August 16 was the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. To commemorate this event, Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises sponsored Elvis Live in Concert, a tour of Elvis performing with a live 46-member studio orchestra. The show stripped the background music from videos and films in which Elvis appeared and replaced it with live orchestrations. Requiring precision timing, the music was synchronized to recorded videos of Elvis performances projected on a large screen above the orchestra. The effect was striking and awe-inspiring. It felt like Elvis was actually performing live onstage.
British conductor and arranger Robin Smith debuted Elvis Live in Concert in the United Kingdom in the fall 2016 and it toured throughout Europe and Australia. The show proved so successful that Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises wanted to duplicate the event here in the US. The plan was to tour throughout August in large arena-style venues, honoring Elvis’s memory with concerts featuring a live orchestra. Many audience members had never seen the real Elvis in concert. The tour came “home” to Memphis, Tennessee, August 16 for a special show honoring Elvis’s passing.
Graceland turned to Memphis Symphony Orchestra musician Greg Luscombe of Locals 71 (Memphis, TN) and 10-208 (Chicago, IL) to assemble the highly skilled professional musicians required to make the music come to life. Most of the musicians were members of the Memphis Symphony, but some were selected because of expertise in performing Elvis’s music.
“It was especially amazing working with some of the most talented musicians from Memphis,” says Andre Acevedo of Locals 777 (Biloxi, MS) and 301 (Pekin, IL), who played sax for the show. “The rhythm section and the drums were particularly impressive. Because the music came from live Elvis performances, the drum set had to follow along with click that didn’t have a consistent tempo. James Sexton did it well and made the music feel smooth and groove. Jim Spake [of Local 71] on the solo tenor saxophone, played the opening ‘If I Can Dream’ with such a classic tenor saxophone sound. It was perfect for this genre, which makes sense as he is something of a Memphis legend. Finally, I loved the string section as a whole. The string arrangements were gorgeous and helped glorify Elvis’s voice.”
The results were remarkable. The musicians didn’t just precisely perform the written scores, they were genuinely passionate about their performances. The enthusiasm of the musicians was clearly transmitted to the loyal Elvis fans attending the joyful events.
“The show was beautiful and the audience reaction was something I will always remember,” says Acevedo. “The audience reacted as if Elvis was really there! I watched couples cry and dance together, and I watched older women scream like they were 16 years old again. Each show ended with thunderous applause, showing so much appreciation for Elvis and our ensemble backing him up.”
The AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking Division (TTBD) assisted Luscombe in achieving a union agreement that offered the musicians competitive wages and benefits, plus carefully planned travel conditions. The tour moved from Connecticut to Florida, stopping at more than a dozen venues along the way. “As contractor, my first job was to establish appropriate pay, per diem, travel, and accommodations that fit the budget of Graceland/Elvis Presley Enterprises, while doing the right thing for the musicians,” says Luscombe. “I found it extremely helpful that all of the basic items you need in a touring contract are well established by the AFM TTBD, based on years of experience and negotiations. The fact that the AFM agreement was good for the musicians as well as for Graceland (c/o Elvis Presley Enterprises) contributed to the overall good morale among the musicians and everyone that was involved with the tour.”
Negotiating for a short-running tour isn’t always easy. Aside from proper compensation for the musicians involved, the contract must also take into account their travel concerns. The sizes and economics of the large venues where the show played meant the musicians were provided wage scales commensurate with top dollar pop acts.
“Of course, the long bus rides and other inconveniences of touring are not always fun, but when musicians feel they have a fair deal, plus good accommodations and meals waiting for them, it can translate into highly energized performances,” adds Luscombe. “It was obvious that the audience sensed the good vibe from the musicians throughout the tour.”
“Because the tour was on a union contract, we could count on the production adhering to a set daily schedule. That meant a lot to us since we were working on such a tightly booked tour. Receiving a reasonable salary with payments for pension, doubling, and overtime made all the difference. In a ‘right to work’ state environment it can be tough to negotiate these issues on a contract,” says woodwind player Gary Topper of Local 71 (Memphis,TN).
The overwhelming success of this tour reaffirmed the concept that working closely with an employer to realize a fair agreement for both parties leads to highly professional results that both the employer and musicians can be proud of.
“All in all, this tour was so much fun and I had a wonderful time playing beautiful music,” says Acevedo. “I am very glad that Greg Luscombe worked things out to make it an AFM tour. I would hope the demand for this show continues as I would really love to do it all again!”