Priscilla Presley: "I don't know of many artists that had the effect that Elvis had on people"

by Katrina Schollenberger 

As I walk through the entrance to the Elvis on Tour exhibition at the top of the O2 arena, I can’t help but feel somewhat overwhelmed. Although Elvis Presley’ career was long before my time, I was raised understanding how important Elvis was to music, and the lasting impact he still has today on millions around the world. Discussions with my American relatives help me to understand why he was praised in the way that he was for his stage shows, while a flurry of YouTube videos allow me to watch his performances to get an understanding for myself.

Elvis on Tour, a three month retrospective with over 200 pieces from the Graceland archives, aims to transport Elvis fans to his phenomenal stage shows through his costumes, stage wear, jewellery, guitars, microphones, posters and more. The exhibition provides an in depth insight into what drove his American audiences wild between 1969-1977, putting them front and centre stage at an Elvis show while also getting the luxury of behind the scenes access.

I’m admiring the sparkle, glitz, glamour and lights behind the glass cases only to reach Elvis’s burgundy haired ex-wife, Priscilla, waiting to talking to me.  A true artist and showman lost too early, Elvis’s legacy is helped to live on through Priscilla Presley. She is one of few left that can help the world understand Elvis not only as the spectacular musician he was, but also on a human level.

How long did it take to construct each of Elvis’s costume? Were they heavy for Elvis to wear?

Well Bill Baloo had a team putting all of them together. It would take, well, about two weeks. The audience loved the jumpsuits so much, he would come out, he would show them the cape and he would turn around as he entered the stage. When he realised that people loved them it became quite the thing for him, you know, for his jumpsuits to be so beautiful and quite weighty. (Priscilla points to a jumpsuit) This right here weighs about thirty pounds.

What piece of memorabilia from the Elvis on Tour exhibition is most nostalgic for you and why?

We have the acetate of American Trilogy, the song that I brought to him. I was so proud that he did it, because it suited him so well. It’s basically how he felt about his country, how he felt about the South and of course how he felt about his maker. I knew the song was really well suited and a good fit for him, so of course I brought it to him and he loved it. Have you ever seen him sing it?

No. I was listening to the recorded version earlier but I haven’t seen him sing it.

It’s pretty amazing.

Did you have a lot of involvement with how he organised his shows musically?

No, I did not. He did that himself. Elvis knew what he wanted. He’s the performer. You didn’t really tell him anything- he knew what he wanted to do. He wasn’t one for big production. He wasn’t one for fireworks, or being over produced, he just wanted to get out there with his band and backup singers. He wasn’t into greatness as far as events. It was really quite simple. He had his band, his backup singers, gospel singers…so, he just wanted to perform and sing. 

There are those who said Elvis was actually shy. Could you tell us if this is true? How did he overcome shyness to give such magnificent performances?

He wasn’t shy on stage. He loved to perform. He’d be nervous like everybody else, when you’re getting ready to perform and you’ve got a new audience, you know, you want to do well. He was shy when he was around people that he didn’t know. People in suits. His famous saying was ‘Hollywood didn’t get him, and he didn’t get Hollywood’. He was a little bit uncomfortable around people that he didn’t really know that well. He was very comfortable around family and friends, back home at Graceland or places that he felt comfortable with people that he felt comfortable with.

You have to remember he started out very criticised from early in his days. When he came out with rock’n’roll and of course moving on stage, he didn’t quite understand why he was being criticised. So he always felt in some way people were kind of criticising him.

Was there a difference between how he was off stage and on stage?

Well when he was on stage he was performing to a song. When he was off stage he was kind of a regular person. There was a big difference. I mean definitely on stage he would show his sense of humour and showed his personality which was great, it’s still him, but again as a performer.

Was Elvis a hands-on father even while on tour? 

He was a good dad, he was a loving dad. Was he hands on? No. He didn’t change diapers. (laughs) He never changed diapers, he didn’t dress her or anything but he was definitely a loving father.

Why do you think Elvis’ popularity with the public continued to endure over 40 years after his passing? 

Well I think, first of all, like I say in the show that we’re doing now, the ‘If I Can Dream’ concert tour, I don’t know of anyone who could still fill arenas 40 years after their passing. Elvis Presley left an impression and mark on anyone that ever saw him back in the day and it still goes on today. He was so charismatic. He would come on that stage and own it. He would come on that stage and perform and he had such a connection with his audience. When he sang you honestly thought that he was singing to you.

 It was part of the segment we do in the show, I have [the audience] listen to the song Don’t, he was 21 years old when he sang it. It’s so engaging, he’s so wrapped up in it, I think in all his songs he was. He was like in his own world when he sang and you’d sit there and watch it and you couldn’t take your eyes off him. I don’t know of many artists, and there are many good ones, that had the effect that Elvis Presley had on people and still does to this day.

Elvis On Tour The Exhibition runs at The O2, London until 4 February.  For tickets and information