John Lennon famously said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." But after Elvis, innumerable objects owned by or otherwise connected to the late King of Rock and Roll -- who recorded his debut single, "That's All Right," 60 years ago this July -- have come to rest at his Memphis mansion Graceland, which is still one of America's most popular tourist destinations.
Typically Graceland will reorganize its Elvis memorabilia to create a different exhibit each year. For 2014, reasonably enough, the theme is "60 Years of Elvis," featuring more than 200 artifacts like stagewear, musical instruments and plenty of the King's awards hardware. To drum up interest, Elvis Presley Enterprises sends representatives bearing a few items on media tours through key markets, many of them conveniently located within driving distance of Memphis. Charged with keeping Elvis' stuff safe through his Texas swing this past week was Graceland's Director of Communications, Kevin Kern.
"Elvis has a tremendous history with Houston in terms of performing at the Astrodome, and breaking some attendance records there," says Kern, a former TV reporter who has worked for Graceland for about ten years. "It's a very important market for us."
Interest in Elvis himself shows few signs of flagging. Kern says more than 600,000 people visit Graceland annually, from every continent but Antarctica, and that tour groups at the mansion can resemble a "mini-U.N." Six decades after "That's All Right," on Elvis' birthday (January 8) and the anniversary of his 1977 death (August 16), Kern says Graceland continues to receive various gold, platinum and multiplatinum certifications from Sony, which currently controls the King's catalog. One recent plaque to come in, Kern notes, was a diamond award commemorating ten million sales of 1957's Elvis' Christmas Album.
Every song Elvis ever recorded has been released at this point, notes Kern, but the vaults are aren't quite empty, either. The acclaimed Elvis at Stax, which captured a December 1973 session at Memphis' second most famous recording studio (aka "Soulsville"), was released last year to mark its 40th anniversary. And contemporary pop icons Bruno Mars, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake (himself a son of Memphis) are all self-admitted Elvis freaks who have visited Graceland numerous times. If Elvis himself were alive today, Kern reckons he might still be a performer -- "if he were still able to do a good job" -- but would otherwise stay out of the spotlight.
"He wanted to be as normal as possible," he says. "The Elvis Presley of today would not be going to the grocery store just so he could be photographed by TMZ. He'd have a quiet life, far away from the camera.
When Kern and his assistant Danielle passed through Houston, Rocks Off met them at the Continental Club and Big Top so we could show them both the big Elvis sign in the backyard and the Big Top's own Elvis mini-exhibit. It's no Graceland, but they seemed impressed. Here's what they brought with them.
Story continues on the next page.
PAYCHECK STUBS, CROWN ELECTRIC CO.
Kevin Kern: This is Elvis' pay stubs from 1954, before he was the king of rock and roll. He was a delivery truck driver for Crown Electric, and he made $1 an hour and $1.50 for overtime. In one week he worked 40 hours plus four hours of overtime, taking home $43 and change for 44 hours of work, with about $2.38 in taxes pulled out. A very minimal check.
Rocks Off: How many hours would he work a week back then? KK: Typically around 40. The next paycheck we have is for 31 hours.
This was when he was trying to get his music off the ground and playing in the Memphis scene? Correct. I don't think he ever even had the idea that he was going to be a big star by any means.
SUN RECORDS 45 RPM COPY, "THAT'S ALL RIGHT"
Kern: It was July 5, 1954 that he recorded this record at Sun Studio in Memphis; this is his personal copy of the 45 of "That's Alright," his own first record. It was a little bit of the fluke in that they were in the studio recording, trying to get some new material, and they just weren't coming up with the sound.
In a break when Elvis, Scotty and Bill were just kind of messing around playing this slowish blues song sped up, Sam Phillips kind of busted into the studio and said, "That's it! That's what we want!" The rest as they say is history -- it was the shot heard round the world in terms of a music revolution, and in terms of taking rock and roll mainstream.
Rocks Off: Can I see the flip? KK: It's actually mounted.
I see. And the B-side was... "Good Rockin' Tonight," which was eventually released as its own A-side. The A-side of "Good Rockin' Tonight" went gold a couple of years ago.
More Elvis stuff on the next page.
UNTITLED MGM MOVIE SCRIPT, 1957
Kern: And then here we have this script from 1957, Jailhouse Rock. At this time it's an untitled movie. Elvis worked with a variety of studios from Paramount to MGM, etc., primarily Paramount and MGM. This script is in the exhibit because it is considered, that scene of Elvis performing "Jailhouse Rock," as the world's first music video -- a choreographed, produced [and filmed] song. When MTV debuted, they played that clip. That's why this is in there.
RED SHIRT/JACKET FROM VIVA LAS VEGAS, 1963-64
Kern: This is the fourth article we're traveling with for our press opportunities, the red shirt Elvis was wearing in the closing scene of Viva Las Vegas, when he sings the title song. It actually has these black tie-downs that would button inside the pants to keep from coming untucked while he was dancing. It's more of a costume piece than a casual piece.
Rocks Off: And he just wore it in that one scene? KK: He did, in that one scene. I believe he did occasionally acquire some costume pieces, and this is one thing we do have in the collection.
But not the only thing. To see much more about "60 Years of Elvis," now open at Graceland through February 2015, see elvis.com.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.