I got the call early on Aug. 16, 1977. My friend and guitarist Donnie Baer's brother-in-law was a fireman who had monitored the first ambulance calls to Graceland, and he was reporting Elvis had died. I replied with one word, "bullshit." There was nothing on radio or TV yet, and enough reason to disbelieve, at least for a short while. Elvis had become a curio by 1977, and had long passed the days when he was an active influence in popular music. But people from Memphis felt a special pain at his passing, especially those who had been there at the beginning.
My sister, Susan, returned home from a teenage party at the Gayosa Hotel on Main Street in 1957, flushed with excitement. Elvis had chosen the occasion to visit his friend, disc jockey Dewey Phillips, at the WHBQ radio studios in the hotel, "On the Magazine Floor," in Deweyspeak. After his visit, someone informed him of the party of twelve and thirteen year olds going on in the ballroom, and he took the time to come say hello to all the kids. Susan breathlessly told me about Elvis putting his arm around her and posing for a photograph, and I could picture the entire scene in my mind. Susan, short haired and diminutive in bobby sox and saddle oxfords, with Elvis, wearing a two-tone sport coat with the collar turned up in the back and slicked back hair, draping an arm casually around my sister's shoulder. Years later, I asked her what ever became of that picture, but Susan continues to insist that no such photo has ever existed. But I can still see it. After all, I developed it in my imagination for my scrapbook of Elvis memories.
That's how much we loved him. It was inconceivable to think of Memphis without his presence. When the nation saw him for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, we felt were watching one of our own conquer the world. And Elvis' loyalty to Memphis never wavered, even during the dismal Hollywood era. During the Quaalude years, I knew a girl who worked in the pharmacy across the street from Dr. Nick's office on Madison Ave. She told me that one of the guys was picking up packages of 100 Quaaludes a week for Elvis. I imagined the slur-fest that must be going on up at Graceland with "E" and all the guys, but I never thought Elvis could be ingesting them all himself. That's a dose to knock down a silverback gorilla. At the same time, reports of bizarre behavior by Elvis of using police lights to pull over cars and behaving like a narc, or interfering in the arguments of strangers as if he were a superhero, began to surface. When the drug problem became public knowledge, there was no Betty Ford clinic to check into, or facility to dryout and rehabilitate a reputation. The tragedy of Elvis' lonely death is that the Colonel had him end his years, playing a carnie circuit of arenas as a very sick man, in order to cover the Colonel's Vegas gambling debts.
When Elvis died, I, and several other musicians, gathered at the Sam Phillips Studio to talk it over. We ended up surrounding a piano being played by James Brown Hooker of the Rhythm Aces. There was Donnie, Bob Simon, Jerry Phillips, Casper Peters, Teddy Paige, and other regulars, and we began to sing Elvis songs. But because we were irreverent, we sang them all in minor keys, like "Hound Dog," only in E-minor, making it sound like a Gregorian chant. We were laughing to cover our sorrow, since every person in that room was aware that the reason we were even standing there, was because of Elvis. The very studio itself, stood because of Elvis. We were the musical spawn of Elvis. Whatever careers in music we had, we owed to him. That's how important he was in our lives.
I recall thinking in the early 70s, that there was no further need for Elvis to be so isolated. The people of Memphis were used to his presence and would allow him to interact normally in society without too much interference. I saw Jerry Lee Lewis and his entourage out on the town all the time. His boys protected him from the severely inebriated and he was generally gracious to everyone else. I wondered why Elvis couldn't live in a similar manner. But, I was walking down the concourse of the Memphis Airport, back in the days when you could actually meet someone at the gate, and I saw this bizarre looking man walking toward me headed for the exits. I thought, "I know this guy," but I couldn't place him, despite the white jumpsuit. He was very handsome, with unusually large facial pores that looked sanded, and a shock of the blackest hair to come out of a bottle. When I caught up to my mother ahead of me, she asked, "Did you see Elvis?" Only then did all the gears mesh and without another word, I turned and began running after Elvis like a crazed teenage girl. I caught up to him just as he was entering his car on the passenger side. He looked up and I said with understated brilliance, "Hey Elvis. How you doing?" "Fine man. How 'bout you?"
My single conversation with Elvis made me realize that, if I had chased after him at full speed through an airport just to gaze upon his countenance, perhaps he couldn't come out in public after all. I have attended many Elvis "Death Week" events over the years, including conferences, dinners, and impersonator competitions. At first, I went for the freak show aspect of it; to witness these people who were turning Elvis into a world spiritual figure. But the devotion and sincerity of these Elvis fans, who come here during the hottest days of the year, was moving to me instead. I went to laugh, and ended up crying. In the middle of yet another Ronnie McDowell "tribute," I looked to the back of the room and saw a large group of Japanese tourists standing and silently weeping copious tears. You have to marvel at the astonishing depth of emotion created by this one man, in people from all corners of human existence.
I never got to meet Elvis. I might have imposed upon George Klein or members of the Phillips family to wrangle myself an introduction, but that would have been very un-Elvislike of me. I was lucky enough to have been at the epicenter of the Elvis explosion and could never describe to a non-Memphian how incredibly exciting it was. Like cotton candy, Elvis' music is a confection that conjures up wonderful memories that linger long after it's gone. I did write a short poem for him after his death, titled; Elvis Never Bought Me a Cadillac.
Elvis never bought me a Cadillac/ He never knew my name.
I never got a diamond ring/ But I loved him just the same.