Elvis: End of an Era
The story of the King's passing, as told in our September 1977 issue.
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In 1948, when Elvis was 13, Vernon Presley loaded his family’s belongings into an old Plymouth and moved them to Memphis. It was not much of a step — even after they took up residence in Lauderdale Courts, a public assistance housing project just north of downtown — but in Memphis at least the elder Presleys could find regular work. Elvis enrolled in nearby Humes High School, where the reserved country boy seemed overwhelmed at first by the size and character of the “tough” big city school. In a relatively nondescript high school career, during which he worked at odd jobs after school and played football his junior year, Elvis’ most distinguishing characteristics were his long ducktail hairstyle (most of his peers sported crewcuts) and the loud clothes — generally some combination of pink and black — he purchased at Lansky’s on Beale Street.
His sartorial flamboyance contrasted somewhat with his generally reserved manner, but he got along amicably enough with his fellow students. And though he was also reticent about showing off his musical talents, he continued to play and sing by himself, or, when pressed, in the presence of a few friends. The highlight of his high school years, perhaps, was his encore-inspiring performance in the annual student variety show his senior year. “They really liked me!” he exclaimed offstage, somewhat amazed, as the applause continued. “They really liked me.”
Inside the dentist’s office at 620 Estate Drive in a posh section of East Memphis, Elvis Presley was in a jocular mood. “Isn’t this an ugly girl here?” Elvis said as he introduced the bashful, dark-haired Ginger, whom he called by the pet name “Gingerbread.” During the course of the session, Dr. Hofman would clean Elvis’ teeth, marveling once again at the scrupulous care which his famous patient took of his mouth, and fill an upper right first bicuspid and an upper left molar. He would also X-ray Ginger’s teeth and set up a later appointment for cleaning and some additional work.
As was his custom, Elvis asked about Dr. Hofman’s wife, Sterling. “When he talked to my wife, it was as if no one else existed,” Dr. Hofman would recall later. His own relations with Elvis were equally sunny, but he could never persuade the entertainer to call him by his first name. “What’s all this ‘Dr. Hofman’ stuff?” he once asked in mock exasperation, whereupon Elvis replied, “Well, you went to school and got yourself an education, and you’re entitled to respect.” And, despite the easy camaraderie born of their long acquaintance, that was that.
Dr. Hofman was one of the countless friends to whom Elvis had at some point over the years given a new Cadillac (“He was a fairy godfather,” as Dr. Hofman said), and the talk turned to cars on this last evening the two would see each other. “Dr. Hofman, you’ve got to see my new car. I’ve got a Ferrari you won’t believe,” Elvis said. “What? You’re not getting rid of the Stutz, are you?” the dentist replied, knowing that Elvis would buy a dozen new cars in an hour, and give as many away, if the fancy struck him.
“No,” said Elvis, “but you’ll really like the Ferrari. Come on out to Graceland and see it.”
More small talk followed, and, as Elvis prepared to leave with his three companions, Dr. Hofman asked a favor.
“Listen,” he said. “The next time you’re going out to California, I’d like to come. It would be a nice surprise if I could drop in on my daughter out there.”
“Sure,” Elvis agreed. “There’s always room on the plane. You know that.”
The two said goodbye. It was about one-thirty Tuesday morning, and Dr. Hofman put away his patient’s folder. There was one more appointment scheduled soon. Elvis needed some repair work done on a crown.
He was, in the ubiquitous phrase, the “King of Rock-and-Roll.” It was a term, however, that both understated and overstated the nature of his talent. In fact, his singing range was enormous, transcending any classification by genre. Rock had, for most of his career, been only a small part of his repertoire. He could do blues, ballads, country, gospel, patriotic anthems — indeed, practically any type of music that could be sung he put his stamp on somewhere along the line.
The serendipitous odyssey which brought these talents to light began on a Saturday afternoon in August of 1953, when, during a lunch break from his newly acquired job as a truck driver for Crown Electric Company, Elvis Presley stopped by the Memphis Recording Service, a sideline of Sam Phillips’ Sun Record Company, and plunked down $4 to record two sides of a record as a birthday gift for his mother.
The tiny studio was packed with do-it-yourself songsters that particular day, but Marion Keisker, the sole person on duty, thought she heard something special in the 18-year-old’s rendition of the Ink Spots’ “My Happiness” and the sentimental ballad “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Her boss, who specialized in recording black blues and rhythm-and-blues musicians on his Sun label, had remarked before that if he could find “a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,” he could make “a billion dollars.” This boyish truck driver with long hair, an easy smile, and a battered guitar — who said he “didn’t sound like nobody” — seemed to fit the bill. Keisker did something she had never done before. She made a copy of the recording for Phillips to hear.
Eight months later, Elvis was back in the studio along with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore, trying to find a sound. Despite Marion Keisker’s earliest impression, Elvis saw himself as a crooner much in the mold of Dean Martin. However, it was his feeling for the powerful rhythm-and-blues of such artists as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, B.B. King, and Big Mama Thornton that was to spark his career. During several months of work, the pop, country, and blues influences in the trio evolved into a startling new sound. The result was a unique mixture of the sounds, and the effect was instantaneous.
The word “charismatic” has come in for much abuse since 1954 — ditto with “electric” as applied to personality — but the Memphians who first heard “That’s All Right, Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on the old Dewey Phillips radio show, Red, Hot & Blue, would underwrite both terms as a fair description of the experience. They knew without having to be told that a phenomenon was under way. Elvis went on to buttress his growing regional reputation by tours and more releases and by appearances on the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport, and in 1955 he was named County & Western “Newcomer of the Year” by a trade magazine.
