Is Elvis' White Knabe Piano a White Elephant?

For the second time in 18 months, a prized Elvis collectible has failed to garner the minimum bid set by the auctioneers.  Of course, it was a pretty steep minimum – a half-million dollars – and the projected sell price was $1,000,000 plus.  The item with these lofty expectations is a white Knabe grand piano that Elvis owned for twelve years. 

The latest attempt to auction it was at the Ultimate Elvis Auction that just completed during Elvis Week in Memphis.  It was presented by Heritage Auction Galleries, and they included quite a story about Elvis and the piano on their auction website.  The following article comes from that text, with a little editing from me.  I would give author credit to whoever wrote it, but that information is not given.

 

Glowing words of Praise by Heritage Auctions:

For the serious Elvis Presley fan or collector, it's hard to imagine a more important musical relic ever being made available to the public. The vibrations that emanate from this venerable instrument are not just from the strings as they are hit by the hammers. These vibrations emanate from nearly a century of glorious music-making at the hands of legions of talented and famous musicians. One of those musicians who treasured this piano as his own was the undisputed King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. What else needs to be said?

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We are presenting an elegant musical instrument, with wonderful provenance back to the 1930s, which was an emotionally-charged prized possession of the King himself: a Wm. Knabe & Co. grand piano, serial number 70545, refinished in white with gold trim per Elvis' personal specifications and under his direct supervision in 1957.

It is sold with the original white vinyl-cushioned bench on gold-colored metal legs as selected by Elvis to accompany the piano to his new home at Graceland. Included with this lot are letters of authenticity from Ron Blackwood, George Klein, Ted Sturges and C. B. Colthard, each attesting to a portion of the intriguing background of this fascinating piece of musical history.

 

History of Knabe Pianos:

William Knabe, a German immigrant, started his piano-manufacturing company in Baltimore in 1837. His instruments were of a high quality and well regarded, especially in the antebellum South. Owners and players of Knabe pianos through the years include Albert Einstein, Brigham Young, Rutherford B. Hayes, Camille Saint-Saens, Francis Scott Key, and Hans von Bülow; Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky played a Knabe at the opening concert of Carnegie Hall in 1891, and Knabe pianos were used by the New York Metropolitan Opera for forty years. Based on the serial number, this particular instrument was carefully manufactured in 1912.

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Owners Before Elvis:

Who may have created beautiful music with this piano from its date of manufacture until its installation as a stage instrument at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1930s is a mystery. From that point forward though, there is an unbroken line of ownership to the present. The multi-purpose Memphis Auditorium and Market House was built in 1924 at the north end of Front Street with John Philip Sousa performing at the opening performance. The name was changed in 1930 to Ellis Auditorium in honor of its manager Robert R. Ellis, and the market stalls were eventually dropped. During the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s, the stage at Ellis Auditorium was graced by the greatest local and national touring musical acts of the period including W. C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and certainly many, many others.

In 1957, this Knabe grand piano was sold during a remodeling project at the Ellis. The purchaser was Jack Marshall, owner of Marshall Music at 3627 Park Avenue in Memphis.  Jack Marshall knew of the quality and history of this piano; he had played it onstage at the Ellis numerous times as the accompanist for the legendary Southern Gospel group, the Blackwood Brothers.

 

Elvis and Ellis Auditorium:

What possessed Elvis in 1957 to choose this particular “used” piano for his grand new home?  There were certainly plenty of other pianos, both new and used, to choose from. It's likely that many of those could be ordered in white, avoiding the tiresome refinishing process.  A look at the history of Elvis Presley and the Ellis Auditorium may answer that question.

A poor young teenager living in public housing, Elvis often attended the Gospel “Sings” that took place at Ellis Auditorium.  He and his mother both loved that type of music; they attended the First Assembly of God Church where the Blackwood Brothers were based.  On the nights that Elvis couldn't get a job selling sodas at Ellis to earn admittance and didn't have the pocket change, he could usually count on the Blackwoods to let him sneak in through the back door.  He would sit in the audience, watch Jack Marshall play this Knabe piano with the members of the beloved quartet he called friends, and dream of the day he might perform on that very stage.

