Ten days ago, Graceland.com/news made this announcement:
“Elvis Presley’s Graceland has announced the acquisition of one of the most significant pieces of Elvis’ musical history, which will be returned to Graceland 60 years after it was first purchased by Elvis for the home in 1957 – a white, baby grand piano with gold accents and a custom-made, gold, metal bench designed by Elvis with a white, leather cushion. For the first time ever, the public will be able to see this legendary Knabe branded piano on display in its Graceland home.”
This is a special piano, as we will report in detail, and its acquisition seems to be the catalyst for a complete restoration of the Graceland music room to its original 1960s-era appearance. The white piano will be complemented by the original white and blue draperies, and the gold couch that was part of the room’s décor in 1964. Doesn’t it sometimes seem like nothing at Graceland was ever thrown out? I guess it was all put into storage in the attic, basement, outbuildings and elsewhere.
History of Knabe Pianos:
William Knabe, a German immigrant, started his piano-manufacturing company in Baltimore in 1837. His instruments were of 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, 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 manufactured in 1912.
Owners Before Elvis:
It’s a mystery who may have owned this piano from 1912 until the 1930s when it was installed as a stage instrument at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee. For the next three decades, the Knabe piano at Ellis was played by the finest local and national touring musical acts of the period, including W. C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and many others.
In early 1957, this Knabe grand piano was sold during a remodeling project at Ellis Auditorium. The purchaser was Jack Marshall, owner of Marshall Music at 3627 Park Avenue in Memphis. 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.
As soon as Elvis heard of the availability of this instrument, he wanted it as part of the original furnishings for his new home called Graceland. On May 28, 1957, Elvis purchased the piano from Jack Marshall s for $818.85.
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. A new one could probably have been ordered in white, avoiding the lengthy refinishing process. A look at the history of Elvis Presley and the Ellis Auditorium may answer that question.
As a poor teenager, 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. Elvis also dreamed of the day he might perform on that very stage.
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 Humes High School. His parents were likely in the audience beaming with pride at their son.
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.
At Elvis’ next gig at Ellis Auditorium, on November 13, 1955, he was top-billed over Hank Thompson, Carl Smith, and Carl Perkins. During 1955 and 1956, Elvis performed at Ellis Auditorium six times.
Elvis had become a superstar by the time he bought this piano in 1957, but he most certainly still had a strong emotional connection to Ellis Auditorium. 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!
Elvis Had the White Knabe Grand Piano Refurbished:
He had a definite vision of the appearance he wanted. To that end, Elvis personally supervised the refinishing of the Knabe, a process that took place in Jack 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, the piano was the musical focal point of many hours Elvis spent rehearsing and entertaining guests, and it was played constantly by Elvis as well as visiting celebrities. Elvis enjoyed playing and singing alone in private moments, but especially enjoyed gathering family and friends in the music room as they ran through a broad repertoire of favorite songs – particularly gospel and R&B.
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.”
If I was granted a special wish to go back in time to any Elvis event, I think I would pick this two-hour Elvis and Jerry Lee jam session. That would be some experience.
The End of the Knabe at Graceland:
As a present for Elvis’ and Priscilla’s first wedding anniversary in 1968, she gave him a new gold piano to replace the Knabe. Off to storage it went, its mellow voice sadly silenced for several years.
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 Sturges owned this Knabe, it was used in recording sessions for more than 50 albums by various artists. In 1981, Sturges sold the piano to a close friend of Elvis, 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.
During Elvis Week in 2010, the Knabe piano was offered at Ultimate Elvis Auction held by Heritage Auctions in Memphis. The minimum bid was set at $500,000, and the pre-auction estimate was $1 million plus. The price tag was too high, and nobody met the minimum.
Presumably, EPE negotiated more favorable terms to bring this special piano back to Graceland.
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