Ahead of a tour with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Priscilla Presley talks to Duncan Seaman about her ex-husband’s legacy.
More than 50 years might have passed since Priscilla Presley first met her husband-to-be Elvis while he was serving in the army in Germany but an instantly favourable impression of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll remains etched in her mind.
“My first impression was that he was better looking than he was on screen – if that was possible and it was,” she laughs, remembering their first encounter at a party in Bad Nauheim, where he was then living off base. Priscilla’s stepfather, Paul Beaulieu, was a US airman stationed in nearby Wiesbaden and she was then a 14-year-old pupil at the city’s high school.
“It was a very sad time for him – during that period he had lost his mother and here he was in a foreign country where very few people spoke English.”
Elvis might already have been a huge international star by that point in 1959 thanks to hits such as Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, but it seems he was bashful in young Priscilla’s presence.
“A little bit, yes,” she says. “I don’t know why but he was still a gentleman and loved to entertain. He hung out with the guys and they would harmonise together and sing songs together. This is what he did during his nights when he’d get home – he’d have dinner then go to his living room and have friends over. It was very simple.”
A photograph of Elvis by the castle gate at Bad Nauheim appeared on the cover of his single A Big Hunk o’ Love. Now fully orchestrated, it’s the first track to be released from the new album The Wonder Of You, a follow-up to last year’s If I Can Dream which posthumously paired the King with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to great success, selling more than 1.5m copies. Priscilla says the project, which was put together at Abbey Road studios in London, fulfils one of opera lover Elvis’ long-held dreams.
“When he was on stage in Vegas he had a 23-piece orchestra and he always wanted to have that fuller sound, a bigger sound, sounds that were inspiring in his songs.”
The project was suggested by the British-based producer Don Reedman, who approached Priscilla, as chief custodian of Elvis’ estate, three years ago when she was appearing in pantomime in Wimbledon.
Priscilla says Elvis’ vision of working with an orchestra had been hampered by his record company and his manager Colonel Tom Parker. “Unfortunately sometimes artists have managers or labels who don’t really quite understand an artist needs to be fulfilled,” she says. “They only see you as ‘old Elvis, rock ’n’ roll – that’s what you should be doing, that’s what people know of you’ but an artist has to expand, has to evolve and has to do what they feel they want to do. Obviously he didn’t have that kind of backing with his label at the time or with his management.”
Elvis’ record collection attested to broad musical tastes, Priscilla reveals. “He had Mozart, he had Brahms, he had Mario Lanza and people are shocked when they hear that – that’s the thing that people didn’t know about.”
Priscilla tried to apply a similar diversity when it came to which Elvis songs they chose to orchestrate. “Some are popular, some are not so popular, like Starting Today – it’s not a really familiar song that a lot of people would know but it’s a song that he liked, he loved ballads and that’s an older song.
“Love Letters he used to sing in Germany and Just Pretend, another older song that kind of got lost in his repertoire of music. Kentucky Rain – I love that song, I was there when he was singing it at American Sound Studio [in Memphis] and saw the seriousness that he took with that song to make it his own.”
Hearing her former husband’s voice now still stirs emotions. “I have memories of almost all the songs,” she says. “I listen to them and I enjoy them and I probably appreciate more than ever the wonderful artist that he was and was capable of being and I wish he were here today to be able to hear what was done with these albums.”
An arena tour that corresponds with the album’s release will bring Elvis into UK auditoriums for the first time – albeit in film footage alongside live performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Priscilla, who will be introducing the shows, feels it’s a chance to show British audiences what they missed from the singer, who died in 1977.
“This tour is something very different, very intimate,” she says. “There will be videos, there will be home movies, there will be him actually singing the songs. With technology it’s just been amazing what can be done today.”
Priscilla’s relationship with Elvis remained famously close; even after they divorced in 1973 they left the courthouse hand in hand. Yet today she admits that during the six years they were married – a period when Elvis was making films back to back in Hollywood then saw his musical career revitalised by his 1968 TV Comeback Special – it was hard to maintain any kind of normality.
After they divorced Priscilla established a clothing boutique in Los Angeles then other businesses as well. She reflects: “I had to have a life of my own, to discover who I was, basically. Living with Elvis you adapt to his considerations, his concerns, his loves, his hates and I was really trying to discover who I was as a being. I wanted to work.”
As well as the Elvis in Concert tour, Priscilla will be spending more time in the UK in the coming months playing the Genie of the Lamp in the pantomime Aladdin at Milton Keynes Theatre.
The Wonder of You is out now. Elvis in Concert – Live on Screen comes to First Direct Arena, Leeds on November 18. firstdirectarena.com
When Elvis died in 1977 Priscilla took control of his Graceland estate for the sake of his heir, their then nine-year-old daughter Lisa Marie Presley.
Turning the costly house and grounds into a tourist attraction was, she says, “a huge undertaking”.
“I was against the odds, everybody wanted me to sell it - I was out to prove them wrong. We probably have more young people interested in Elvis than ever.
“It’s just been a wonderful evolution. It’s been very interesting to see the evolution.”