Long Sell the King
I am standing in a house at the end of a dirt road within shooting distance of the Superstitions, holding a pair of Elvis Presley's sunglasses in my hand.
They are plated in silver and gold, the glass is tinted a light purple. The letters "EP" are molded between the lenses above the bridge where the King's nose once protruded, and "TCB" is engraved near the hinges of the stems that once led to the ears of the man who was the Boy Who Dared to Rock.
"TCB" means "Taking Care of Business."
I lift the sacred eyewear close to my face and look through the colored glass, seeing the world in the same shade as once did the Hillbilly Cat himself. I move them toward me as if to actually put them on my head.
That's when I see the look of sheer panic erupt across the face of Paul Lichter.
That's Paul Lichter--among other things, self-proclaimed best-selling Elvis author of all time (12 books, 17 million copies, his 13th, EP in Concert, due out next month), a PR man to Presley for some 10 years, a pallbearer at the January funeral of Colonel Tom Parker (who was godfather to Lichter's son Tristan Elvis), and the owner/operator of the 27-year-old Paul Lichter's Elvis Unique Record Club. Unique because it offers for sale arguably the biggest collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia on the planet.
Including the dark glasses fit for the King. Lichter says they are worth roughly $30,000. And, apparently, my head is bigger than Elvis', thus potentially damaging to the shades through which the King perhaps trained his droopy gaze seductively at a bouffanted Priscilla, or picked out glittering jumpsuits, or maybe eyed the contents of his medicine cabinet.
I hand them back to Lichter; he places them carefully back in the case along with an additional five pairs of Elvis glasses. Other things are in that case, too: Elvis' beaded turquoise macrame belt, Elvis' backstage passes, scarves Elvis wore onstage, Elvis' personal movie scripts (with the letter A's and O's hand-colored in with red and blue ink), a Christmas card from Elvis and the Colonel, napkins from Elvis' trash, a button that says "Oy Gevalt Elvis!"
Elvis may well have left the proverbial building that is this mortal coil, but his stuff lives on here in Lichter's spacious home in the middle of the desert. Yet this is no crazed, drooling shrine to the late Pelvis, this is a business, by God. Lichter has sold to fanatics from all walks of life, from unknown, rich Japanese men to simple housewives to John Lennon, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney (their autographed pictures are all over Lichter's office) and others so great that Lichter refuses to reveal their identities.
And, though lists can be tedious, this magnificent trove of Presleyania demands at least a little tallying.
On one wall, carefully sleeved in plastic and shaded from light to avoid fading, are copies of every piece of vinyl Elvis ever recorded, according to Lichter.
There are 45s, 78s, LPs, EPs, pieces from around the world. There are Elvis' personal acetates that he gave to Lichter. Personally. There are numerous signed photos of the King smiling, pouting, scowling, chuckling, flirting. There's Elvis' karate outfit with "Master Tiger" embroidered on it, along with a patch that says "TCB Faith Spirit Discipline." I notice what appear to be sweat stains on the material, and ask Lichter if these are, in fact, the sweat stains of Elvis. He says, "Yes."
Without even thinking, I reach out and touch those sweat stains.
There's Elvis' red shirt displayed on a slightly larger-than-life-size bust of a happily snarling King, complete with drops of perspiration cascading down his fiber-glass face. I touch that shirt, too.
There are thousands of catalogued photos of you-know-who, many of them never seen, that Lichter leases to various publications. There are 4,000 Elvis CDs. There are crates of Russell Stover Elvis Valentine candies.
"When this stuff came out, we found out too late," laments Lichter. "I had to run around to every Walgreens, and I bought every one I could get my hands on. They thought I was sick, but what do you do? The bottom line is, in five years, you'll be able to double your money on this. Or you'll eat it."
It is this kind of intrepid spirit that has allowed Lichter to become King of the King collectors; in addition to the cache here at his desert compound, there are "three warehouses of this stuff where most of it's kept," he reveals, "and most of the personal belongings are in cement vaults so there can't be fire and there's no elements."
I wonder if anyone else anywhere has this much Elvis.
"Maybe, but I've never heard of 'em," he boasts. "There's people that have big collections, but I guess the answer to that is no. There'd be no way that they could."
Here's how a simple guy from Pennsylvania, a late-'60s teen, gained an audience with Elvis and became all that you just read about.
"I used to manage the Soul Survivors ["Expressway to Your Heart," No. 4, fall of '67], and I was a frustrated rock 'n' roller myself," says the clean-domed Lichter as he fires up the first of many Kools. "Back in those days, it wasn't popular to be an Elvis fan; you had to be a closet freak. Clambake just wasn't holding up to Rubber Soul. I was an Elvis fan, but I was quiet about it.
"What happened was, the Soul Survivors were out in California on tour with the Young Rascals when Elvis was doing the '68 Singer TV special [that would become known as the legendary '68 Comeback Special]. Sid Bernstein, who was managing the Rascals, got some tickets and asked me would I like to come. That was the first time I saw Elvis, the first time I met him. That was incredible.
