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Tampa's Hard Rock hotel unwraps shiny new toy: Elvis Presley's 24-karat gold piano

TAMPA - James Burton admired the golden piano in the golden atrium from behind a golden rope held up by golden posts. It was an instrument fit for a king - an instrument fit for the King - and one he hadn't seen this closely in, oh, who can remember, something like 40 years.

"Well, it's gold," Elvis Presley's old guitarist said emphatically. "You know what? I think Elvis would be proud of the piano being here."

Here, on Thursday morning, was the gleaming new atrium of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino's ongoing $720 million expansion, the centerpiece of which was an opulent, one-of-a-kind hunka-hunka-burnin' rock history: A 24-karat gold leaf piano owned by Presley himself.

Perched around the corner from Lady Gaga's Super Bowl halftime costume and down the way from Carl Perkins' blue suede shoes, the piano might be Hard Rock International's glitziest memorabilia pickup this decade, and one they've been waiting years to display.

"This has been a piece that we've held back," said Hard Rock chairman Jim Allen. "We were always waiting for the right place."

Tampa, it turns out, is that place.

Built in 1928, the W.W. Kimball grand was purchased by Elvis for his mother in 1955, shortly before Heartbreak Hotel hit No. 1. The singer's wife Priscilla Presley had it gilded with gold leaf as a first anniversary gift in 1968. After his death, a collector purchased the piano for $2 million and loaned it to the Country Music Hall of Fame, where it sat on display for more than two decades.

In 2015, the Hard Rock purchased the piano at auction for a price they won't disclose (auction records list it as $610,000), crowing via press release that it was the company's 80,000th item of memorabilia, and Tampa was the favorite to get it.

Rather than chucking the piano into an existing corner or corridor, the company designed and built a lavish, museum-like atrium all around it.

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The piano sits on a marble platform, ensconced by a pair of curved escalators, which at 22 feet, 6 inches are tied for the tallest in North America, say Hard Rock officials. To its left and right are a pair of vintage Gibsons, one from the 1957 film Elvis and Me, and another Presley played on stage in the mid-'70s. Overhead lords a palatial Art Deco chandelier, a downpour of golden glass and metal cascading from a bright, domed skylight.

Peer across the rope, and you can see the golden brushstrokes, scratches and dings on the legs and underbelly, scuffs on the stool from the King's regal buttocks, revealing the original walnut stain beneath the gilt. Elvis wasn't much of a pianist, Burton said, but he liked to sit around and play the odd song, like Unchained Melody.

"Just by ear," Burton said. "All of his talent is natural. Elvis, being a singer, didn't really have to do anything but sing and be a showman."

Hard Rock officials planned to bring in a surprise guest Thursday night to christen the piano in its new home. But people working in the hotel had already heard it. Upon its arrival a couple of weeks ago, the Hard Rock flew in a tuner to get it fixed up and ready to play.

"For as old of a piece as it is, it sounded incredible," said Frank Quarrella, safety director for the company contracted out for the construction. "Piece of rock history, right there."

And one that still commands attention in the music world. The company has received requests from artists who want to sit and play where Elvis sat and played, and they're "receptive to the conversation" on a "very, very, very limited basis," Allen said.

"We have an A-A-A superstar that frankly wants to play it," he said. "True A-list. Everybody in the world will know the individual, and he wants to play. Conversations have been ongoing for at least 45, 60 days."

And so, for curious casino-watchers, begins a guessing game: Which super-duperstar is dead-set on coming to Tampa to tinkle the King's ivories? Bruno Mars? Bruce Springsteen? Elton John?

Burton, 79, perked up at that last one. He also used to play with the late Leon Russell, an Elvis fan and Elton John collaborator.

"Elton John said Leon Russell was his favorite piano player, and a big influence," he said. "I think that would be wonderful. It would be wonderful if he played it."

Elton John plays Tampa on Nov. 4, about a month after the Hard Rock expansion's grand opening. The King's golden piano should still be shining like new.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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