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Forty years after Elvis Presley's death, Priscilla Presley talks his legacy, new orchestra tour

It's Elvis Week in Memphis. It comes around each year, a fresh slate of concerts and memorials and celebrations honoring the life and music of Elvis Aaron Presley, who died Aug. 16, 1977.

That's almost exactly 40 years gone by. But to Priscilla Presley, it feels nothing like it.

"It still resonates with me, that day," the King's wife of six years, and mother of his only child, Lisa Marie, said by phone on the first day of Elvis Week. "It's still hard to believe, believe it or not, not having him, receiving a telephone call in the middle of the night. Even when a call comes in the middle of the night, my eyes open wide, and the first thing I think is getting the phone and thinking it's him."

For Priscilla, 72, Elvis may as well still be here. Not only is she the closest living link to the iconic singer's personal life, since his death she's been deeply active in his estate, including Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages his likeness and posthumous projects.

The latest is Elvis: Live in Concert, which comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday. Elvis: Live features a full live orchestra backing the voice of the King, who is projected on cinema-sized screens above the stage. Graceland calls it the closest audiences will ever get to seeing the King in concert, and until an Elvis Hologram goes on tour — not out of the question, Priscilla said, though it won't happen anytime soon — that could be true.

"They think that Elvis is there on stage alive," she said. "Witnessing that, seeing the audience tearful — some tears of joy, some tears of sadness, depending on the song — dancing in the aisles, people yelling out 'Elvis!' as though he were on that stage performing, of course it brought back memories for me. I'm sitting in the audience and watching him perform."

• • •

For 40 years — or perhaps 58, going back to the day she met Elvis in Germany at the scandalous age of 14 — the specter of the King has loomed large in Priscilla's life. Even as a star of Dallas and the Naked Gun series, she rarely strayed far from the business of Being Elvis' Wife, penning a memoir, embarking on speaking tours and actively managing the family business.

"What I try to do is keep intact the DNA of who Elvis was and what he wanted to accomplish," she said. "I always think first, is this something that Elvis would like? Is this something that he would wear? Is this something he would promote? If it's not, I can't do it."

Elvis: Live, Priscilla said, was a no-brainer.

"Oh my gosh, that was something that Elvis always, always wanted to do, was sing with a full orchestra," she said. "He loved that huge, big sound that resonated. He loved the bigness of it all."

The shows played to great success in Europe and Australia, filling arenas with fans who didn't mind watching old concert footage presented in an all-new way.

"It's a delight to watch the audience marvel and get lost," she said. "The show is like two hours, and after two hours, people don't go (away). They want to stay, as if he's coming out."

Though Priscilla has toured with Elvis: Live in Europe, she won't be at the show in Clearwater — though she's not totally unfamiliar with Tampa Bay. Her grandparents once lived in St. Petersburg, she said, though she never spent long stretches here: "It's actually a bit too hot for me." And she and Lisa Marie have both practiced Scientology, headquartered in Clearwater; for a while, Lisa Marie kept a home in the area. (Asked if she ever discussed Scientology with Elvis, Priscilla replied quickly: "Never. Nope. Never come up.")

While Lisa Marie has had her share of personal problems in recent years, Priscilla said Elvis: Live has her daughter's blessing.

"Totally supports it," she said. "How can you not? It brings back memories for my daughter as well. She saw Vegas many times. I brought her to Vegas to see the show, and we had that front booth that we always would sit in, and she'd be there, moving with the music. So yeah, this is great for the family."

• • •

But is it great for Priscilla? She doesn't sound particularly motivated to keep acting.

"I get approached about doing movies; I like more the producing side of it."

She's content touring her own "evening with" show featuring stories about her childhood and life with Elvis. Wouldn't Priscilla — wouldn't anyone — get a little tired, 40 years on, of having so much of her life defined by a man she once loved?

"Gosh, no," she said. "I get asked that, and because of the interest and because of the love that people have for him, I really don't. I love hearing their stories. I love hearing not only their stories, but the stories they bring to me from their own parents, and how they got involved with Elvis. I have to say that I feel it's a mission for me. I guess there's something deep inside me that wants to continue his legacy, and continue doing the things that I know he wanted to do in his lifetime."

And so on goes the tour, and on goes the next one, and on goes Elvis Week in Memphis, with Priscilla giving interviews and making appearances left and right. Elvis's inner circle keeps shrinking with time — two close associates, Red West and Joe Esposito, have died in the past year — and if anyone is going to keep the King's life in the limelight, there's no one more qualified than her.

"It's time-consuming, but it's a beautiful sight to see, as well," she said of Elvis Week. "Trust me, I'm in awe every time this time of year comes about. So many people come over and over and over again, not just once, but twice, three times. And now they're bringing their children, who are bringing up a whole new generation of fans of Elvis's legacy. It's remarkable, I have to say."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.


Elvis: Live in Concert

8 p.m. Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater. $53.25 and up. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com.

     
     
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