"After the show, I went back and was introduced to him. I said, 'Mr. Presley, it's a pleasure to meet you, I really enjoy your music.' That was it. I walked out. I was maybe 19 or 20, and it was really a thrill for me."
Lichter pauses for a drag of Kool.
"I'm a great admirer of talent."
About six months later, he was asked if he had any interest in presenting Presley with some gold records during the King's Las Vegas opening in 1969.
"I snatched that up," Lichter says. "When I got there, I was informed I had to stay in my room because the call from Colonel [Tom Parker, Elvis' manager] could come at any moment. I sat there for a couple days eating room service, and finally the call came.
"I was escorted by armed guards, I went in and there was Colonel Parker and the so-called Memphis Mafia sitting around eating grapes. I was nervous as shit. Finally, Elvis came in, and I gave him the gold records and posed for pictures, and for about 10 minutes he was holding my hand while we were shaking hands. . . . So I was being led out by the casino manager, and I realized that I didn't ask for an autograph or scarf or some kind of souvenir. So I asked the manager if he could do something about that. He said, 'I don't see any problem; check with me tomorrow.'
"Tomorrow came. At about 4 p.m., he says, 'Elvis wants to see you up in his suite.' The armed guards led me up to the 29th floor again, and Elvis had just gotten up and was eating breakfast. The bottom line was, he was so impressed that I didn't ask for anything that he invited me up to the suite. So I guess if I had asked for the autograph, my whole life would have been different."
Much to Lichter's amazement, he and Presley found things in common.
"It turned out he was dating a girl from Roxborough, Pennsylvania, which was close to where I lived. He loved football, I loved football. As they were escorting me out, he said, 'When are you leaving?' I said, 'A couple days.' He said, 'Do you have to?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Why don't you stay and be my guest?' So I did, and for the rest of the 28-day engagement, he picked up the bills, picked up the room, did the whole deal. Every night I sat at his personal table during the shows.
"That was the beginning of it."
In the meantime, Lichter opened up a record store in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, and began buying Elvis records for next to nothing.
"It was easy," Lichter says, "because I could trade people a Beatles record for 30 Elvis singles. So I started accumulating all these Elvis records, and at first it was just for me. Then I started getting duplicates, and I was able to get into warehouses of record distributors and I had tons and tons of Elvis. . . . It was 1970, and I decided it was time to start the Elvis Unique Record Club. We started running ads anywhere Elvis would be performing."
And when Elvis came back to Vegas . . .
"I printed out fake $10 bills with an advertisement on them for the record club, and I got 10 people to go with me into the casino and throw these bills into the air. I got thrown out of the casino, but it got Elvis' attention. He said to me it was the coolest thing he'd ever heard, I was crazy, I was out of my mind, and what was the Unique Record Club? So I explained it to him."
According to Lichter, Ol' E liked what he heard enough to allow Lichter to come on tour with him, plugging the club at every stadium stop. Within the first five days of the tour, Lichter says he made $25,000 pushing Presley merchandise. This, however, raised the ire of the business-savvy Colonel.
"Somewhere along the line, he decided this wasn't great," Lichter offers. "He called me in and says, 'I like you, you're a nice boy. I can't stop you from starting, but I'll stop you from finishing. Nobody has the right to make money off my boy except me.'
"Well, I'd just made $25,000 and I had all these records. There was no way he was going to stop me, so I continued. There were some rough tactics--I got shot at, and motorcycle gangs came along and beat up the people I'd hired [to distribute fliers]. There were some rough moments. But the Colonel always said he was just toughening me up because I reminded him of him. He wound up being my son's godfather. And Elvis was laughing at the whole thing because I was the first guy in 11 years to stand up to the old bastard!"
A final word on the Colonel:
"He's like a teddy bear," says Lichter. "One of the most compassionate human beings I ever met. He did not rob Elvis, he did not get 50 percent of everything--that's all from the media. He got 25 percent of the tickets and 50 percent of the merchandise."
Come 1974, Lichter threw his hat into the literary ring with Elvis in Hollywood. As the album title goes, 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong, but four million ain't too shabby. That's how many purchased the book, published by Simon and Schuster, which put it on the New York Times best-seller list for eight weeks.
Lichter also put out a publication in '74 called the Memphis Flash, "the only Elvis magazine to tell it like it is." It was "the most popular Elvis magazine during his lifetime," Lichter says. "Elvis himself collected every issue."
Which made it a bit difficult to tell it like it was.
"With Elvis, you couldn't say anything bad because it was blasphemous. People thought he was God."
As the Elvis business grew, Lichter began to develop a bit of notoriety himself. He got "good play" from Geraldo Rivera (another Lichter buddy), and "got contacted by the National Enquirer, the Globe, and the Star. It was like, 'Presley Nut Makes a Million,'" he states. "The more money I earned, I went from being 'Elvis Nut' to 'World-Renowned Elvisologist.'"
When Elvis and the Colonel donated the red jumpsuit from the "Burning Love" single cover to the National Cerebral Palsy telethon for auction, the nut-cum-Elvisologist was there with $1,500 to nab the artifact. Two years ago he sold it for $117,000.
