Commemorating the King A Touch of Graceland at MIM
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography Courtesy of Musical Instrument Museum and Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
Each August, fans from around the world gather in Memphis for a week-long celebration of the music, movies and legacy of Elvis Presley. The event—dubbed “Elvis Week”—features concerts, panel discussions, dances, a tribute artist contest and a candlelight vigil.
Even though more than four decades have passed since Elvis’s death, songs like “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender” and “Blue Suede Shoes” keep him in the forefront of American culture. In fact, it is estimated that more than one billion Elvis records have been sold worldwide—not too shabby for someone who started out as a dirt-poor kid in the city of Tupelo, Mississippi.
That is why Mike Shellans, a senior lecturer at Arizona State University’s School of Music, believes Elvis is an excellent example of the American dream.
“He was admired by everybody,” says Shellans, who wrote the book, “Who is the Greatest: Elvis or the Beatles?”
“Women wanted him and men wanted to be him. He could sing music for adults, he could sing religious and gospel music, he could sing rock ‘n’ roll—he was really multidimensional. And he had that overused word, charisma. Match that with a great voice and good looks and you have got somebody who stands out as an American icon.”
Musical Instrument Museum has been bringing a small sampling of Elvis Week to the Valley for the past several years, saving fans in Phoenix the hassle of traveling to Memphis to celebrate the life of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. This year’s event, which will take place on Aug. 10 and 11, will feature film screenings, lectures, interactive activities and more.
Act One Was When We Met
Through a partnership with Graceland, Musical Instrument Museum has a number of instruments and other notable objects on display, including a Martin D-28 guitar that Elvis played during his final concert ever in Indianapolis.
“This guitar was on display at Graceland for a very long time,” says David Wegehaupt, who serves as associate curator for US/Canada and Europe at Musical Instrument Museum. “It had some cracks and structural instability. The guitar was hardly displayable anymore and was possibly going to break with any string tension. Because we have a professional conservation department here at the Musical Instrument Museum, Graceland asked us to stabilize the guitar.”
A white bass guitar that Elvis kept in his home in Beverly Hills will also be highlighted during the event.
“There was one time when the Beatles went to meet and hang out with Elvis in his home,” Wegehaupt says. “There are various accounts from that night, but in one of them, Paul McCartney talks about how Elvis was sitting on the couch playing this white bass guitar when they arrived. There was also talk of some jam sessions. It is too bad that there were not any video cameras or microphones around that night.”
The white bass guitar will be displayed alongside a telegram that Elvis and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, sent the Beatles to congratulate them on their Feb. 9, 1964 debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“That is an interesting artifact because ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ was similarly important to Elvis’s breakout story,” Wegehaupt says. “Elvis and Colonel Parker realized that this was an important day for Beatles, and the rest is history.”
The Musical Instrument Museum will also shine a spotlight on several of Elvis’s outfits, including the jacket that the musician wore to meet President Richard Nixon Dec. 21, 1970. The jacket, which Elvis also wore during his 1968 comeback special, has been memorialized in photographs as well as in a 2016 feature film.
Other items that will be featured during the Musical Instrument Museum’s Elvis event include an Army jacket, an amp that he bought while living in Germany, a Gibson J-200 guitar and his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award—which he received posthumously in 1986.
You Seemed to Change and You Acted Strange
“As the years go by, Elvis seems further and further in the distance, both musically and historically,” Shellans says. “We get these distorted views of an overweight, drug-addled guy in a too-tight jumpsuit fumbling around on stage and that is, unfortunately, the image that we are left with. But there is so much more to Elvis if we revisit his life in detail.”
Elvis’s identity as the Comeback King will be emphasized during the event, with Shellans presenting a lecture about the three major resurgences of the musician’s career. The first of these was his May 12, 1960 appearance on “The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis.”
“Elvis had just come out of the Army and had changed from a rebellious rock ‘n’ roller into a more conservative adult, so to speak,” Shellans says. “Elvis performed for about six minutes and was paid $125,000. That was a remarkable amount of money back then, and was the highest-paid event of that type for a single performer.”
Shellans will also discuss the 1968 television special that was simply titled “Elvis.” At the time, Elvis had been focusing on his movie career and had not performed on stage for seven or eight years. The special included dance routines, improvised musical performances with the Memphis Mafia and the debut of some new songs.
“He ended the special with ‘If I Can Dream,’ which is a tremendous piece of music,” Shellans says. “That got him in the presence of a full orchestra. That really catapulted him into a new direction. The next year, he opened with that sound at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.”
Shellans will conclude his lecture with Elvis’s final comeback—1973’s “Aloha from Hawaii,” during which the musician performed his famous patriotic medley, “An American Trilogy.”
“He was having some issues at that point with his health, drugs, food and other things,” Shellans says. “He came out and sang to a billion people worldwide via satellite. He sang ‘An American Trilogy’ with such fervor—almost religiously—that it made a real impact. After that, he went on tour until the end of his life.”
Wegehaupt will complement Shellans’s lecture with a talk highlighting some of the best roles and musical performances from Elvis’s movie career.
“This is an often maligned part of his career,” Wegehaupt says. “There are definitely legitimate criticisms to be had, including ones he had himself about how he was portrayed and treated as an actor. But he had 241 master recordings of original songs from his movies, and many of them have become very popular.”
They Can Bring the Curtain Down
The Musical Instrument Museum’s Elvis event will also include screenings of a pair of documentaries—1971’s “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is,” and 1981’s “This is Elvis.” Guests will have the opportunity to learn how to play some of Elvis’s songs on guitars and other instruments. Younger guests will be invited to make Elvis stick puppets.
In bringing a small sampling of Elvis Week to the Valley, the Musical Instrument Museum will give Elvis fans a chance to gather together, celebrate the musician’s legacy and create a community of people who can share in each other’s enthusiasm and learn from one another’s stories and experiences.
“Everyone wants to tell their Elvis story, and so many people have one,” says Wegehaupt, noting that there is still an enormous number of people who are greatly influenced and moved by the musician.
“It is interesting to enter into these conversations and provide a few different perspectives on his life and his career. It is a really nice opportunity to dig back into the legacy of one of the greatest musical superstars in American history.”
Musical Icon: Elvis
Aug. 10 and 11 | 9 a.m.–5 p.m. | Musical Instrument Museum | 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix | $20 | 480-478-6000 | mim.org