MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Like pilgrims to Mecca, they flock here every August for Elvis Week. Fans, from every corner of the globe, come to consecrate the hallowed grounds of Memphis and Graceland.
As the annual commemoration of Elvis Presley’s life and death hits its stride — the festivities began Friday and will continue through August 17 — tourists will continue to descend upon the Bluff City, with as many as 30,000, possibly more, expected in the coming days.
“Elvis Week is a little like throwing a party where you don’t get any RSVPs,” said Kevin Kern, public relations director for Elvis Presley Enterprises. “Our ticket sales are going very well, but it’s hard to tell exactly how many people will be here. If we only had a crystal ball.”
This year marks the 38th anniversary of Presley’s passing. Typically, anniversary years ending in fives or zero generate the biggest traffic and attention. “But we are celebrating 60 years of rock and roll, from when Elvis recorded ‘That’s Alright’ and are marking his part in that with a new exhibit,” said Kern. “We’re also debuting a new iPad tour of Graceland … and having a groundbreaking for the new [Guest House] hotel. So it’s going to be strong year for an ‘off’ year.”
Even in a so-called “off” year, there’s enough programming to satisfy every kind of Elvis fan.
“We definitely think of the big picture and program for a variety of fans with a variety of interests,” said Kern. “Some are more into the live music, some are into the panels and Q&A sessions we do, and some are hard-core fans of the tribute artists. There are many demographics and levels to this fan base, so we try and cater to all of them.”
Among the many official Elvis events this year, two in particular stand out. On Saturday, the Orpheum will screen the 1970 concert documentary “That’s The Way It Is.” The event coincides with the release of a multi-disc box set of the film by Sony/Legacy.
An eight-CD, two-DVD “That’s the Way It Is” collection came out earlier this week. Touted as “the most ambitious Elvis Presley restoration package ever created,” it gathers the original live album, “the theatrical and home video versions of the film, six full-length concerts (featuring previously unreleased performances), rehearsal highlights and other rare recordings” in one package. The DVDs include two versions (the 1970 original and 2000 expanded edit) of director Denis Sanders’ documentary — shot at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and at a sound stage in Culver City — and a second disc of outtakes from the film.
At the Orpheum, fans will be shown the newly remastered edition of the film, as well as outtakes never-before-seen on a big screen. There will also performances by Elvis’ Imperials members Joe Moscheo and Terry Blackwood, along with Darrell Toney and Lynn Royce Taylor.
A major Presley archival release from Sony has become an annual event tied to Elvis Week. “In terms of doing these big releases … what we’ve tried to do is take deep dives into specific moments in Elvis’ career and blow them out with great packages,” said John Jackson, VP of A&R and Content Development for Sony/Legacy. “It’s really about exploring these different periods of Elvis.”
Sony has successfully shed new light on the catalog, with efforts like last year’s box set, focusing fascinatingly on Elvis’ somewhat overlooked 1973 sessions at Stax Records.
Jackson — who will be in Memphis this week — says “That’s the Way It Is” was one project Presley aficionados had been clamoring for. “During [past] Elvis Weeks, the fans had always asked us for that,” he said. “We listened to that feedback. It all goes back to the fans; what they want and how they want us to celebrate his career.”
Another significant event on the Elvis Week calendar will take place on Wednesday, as Chips Moman and the American Studios band get some long-overdue recognition with the unveiling of a Shelby County Historical Marker, near 827 Thomas.
The address — at Thomas and Chelsea Avenue — is now home to a Family Dollar store, but for a decade was the site of American, a hit factory that produced Elvis Presley’s crucial 1969 “comeback” sessions and recorded dozens and dozens (roughly 120, depending on the source) of chart records between 1962 and 1972.
Moman — who was also an integral force in the early history of Stax Records — wooed members of the staff bands at Hi Records and Phillips to form the classic American Studios group: guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, organist Bobby Emmons and bassists Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill. That unit — known variously as the 827 Thomas Street Band, the American Group, and, later, “the Memphis Boys” — would help create a succession of hits for artists such as Dusty Springfield (“Son of a Preacher Man”), Neil Diamond (“Sweet Caroline), Merrilee Rush (“Angel of the Morning”), B.J. Thomas (“Hooked on a Feeling”), Joe Tex (“I Gotcha”), Bobby Womack (“Fly Me To The Moon”) and, most famously, Presley (“Suspicious Minds”).
The studio’s critical and continuing connection to Elvis — the Memphis Boys will be performing at Graceland on Wednesday night — is a major part of the marker, a two-sided display which notes both the history of American and its role in Elvis’ comeback.
“We modeled the marker after the one at Sun Studios,” said Eddie Hankins, one of the organizers behind the American marker initiative. “One side is the general story of the studio, and one side is about Elvis working there. He’s obviously, for the average person, the key figure to have recorded there.”
Hankins notes that the employees of the Family Dollar have long noticed and been perplexed by groups of people milling outside the store and taking photos.
“They didn’t realize it was a historic studio with an Elvis connection,” said Hankins. “I suppose Elvis fans are the reason anybody has been going by there. Having the marker will make it easier for Elvis fans to find where he did some of his best work.”
The American marker unveiling event will take place at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Local television personality Dave Brown will serve as emcee, and various guests — including Moman and the band members — are scheduled to attend.
The Elvis Week calendar is filled with numerous activities and celebrations — from George Klein’s Elvis Mafia reunion at Alfred’s that happened Friday evening to a concluding gospel concert at Graceland next Sunday. Other “unofficial” events are being held.
On Saturday, cult film director Mike McCarthy will host an Presley movie marathon at the Summer Quartet Drive-In, featuring screenings of “Jailhouse Rock,” “King Creole,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Elvis on Tour.” And, of course, the emotional anchor of the week will be Friday’s Candlelight Vigil at Graceland.
“Elvis week really is a special opportunity,” said Kevin Kern. “It’s a chance for people to enjoy themselves, to celebrate the music, and most of all, remember Elvis.”
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Readers can get into the spirit — and look — of Elvis Week by tweeting their “Elviselfies” to @GoMemphis, with the hashtags #elviselfie and #graceland.