Selling Elvis to a New Generation
On 25th Anniversary of Death, Younger Fans Find King Still Rules
Listen to Jean Cochran's report for All Things Considered.
Listen to Joshua Levs' report.
Presley's Life and Legacy: Reports from the NPR Archive
Aug. 16, 2002 -- Twenty-five years ago today, the world lost the king of rock 'n' roll. Elvis Presley died of a drug-induced heart attack at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn., at the age of 42.
At a candlelight vigil last night in Memphis, thousands of people remembered Elvis -- and where they were when they heard the news. NPR's Joshua Levs met many who remember Presley's career and still cling tightly to those memories.
Levs also spoke with members of an entire generation of fans too young to remember even the day he died -- people like 25-year-old Melissa Klojay from Chicago. For some of these young fans, The King's legend endures.
"He's the greatest," she told Levs. "He's a fabulous looking guy, and maybe out here with us right now -- who knows!"
But even in the capital of Elvis mania, there are those with a different view. Some are downright irreverent. John Johnson, 22, in town to see some friends, says he has a more "realistic" opinion of The King. "He died of a drug overdose, straight up," Johnson says. "He was sitting there bangin' on the commode and fell over dead.
"But I really like the guy," he adds.
Anthony DeCurtis, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, says the specter of the "fat Elvis" days tend to overshadow Presley's impact on popular music. "The drugs, the excess, the horrible suits, being overweight -- I think it's very difficult for young people these days to look at Elvis and feel any of the force that made him significant in the first place," he says.
DeCurtis says many young people simply don't see Elvis and his brand of hip-shaking rock 'n' roll for the rebellion it was. In the more conservative 1950s, he was seen by many concerned parents as channeling a "dangerous" black music that young white teenagers were not supposed to hear.
Race is still a factor today, particularly in the hip-hop community, where some artists have charged that Presley gets credit for creating a sound that black musicians actually created.
Presley's record label, RCA, is trying to sell him to a new generation of teens as the artist who started the rock 'n' roll revolution. "Today's generation will be looking for what made him cool, hip, irreverent -- and that's the type of imaging that we're trying to portray," says Joe Dimuro, vice president in charge of marketing for BMG, the company that owns RCA.
At the same time, Elvis Presley Enterprises -- the multi-million-dollar corporation that manages Graceland and controls The King's image -- is also reaching out to young children in a very different way. In the Disney animated movie Lilo & Stitch, The King is presented as a spic 'n' span, lovable guy who couldn't possibly be controversial. Using a child's fascination with The King as a central plot point was the idea of the film's creators, but representatives of Presley's estate jumped at the opportunity.
In the end, says Todd Morgan, director of media and creative development for Elvis Presley Enterprises, the man and his music transcend the image and hype.
"Really, if there's any challenge at all in reaching younger audiences, it's just coming up with new and inventive ways to get Elvis and his work in front of that audience," he tells Levs. "And really, once you do that -- once you take Elvis where they are, Elvis does the rest.
"Elvis connects. It's always been that way."
Levs reports that 25 years after The King's death, there are those who still think he wears the rock 'n' roll crown.
"Tonight in Memphis, The King himself will perform at the Pyramid Arena," Levs says. "Concert footage will be shown on a huge screen, accompanied live by some of his original musicians and back-up singers. In the audience, alongside those who have loved him for decades, will be thousands of twenty-somethings, teens and kids accompanying their parents.
"Perhaps that's the greatest sign that Elvis will live on."
NPR Coverage of Elvis Presley's Life and Legacy
Jan. 8, 1975 -- NPR co-founder and cultural maven Fred Calland's tribute to Elvis Presley, two-and-a-half years before Presley's death.
Aug. 16, 1977 -- NPR's Bob Malesky reports on Presley's death in Memphis, and his musical legacy.
Aug. 17, 1977 -- Richard Snyder of KUSC catches comments from mourners visiting Elvis Presley's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and talks about Presley's impact on popular music.
Jan. 8, 1980 -- On Presley's 45th birthday, his stepmother Dee Stanley Presley talks about her book featuring her intimate family insights on the singer's private life. When he died, she says, "(Elvis) was still that little boy that no one could say 'no' to."
Jan. 8, 1981 -- NPR's Clem Taylor reports on the efforts to create a "national day of recognition" for Presley's birthday.
June 7, 1982 -- Pat Boone talks about his friend Elvis Presley, and how their careers diverged greatly, despite some remarkable parallels in their lives.
Annoying Elvis -- Weekend Edition Saturday, Aug. 10, 2002.
Know Your Elvis Trivia Quiz, Motley Fool, Aug. 9, 2002.
Sam Phillips & the Legacy of Sun Records, Morning Edition, Nov. 28, 2001.
Elvis.com, the official site of the Elvis Presley estate, is a rich destination featuring Elvis trivia, a virtual tour of Graceland and much more.
ElvisNumberOnes.com features interactive multimedia treatments of 30 of Elvis Presley's number-one chart hits.