MEMPHIS, Tennessee (Reuters) - The cold couldn’t keep them away from the “King.”
Hundreds of Elvis Presley fans braved frigid, snowy weather to celebrate the late rock’n’roll legend’s 75th birthday on Friday at his Graceland shrine, part of a marketing machine that generates $50 million a year.
“It feels like his presence is here,” long-time Elvis devotee Debbie Bradshaw of Texas said during a tour of the Memphis mansion where Presley died in 1977 from heart failure, aged 42.
Some 1,500 people shivered and sang along with the early Presley hit “That’s All Right” in 11-degree temperatures (minus 11.7 Celsius) as snowflakes swirled.
Chilled fans gave their warmest reception to Presley’s ex-wife Priscilla, daughter Lisa Marie and her two children — including 17-year-old Benjamin Keough, who bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather — when they appeared onstage in an open-sided tent at the shopping complex across Elvis Presley Boulevard.
Benjamin and his 20-year-old sister Riley then cut a multitiered birthday cake.
Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton quoted Elvis in addressing the harsh conditions: “‘I’m glad to be a fool’ for Elvis today.”
Priscilla thanked visitors for coming, and said later in an interview that Elvis was “probably as popular, or more popular since he passed away.”
Sales of Presley’s music, licensing of his image, and proceeds from some 600,000 paying visitors who toured Graceland generated $55 million in 2009, according to Forbes.
“When we opened Graceland to the public in 1982 we didn’t know if we’d even have visitors,” Priscilla said.
“He was bigger than life, but very humble and very gentle,” she said. Asked what he would think of today’s celebrity culture, Priscilla said he would love “American Idol,” Fox Television’s top-rated amateur singing competition.
Presley is perennially among the top-earning dead celebrities. He topped Forbes’ list of deceased earners in 2007 and 2008, but was overtaken last year by designer Yves Saint Laurent, composers Rodgers and Hammerstein, and pop icon Michael Jackson.
From the age of 10, when he donned a cowboy costume and won a $5 first prize for singing “Old Shep,” to his discovery in the mid-1950s by Memphis music producer Sam Phillips, to his last years as a drug-addicted Las Vegas crooner, Presley earned millions.
Presley’s birthplace, Tupelo, Mississippi, also feted the “King” with a concert by Elvis impersonators and a party for several busloads of overseas fans.
Elvis Presley Enterprises, which controls Graceland and his image, will kick off a year of tributes that includes a partnership with Cirque du Soleil, a concert tour by “tribute” artists and a traveling show of photographs of Elvis at 21.
While some shopped for Elvis-themed trinkets at shops clustered at Graceland, others toured the 23-room mansion and filed solemnly past his grave in “Meditation Garden,” leaving behind teddy bears and other mementos.
Terri Donia of Niagara Falls, Canada, and a friend marveled at the striped furniture in the den dubbed the “Jungle Room.”
“It’s amazing here,” said Donia, who loves Presley’s “Love me tender” and shares something with the late singer.
“It’s my birthday, too,” she said.
Writing by Andrew Stern, Editing by Steve Gutterman