Celebrating the life and legacy of Elvis

Elvis would have been 75 years old on Jan. 8.

Illustration by Richard Robbins

Elvis would have been 75 years old on Jan. 8.

Like a lot of folks on their way to Memphis this week, Mark Alan Stamaty has never been to the Bluff City before, and he's never experienced the particular madness that grips the city each January and August when fans from around the world arrive to celebrate the birth and mark the death of Elvis Presley.

"This will be my first time," says Stamaty, a noted national cartoonist and author, "but I'm going because I really want to reach Elvis fans." Stamaty will be in town to promote his new project, a beautifully illustrated children's book recounting his own life-changing adolescent experiences with Elvis' music, called "Shake, Rattle & Turn That Noise Down! How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me, and Mom" (Knopf).

Stamaty, who will be reading and signing his book at Davis-Kidd today at 4 p.m., is just one of a small army of authors -- from locals like deejay George Klein to Elvis expert Frank Hyland -- who will be promoting their work amid a festival of culture and commerce that's become a twice yearly tradition.

While Elvis week -- marking the singer's death -- in August has always been viewed as the major Presley event, his birthday celebration has been growing steadily over the last decade.

This sheer breadth of this weekend's festivities -- which includes everything from educational seminars to dance parties, fan club meetings to gospel services and even a Memphis symphony concert -- confirm the belief that as the phenomenon of Elvis continues to age, it also continues to grow in popularity.

In particular, with 2010 marking what would've been The King's 75th birthday, officials with Elvis Presley Enterprises are expecting a major spike in attendance and attention.

"We do tend to get more visitors on the major anniversaries -- the ones with the fives and the zeros, be it 30th anniversary (of Presley's passing) or his 75th birthday," says EPE spokesman Kevin Kern "That's when you see the influx in the number of people and the coverage as well. It's a big deal and big number, and it not only brings out the fans but it's bringing out the family."

This morning, Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley will appear at Graceland Plaza as part of a Shelby County-sponsored "Elvis Presley Day" ceremony, complete with a 75th birthday cake. For those not able to attend in person, the event will be carried live via the elvis.com Web site.

Beyond the ceremonial, there will also be panels and expert discussions, including a Saturday afternoon session at the Memphis Marriott focusing on Presley's years in Tupelo, conducted by Mississippi historian Roy Turner.

Turner, who's been a regular at Elvis events over the years, says such programs are manna for fans. "They're a very dedicated bunch; a lot of them save all year long for these events, and it's really a treat for them," says Turner.

Turner will interview a trio of guests, including two of Presley's childhood chums. "One of them is white and one is black, and they show two different sides of Elvis' existence in Tupelo," says Turner. "The white friend was totally oblivious to any desires he had towards music and the black friend was very aware how much music meant in his life and what he wanted to do with it. I think that's two interesting dichotomies there. That's the kind of thing that people come for -- it's always more interesting to hear about Elvis from the horse's mouth."

"We always try and have guests who can bring context to Elvis life," adds Kern. "Either people who knew Elvis personally, or who are great authorities on his work. But we're always trying to bring in new people and perspectives to keep things fresh."

As Kern notes, the Elvis birthday proceedings will be covered by the national and international press with everyone from NBC's "Today" show to Russian television broadcasting live from the city. "We've got a lot of media here, so it's always good attention for Elvis, but also for Memphis, in terms of exposing what we have here," says Kern. "Our goal is to get people to Memphis to celebrate the life and legacy of Elvis with us, and that's a full time job."

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