In the late winter of 1956, Elvis appeared, without much advance fanfare, on the old Dorsey Brothers Stage Show on national television, singing “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Tutti Frutti” among other numbers. A former neighbor, watching the show, listening to the spontaneous screams coming from the TV audience, turned to his wife and children and said matter-of-factly, “Elvis is going to be a great big star.” It was that obvious.
The erstwhile truck driver, by now recording for RCA Victor and under the expert management of “Colonel” Tom Parker, followed up that first national exposure with appearances on the Milton Berle Show, the Steve Allen Show, and ultimately, the Ed Sullivan Show, whose impresario had first reacted to the growing Elvis boom as “not my cup of tea” and now was forced to drink the cup for what was at the time a record personal appearance fee of $15,000. Whatever was happening — and no one in those staid Eisenhower years was quite sure how to regard it — was unprecedented.
It was four o’clock Tuesday morn ing at the mansion, Elvis and Ginger had been alone upstairs. They were talking about their own future and about the tour, which was due to end with two concerts at the Mid-South Coliseum, Saturday, August 27th, and Sunday, August 28th. Ginger, who had been introduced to Elvis by his long-term friend George Klein as recently as November, would subsequently say that Elvis had intended to announce their engagement publicly at the Saturday-night concert. There were those who were skeptical, including at least one member of the entourage who would quote Elvis as denying explicitly any marriage plans, but she had been given an 11-karat diamond ring by Elvis, and the singer’s father Vernon would make comments later that seemed to confirm the engagement. The senior Presley had been especially distressed about the breakup in 1973 of Elvis’ first marriage, and he had talked to Ginger often about his wish that his son would have more children.
On first arriving back at the mansion from his trip to the dentist, Elvis had bustled about, engaging various aides in conversation about details of the imminent tour. He now used a house phone to dial Dick Grob downstairs, asking him to join him. Grob was one of two chief security men for Elvis and was responsible, among other things, for the singer’s safety during concert appearances. Elvis was in an ebullient mood and told Grob, when he arrived, that he had decided to add five or six numbers to his repertory for the tour. He gave Grob a list of the new songs and asked him to locate the words and music and chord changes for the stage versions of them. As always, Elvis’ last number at each stop was to be “I Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Grob, whose business it was to read Presley’s moods accurately, was satisfied that his man was on the upbeat — more chipper and more alert, in fact, than he had been in a long time. There had been reports here and there that Elvis was not in the best possible shape for making this tour, and that his performance might be sub-par. As Grob was turning away with the list of songs, Elvis said, “Dick, we’ll just show them how wrong they are. We’ll make this one the best one ever.”
Still before dawn, Elvis changed into a striped gym suit and rounded up cousin Billy Smith and his wife Jo to go a round of racquetball with him and Ginger. The four of them adjourned to the luxurious gymnasium which was located just behind the main house. The building was equipped with sauna rooms, whirlpool baths, and an elaborate music system. As they walked over, Elvis waved toward another part of the grounds, where, in days to come, he said, he would build Ginger, an aspiring oil painter, a special studio to house her artwork.
The game itself was played without much competitive zeal. Elvis prided himself on his athletic ability, and he could bear down if need be, but mainly he was just interested in loosening up this morning. As so many people had reported, and as he himself was painfully aware, he was battling a weight problem. He still had not rid himself of the excess poundage that had accumulated over the sedentary weeks since his last tour had ended in late June. After a brief spell of fast activity, the others began to ease back and let Elvis clown around by himself. Ginger withdrew to a seat behind the glass walls of the court, as Elvis performed one trick shot after another. “Look at this,” he would say, drawing mixed giggles and expressions of awe from Ginger. He continued bouncing the ball around and laughing at his own efforts, growing, it seemed, increasingly loose and relaxed. Ginger, who knew the chronic problems that Elvis had with insomnia and who was apprehensive about his condition for the tour, was hoping that he would be able now to sleep well. Finally, Elvis tired of the game and, bidding farewell to the Smiths, he and Ginger withdrew again to the upstairs area.
At nine a.m., Elvis, wearing a pair of blue pajamas, told Ginger that he was going into the lounge area of the bathroom which adjoined his bedroom. He took with him a book that reportedly documented the discovery of the skeleton of Christ. Ginger turned on the television set and stretched out. Within moments she was asleep.
Beginning with Love Me Tender in late 1956, Elvis became a movie idol as well. (Through 1977, he had made some 33 features, all of them money-makers, some of them monumentally so.) However, by 1958, when Elvis — with the help of Colonel Tom Parker — had reached the pinnacle of his career, a two-year stint in the army did alter indelibly the way the public perceived him and perhaps the way he perceived himself. He seemed to have become almost overnight an All-American Boy and although the accuracy of that description did not go unchallenged, his induction into the army and shortly thereafter the death of his mother did dampen the spirit of youthful rebellion which had been the hallmark of his success. The Elvis that emerged during the ensuing years was no longer the rowdy rock-and-roller of his pre-induction days; he was instead a “professional” movie and recording star, cast in an almost suburban mold. In 1967, he was married to 21-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he had met in Germany, where her father, an Army colonel, was stationed. In 1968, Lisa Marie Presley was born. And in 1969, after a cessation of nine years, he resumed concert engagements. The annual pattern would include at least two extended stays in Las Vegas and two or three tours through the nation. In response to the post-Woodstock shape of things, he now affected a tousled Prince Valiant haircut. He wore jewelry and appeared in a blinding variety of open-chested, skin-tight sequined costumes. Every concert was a sellout, and critical praise was practically unstinted. In defiance of the presumed laws of nature, it seemed for all the world that Elvis Presley would never grow old.
But along the way an extraordinary event occurred — something incomprehensible to millions of women. Priscilla Presley left her husband, and for another man.