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Thirty years after his death, we look back at three decades of Elvis in the pages of Memphis magazine
Since we work so far in advance — or try to, anyway — the editors of a monthly magazine rarely get the chance to shout "Stop the presses!" as you hear in almost any movie made about the newspaper business. But that is precisely what happened on August 16, 1977, when we — along with millions of other people around the globe — learned the stunning news of the death of Elvis Presley.
The news affected us in a special way. Our September issue was actually at the printer, and it dawned on us that to crank out a city magazine that made no mention of the demise of the King of Rock-and-Roll would make us look sadly out of touch with our city. So 30 years ago, we did something that we have never done since. We indeed stopped the presses, pulled the cover story planned for the September issue, and went into crisis mode.
We quickly recruited Jackson Baker, a talented freelance contributor (and now senior editor of our sister publication, the Memphis Flyer) to craft a comprehensive overview of the life of Elvis. Titled "End of an Era," it is widely considered, then and now, one of the finest articles ever produced about Elvis Presley — an accomplishment even more remarkable considering we gave Baker a freelance writer's most dreaded deadline — telling him, in effect, "We need it yesterday."
To supplement the main story, back in those days before the Internet and Google and Photoshop and, for that matter, even word processors, we cobbled together a special 16-page section that included classic images of the King from various photographers and illustrators.
In a matter of days we assembled all the pieces of the puzzle, and the September issue made it to newsstands and on schedule. Looking back on it, that issue still stands the test of time. For proof, we can look at the final paragraph of Baker's eloquent essay:
"That, after all the splendor of his career, Elvis would die in his own home of natural causes like many another middle-aged American male before him is something that probably never crossed his mind. And perhaps it was this circumstance that gave his face the look of surprise which so many thought they observed as he lay in his casket. Many of his former hit songs were played on radio and television in the days after his death, but one of them received singular attention and sounded especially haunting. It was the ballad which began, 'Are you lonesome tonight? / Do you miss me tonight?' For much of the world at large, the answer was, and would continue to be, Yes."
And here is a mystery. According to company lore, the original cover story for that September issue was something about — get this — Dutch Elm disease, a blight killing trees across North America. But as serious as that sounds, it still doesn't seem right for the cover story of our magazine. After all, previous issues had featured such luminaries as photographer William Eggleston and adventurer/author Richard Halliburton. What's more, no such story ever appeared in later issues. Back then, we weren't so extravagant that we would simply discard a perfectly good (and paid for) article. Heck, we wouldn't do it today.
At any rate, the September 1977 cover story was just the beginning. Over the years, we have focused on just about everything Elvis — from his early beginnings to his enduring fame. As we near the 30th anniversary of Elvis' death, we take a look back at some of the top stories in our years of covering the King of Rock-and-Roll.
Two years after Elvis' death, his legend lived on, but our city still hadn't figured out a way to capitalize — we hesitate to say "exploit" — his fame. "Elvis fans come to Memphis to see something, and besides Graceland, there's nothing to see," said Deloss Walker, ad agency president.
Efforts to rename the Mid-South Coliseum or some city park had failed, as had plans to erect a 25-foot statue of the King at some undisclosed location. What was in the works was a larger-than-life but considerably scaled down statue that would be installed in a plaza on Beale Street.
But, as this story illustrated, that was it. "If Elvis was the rock-and-roll prophet and harbinger of a new popular culture," wrote freelancer Joe Mulherin, "he has remained without substantial honor in his own country."
The story that Elvis died of natural causes began to crumble when rumors surfaced that the King's death was due to a drug overdose. Reporters with The Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar had already begun to focus their attention on Dr. George Nichopolous, Elvis' personal physician. But the story became national news when a former Memphian named Charlie Thornton, then working as a producer for ABC News, came to town to do a little digging on his own. He soon brought along Geraldo Rivera, and freelancer Tom Martin examined "How ABC Unearthed the Elvis Story."
