Memorabilia: The Hard Rock’s Beating Heart & The Smithsonian Of Rock ’N’ Roll Artifacts

The OG Axe: Eric Clapton’s Fender Lead II, donated in 1979 and seen here at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square in 2011, started a memorabilia collection that’s an integral aspect of the global brand. Lisa Hancock / FilmMagic / Getty Images

Memorabilia has been called the beating heart of the Hard Rock brand and with good reason. With close to 90,000 items amassed over nearly 50 years, starting with the Fender guitar donated by Eric Clapton in 1979, the collection is the veritable Smithsonian of rock ’n’ roll keepsakes.

Slowhand wanted to mark his place at the Hard Rock Cafe in London by having his axe hung over his regular table and founders Isaac Tigrett and Peter Morton were happy to comply. Not to be outdone, The Who’s Pete Townshend donated one of his guitars not a week later.

“At that point it became a collection,” says Giovanni Taliaferro, Hard Rock International’s vice president of memorabilia and design.

It wasn’t always that way. When the first cafes opened, beginning with London in 1971, rock memorabilia wasn’t the prevailing theme, Taliaferro says.

“It was Americana. There was a lot of tchotchkes. They had collegiate pennants on the walls. It was very much an American diner-esque type of aesthetic, he says, adding that the early design was popular, but nothing like the touchpoint it’s become for millions of guests.

“These items, there’s a certain magic to them,” Taliaferro says. “Music is in everyone’s DNA. We all have our own passions, and the memorabilia can transport our guests back to a period of their own lives.”

That was the case for Taliaferro, a former Disney illustrator who says one of his earliest musical memories is of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

“I don’t know how young I was, but my mom would put me on her bed and play that record while she was cleaning up the room. When she passed, I had to find that record when I was going through her stuff. I have it at my house now.”

Later, when he saw Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to the song in the Hard Rock collection, it brought back a flood of emotions and memories.

“It’s a key part of what makes a Hard Rock a Hard Rock,” Taliaferro says of the items in the collection, be it a pair of Nancy Sinatra’s boots or the dress worn by Alicia Keys that adorns the new Hard Rock Hotel New York. “No matter if it’s a cafe, hotel or casino, that’s a big part of what brings guests to our properties. Every single location is its own music and entertainment museum, so to speak. Maybe it’s Muddy Waters, maybe it’s Cardi B. or Tupac or Ed Sheeran. We are trying to honor and tell amazing stories about all of the musicians, and we want to make sure we are telling the stories the way the artists would want them told.”

The deployment of the memorabilia has evolved since the early days of simply hanging up an artifact to a more integrated design, Taliaferro says.

My generation, baby: Pete Townshend of The Who poses in the Hard Rock Cafe in London in 2006. The guitar he’s holding originally belonged to him in the 1970s. Photo by Dave Hogan / Getty Images

“It goes into our storytelling,” he says. “Maybe a young person is a huge fan of Lady Gaga and maybe as part of our design aesthetic we put her right beside David Bowie and tell the story of how Lady Gaga was a huge fan of Bowie. It brings a connection between a contemporary artist as well as one that came before.” Such appeal across and through generations is a powerful way of making the brand relevant to the widest of demographics, Taliaferro says.

Artists donating items can be confident the objects will be properly preserved and displayed.

“We’re not just going to turn around and sell it,” Taliaferro says. “We’re here to honor them.”
Inventorying a collection that large and selecting items to display is no small task, but Taliaferro and company have it down to a science.

“We have a pretty serious database,” he says. “If I or one of my designers are looking for, say, a John Lennon piece, they can type it in, and I can find exactly what location in the world has a John Lennon item in our collection.”

Many items are stored in a central warehouse in Florida called “The Vault,” which houses artifacts that aren’t on public display. Memorabilia rotations are often done hand-in-hand with changes in lighting, finishes and other facility upgrades.

“We try to make certain pieces [are changed out] every now and then,” Taliaferro says. “Every case is different and unique, but we want to make certain when we design spaces that we are able to freshen it up a couple of years down the road.”

Hard Rock International prides itself on the authenticity of the collection.

Taliaferro explains, “We have different agents in place to make certain when we make new acquisitions, say it’s from a private collector who wants to give us something, we need to make certain that [they] can showcase the providence before we even entertain the acquisition.”

Auctions typically involve advance authentication so there is high confidence that items are what they are purported to be.

“Even if an artist gives us a piece directly,” signed statements of authenticity are required, Taliaferro says.

Is there any way to put a price tag on the collection? “Yes, just add ‘less’ to ‘price’ to make it priceless,” Taliaferro says.

Dressed To The Nines: This Max Azria Atelier gown on display at the Hard Rock Hotel New York, belonged to Alicia Keys. She wore it during her appearance at the 2009 Vanity Fair Oscar Party. Courtesy Hard Rock International

The appraisal of each piece is somewhat objective, he says, but some, like the Clapton and Townshend guitars, hold particular value to the company.

“We as a brand view every artifact as if it’s the Mona Lisa,” Taliaferro says. “The Louvre has the painting, but for us that’s Hendrix’s acoustic from ‘All Along the Watchtower.’ Kirk Hammett’s guitar from The Black Album, John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics, Nicki Minaj’s outfit from a certain music video. Every piece is very important to us.”

As Hard Rock rolls out new properties, like the new development on the site of the Mirage in Las Vegas, memorabilia will continue to play an indispensable role, as was the case with the Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana in Gary, where Jackson 5 items are featured.

“I developed a relationship directly with the Jackson family to help tell their story,” Taliaferro says.

Tito, Marlon and Jackie Jackson came down to Hollywood, Fla., and saw tabletop displays dedicated to every Jackson family member.

“We allowed them to actively participate in how their story was told” and so the Gary property had a Jackson tribute area when it opened and later Tito donated his father Joseph Jackson’s guitar.

It was the same guitar that Tito picked up and broke a string on while his father was at work. When the patriarch discovered it was Tito who violated his orders not to touch the axe, he restrung it and gave it to his son to continue his musical pursuits, which quickly turned into a family affair.

“If that didn’t happen, there might not have been a Jackson 5,” Taliaferro says.