"I had tears in my eyes when I sold it," he recalls, "but I had 117,000 reasons to do it."
Before he unloaded the thing, Lichter slipped into the "Burning Love" threads--who wouldn't?--and, yes, they fit. Of course, the jumpsuit was designed back before the worldwide star developed the girth of a nation.
If you delve into Elvis collectibles at all, you will soon find that jumpsuits are the currency of choice. Other than tough fighter jocks, jumpsuits were pretty much relegated to retired guys who looked foolish in them. With the King, jumpsuits became something wholly other. Huge Dracula collars. Pounds of glittering jewels. Billowing capes. Bell-bottoms the width of Frisbees.
"I think every person who is into Elvis wants to get as close to him as they can," says Lichter, "so they want something that was his. But they have no concept of the value of these things today. His peacock jumpsuit, it was his favorite, he personally designed it." And gave it to Lichter. Who, in case you're interested, has it up for sale.
"Yeah. It would be a quarter of a mil."
Let's get one thing straight about Elvis and our man right now--in fact, here's Lichter to fill you in:
"I know I was his friend, I know he was my friend, but I don't want to mislead you that we were kissing first buddies or anything."
"It was very repetitious, the same thing happened year in and year out," says Lichter. "Basically, he'd request you to be there, you'd fly in and stay at Graceland or the Howard Johnson's. You'd show up to have dinner. He'd come down dressed formal, Priscilla'd be all dressed up. He'd sit down and put his gun on the table next to him."
The cuisine consisted of "the best bar-b-cue you've ever had in your life. But I never had a fried banana sandwich," says Lichter of Elvis' favorite meal. "I had peanut butter and banana, but I couldn't handle the butter."
Lip-smackin' bar-b-cue is nothing to sneer at, but Lichter says that Presley's legendary generosity was, well, generous.
"But you know, I gave him as many gifts as he gave me. But what do you give to someone who has everything? He loved Muhammad Ali, so I had a statue of Ali, it was like those ones with the beagles with the big eyes. I gave him that, and he put it on his desk in his office. I gave him the red belt he wore in the film That's the Way It Is, and I gave him turquoise jewelry, lots of sports stuff.
"He gave me jumpsuits, motorcycle jackets, lots of clothes which have turned out to be worth a fortune. The jumpsuits were a real thrill for me, to have something the King was wearing onstage. The other stuff, I only took that--believe it or not--because I couldn't find a way to say no."
The gifts stopped coming August 16, 1977.
"It was impossible to believe that Superman could die," Lichter offers. "Even though he'd look bad, you always felt, he's sick, he'll get better. He was doing drugs, but they weren't street drugs; he had doctors giving him this stuff and he was very knowledgeable about them.
"I'd spoken to him the night before he died; I was going to meet him on tour. He told me he wanted to cover some new songs, and his diet hadn't worked and he was pissed off because he was heavy as hell. Basically, it was just another normal conversation."
Now, the Man Who Knew the King provides an eloquent summation on the strange existence of the Boy Who Dared to Rock.
"At 19 years old, he was dirt poor in the Deep South, the deepest kind of poverty, outhouses, the whole bit. Before he's 20, he's a multimillionaire. He never grows up. He's never forced to change. He creates his own world; it's the only way he can survive.
"It was very bizarre. He couldn't go to Dairy Queen, ever. And you couldn't bring it home to him because it would melt. When you think about it, it's not important, but it is. The American dream can be a nightmare."
I have not driven past a Dairy Queen since and not thought of those words.
So what are Lichter and his Presley business doing out here in the desert?
"We were going to open up a museum with Graceland," he says, "and they bought the Colonel's collection, so that deal didn't pan out. But our house [in Pennsylvania] was up for sale, and it sold in a couple days, so we had to go somewhere. Colonel lived in Vegas, and he kept pitching that to us. I was leaning toward Vegas, but my wife wanted Tristan to have a chance to grow up and not be a card dealer and marry a showgirl. Arizona was this big hype; all we heard in Pennsylvania was how great Arizona was. So we decided to try it."
Business just keeps getting better, according to Lichter. And if it all seems rather silly to you, it does to him, too. But in a way that can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars. That kind of silly.
"It's a different kind of collector today than it was 25 years ago," he clarifies. "Then, it was all for love. It was fans, people weren't crazed. Nobody plays the records today, it's all business. I think it sucks. It's taken the fun out of the business, and it's priced [memorabilia] out of the ability of the average person to collect. I'm being told by my customers that I'm cheap, and I was always high. I begin to wonder if I'm losing touch with what's happening today, it's so absurd.
"The Elvis I knew has nothing to do with anything that goes on today. It's not about the music. People buy stuff for an investment. Most record collectors I know never play the music. I'm guilty, I never put a record on a turntable anymore."
Yet it's not a bad thing, apparently.
"At the end of the day, collecting is like any other addiction. And it's fun, I recommend it to anybody."
Or, as Elvis Presley himself said to Lichter one night in Las Vegas when he first heard about the Elvis Unique Record Club:
"You mean people are willing to pay lots of money for my old records? Why?"
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