"It can't be denied," says Martin, "that if ABC had never pursued its investigation, the revelations of Elvis' massive prescription drug habit (as well as the doctor and pharmacist who facilitated that habit) might never have become public. Until ABC came to town, it seemed that in all corners the case was closed."
Things got considerably more light-hearted with this issue, when we put together a compilation of any and all things Elvis. Some of these items were actually for sale — key rings, coloring books, license plates, and other souvenirs — but we also compiled lists of books, films, his number-one songs, and even fan clubs. To fill out the section, we added cryptic notes scribbled on the wall at Graceland ("It's all your fault I'm here with my woman," was just one example), along with a list of Elvis songs that most certainly did not make any top-10 lists: "Petunia, The Gardener's Daughter," "Queenie Wahine's Papaya," and — perhaps strangest of all — "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce." Remember that one? Nobody does.
We have a confession to make. It took us almost ten years to jump on this bandwagon, but we began to realize several things: Fans come to Graceland in August to commemorate the death of Elvis. Those fans buy anything and everything related to Elvis. Fans might — just might — buy copies of Memphis magazine if we put Elvis on the cover that month. So we did just that, year after year. For 1987, we took the easy way out: We excerpted a few chapters from Elvis World, a new book by noted pop culture writers Jane and Michael Stern. >>>
"Elvis World is not one place," the authors proclaim. "It is the universe defined by all he stands for: music, of course, and movies, but also the cascade of material things he consumed, the fans he enraptured, and stuffed shirts he outraged. Ten years after his death, Elvis World is thriving, built around the provocative symbol Elvis continues to be."
See what we mean about using any gimmick — no matter how silly — to get Elvis on the cover in August? This was actually a pretty fun story. Contributing editor Mary Loveless explained, "Therein lay my mission: to chronicle, over a period of one year, the treatment of Elvis Presley in the tabloids." What she found was more than we expected. From the Sun, National Enquirer, National Examiner, and other rags, we culled such eye-catching stories as: "Caveman Looked Like Elvis," "Elvis' Ghost Talks to Me," "I am Elvis Presley's Long-Lost Twin," and — our personal favorite — "UFO Alien Sang 'Love Me Tender.'" Loveless explains this one, originally published in the Sun: "It seems that one Gifford Marvinson of England had a visitor from outer space. The farmer was terrified, until the alien who emerged from the spaceship began to sing 'Love Me Tender.' 'A calm suddenly fell over me,' he supposedly told the Sun, 'and I felt at one with the entire universe. . . . I guess it was some form of greeting, to show they meant no harm.'" No word on what the alien — or the English farmer — did after that.
The standard "take" on Elvis is that his early music — the raw stuff of rock-and-roll — was superior to his later, Las Vegas-style numbers. But Flyer music critic John Floyd questioned that conventional wisdom, beginning with the colorful observation: "So much of Elvis Presley's musical and cultural legacy is based on the work he did in the 1950s that, for the average observer of pop music, Elvis may have well as died when his duck's ass was buzzed off in the Army." Floyd argues that pitifully few music writers — and even few fans of rock-and-roll — know anything about Elvis' mid-1960s and –'70s output beyond "the wretched movies, the sequined jumpsuits, and the Hershey-bar sideburns." After taking a critical look at the King's later recordings, he concludes, "Studying the music that too many people swept under the carpet won't get you to the bottom of the Elvis phenomenon, but it will give you an idea of how massive his importance to people's lives really is — and how massive his contributions to American music and culture really were."
In this issue, associate publisher Bruce VanWyngarden took a then-and-now look at our city's musical legacy. Elvis, of course, was featured prominently in the story, and VanWyngarden pondered what Memphis would be like if Elvis were alive today. He reaches a rather chilling conclusion:
"What would Elvis be doing in 1995, at age 60? Running a dinner theater in Branson? Hawking TCB belt buckles on QVC? Would he have gone the way of Wayne Newton, a paunchy zillionaire playing Las Vegas — or Tunica — six weeks a year? Or might he quietly have retired to a farm in Collierville, or started an Elvis theme park, or become a scientologist? The possibilities are endless, but the hard truth is that it's difficult to come up with any scenario involving a live Elvis that would have had the long-term economic impact on Memphis that his death has had."
