Elvis Presley: what's going on with the Riley Keough family row over Graceland?

Elvis Presley and Riley Keough (Snap/Shutterstock // Aliah Anderson/Getty Images)
Elvis Presley and Riley Keough (Snap/Shutterstock // Aliah Anderson/Getty Images)

Graceland, the iconic former home of Elvis Presley, has now been “saved” after the lender who had hoped to have it auctioned off pulled out of the scheme. The King’s granddaughter, actress and model Riley Keough, had launched a bid to block the sale of the Memphis, Tennessee mansion.

Keough became the owner of Graceland when her mother Lisa Marie Presley died at the age of 54 in January last year. She was fighting an investment firm who claimed that Lisa Marie used the home as collateral for a loan, which was never paid back, so they were trying to regain their money.

But Keough said in return that her mother never signed over anything and never borrowed any money, and alleged that the sale was therefore “fraudulent”. Now the lender, Gregory Nassauny, has said that the case to gain control of Graceland is too complicated as it involves three different states, so he will be pulling out.

It’s not the only intrigue over Elvis’s legacy this year. The Elvis Evolution, an “immersive concert experience”, is set to come to London this November. It promises to use hologram technology and AI to go through thousands of photos and home-video footage of Presley and create a live event to rival his iconic Las Vegas residencies. Shows are also planned in Las Vegas, Tokyo and Berlin. A deal was struck between Authentic Brands Group, the owners of the Elvis Presley estate, and Layered Reality, a British immersive entertainment company, to set up the show.

Presley is big money: according to Forbes last year, he was the fourth largest revenue earner in a list of dead celebrities, behind JRR Tolkien, Kobe Bryant and David Bowie. But who really owns the Elvis brand, and who are the people behind it?

Colonel Tom Parker

Elvis didn’t leave as much money as he might have in his will – famously due to his tough manager Colonel Tom Parker, whose contract gave Parker 50 per cent of Elvis’s concert and record income, and forced the singer to make a series of films against his wishes. Luhrmann’s recent Elvis biopic had the Colonel played by Tom Hanks.

In 1973, Parker signed a brutal deal with the record label RCA, which controlled the rights to all of the roughly 700 recordings Elvis had made by then. It meant that Presley waived his rights to all future royalties for just $5.4m, which left just $1.3m after Parker’s cut and taxes. When Elvis died in 1977, the estate was generating an income of just $1m a year, almost half of which was swallowed up by the cost of maintaining his famous home, Graceland.

Lisa Marie Presley

Lisa Marie Presley (REUTERS)
Lisa Marie Presley (REUTERS)

All that meant that when Presley unexpectedly passed away aged 42, his estate was said to have assets of just $5 million – as well as to be in serious debt, which had to be paid off. In his will, Elvis had named his father Vernon, his grandmother, Minnie Mae Presley and his only child, Lisa Marie, then only nine years old, as beneficiaries of the trust containing the rest of the funds. Vernon and Minnie Mae died quickly, and Lisa Marie became the sole heir and beneficiary.

Because his daughter was still young, Vernon’s will had passed the responsibility for the Trust to Lisa-Marie’s mother Priscilla and an accountant and a Memphis bank to oversee the estate until 1993, when Lisa Marie would turn 25. When she came of age, the estate was worth far more than that – largely due to good management by her mother. By that time, Lisa Marie would already have a very busy showbiz life: she married Michael Jackson in 1994.

Priscilla Presley

Priscilla Presley. (Doug Peters/PA) (PA Archive)
Priscilla Presley. (Doug Peters/PA) (PA Archive)

Even though she wasn’t named in his will, it was Priscilla Presley who can take huge credit for making Elvis’s legacy the financial behemoth it is today. In 1981, she established Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc (EPE), and the following year opened Graceland as a public attraction. It has been a huge success, with more than 500,000 visitors each year, and $10m last year.

Priscilla is the subject of great fascination: a new film by Sofia Coppola details her life meeting the huge star at just 14 years old. She’s still alive today at 78, and is a great ambassador for the Presley brand, despite suffering personal tragedy, including the death of her daughter and grandson.

Barry Siegel

Thanks to good management, Lisa Marie got $100m in 1993. When she received the cash, she created a new vehicle to hold her interests, the Promenade Trust, with herself as the primary beneficiary. And Priscilla and a business manager, Barry Siegel, as trustees. But Lisa Marie spent unwisely, buying property in Hawaii, California and Britain – as well as running up large tax debts.

Partly to help with the debts, in 2005, Siegel sold off 85 per cent of EPE to an entertainment company called CKX Inc, led by an investor Robert Sillerman, in exchange for $50m in cash and $25m in CKX stock. The Promenade Trust retained 15 per cent of EPE, and sole ownership of Graceland.

In 2013 Sillerman sold on EPE to a company called the Authentic Brands Group, giving them the rights to licensing and merchandising Elvis’s name and likeness – the company which has now made the hologram experience. In 2016, Sillerman’s company went bankrupt, meaning the cash in the trust was largely gone.

Lisa Marie then filed a $100 million lawsuit against Siegel, accusing him of taking too much money out of EPE. In response, Siegel counter-sued Lisa Marie for management fees. The case was settled out of court. Lisa Marie then died in early 2023, leading to yet more financial confusion.

Riley Keogh

Riley Keough (Doug Peters/PA) (PA Wire)
Riley Keough (Doug Peters/PA) (PA Wire)

Enter Elvis's granddaughter, actress Riley Keough. In 2016, Lisa Marie had changed the Promenade Trust, removing Priscilla and Barry Siegel as trustees, and replacing them with two of her four children, Riley and Benjamin Keough. In 2020, Benjamin, a musician, took his own life at the age of 27.

That meant that when Lisa Marie died suddenly a year ago, it left Riley as the only trustee of the entire Presley Estate. But she wasn't entirely unchallenged: after Lisa Marie's death, Riley's grandmother Priscilla tried to argue that the 2016 amendment was potentially fraudulent, and couldn't have been the work of Lisa Marie. That case was resolved in May, with Keough agreeing to pay $1m, as well as large legal costs in return for Priscilla resigning from the Trust. Priscilla also remained as a paid special adviser to the trust, but it left Riley as the main heir to the Elvis legacy.

Authentic Brands Group

While Keough is the family face of the trust, it's Authentic Brands Group (ABG) which continues to own 85 per cent of Elvis Presley Enterprises. ABG's website describes its mission as to "evolve, transform and reimagine global brands", and their portfolio includes Brooks Brothers, Nautica and Reebok, as well as personalities both alive and dead, including David Beckham, Marilyn Monroe, and Muhammad Ali.

In 2021, EPE made $110m, partly helped by the Baz Luhrmann biopic. Who is to say what they could make for Riley Keough from their latest hologram venture? And now it seems that Keough has kept ownership of Graceland too, she is in the best position to keep control of the Presley legacy.