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An Internet auction fit for the King

Special to The Times

A piece of rock ‘n’ roll history hit cyberspace’s most popular auction block last week as bidding began on a 1974 piano glowing with Elvis Presley’s Midas touch.

The white Yamaha baby grand piano is seeking some serious bidders willing to drop six figures to own a slice from the twilight of the career and life of the bestselling solo artist in U.S. history. Since bidding began Jan. 23, the EBay auction has tallied more than 4,300 hits, according to Shane Gudlow, who’s running the auction for the piano’s owner, businessman Warren Liu, 59, of Los Angeles. The auction ends Sunday.

Gudlow opened the bidding at $50,000 and estimated he could fetch as much as 10 times that. (So far, there have been nine official bids, though others often come in private e-mails to the auctioneer). In January 2003, Presley’s white Knabe grand piano in Memphis sold privately for $685,000. (The King purchased it used in 1957 for $818.85.)

It’s only the latest example of the boundlessness of Presley’s golden grace. Earlier this week, record industry veterans who claim they have the original master tape of Presley’s 1954 recording sessions at Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn., began cutting the deteriorating reel into two-inch clips to be mounted and sold -- for $495 each -- as genuine slivers of rock’s inception.

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With good judgment, Liu and Gudlow have opted to sell the Yamaha in one piece, pitching it on the Internet auction house as “custom ordered and purchased by RCA for Elvis” and placed in Hollywood’s late RCA building, home of Studio C, a high-ceiling recording room especially built for Presley. The site also showcases several photographs of the piano -- which retailed new for $7,300, according to the Yamaha Corp. of America -- along with scans of notarized documents corroborating its legacy as the instrument at which Presley rehearsed for Vegas shows and recorded such tracks as “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and “Pieces of My Life,” among others.

At that time, Presley had already starred in more than a dozen films and was spending much of his time on the West Coast, often in his Trousdale Estates home on Hillcrest Road.

The year after Presley’s death in 1977, Liu bought the RCA building, chairing the Stutz Motor Car of America company from ninth-floor offices.

“When I moved into the building I heard there was a white piano that belonged to Elvis,” Liu remembers. “Everybody was talking about it.”

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Liu said that in 1982 he purchased the bulk of the studios’ musical instruments and recording equipment in a pair of package deals totaling more than $1.5 million. In 1987, he sold it all, except for the white grand, to Ocean Wave Recording owner Allen Sides, who worked as an RCA sound engineer in the ‘70s.

“I remember that piano,” Sides said last week. “It was very important to him [Liu].”

“The other things had no memorabilia value for me,” said Liu, who considers himself an Elvis fan, not an aficionado. “But I kept that piano because it’s Elvis’ piano.”

Liu had the white grand and its ebony bench moved to the reception area of his office, where it remained until last year, when he shipped it to a relative’s home in West Hills. Liu said he started thinking about parting with the collectible about two years ago and began documenting what he knew and had heard about the instrument.

“I’m a little bit not so young now, and I’m just selling some assets and so forth,” Liu said. “I am hoarding this piano. In my ownership it is hiding. It should go to a more distinctive place so it can be more cherished.”

Through a friend late last year, Liu said, he contacted New Yorker Leo Jones to be the middleman for the details, such as spreading the word and hiring a seller. Jones found Gudlow at EBay.com, where he’s listed as one of Los Angeles’ highest ranked “trading assistants.”

Gudlow, 32, who specializes in buying and selling musical instruments, has dealt celebrity items before -- Kurt Cobain’s 1965 Fender Jaguar guitar and hip-hop artist Cheron Moore’s drum set, for example -- but the sale of the Presley piano would be his biggest score in more than a decade of trading. The fortunate phone call, he said, tore him and his wife from sleep early one morning a few days before Christmas. They let the machine pick up. “Hello, this is Leo Jones calling from New York,” the message began as Gudlow screened drowsily. “We need an assistant to help us sell something.”

Gudlow, who gets calls like this all the time, rolled over for some more shut-eye. But when Jones continued, “We have Elvis Presley’s grand piano,” Gudlow’s wife nudged him. He jumped up and grabbed the phone. About 20 minutes later, they struck a deal and agreed to wait until the holiday cash-crunch subsided before launching the auction.

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“I’m usually skeptical about selling celebrity instruments, because of the authentication factor,” Gudlow said last week. “I get it all the time. Some guy says, ‘Oh, I’ve got a ’57 Fender Strat,’ and I’ll go look at it and it’s from the ‘80s. Or some guy having a yard sale will be like, ‘Oh, so-and-so played this trombone in Tommy Dorsey’s big band.’ But I don’t believe any of it unless there’s some documentation.”

Just hours into the auction, however, Gudlow discovered that the letters of authenticity, provided by Presley’s former roadie Joe Esposito and Ocean Wave Recording’s Sides, dated the piano to 1968, when in fact, according to its serial number, it was built in 1974. Gudlow pulled the documents and had them corrected and reauthorized.

However, one mystery remains. According to the serial number, it’s a black, not white, piano. “Back then we didn’t make white pianos,” said Bernie McCaffery, piano marketing manager for Yamaha Corp. of America. “In ’74 we were offering black or black. There was no [color] option.” But he added that it wasn’t unusual at the time for piano dealers to paint instruments on special order.

“I remember him at that white piano many, many times,” recalled Esposito, who was present at many of Elvis’ Studio C sessions. “Elvis wasn’t a great piano player, but he could feel and play music on most instruments. He was a very emotional person, you know, and he loved the piano because of the feeling.

“His recording sessions were very casual,” Esposito continued. “They’d finish a song and take a little break, and he’d go to the piano and play and sing gospel or the old ‘Unchained Melody’ type of stuff.”

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Elvis in Studio C

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Here are songs recorded by Elvis Presley in RCA’s Studio C,

according to a Presley recording catalog website, www.finnishelvis.50megs.com.

“Fairytale”

“Green, Green Grass of Home”

“I Can Help”

“And I Love You So”

“Susan When She Tried”

“T-R-O-U-B-L-E”

“Tiger Man”

“Woman Without Love”

“Shake a Hand”

“Bringin’ it Back”

“Pieces of My Life”


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