Elvis Exhibit Retrospective
The Elvis Exhibit
This summer marks the 45th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented feat of selling out Madison Square Garden for four consecutive nights. This August 16th will mark the 40th anniversary of the King’s tragic and untimely death. These milestones and their intersection of astonishing achievement and grim loss are an apt encapsulation of Elvis’ life as a whole—his career and life were a paradox of screaming fans and solitude, gospel devotionals and hip-thrusting chart toppers, highs and lows. Yet the legacy he leaves behind is one of authoritative greatness: Elvis is the King of Rock and Roll. It then is fitting that in 1986 Presley was one of the first ten performers to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since the Rock Hall opened its doors in 1995, there has been a standing Elvis exhibit. Each year new artifacts are sent in from Graceland, a longstanding agreement that keeps the exhibit alive, dynamic, as unpredictable as the next swivel of his pelvis. In honor of the King’s memory, let’s take a deeper look at the man behind the myth.
The entire Elvis exhibit is designed around an exclusive film on the artist’s life and impact on pop culture. Among the artists interviewed for the film are rock and roller and fellow inductee Bruce Springsteen, country music phenom Miranda Lambert and the reigning matriarch of pop and R&B, Beyoncé—a fitting group of ambassadors from each genre Elvis blended to create his own inimitable sound. Despite their distinct styles, each artist attests to the profound effect Elvis had on their careers, a testament to his universal appeal. The film itself spans the phases of Elvis’ life that are explored in more depth through artifacts around the exhibit: his initial rise to fame, his 1958 draft into the armed forces, his prolonged stint acting in B movies and his eventual 1968 comeback special. In a clip from one of his more successful films, Jailhouse Rock, viewers get the full force of the pelvis-thrusting, hip-rolling dance movies that were so provocative to Fifties crowds that The Ed Sullivan Show only filmed him from the waist up. (“He’s TNT for teens!” declares a headline, blazing across the screen.) A clip from his 1968 comeback special shows Elvis simplified, distinctly free of fanfare; he sits in a circle with his bandmates talking about their next song, what it means to him. Springsteen summarizes it best in his closing interview: Elvis is “the most revolutionary pop musician. No two ways about it.”
Elvis’ Inner Life
Unknown to many are the depth and variety of Elvis Presley’s inner life. As a black belt in karate, Presley was interested in existentialism, yoga, meditation and martial arts. He was also an avid reader and traveled with a case of about 200 books. A travel-worn copy of A Spiritual Life bears his handwriting in the margin, offering a glimpse into his thoughts: he writes, “Only giving of ones [sic] self do you truly open [sic] truly open ones [self] to love.” The Impersonal Life by Joseph Benner was a particularly formative for him, and he carried many copies at once in order to give them away to nearly everyone he met. The Impersonal Life aims to teach readers how to discover their inner selves in order to live spiritually.
Further insight into Elvis’ inner life can be found in a flashier, more unexpected aspect of the exhibit: his cars. One of Elvis’ automobiles can always be found on display at the exhibit, whether it be his big, purple, 1975 Lincoln continental or his red and gold SuperTrike (currently on display). Elvis’ attraction to flashy cars seemed to stem from an unfulfilled boyhood fantasy. Growing up the son of a truck driver in Mississippi, Elvis watched his family struggle to escape poverty. When his fame was just beginning to grow, he used a $5,000 advance to buy his mother a pink Cadillac. At the peak of his monetary success he often went car-shopping, not merely for himself, but for whoever happened to be at the dealership that seemed unable to afford a good vehicle. Elvis’ car obsession then was not just the flashy fixation of choice that now seems requisite of rock stars, but a reflection of his abiding love for his family, his generosity and his deep empathetic ability to remember what it was like to struggle even in the thick of untold success.
After producing a string of increasingly dissatisfying movies, Presley ignored his manager Colonel Thomas Parker’s advice to film a Christmas special and staged his 1968 comeback special on television. Parker’s formulaic managerial style called for Elvis to crank out pulpy movies that served as vehicles for his new music, but Elvis decided to recast himself as a real musician and performer. Pre-recorded clips were interspersed with songs recorded for a live audience. Sets were often acoustic and intimate, and they allowed Elvis to showcase the musicality that had become dwarfed by his celebrity. On display in the Rock Hall is a gold suit especially designed for Elvis’ special as an homage to his flashy Fifties image, but Elvis was embarrassed by the gaudy apparel; ultimately, he compromised with a gold suit jacket and black pants.
The special was an enormous success. Just when Elvis’ career choices and the onslaught of the British Invasion threatened to exile him to irrelevance, he reminded audiences of the talent that launched his career. The special concluded with what is perhaps the most iconic Elvis image of all time: Presley in a white suit, standing in front of a blazing red flashbulb sign that read “ELVIS,” and singing “If I Can Dream,” a song inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Delivering with the gospel intonations of his youth, Elvis delivered a powerful message of hope—for the world, for his career, and for himself.
Elvis’ celebrity is such that practically anything he touched became an artifact. Among his most outstanding possessions on display are a custom jukebox and a custom guitar. The jukebox was originally given to Elvis as a gift from RCA Records and exclusively features Elvis Presley records. The guitar was a 1965 Gibson Double Bass, a rare sight, that he played in the 1966 film Spinout and cherished as one of his favorite guitars.
However, among lavish gifts and custom guitars, Elvis’ most prized possession in the exhibit is deceptively simple. Over the course of his career, Elvis received countless accolades, including a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. Yet the prize that meant most to him was his medal for Ten Outstanding Young Men from the United States Junior Chamber. It hangs in a display above Elvis’ draft papers (another testament to the strength of his character). After a lifetime of being recognized for his looks, stardom, or ability to turn a profit, Elvis was finally recognized for his accomplishment that mattered to him most: living a good life. The award is decidedly worn down—a result of Elvis taking it on his travels for the remainder of his life.