I was thinking last night about Elvis… the day that he died, the day that he died… Jimmy Buffett, “Elvis Presley Blues”

To say I am an Elvis fan is an understatement. It’s not just the music, though. It’s the whole mystique. I am fascinated by the whole story. Here’s this country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who learned to play the guitar, who wore his hair different from anyone else in his high school, who had to be convinced to play in a talent show. It was only when he won, singing a song called “Old Shep,” a lament about a childhood pet dog, that he realized that people liked his voice. He went to Sun Records on his lunch hour and recorded a song for his mother called “My Happiness.” Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, heard the record, and booked him for a recording session. The session proved to be a bust until, late in the evening, when Elvis grabbed his guitar and just started being himself. He hit the first chords of an Arthur Crudup song called, “That’s All Right,” now known better as “That’s All Right, Mama.” And, with that, the legend was born.

I remember my parents making me sit down and watch this amazing unique television show one night. It was the first global concert satellite broadcast. And it starred Elvis Presley. Aloha From Hawaii, it was called. And, that night, January 14, 1973, I was hooked. I was seven years old, and I was hooked. I saw this man with a phenomenal voice, wearing a jewel-encrusted white jumpsuit, hands covered in elaborate rings, and he held a crowd captive for two hours. Women were crying. Men were staring and applauding. And the end of the concert… I mean… just… wow… Novelist and critic Bobbie Ann Mason said it best – “At the end of the show, when he spreads his American Eagle cape, with the full stretched wings of an eagle on his back, he becomes a god figure…”

I bought my first record four days later. It was a 45 rpm single, “Hound Dog” on Side A, “All Shook Up” on Side B, at a whopping cost of ninety-eight cents at the K-Mart Record Department. I still consider that as my introduction to a lifetime of musical appreciation. There, on that goofy turntable with that funky thing you had to put on the post so you could play singles, I had the sound of Elvis Presley. Both are simple songs. A singer, two guitar players, what sounds like a man slapping a stand-up bass fiddle, and a snare drum. “Hound Dog” was the song that scandalized a nation when Elvis gave in to his impulsive behavior and actually (insert gasp) let his body move to the feeling of the music.

I remember, as most people do, where I was and what was happening when I heard that Elvis had died. Our family had just gotten home from a vacation at Jekyll Island, Georgia. We were literally hauling our stuff in from the trusty Chevrolet station wagon when the phone rang. The King was dead. Reports at the time were sketchy, but it was definite. He had died at Graceland, where he had been readying for his next concert tour. I remember my mother hanging up the phone and looking stunned for a second or two before she told my father. I remember walking to my room and putting that first record on my record player and sitting on my bed, listening to “Hound Dog” over and over, wondering how someone with that much dynamic personality could be gone that quickly.

I made my first visit to Graceland many years later. After all the news reports, all the stories, all the “is he dead or isn’t he” books, all the conspiracy theories. I honestly entertained the theory that he had, indeed, faked his death, just to get away from all the insanity. I don’t know that I would have blamed the man. His life had turned into a bizarre circus of horrendous management decisions, the complete loss of his privacy, and the evolution of rock and roll. The world had moved forward, and there was no place left for him in it. Yet, after his death, it was like the world woke up and realized what they had lost. He was, and is, more popular now than he was in the last three years of his life. When I walked up the front steps of Graceland, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I had seen pictures, but, to actually stand in the man’s house, to see the white grand piano he had played gospel music on? To see the dining table he had eaten supper on, to feel the shag carpet of the steps leading to the Jungle Room. I wandered the museum where his concert attire is on display, along with other mementos and pieces of memorabilia. I remember standing for a long time in front of the costume he wore for Aloha From Hawaii, the jeweled jumpsuit with the American Eagle cape. The thing is, I remember everything I saw. But I don’t remember saying a word through the whole tour. I just took it all in. And, like the other tourists that day, I stood at his grave and felt tears come to my eyes. At once, I missed the man who introduced me to “real” music and hated the fact that he died so young.

People now seem to scoff when they find out I am still an Elvis fan. It’s tolerated like so many other things on my list of quirks and eclectic “likes.” I have his records, on vinyl and on CD. I have all the kitschy souvenir stuff, the bumper stickers, the license plates, the clock with the legs that act like a pendulum (which I just glanced at, for the record). I own his movies on DVD, and usually travel with at least two stuck in my computer bag in case of an entertainment emergency. You never know when you will need a 911 infusion of Blue Hawaii or GI Blues. I freely admit to owning two pairs of those Elvis sunglasses, and have been known, in cases of extreme writer’s block, to put them on and try channeling some Memphis magic. Usually works, too…

I say all this like I am confessing some deep dark secret, but I see the crowds that clamor to Memphis every August for the celebrations that take place to commemorate his passing (yes, I now admit that the whole “faking his death” thing was a great theory, but I accept it now, he’s gone…). I see these people who make “the pilgrimage” every year to pay their respects to the man’s memory, and it makes me wonder what he would think, to see that many people from around the world, still wanting him to be a part of their lives. It makes me wish he had dumped Col. Tom Parker as his manager and done movies like True Grit (Parker made him turn down the Glen Campbell part) or A Star Is Born (Parker did not want him sharing top billing with Barbra Streisand). Where would his career had gone if that caliber of movie had stepped into his life?

All that being said, though, I like to think, now and then, that there is a guy living in, oh, I don’t know, some small town in Georgia. He has a distinct look about him. He likes to fish, he goes to the movies. He goes to local restaurants and tips nicely, even if the service is not so great. His hair is silver now, and the sideburns are neatly trimmed. The sunglasses are now prescription, and the regular glasses are bifocals. He goes to church every Sunday and puts money in the collection plate. But, every now and then, when he sings the hymns, the people sitting around him catch a hint of that voice, and they turn a bit, to look at the man who moved to their town in 1977 and bought the nice house down by the lake. And he throws them a wink as he finishes “Amazing Grace,” and they smile back at him as they turn back to ready themselves for the sermon.

And when he is done with the song, very quietly, he whispers to himself, “Thank you… thank you very much…”

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