"Any way you want me, that's how I will be," Elvis Presley sang in 1956. In May, his fans will be able to get their Elvis in just about any way imaginable.
This month, a network TV miniseries and special, a book, a DVD and three albums devoted to the life and music of the King of Rock 'n' Roll will hit the marketplace; a Broadway musical featuring Presley's songs continues its run. The only place Elvis won't be visible will be on the big screen. Nearly 28 years after his death at 42 on Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis is enjoying a visibility and commercial viability that most contemporary music stars might envy.
The flood of Presley product will feed the seemingly insatiable needs of the late singer's devotees. In "Elvis By the Presleys," a CBS special airing May 13, Priscilla Presley says of her late ex-husband's relationship with his fans, "It was almost like a love affair." The affair has continued unabated with unbridled passion for more than half a century.
Forbes magazine reported earlier this year that Presley made more money than any other deceased entertainer last year; his estate earned $40 million in 2004. (Incredibly, little of that figure comprises record royalties, since Elvis and his manager Col. Tom Parker sold the musician's interest in back royalties to RCA Records in 1973 for $5.4 million. Royalties from his 1973-77 recordings go to the estate.)
Early this year, Robert F.X. Sillerman finalized the purchase of 85% of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., the Presley estate's corporate entity, for $100 million -- seemingly a bargain, considering Elvis' perennial earning power.
Presley's music back catalog remains indefatigable: 52 years after he cut a record as a gift for his mother at Sam Phillips' Memphis studio, there are more than 70 Elvis collections in print on RCA, from original albums to multi-disc boxed sets.
'Elvis month'Joe DiMuro, executive vp/general manager of Sony BMG Strategic Marketing Group, which handles Presley's posthumous output, said the catalog is "in the top two most profitable entities within the entire (Sony BMG) catalog. There's no doubt it's extremely robust worldwide. He transcends borders, nationalities, ethnicities."
Elvis' ongoing, universal appeal no doubt sparked CBS's decision to schedule six hours of primetime Presley programming during the May sweeps period.
"CBS has turned this into 'May is Elvis Month,"' DiMuro said.
Kelly Kahl, CBS senior executive vp of program operations, noted that with the ratings primacy of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," Sunday evening--the night the biographical mini-series "Elvis" premieres--has become "a real battlefield."
Kahl added, "We need an entity that creates its own buzz, and (the Presley specials are) the vehicle for that. ... It's certainly one of the linchpins of our sweep."
CBS' Presley onslaught -- which is distinguished by an unprecedented level of cooperation from the Presley estate -- begins Sunday with the first episode of "Elvis"; the second part airs Wednesday. The miniseries, covering Elvis' life from his mid-'50s ascent through his comeback TV special in 1968, stars Dublin-born Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Presley. Randy Quaid co-stars as Col. Parker, and Camryn Manheim portrays Elvis' mother Gladys.
"Elvis" is the fourth TV movie to essay the Presley legend; the first, John Carpenter's feature starring Kurt Russell, aired in 1979. It's the first docudrama on the singer since a 10-part, five-hour biographical series was broadcast in 1990. "It's a long time ago," said executive producer Howard Braunstein. "Enough time had passed. It felt like a wonderful opportunity."
Early in production, the "Elvis" creative team enlisted the support of Elvis Presley Enterprises. "We knew without the cooperation of the estate, we wouldn't get his music, and we couldn't do it without that," Braunstein said.
As a result, Sony BMG Strategic Marketing granted licenses to use 18 of Presley's original masters in "Elvis" -- the first time Presley's music has been utilized in a biographical film.
In another first for a TV movie, EPE also permitted the film's crew to shoot on the grounds of Presley's Memphis mansion, Graceland, the site of high-traffic daily tours. Said Braunstein, "We would shoot, and they'd hold the tours, and we'd cut, and the tours would go through."
Graceland was also the site of much of the shoot for CBS's second piece of Presley programming, "Elvis By the Presleys," which airs May 13. The two-hour special includes extensive interviews with Priscilla Presley, her parents Ann and Paul Beaulieu and her daughter Lisa Marie, Elvis' first cousin Patsy Geranen and Memphis Mafioso Jerry Schilling. The show, which includes newly unearthed family photos and home movies, reflects candidly on Elvis' creative frustrations, marital infidelities, spiritual questing, and drug use.
"Elvis By the Presleys" executive producer David Saltz had previously made contact with the Presleys while working the special "Elvis Lives," aired in 2002 on the 25th anniversary of Presley's death. "That was the story of Elvis outside the gates of Graceland," Saltz said. "This show was about who was in the room."
'No subjects' to avoidSaltz said that the Presley family allowed a no-holds-barred approach to Elvis' story: "There were no subjects we were told to avoid." He noted that Priscilla, who serves as both interview subject and interviewer (she interrogates her parents and sister Michelle), serves as "a thread of a lot of the storytelling."
"Elvis By the Presleys" will see continued life at retail stores following the special's air date. A book and a two-CD album reached stores on May 3; an expanded DVD version of the special will arrive May 17. All these projects are a product of corporate synergy: Crown Publishers, which is issuing the title, is a division of Bertelsmann A.G., the half-owner of Sony BMG Music Entertainment, which is releasing the CD and DVD packages.
Edited by David Ritz, who co-authored the autobiographies of Ray Charles, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin, among others, the "Elvis By the Presleys" book includes substantial interview material not found in the TV show. It also contains hitherto unseen photos and pictures of personal Presley mementos both mundane (Elvis' comb and bottles of cologne) and unnerving (his copy of the Physician's Desk Reference, several guns and -- complete with bullet hole -- the TV set from his Palm Springs home).
Steve Ross, senior vp/publisher at Crown, said that 250,000 copies of the book were shipped, and that orders were "much higher than we originally expected."
Beyond the "Elvis By the Presleys" audio and video packages, Sony BMG Strategic Marketing will issue the original cast album of the musical "All Shook Up" on May 31. While not an Elvis bio, the show, scripted by Joe DiPietro, contains renditions of 25 songs popularized by the King. It opened on March 24 at the Palace Theatre and has been enjoying a strong run.
On Tuesday, Capitol Records will issue a live Presley set as part of its "Las Vegas Centennial Collection." It marks the first time Sony BMG has ever licensed a full album's worth of Elvis material to a competing label.
"We've licensed individual tracks, but never a full package," DiMuro said. "It's kind of sacreligious to us... . We deliberated. We talked to the estate. We decided to do it because Elvis was such a presence in Vegas."
Pondering Presley's massive and timeless appeal, DiMuro said, "He was one of the first artists to break the race barrier, and to communicate music that was not really commercial. He revived rock 'n' roll by making it available to the masses. And there was this genuineness about him. In today's market, you look at this lack of honesty and lack of authenticity, these manufactured talents."
"Love me," Elvis pleaded in 1956. He needn't have worried.