In the dark recesses of the Bruce Piano Company archives lies a story about a daring rescue of the equally renowned career of Elvis Presley. We can thank this event for the perpetuation of the late Elvis as the King, and led to many Elvis impersonators for years afterwards.
To understand this story you’ll need some background. My father, who founded the piano store, loved music––classical, jazz, big band, solo pop of the Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby varieties––but most assuredly not rock music, country, or Elvis in particular. I imagine much grave-spinning around the thought that his company was to play such a crucial role for Elvis.
My Dad, however, did not live to see this disturbing event. He died in late 1969. His brother Don, whom he had invited into the business shortly before, took over. But then he died just two years later. Both men were in their early 50’s. My mother remained as the owner of what was by then a struggling business. The growth of electronic entertainments, such as TV and hi-fi, the advent of big box stores, smaller families, and other large societal changes meant that the image of a piano in every middle-class home was fading away.
Although my mother would have been a very good business person (as this story will demonstrate), her upbringing in Georgia nearly a century ago told her that this was not a role for a lady. The same logic would extend to her daughters, who were also busy with family and work. Her son was far away, doing something or another.
A sale of the business seemed to be the obvious path. But there was no willing buyer. Rather than having a distress sale, which would have yielded little, we worked out a deal whereby the manager, Harvey, would buy the store over time, using the revenues the business would generate. Harvey couldn’t have been guaranteed a very good salary. This way he could establish his own pay based on the success he could generate, and in the end, he’d own a business. My mother would be able to draw something from the business that had been the center of the family for many years. The arrangement wasn’t ideal, but was probably the best solution all around.
Ultimately the broader changes in society did the business in. But for a while, Harvey did his best and Bruce Piano Co. was a going concern. Harvey tried to follow my father’s model, offering a range of instruments, working with piano teachers, assisting the local concert scene, and participating in music conventions. A conflict between the last two of these was what put Elvis’s career in jeopardy. (My children say that I’m prone to exaggerate, but you may rest assured that that is the greatest falsity ever uttered.)
Elvis’s concerts in Fort Worth
The problem was that Harvey had agreed that the store would supply a piano for Elvis’s concerts in Fort Worth. There were to be four productions at the Tarrant County Convention Center. Although Elvis was near the end of his career, and life, and his audience had aged along with him, there was still excitement and adoration for the idol. Fans didn’t mind the $10 ticket price for an hour-long concert, and would love even the shortened versions of his big hits, including “Love Me Tender,” “Fever,” “Why Me Lord,” “Houn’ Dog,” and “Suspicious Minds.”
But then Harvey left for the music convention, without arranging to fulfill the promise to deliver a piano. Elvis’s manager was understandably upset when he discovered that there was no piano on hand. He called the store, only to learn that Harvey was away and unreachable in those pre-cell days. He called Don’s wife Nancy, who didn’t know how to help. He finally called Bert’s wife and my mother, Catherine, the one who claimed that she didn’t know anything about business.
Obtaining the piano
Catherine began to problem solve. She contacted the piano movers, but they had gone fishing. She pointed out that she had a key to the store, as the still current, if somewhat removed, owner. If Elvis’s team could come up with movers, she could get them in to the piano.
They met at the store. Elvis sent three bodyguards, who, while not expert in piano moving, were at least strong and committed. But they didn’t know which piano had been ordred. Catherine decided that they wouldn’t go wrong with a concert grand, the biggest model. She found the wooden boxing that was needed to transport a grand piano safely. The team boxed the piano and carried it to the concert venue. After the four weekend concerts the piano was returned safely and Bruce Piano Co, could chalk up another successful service.
Could Elvis have found another piano, or performed without one? Could his career have survived a busted Fort Worth concert? Was the near disaster a sign of the end of both the piano store and Elvis? You’ll have to be the judge of that.
I can say that my mother proved that she could solve a business problem in a difficult and time-pressured circumstance. And I think that my father would have been proud that his company fulfilled its commitment, as long as he didn’t have to go to hear Elvis himself.