Elvis shares the cover with political boss E.H. Crump and FedEx founder Fred Smith with good reason. In this special issue produced by John Branston, our editorial director of special projects, we took a look back at the most important people, places, and events of the past 100 years. Convening a panel of experts, we compiled lists of the city's top authors, athletes, musicians, and more, and then we came to the hard part: picking the Memphian of the Century. It came down to a split decision, and the case for including the King was indeed compelling. "Elvis gets more ink, more books, more television coverage, and of course, more air time than any Memphian since DeSoto," said Branston. University of Memphis history professor Charles Crawford hammered the point home very succinctly: "Though dead, he still lives."
How do you measure fame? Not by Nobel Prizes, Oscars, or Grammys. No, today, the true impact of a celebrity can be measured — even counted — by the number of items bearing that person's name or likeness that are sold online. Senior editor Michael Finger discovered that the King of Rock-and-Roll was indeed the King of eBay, with more than 7,000 Elvis-related items — records, eight-track tapes, books, T-shirts, sunglasses, toy guitars, salt-and-pepper shakers, you name it — for sale any day, every day: "Elvis' dominance of eBay puts him considerably ahead of the Beatles (6,103 items), the Rolling Stones (2,136), and Frank Sinatra (1,701). In fact, as a brand name, Elvis Presley is only topped on eBay by Barbie and Disney." Nothing has really changed. Today, Elvis still rules a sizeable domain on eBay, with more 10,900 items presently for sale. The most expensive as this issue went to press? Elvis' personal golf cart, with bids starting at $35,000.
This story took a considerably more personal approach, when Frank Murtaugh Jr., the father of our managing editor, recalled a chance meeting with Elvis at the very beginning of the singer's career. Murtaugh and a friend had wandered into the old Katz drug store on Airways one September evening in 1956, and Elvis happened to be in the building, buying toys for kids in a local hospital. The friend walked up to Elvis and shook his hand, and Murtaugh did the same. Elvis acknowledged both with a cursory, "Nice to meetcha," and that was that — as far as Elvis was involved. Not for Murtaugh: "My celebrity at having shaken the hand of the man who would be King has stood me well, these 47 years. Although Elvis has been dead for 26 years, when I relate my encounter I get more attention now than when the legend was alive." He had met people all over the world who wanted to hear his "Elvis story." The never-ending interest led Murtaugh to conclude, "There is an aura now associated with his name alone. Elvis is no longer just a singer, an entertainer — he is an institution."
"On July 5, 1954, a then-unknown teenager named Elvis Presley stepped into the Union Avenue studio of producer Sam Phillips and changed the world. In uniting blues and country into a new form called rock-and-roll, Presley and Phillips created a cultural future that continues to reign." So wrote Flyer music editor Chris Herrington, as part of the introduction to a coffee-table book produced by our company and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau that chronicles 50 years of Memphis music. The July/August issue of Memphis excerpted several chapters from the book, and in the chapter devoted to Elvis, Herrington concluded that "rock-and-roll would sweep the world, and it all started in Memphis on July 5, 1954."
Where would Elvis hang out today, we wondered, if he was still alive — or if he could at least come back, in spirit? Surely he would visit his beloved Graceland, and want to see how his records were selling at Pop Tunes. Would he like to take one more ride on the Zippin Pippin, revisit his old high school, sit in the window of his apartment in Lauderdale Courts, and maybe even sip a soda at the Arcade? With the help of an Elvis impersonator who served as Elvis' "spirit," talented photographer Brad Jones captured the ethereal images in this photo essay. Fantasy? Perhaps. But, "for many of the King's fans, Elvis Presley has never left the building."