Smashed Elvis gui­tar gets pride of place

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Dirk Lammers

VER­MIL­LION, S.D. — A 16th-cen­tury Amati vi­olon­cello dis­played in the National Mu­sic Mu­seum has long been nick­named “The King,” but the ghost of a leg­endary rock ’n’ roller has ar­rived in South Dakota to re­claim his re­gal moniker.

A slightly smashed acous­tic gui­tar played by Elvis Pres­ley on his fi­nal tour in 1977 now greets vis­i­tors in front of the mu­seum’s main gal­leries. The Martin D-35 was tossed aside by “The King” dur­ing a St. Peters­burg, Fla., con­cert af­ter suf­fer­ing a bro­ken strap and string, said Robert John­son, a Mem­phis-based gui­tarist who do­nated the item.

“He broke the strap and at the same time he broke a string,” said John­son, not­ing Pres­ley’s frus­tra­tion. “He tosses it straight up in the air and it just comes down.”

John­son, who played with singer Isaac Hayes and the band John En­twistle’s Ox in the 1970s, do­nated the Elvis gui­tar and four other celebrity items to the National Mu­sic Mu­seum, which is tucked away in an old Carnegie li­brary build­ing on the Univer­sity of South Dakota cam­pus. The mu­seum’s trus­tees also pur­chased John­son’s 1967 Gib­son Ex­plorer Ko­rina wood gui­tar, for­merly owned by bassist En­twistle, who’s best known as a mem­ber of The Who.

John­son, a long­time col­lec­tor, also do­nated a Chet Atkins hol­low body gui­tar given to coun­try pi­anist Floyd Cramer and later played by Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gil­ley, a 1966 cus­tom Gram­mer gui­tar made for Johnny Cash, a 1961 Kay Value Leader gui­tar signed by blues le­gend Muddy Wa­ters and one of Bob Dy­lan’s Hohner Marine Band har­mon­i­cas.

“Th­ese in­stru­ments prob­a­bly make the big­gest splash of any celebrity things that we’ve had be­fore,” said mu­seum di­rec­tor Cleve­land John­son. “We have some nice things, but this is a de­gree of mag­ni­tude higher.”

Cleve­land John­son, who is not re­lated to Robert John­son, took over as di­rec­tor in Novem­ber af­ter the re­tire­ment of An­dre Lar­son, who’d been at the helm since it was es­tab­lished in 1973. The mu­seum’s hold­ings grew out of a pri­vate col­lec­tion owned by Lar­son’s fa­ther, Arne B. Lar­son, who con­tin­u­ally added items while serv­ing as a pub­lic school mu­sic di­rec­tor.

Robert John­son said he owns some 600 gui­tars and an­other 2,000 to 3,000 ar­ti­facts, so he be­gan dis­cus­sions with An­dre Larsen in 2010 to get in­volved with the mu­seum.

“I was try­ing to find a place to hoard the rest of my stuff so it could be in place,” said John­son, 61. “It gets to be an over­whelm­ing, op­pres­sive bur­den to keep up with all this stuff.”

The mu­seum’s 800 or so in­stru­ments on pub­lic dis­play are the su­per­stars of a broader col­lec­tion of more than 15,000 pi­anos, harp­si­chords, gui­tars, horns, drums and other mu­si­cal items. It in­cludes a rare Stradi­var­ius vi­o­lin with its orig­i­nal neck, sax­o­phones built by in­ven­tor Adolphe Sax, and the ear­li­est French grand pi­ano known to sur­vive, an or­nate green and gold in­stru­ment built by Louis Bas in Vil­leneuve les Avi­gnon in 1781.

Cleve­land John­son said it has al­ways been easy to drop names like Stradi­vari and Amati (whose cen­turies-old vi­o­lins are con­sid­ered the finest ever made) when he talks to peo­ple in clas­si­cal mu­sic cir­cles, but the new items will help the mu­seum reach a dif­fer­ent de­mo­graphic.

“The mo­tor­cy­cle guys rolling across the state on their way to Stur­gis, this would be a nice de­tour,” he said. “Or a bus tour go­ing from Sioux Falls to Mem­phis or down to Bran­son, this would be a per­fect stop off on the way.”


Robert John­son do­nated sev­eral gui­tars to the National Mu­sic Mu­seum.

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