The Resurrection of Elvis

The following is an article from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.

Since his death in 1977, Elvis's popularity has grown. Once he was just a singer. Now he's an icon with his own church (The Church of Elvis), and his own holy site (Graceland), It's an amazing phenomenon-but it hasn't been entirely accidental. Behind the scenes, a handful of people have orchestrated Elvis's return from the dead for their own benefit. Here's part of the inside story. For a more complete story, we recommend Elvis, Inc. by Sean O'Neal. It's entertaining bathroom reading.


Ironically, the tale of Elvis's resurrection begins with the story of a vampire.

In 1960 Universal Studios dusted off a number of its classic horror films and released them for TV broadcast. It was the first time baby boom kids had ever seen the original Frankenstein (starring Boris Karloff), The Wolfman (starring Lon Chaney), or Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi)-and the films were phenomenally popular. In fact, a huge "monster" fad swept America... and Universal cashed in by licensing its characters for t-shirts, posters, lunch boxes, etc. One of the most popular images was Bela Lugosi in his Count Dracula costume.

Courting Universal

When Lugosi's widow and son found out about the merchandising deals, they filed suit to block them. Their argument: Lugosi's name and likeness should be passed on to his family, as his worldly assets had been. At the very least, they had a right to share in the profits.

The Lugosis won their lawsuit. But Universal appealed the decision.The second time around, the appellate judges reasoned that if the name and likeness of famous people could be inherited, the relative of all public figures-past and present-could sue for royalties. Even George Washington's descendants could charge the federal government for the right to use his image on the $1 bill. The judges ruled in favor of Universal.

Laurel and Hardy

In 1975, after Laurel and Hardy's old films became popular on TV, the heirs of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy filed a similar lawsuit against Hal Roach Studios. This time, the heirs won, throwing the entire issue of posthumous "intellectual property" into chaos.

Based on legal decisions, it was impossible to tell who owned the rights to a dead celebrity's image-the public... or the celebrity's family.


That was the situation when Elvis died from a drug overdose on August 16, 1977. His death was announced at 3:30 that afternoon; within a few hours, newspapers were speculating about his estate's value.

(Image credit: Flickr user Travis Nep Smith)

The media figured the King had to be worth a bundle: in his more than 20 years as a performer, he'd recorded 144 Top 40 songs, starred in more than 30 films, (at one point he was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood), performed in hundreds of sold-out concerts, and sold more than 600 million records. No other recording artist had ever even come close to his accomplishments.

Estimates of Elvis Presley's fortune were as high as $150 million. (When John Lennon was assassinated three years later, he left an estate valued at more than $200 million). But they were way off.

The Awful Truth

What the media failed to take into account was that  Elvis was one of the most poorly managed and morbidly self-indulgent superstars in entertainment history. True, he had generated more than $4 billion in revenues during his career. But surprisingly little of that money found its way into his pockets-and even less stayed there.

Bad management and bad financial advice ate up about 60 cents of every dollar Elvis earned; letting the IRS fill out his tax forms (he really did-Elvis hated audits) took an extra 20 cents on the dollar. And the King had no trouble finding ways to blow the rest.


Unfortunately, that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. It turned out that his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had made a deal that cost Elvis more than $500 million in potential earning-including $320 million in lost royalties from records sold after Elvis's death alone. In March 1973, he'd sold RCA the royalty rights to all of Elvis's songs up to that point for $5.4 million. After Parker extracted his usual 50% commission, Elvis was left with $2.7 million-$1.35 million after taxes-for virtually his entire life's work. (Nearly all of that went to pay off his ex-wife Priscilla Presley, who divorced him in October of 1973.)

As Sean O'Neal writes  in Elvis, Inc.,"The final agreement signed by Colonel Parker...may have been the single most damaging contract in the history of the music industry...Elvis sold the rights to the greatest master catalog in music history and was left with virtually nothing to show for it. Thereafter, his estate received no royalties at all for any songs Elvis recorded prior to March 1973."


When the probate court tallied up the King's assets, all they found was Graceland, two airplanes, eight cars, two trucks, seven motorcycles, guns, jewelry, and miscellaneous other personal property. Total value: about $7 million. Elvis left everything to his 9-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie, who would inherit when she turned 25. Elvis's father Vernon Presley, a man with a seventh-grade education, was charged with keeping the estate solvent until then.

