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Elvis at 69: Richer than ever

Alanna Nash has written biographies of Dolly Parton and Jessica Savitch and authored "Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations of the Memphis Mafia," and "Elvis: From Memphis to Hollywood," with Presley confidante Alan Fortas. Her most recent work, "The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley," has gained critical acclaim as well as significant media and fan attention with its new revelations about the Colonel and insights into his psychological make-up. The following look at the finances of Presley, his estate and The Colonel was written for Bankrate.com.

Elvis Presley is far richer today under the direction of his ex-wife, Priscilla, than he ever would have been under the manipulative control of his Svengali-like manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

For the third year in a row, according to "Forbes" magazine, Elvis is the top-earning dead celebrity. In 2003, all things Elvis raked in some $40 million, adding to the Presley estate's estimated worth of $250 million.

Graceland will celebrate the late rock 'n' roller's phenomenal career and still-surging popularity with four days of events, kicking off a year-long marketing campaign that will continue to position Presley as an international icon of seemingly limitless appeal.

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2004: a big financial hit
"The year 2004 will be one of the five best years for Elvis since his death in 1977," says Bill E. Burk, publisher of "Elvis World" magazine and the author of 12 Presley books. "A year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of Elvis' first record, 'That's All Right (Mama),' will bring thousands to Graceland's gates, both in January for the celebration of his birthday, and in August, the 27th anniversary of his death."

According to Burk, 600,000 visitors a year pay Graceland admission fees totaling $9.6 million just to view the house. Then they're turned loose in the Graceland gift shops, where sales are estimated to be upward of $12 million per year. It all adds up to a tourist dollar impact of $126 million on the city of Memphis annually, before adding in figures from hotels, restaurants, and rental cars.

What's staggering, adds Burk, is that Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE) says the income from the house and shops represent EPE's fourth biggest moneymaker -- behind music publishing, licensing, and tie-ins with major corporations such as Disney and Turner. "You're looking at a gross of $84 million a year coming through EPE's coffers."

That Presley is still so beloved is no surprise at EPE headquarters adjacent to Graceland. "Elvis is one of those kinds of comfort foods in tough economic times, with security concerns, stress, and war," says EPE merchandising director Danny Hiltenbrand. "Elvis hearkens people back to a simple, light-hearted time."

Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis. Illustration by Fort Worth Star-Telegram, used by permission
Click image for larger view

Mired in money troubles in '77
Yet, when Elvis left the building on August 16, 1977, he was mired in financial quagmires, and sometimes resorted to mortgaging Graceland to make his payroll. Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's manager, advanced the estate $1 million to make it look as if Elvis had some cash in his depleted checking account. In truth, the singer's years of gargantuan spending sprees (Cadillacs for strangers, houses for girlfriends, and an arsenal of guns for his cohorts) had left him strapped, as had his 1973 divorce from his wife, Priscilla.

But Presley's biggest financial liability was Parker himself, who systematically siphoned off far more than the usual 15 to 25 percent of his client's earnings. By the late '60s, Parker had forced Presley into a contracted 50/50 split. But through double dipping, the Colonel got his 50 percent and all but about 22 percent of Elvis' half, too.

Parker had always figured out a way to make more money than his client, whether through song publishing, souvenirs, or side deals with Presley's record company and movie studios. Then, when he formed Boxcar, a merchandising company, with Presley in the early '70s, he took 56 percent control, apart from his 50 percent commission. Some estimates have concluded that the Colonel wound up with nearly 78 percent of Elvis' name and likeness -- a highly valuable commodity, considering Presley's obviously failing health.

No wonder Mike Stoller, the co-writer of many Presley hits, says, "The Colonel's only interest was the Colonel's. Elvis was merely a vehicle for the Colonel's greed."

Reversing financial course
Just how Presley's blue moon turned to gold again is one of the most incredible of show business sagas.

Two days after Presley's death, when the entertainer's body lay in a copper coffin at Graceland, Parker approached Vernon Presley, the singer's father and executor of the estate, and presented him with a document to sign. With Elvis dead, pirates and scam artists were sure to swarm, he told Vernon, who suffered from a serious heart condition, and was in no physical or emotional shape to deal with such things. And so, Parker induced the elder Presley to sign the paper, in which Vernon allegedly wrote, "I am deeply grateful that you have offered to carry on in the same old way, assisting me in any way possible with the many problems facing us." In other words, Parker continued taking 50 percent of the estate's income, even though he had no artist to manage.

In 1979, when Vernon died, Priscilla Presley became the new executor of the estate, along with co-executors Joe Hanks, who had been Elvis' certified public accountant, and the National Bank of Commerce in Memphis.

Immediately after Vernon's death, June 26, 1979 - coincidentally Parker's 70rth birthday -- Parker approached Priscilla about carrying on his arrangement with the estate. And although she and the co-executors already had set about putting together an impressive board of directors to maximize income from one of the most famous names on the planet, only days after Vernon's death, the estate wrote Parker a letter directing him to continue as before. That year, the estate's income would amount to about $1.2 million, much of it from the 160 merchandising licenses the Colonel had arranged, making the estate worth about $3 million total.

"It was a shock to all of us" that Elvis had left so little money, Priscilla said years later. Still, all income was forwarded to Parker, who deducted his percentage, and returned the balance to the estate.

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-- Posted: Jan. 8, 2003
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Fame & Fortune: Bankrate's celebrity interviews on money
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