parker who focused on maximizing dollars so convinced Elvis to never share his views so as to not offend anyone. But every now and then, a message song did come along and Elvis embraced it heart and soul – If I Can Dream and In The Ghetto.

Perhaps if he’d taken more stands and released more song like these, he would have been considered an artist years ago.

Perhaps that is the essence of the problem – the word artist includes the concept artist statement.

Artists often use their works to make a point, influence thinking and push the boundaries.

Elvis pushed the boundaries and since that actually was his point, he used his artistic work to underwrite his life, friends and family.

Elvis made his statement by example, not blatant mission statements.

EPE sadly, in their role as the managers of Elvis’ legacy, have continued Col Tom Parker’s legacy of treating Elvis like a cash cow and the Elvis fans as dimwits who will sell out cash for whatever crumbs they care to release.

Elvis and the US Army

I’ve recently read a couple of books that focus on Elvis’ army days – and I’ve really had my thoughts that the army was a bad thing for him changed. I am not inclined to think it was a good personal move, mixed for the career and still bad for the drug use.

Elvis in the Army: The King of Rock-n-Roll as Seen by an Officer Who Served with Him

Elvis for Dummies

Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis' Missing Years

Reading these books, Elvis seemed to really thrive there:  he’d always wanted to be included, but his shyness and appearance always made him separate, even before the fame.

Elvis went from trying to make enough money singing to support his parents to being the most famous or infamous celebrity around. He was unprecedented and pretty much, no other celebrity has caught up to him for frenzy and staying power.

Rudolph Valentino – the first headline of The King is Dead – without needing a name for the public to know who was being talked about – caused a massive public outpouring of grief and people lining the train rails as his body was transported. But, 30+ years after his death – he was largely remembered by film buffs and a vague public recollection of him in sheik movies – the desert lover.

The army provided Elvis a haven to get away somewhat from the frenzy, a chance to reinvent himself.

I think that the worst thing the army did was make Elvis more likely to obey authority, which lead him to abandoning his responsiblity for his career and leaving it to Parker who was into money, not art.

Parker was a brilliant promoter, but competent manager, he was not. He locked Elvis into long term contracts that locked Elvis into ruts of movies or concerts – without considering that variety was needed to keep Elvis interested, challenged and creative.

Parker was in charge of the business, and theoretically, Elvis was in charge of the creative side – but too often, the creative side was second to the business of making money.

Parker seems to have thought of himself as a long term thinker – he liked the army time to put Elvis back in his place because Elvis was getting too big and very fast – but more than tha, Parker saw that the army, and doing regular service would make Elvis acceptable to a larger audience and be a more lasting artist than a teen idol.

And the problem with that, is that it’s not just the image or perception that creates longevity,  but the quality of the products and art put out there.

If Elvis had continued with movies like Flaming Star, Follow That Dream and even Wild in the Country – he might be thought of today as a decent actor instead of the parody of one. It doesn’t matter that Elvis was the first actor to get a box office share, that he was lead in all but one of his movies and no Elvis movie ever lost money – those were important to business, but not to artistic output and integrity.

Parker, Elvis and Snowmen

I have always thought that the army had been bad for him in terms of the drugs but more recent evidence suggests it was his Mom who started him on her diet pills – speed. Galdy was taking the pills to try to slim down because she wanted to be pretty for Elvis and publicity.

Speed was a diet pill until well into the late 60’s,  so coming from a doctor, they must be okay. The army and doctors over his life just reinforced that the drugs were okay because they were more authority figures.

Sadly, the military still today issues drugs to personnel – remember the US pilot who dropped a bomb on Canadian soldiers? So called “Go pills”.

Given to Elvis in the 50’s and still given to soldiers today.

The the one thing the army did was make him from a teen idol into a respectable performer more tolerable to a mainstream audience. And that did ensure a lasting power for Elvis, but sadly, the mainstream tends to the middle of the road entertainments – so while it was artist longevity, it also meant artistic death.

If he hadn’t been drafted or done the entertainment route as others did without penalty before him – Elvis would have been penalized for it – he’d probably faded out and been a nostalgia act during his life and not done the 68 special or concert comeback.

And isn’t it funny that many Hollywood actors during WWII were able to join up and do troop entertainment or selling war bonds during war time, but Elvis would have paid a heavy price for doing entertainment duty during a time when war wasn’t happening, but could have started again?

In a way, it was no wonder that Elvis took drugs to escape – the regular rules of society stopped applying to him but the celebrity rules also didn’t apply to him.

Elvis couldn’t complain or vent about anything, not to other soldiers, not to other actors or celebs, could be seen to lose too much control at home.

Funny to think that the temper tantrums and contract demands that celebs get away with as a matter of course now – and Elvis rarely failed to show up on set, he always new his lines and was personable to cast and crew, his only contract demand for concert tours was a case of a particular brand of water in the dressing room – but concerts in the last years were ended because of drug related health problems – he still managed to do over 1000 concerts between 1969 and 1977 – he packed more shows in those 8 years than most performers do over a 20 year career.

It’s a wonder that he didn’t explode.

arrival in germany