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|LONESOME ELVIS FEARED FOR HIS LEGACY
August 16, 2017 - Billboard / Elvis Express Radio
|Elvis Presley was deeply worried about how he would be viewed by history. Four decades after his death, Ray Connolly, one of the few British journalists to interview ‘the King,’
reckons Elvis would be pleasantly surprised
How are people going to remember me when I’m gone?’ he wanted to know. ‘Will they soon forget me?’ It was May 1977 in a hotel in the small city of Binghamton, New York. And,
lying lonely and depressed in his suite, temporarily abandoned after his latest girlfriend had become bored with the treadmill of touring, Elvis Presley had sent for his soprano
backing singer Kathy Westmoreland to keep him company.
He couldn’t bear to be alone, to sleep alone. His entourage didn’t like him sleeping alone either.
They worried when there was no one to watch over him. Kathy, a former lover and friend, who had been with him on stage for seven years, sat with him that night and the next,
listening as he talked about his mother, his weight, his health and his daughter, consoling him as he agonised about the tell-all book which three ofhis former employees would
soon be publishing, and shaking her head as he worried that he would quickly be forgotten after his death.
He had, he told her, “never done anything lasting… never made a classic film”. No matter how much pleasure his singing had given, or how he’d helped change the direction of
popular music, all he saw was his failure to become “a real movie star”. And it tormented him.
Only 42, but sick with a host of internal problems, addicted, exhausted and desperately disappointed, he was already talking about himself in the past tense. Kathy should wear
something white at his funeral, he tried to joke to her at one point. She laughed and promised she would, and then she held his hand until he fell asleep. The sleep he always
craved, but which, so often, was so hard for him to find.
‘What a life it had been’
That was Elvis Presley, now recognised as the most loved entertainer ever, but then a sick man fretting out the final few months of the tragedy that his life had become. Yet what a
life it had been. During virtually the whole of his adulthood everyone had smiled whenever he had entered a room. Whatever he wanted, he could buy, and so he did… houses,
fleets of Cadillacs, aeroplanes, guns – and some doctors, too. Two presidents of the United States took his calls, while senators, state governors, movie, rock and sports celebrities
queued backstage to smile, shake his hand and be photographed with him.
As a boy, he’d dreamed that success would free him and his family from poverty. His ambition had been to become rich and famous. His extraordinary two-and-a-half octave
voice, with another level in falsetto, had achieved that and more for him. But when he left the stage, when the cameras were turned away and the spotlight was switched off, what
then? Throughout his life he would often say that he’d always felt lonely. As the years passed, he retreated to his court, whether it be at his Graceland mansion home in Memphis,
or in Hollywood or Las Vegas, where his courtiers would cosset him in his fears, insecurities and depression.
Fears of the king
By the time of that night with Kathy Westmoreland, just 14 weeks before his death, he was mentally broken, emotionally spent. Would his fans stay loyal the older he got, he
wondered aloud in those final months. He dreaded their desertion, and what they would think when they learned about his darker secrets. Then there were his more private worries.
What about his pathological spending sprees? He knew they were ruining him, but he couldn’t control them. Would he soon run out of money? His father thought it possible. And
then there was his greatest fear, the recurrent nightmare: that he would soon be forced to sell his home, Graceland, and would one day end up back there he’d started, dirt poor
again, remembered only as a washed-up has been, or, worse, a pathetic joke.
The reality of his legacy
He’d been right to worry about money. While he was by no means poor, when auditors looked into Elvis’s finances after his death and added up his assets, they were surprised.
Including his home, cars and aeroplanes, they reckoned that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars he’d generated in his career, his total worth was less than $10m. At the rate
Elvis spent and gave, that wouldn’t have lasted very long had he stopped touring.
He couldn’t have been more wrong about one thing, however. Afraid that he would be forgotten after his death, the reverse happened. He has been more honoured and is more
respected in death than he ever was in his lifetime. The immediate surge in record sales in 1977 might have been expected, but the continuing interest in him, which, since then,
has doubled the number of his records sold to an estimated billion-plus, couldn’t have been anticipated. In 2016 a new album, If I Can Dream, on which his voice is backed by
London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sold over a million copies.
Mercifully, although many of those sixties films which he so despised played for decades on afternoon television, that part of his career seems, in recent years, to have been all but
wiped from the public memory. Nothing, not even some of the most dire Elvis impersonators, of whom there are tens of thousands around the world, can seemingly kill the continuing
popularity of ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’.
Obviously Elvis’s looks have helped the continuing mystique, as they helped throughout his career. The careful marketing of Graceland as a tourist attraction, and the prudent
licensing of his recordings to movies, as well as to commercials for telephones, supermarkets and sportswear, have also helped keep his memory fresh. But none of this fully
explains why, 40 years after his death on 16 August 1977, he remains one of the most recognised figures of recent history, with his estate now earning an estimated $55m a year,
according to Forbes business magazine. Shrewd marketing can only go so far.
There has to be something else. It is, of course, his voice.....