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The art of commerce

Elvis Presley died thirty-nine years ago today but the money keeps rolling in.

Presley earned vast sums of money durIng his lifetime, and his estate has earned much, much more since 1977. His music and his movies continune to sell, regardless of quality, which was very much the state of play while he was alive.

Indeed, his entire career was a continual battle between art and commerce. His enjoyable 1960 soundtrack LP GI Blues, for example, outsold the superlative Elvis is Back! album from the same year by a ratio of 5:1, despite the latter being one of the finest collections of music he ever produced.

As such, it's no wonder he spent much of the mid-1960s lost in Hollywood making one hugely successful movie after another, even though he knew he was selling his artistic soul. And yet, throughout almost all parts of his career, he often ignored commercial considerations and simply recorded the songs that allowed his huge talent to blossom, and made great art.

Perhaps the finest example of this came in 1968 when, whilst making his now famous TV special, Dr King and Robert Kennedy were assasinated during pre-production and filming. On the night of RFK's killing, Elvis sat up for hours with his producers, talking about his own youth and about his vision for his beloved country.

The producers conferred with songwriter Earl Brown and Elvis' thoughts and musings were transformed into the astonishing song "If I Can Dream". Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker was dead set against Elvis recording any type of message-song, but his star overuled him and recorded it anyway, giving perhaps the single most passionate performance of his entire life, at a time when America's future was on the line.

This was art. Perfect, beautiful, pure art.

Presley had instigated the song and delivered the performance to perfection. But before he sang even one note, Parker grabbed the manuscript and had the song instantly registered with Presley's own publishing company.

If there was money to be made from great art, Parker wanted to ensure that his client (and he himself) were at the front of the queue.

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