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Of the many memories Elvis held of Ellis Auditorium, one of the proudest must have been the night that he walked across that stage for the first time. The date was June 3, 1953, and the occasion was his graduation from Hume High School; he was the first member of his family to accomplish that feat.  His parents were likely in the audience beaming with pride at their son.

Another memory, certainly vivid but evocative of a much sadder event, was his attendance, on July 2, 1954, of the funeral for R. W. Blackwood and bass singer Bill Lyles, both killed in a plane crash. He and girlfriend Dixie Locke were among the 5,000 mourners at Ellis that day.

It was with a heavy heart that, three days later, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black recorded their first hit, “That's All Right,” for Sun Records. The very first time Elvis performed on that hallowed Ellis stage was on February 6, 1955. He was fourth-billed, behind Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, and Martha Carson.

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Fourth Billing February 1955                   Top Billing November 1955

 

At Elvis' next gig at Ellis Auditorium, on November 13, 1955, he was top-billed over Hank Thompson, Carl Smith, and Carl Perkins.  This would be his last performance there as a Sun artist; eight days later, RCA bought out Elvis' recording contract.  During 1955 and 1956, Elvis performed at Ellis Auditorium six times.

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Performing at Ellis Auditorium, May 15, 1956  –  Is that the Knabe Piano on the left?

He had become a superstar by the time he bought this piano in 1957, but he most certainly still had a strong emotional connection to that venue.  When the piano became available, it's no wonder that Elvis felt he absolutely had to have it for his very own.  What an amazing story — from sneaking in the back door to hear it played behind his favorite Gospel group to owning it and playing it himself in his own music room just a few short years later!

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Through the later years, Elvis remained associated with Ellis in various ways.  His first Memphis concert after returning from the Army was a charity event with two shows there on February 25, 1961, his next-to-last public performance for seven years.  In 1971, Elvis would once again appear on the Ellis Auditorium stage when he was named one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Men of America” by the Jaycees.

 

Elvis Buys the White Knabe Grand Piano:

As soon as Elvis heard of the availability of this instrument, he wanted it as part of the original furnishings for his new home in Memphis called Graceland.  However, he had a definite vision as to the appearance he desired.  To that end, he personally supervised the refinishing of the Knabe, a process that took place in Marshall's store with a young high school-aged member of the singing Blackwood family named Ron Blackwood performing most of the stripping and sanding procedures.

Blackwood had a fond memory of Elvis and the piano:  “One special event involving this piano occurred when one evening while I was working on the refinishing in the warehouse at Jack Marshall's music store, Elvis came by to check on the progress, as he often did. He and several of the Blackwood Brothers began singing and playing gospel songs together.  This continued until past 4:00 a.m. I was still in high school at the time, but I stayed and participated in the sing along jam session the entire night.  I was so tired the next morning, I couldn't go to school. My mother was so upset.”

When piano was completed to Elvis' satisfaction, he purchased a matching bench and had them moved into a prominent place in his music room at the new mansion.

That is where this piano stayed for twelve years.  During that time, he proudly played it and allowed his musician friends to practice and jam on it.  When Elvis allowed photographers from a Memphis newspaper to photograph Graceland in 1965 (the one and only time), several shots were taken of Elvis standing beside or playing this very piano.

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According to Elvis’ close friend George Klein, “One special event involving this piano occurred when one evening Sam Phillips called and asked if he and Jerry Lee Lewis could stop by Graceland.  The result was that Elvis and Jerry Lee played and sang together on that piano for over two hours.”

 

The End of the Knabe at Graceland:

On the occasion of his and Priscilla's first wedding anniversary, she gifted him a new gold piano to replace the Knabe.  Off to storage it went, its mellow voice sadly silenced for several years.

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In 1976, Vernon Presley decided to sell the grand piano to Ted Sturges, a local recording studio owner and record producer.  During the five years he owned this Knabe, it was used in recording sessions for more than 50 albums from various artists including the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis.  In 1981, Sturges appropriately sold the piano to a close friend of Presley's, entertainer Jimmy Velvet.  He had opened an Elvis memorabilia museum in Memphis, and he proudly exhibited it there until 1990.  At that point, it returned to private ownership where it has remained for the last 20 years.

 

Editors note:  The name of that owner has not been revealed.  What has been revealed is that the next time he tries to auction Elvis’ White Knabe Piano, he better open the bidding at less than $500,000.

 


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