Going, Going...

What little was left of the King's estate dwindled fast: in February 1978 the National  Bank of Commerce sued the estate to collect $1.4 million in unpaid loans to the King. A short time later, the IRS upgraded its estimate of the estate's value and slapped it with millions in new inheritance taxes-payable immediately. Security and upkeep on Graceland ate up $500,000 a year.

(Image credit: Flickr user  Tulio Bertorini)

Vernon Presley sold off the airplanes, jewelry, and Cadillacs, and even the house that Elvis had bought him, in a desperate scramble to keep the estate off the auction block. But the Presley estate was edging closer and closer to bankruptcy.


The effort to keep Elvis's estate out of bankruptcy was exhausting and probably contributed to his father Vernon Presley's death from heart disease in June 1979.

In his will, Vernon named three co-executors to take over his responsibilities: Elvis's accountant Joseph Hanks, the National Bank of Commerce, and Priscilla Presley-Elvis's ex-wife and the mother of his daughter Lisa Marie. Priscilla had no business experience and had known nothing about the King's financial affairs during the marriage... but to everyone's surprise, she and her advisors took a leading role in rescuing the Presley estate for Lisa Marie.


With the bulk of Elvis's fortune gone forever, Priscilla was forced to make the best of what remained, namely 1) Graceland, and 2) Elvis's name and likeness.

She immediately put both to work for the estate. First she opened Graceland to the public, charging $5 a head to the hundreds of thousands who visited each year. Then she took over the Elvis merchandising operations. Her strategy was simple but brilliant. "Since...the estate would have to rely on Elvis's memory to generate revenue," write Sean O'Neal in Elvis, Inc., "Elvis would be transformed into a symbol, a character that could be licensed to merchandisers. The estate would turn Elvis Presley into its own version of Mickey Mouse."
The problem with this idea was that, during the last eight years of his life, Elvis's image was not very Disneyesque. His weight had ballooned and he had been addicted to prescription medication.  By the time of his death, Elvis had become a grotesque caricature of the performer he once was. This Elvis would never do as a symbol of the new empire.

Pricilla's solution to this problem was also simple and brilliant: she would act as though the 1977 Elvis never existed. Only the young Elvis, the King in his prime, would be acknowledged. It was this Elvis that would adorn the t-shirts, plates, shot glasses, Billboards, and promotional literature of Priscilla's new empire. In her sanitized version of his life, he died after his 1968 Comeback Special, an idol in his prime, like James Dean.


The only problem with this approach was that it had no teeth. After the King's death, hundreds of companies had come out with Elvis posters, t-shirts, videos, calendars, velvet paintings, whiskey decanters, and just about anything else imaginable. The knockoffs were cheap and tacky; even worse, they competed against "official" Elvis memorabilia licensed by the Presley estate.

Obviously, without control of the Elvis image, Priscilla's strategy would never work...and Lisa Marie would inherit nothing. So the estate was force to fight for control of Elvis in court.

The heirs to Bela Lugosi and Laurel and Hardy had put up strong fights, but those battles were nothing compared the the efforts of the Presley clan. They fought lawsuit after lawsuit, in state after state. They put up millions of dollars. But they still couldn't get the issue resolved.

The outcome in every state was different: In New York, for example, the estate won-Presley's name and likeness were considered their exclusive property; but in California and Tennessee, Presley's likeness was judged to be public domain. The upshot: Merchandisers who were chased out of one state could set up business in another. Then the Presley estate would have to start all over again and fight them there, too.

(Image credit: Flicker user Thomas Hawk)


As the legal battle continued, Priscilla and Co. adopted a new tactic. They began lobbying the Tennessee state legislature to create a "Personal Rights Protection Act." This act was finally passed in 1984, and though it only officially applied in the state of Tennessee, its passage was quickly felt all over the country. Reason: In the American legal system, the laws of the state in which a person dies are the ones that apply in federal court. If someone in Missouri began selling an unlicensed Elvis poster, the Presley estate could now go into Missouri federal court and force the person to comply with Tennessee law. For the first time, the Presley estate had teeth all over the country.

