Elvis: End of an Era
The story of the King's passing, as told in our September 1977 issue.
Elvis at Overton Park Shell August 5, 1955.
Photo by Robert W. Dye © Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.
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Editor’s note: In putting together this 35th anniversary issue of Memphis, we posed this obvious question to ourselves: What was the single most significant story ever published in this magazine? There are literally dozens to choose from, as the scores of national awards Memphis has won over these three-plus decades clearly testify.
But, actually, choosing a “winner” in this competition was not much of a contest. The cover story of our September 1977 issue — back in this magazine’s infancy, when it was called City of Memphis — stands out from the crowd, ironically, perhaps, just like that story’s subject.
Elvis Presley left the building on August 16, 1977. The September issue of City of Memphis had already done the same, and was sitting at the printer. Elvis’ sudden death stopped the presses; the cover was pulled, and the magazine’s staff scrambled to put together timely coverage of the King of Rock-and-Roll’s unexpected death.
At the same time, a young Memphis State English professor named Jackson Baker was deeply affected by Elvis’ passing; he had spent a good several months of his late childhood as the Presleys’ next-door neighbor on Lamar Avenue, observing the meteoric rise of the new Sun Records star with keen interest and no little adulation. When the shocking news of his death broke, Jackson resolved to write about it, and spent the following days, as he now recalls, “trying not so much to ‘write an article’ as to do my testament.” Over the next frantic week, Jackson worked with editor Ken DeCell and publisher Bob Towery to craft an Elvis eulogy. By any standard, the result was a remarkable journalistic achievement, a replacement City of Memphis September cover story that was, truly, fit for a King.
Better known to Memphis readers today as the dean of Tennessee’s political reporters, Jackson Baker for the past two decades has been the politics editor of the Memphis Flyer, our sister publication, as well as a frequent contributor to the pages of this magazine. “I have often reflected on the good fortune or karma or whatever,” he says today, “that allowed me such a close-up look at a bona fide avatar whose cosmic qualities arose somehow from a background that couldn’t have been more plain and ordinary. I’ve been lucky enough to experience, and to write about, many larger-than-life types — Bill Clinton being one of the most remarkable, for the power of his energy field. But nobody beats Elvis.”
It was Monday evening, August 15th, at the Graceland Mansion, and Elvis Presley’s aides had just informed him that they were unable to arrange a private screening of MacArthur, because a projectionist from the Ridgeway Theater, where the film was playing, would not be available at the late hour which Elvis had requested. It was the night before Elvis and his sizeable entourage were scheduled to leave for a 13-day national tour, and he was looking for a way to relieve some of the tension that normally preceded such departures.
Attendance at any of the theater’s regular public showings was, of course, out of the question. The security problems would be nightmarish; for the twenty-odd years of his public prominence, the man who had entertained tens of millions in countless auditoriums and theaters could not himself enter such a place, except by private rental and usually under cover of darkness. In the six weeks that he had been in Memphis since completing his previous tour, he had rarely left the mansion. Two weeks before, he had rented the Libertyland amusement park between midnight and dawn for an outing with his nine-year-old daughter Lisa Marie, and the previous Wednesday he had taken a party to see The Spy Who Loved Me, the latest James Bond offering, at the UA Southbrook 4. Other than that, he pretty much stayed home — although he had recently spent an evening with his 20-year-old girlfriend, Ginger Alden, at her mother’s home in southeast Memphis.
Ginger, a local beauty queen who had most recently been “Fairest of the Mid-South Fair,” was with Elvis now, and an idea struck him for an alternate evening out. Picking up a telephone, he dialed a familiar number, that of Dr. Lester Hofman, the Memphis dentist who had treated Elvis for almost as long as he had been in show business. Reaching Dr. Hofman at home, Elvis apologized for the time of his call and wondered: Could he come by the office a little later and bring Ginger with him? They wanted some work done before leaving on the tour, he explained.
Dr. Hofman, always happy to oblige the man whom he regarded fondly as “the Pied Piper of Love,” said sure, naturally, no problem, and the appointment was set for 10:30 that night. Shortly afterward, Elvis, wearing a pair of black slacks and a matching loose-fitting shirt-blouse, gathered up a group that included Ginger, his cousin Billy Smith, and Charlie Hodge, a guitarist in his touring band. They left in Elvis’ custom-made Stutz Blackhawk. As was the case so often, the front gate area was crowded with tourists, mainly women straining for a look at Elvis. He waved to them gallantly, and, tires squealing slightly, the fabulous car moved out and down the street.
They came to Memphis from all over, matrons from Detroit, adolescents from Florida and Alaska, students from Germany and France — indeed, all kinds of people from every manner of place all over the world. They had an uncanny way of knowing when their idol would be in town — by some sort of psychic grapevine, it would seem. Their intentions upon getting to the house on Elvis Presley Boulevard were obscure, even to them, but they were summoned by his presence all the same. For most, the journey would end at a pair of closed wrought-iron gates with a motif of musical notes woven into them. Some would scale the brick walls and travel up the sloping yard, getting as far as the front of the 18-room house itself, only to be turned away there by the bodyguard who invariably answered all knocks at the door. This had been going on since 1957, when Elvis Presley, already as famous as anybody ever had been, purchased the house for himself and his parents. It was quite a step up from his beginning, about as American a story as could be imagined.
Elvis Aron Presley was born on January 8, 1935 — a Capricorn, sharing his sign with such other personages as Joan of Arc, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Carl Sandburg, and Albert Schweitzer — in a shotgun house on the outskirts of Tupelo, Mississippi. His identical twin, Jesse Garon Presley, was dead at birth. The parents, Vernon and Gladys Presley, like so many of their neighbors and family in the Depression-ridden agricultural area, earned a meager living from sharecropping and any other available labor.
Gladys Presley, who quickly became the dominant influence in her only child’s life, spoiled him as much as circumstances allowed, taking pains (often to her neighbors’ amusement) never to let her most precious possession out of her sight. She was firm in her affection, however, and the youngster early assumed a respectful and courteous manner with his elders. The Presleys were regular attendees at the fundamentalist First Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, and it was probably here that Elvis heard — and sang — his first music. (It was also here, Elvis was later to claim, that he picked up the germ of the style that was to inspire — and outrage — millions. At the frequent prayer meetings, Elvis told an interviewer, “There were these singers, perfectly fine singers, but nobody responded to them. Then there was the preachers and they cut up all over the place, jumpin’ on the piano, movin’ ever’ which way. And the audience liked ’em. I guess I learned from them.”)
At the age of ten, Elvis was entered in the talent competition at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair; his a capella rendition of “Old Shep” earned him second place. Shortly thereafter, his parents presented him with a $12.95 guitar, and, with the help of his uncles, Johnny Smith and Vester Presley, the boy began teaching himself to play. In addition to the spirituals, he began listening to and imitating the popular country and western sounds of such artists as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Jimmie Rodgers.