In 1968, a cherry-red guitar helped save Elvis’s career. Now it may be the world’s most valuable musical instrument.
Forty-six years after his untimely death, Elvis Presley remains a musical phenomenon. In the past year alone, Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic has been a critical and commercial smash hit; Presley’s songs were streamed over a billion times on Spotify; Forbes reported he earned $110 million from all income sources. Billboard estimates the Elvis Presley estate is worth a cool $1 billion.
If you own a piece of Elvis memorabilia, you own a valuable piece of history. And no more so than the guitar he played in his best-ever performance: described as his good luck charm, this iconic instrument has just been officially valued at $5 million.
In 1968, Elvis Presley’s career was stalled. He hadn’t had a top 10 hit for three years and was churning out a series of old-fashioned movies that, while profitable, were a world away from thriving youth culture and a turbulent backdrop of political assassinations and student riots. Quite simply, Presley’s career was in the toilet – the crude but honest assessment given by Steve Binder, hired to direct a TV show that would change everything.
Broadcast on December 3rd, Singer Presents Elvis – better known as the ‘68 Comeback Special – saw Presley roar back into the public consciousness as the true king of rock ‘n’ roll. Looking and sounding magnificent, the show was all about the music, and the raw excitement of Presley’s performance.
Beyond the face-framing high collars, it is Elvis’ musicianship that makes the comeback show so, well, special. And as recognisable as the infamous leather jumpsuit is his Cherry Red Hagstrom Viking II electric guitar – the King’s instrument of choice for this epic performance.
The show attracted a stunning 42% audience share – ending 1968 as broadcaster NBC’s highest-rated show of the year. The soundtrack entered the top 10 and was soon certified platinum.
A rejuvenated Presley recorded acclaimed album, From Elvis in Memphis – the album artwork showing him playing that Cherry Red guitar – and scored huge hits In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds. A legendary Vegas residency would follow. No wonder Elvis felt this guitar was his good luck charm.
55 years on, the 1968 Comeback Special continues to inspire – it’s a central moment in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic – featuring on the main movie poster – and is the starting point for the new Agent Elvis animated Netflix series.
With Elvis’ evergreen appeal, that $5 million valuation may already be on the conservative side: could it soon become the world’s most expensive guitar, overtaking the $6,01m paid for Kurt Cobain’s MTV Unplugged acoustic? With the 1968 Comeback Special’s sit-down section foreshadowing MTV Unplugged by 21 years, that could be a very apt outcome.
Top 10 guitars sold at auction
#10 – David Gilmour’s 1954 Fender Stratocaster (GBP £1.49 million)
#9 – Jerry Garcia’s Wolf Guitar (GBP £1.57 million)
#8 – Peter Green’s “Greeny” Les Paul (GBP £1.65 million)
#7 – Jimi Hendrix’s “Izabella” 1968 Fender Stratocaster (GBP £1.65 million)
#6 – John Lennon’s Gibson J-160E (GBP £1.9 million)
#5 – Reach Out to Asia Fender Stratocaster (GBP £2.23 million)
#4 – Eddie Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” Kramer (GBP £3.16 million)
#3 – David Gilmour’s Black Strat (GBP £3.28 million)
#2 – Kurt Cobain’s “Teen Spirit” Fender Mustang (GBP £3.7 million)
#1 – Kurt Cobain’s 1959 Martin D-18E (£4.85 million)
There have been a lot of tough guys. There have been pretenders. And there have been contenders. But there is only one king – Bruce Springsteen
When I first heard Elvis’ voice I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail. – Bob Dylan
Before Elvis, there was nothing – John Lennon.