Not long after the Tennessee law passed, California enacted a similar law, the Celebrity Rights Act, thanks in large part to a lawsuit filed by the heirs of comedian W.C. Fields (they had been trying to block a centerfold-style poster of Field's head superimposed over another fat man's body).

Several other states, including Virginia, Florida, Utah, and Kentucky, passed their own versions of the law. As more and more states followed, courts began recognizing that control of a celebrity's name and likeness were as "inheritable" as any other piece of property.


These laws changed the face of celebrity merchandising in America. Suddenly, officially licensed products featuring icons such as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean started popping up. And in Memphis, Elvis Presley Enterprises, the merchandising arm of the estate run jointly by Priscilla and Jack Soden, became the "Elvis police". They controlled every aspect of the Elvis image, from t-shirts to TV documentaries to random snapshots that had been taken by private photographers.

(Image credit: Flickr user Annie Berman)

Priscilla's original strategy was implemented-and today there are no fat Elvis photos floating around, ruining the King's memory. Licensees only use "approved" pictures of the early Elvis; if they don't have one, they can pick from the estate's library of several thousand acceptable photos. And woe to anyone who tries to use Elvis's name or likeness-no matter how innocent the motivation-without the consent of Presley Enterprises. Charities, cities, artists, and even school teachers have received lawyers letters.

The result of this effort has been impressive. In 1981, the Presley estate was on the verge of bankruptcy. By the 20th anniversary of Elvis's death, in 1997, it was worth nearly $200 million. And it just keeps growing.


Reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader, which comes packed with 504 pages of great stories.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - check 'em out!

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@mks43094 Have you ever heard of free speech? Public domain? Fairly simple concepts that describe the natural order of things not some idealistic vision of the world. How about 'culture'? Don't you realize that Elvis is a part of America's shared cultural heritage, not a product or commodity.

Notoriety has its own benefits and rewards, those who are afraid of its consequences should content themselves with the fact that it is EXTREMELY easy to avoid. It is so easy to avoid, in fact, that millions of people spend their entire lives seeking it out without finding it.

The idea that family members of a dead person have some kind of natural right of control over that person's public image is so absurd as to be laughable. Human beings are not commodities, you do not 'own' your father or mother after they die. What if Elvis' daughter used her control over his image to make 'him' exclusively promote the KKK? An Elvis endorsement is not anything his daughter or estate can legitimately give after he is dead -- the whole concept of endorsement is based on the agency of the individual making the endorsement, so it is not possible for a dead person to endorse something. In case the point wasn't blindingly obvious, it's not possible for a dead person to do much of anything! When a company says or implies that a famous person endorses their product and that person does not then the correct legal issue is false advertising and/or misrepresentation. It is almost impossible for a company to misrepresent a dead person in this way, as the vast majority of human beings, however so dim, automatically recognize that a dead person is not capable of making an endorsement of a product or service.

Actual images of Elvis are protected by copyright privilages that adhere to their particular owners -- photographers, for example. Most of these the Elvis estate has no legitimate claim of control over, but their value has presumably been largely destroyed by the successful litigation campaigns of the Elvis estate.
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"Fat Elvis" didn't actually appear until around mid-1974, around three years before his death. There are many Las Vegas photos demonstrating this.

Licensing was a big part of his "business" during his lifetime; why shouldn't that continue just like his other enterprises?

Great article. Priscilla stepped up and became a hero.
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@ SuperCrap

"They rode roughshod over the rights of millions?" "Unconstitutional laws and malicious litigation?" What are you talking about? How is it unconstitutional and malicious to want to control the rights to the image of your family member? Would you want just anyone having control over SuperCrap's image? What if there's a corporation who decides to use the face of SuperCrap to sell their new baby seal clubs or Gulf-polluting oil well? Unless you're a troll, you wouldn't want them to do that and, unless they hate you, your family -- in the case of your untimely demise -- wouldn't want that either. Why should a complete stranger be able to use your image to sell their product essentially taking money out of your pocket as well as tarnishing or even destroying your credibility? It doesn't matter if it's worth $7 or $7 million, but if your image is worth something, why should just anyone be able to profit from it?
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