Elvis Presley’s posthumous life, 45 years later
Forty-four years ago, on August 15, 1978, members of the Elvis Country Fan Club gathered outside the gates of Graceland in tribute to their fallen idol.
Just one year before, Elvis Presley had spent the evening visiting his dentist, playing a bit of racquetball and serenading his girlfriend Ginger Alden, his cousin Billy Smith, and Smith’s wife Jo, with a few numbers at the piano, ending with Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” It was the last song he would ever sing. Hours later, on the afternoon of August 16, he was found dead on the floor of his master bathroom, at the age of 42.
VIDEO: News Report on Elvis Presley’s death
Elvis had been planning to fly out that day to Portland, Maine, where his latest concert tour was scheduled to begin on August 17. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll no longer burned up the charts like he once had, but the faithful nonetheless still turned out wherever he played. Now, a year after he’d shuffled off this mortal coil, they arrived in the thousands, waiting up to four hours for the opportunity to be led up the winding driveway of his Graceland home to see Elvis’ final resting place in his Meditation Garden.
It was a spontaneous, heartfelt tribute; Graceland wasn’t even open to the public at the time. The gathering was fueled by the need to be around other Elvis fans, someone who understood and still revered the King, even as the mainstream mocked him (two years before, stores about his birthday were headlined “Elvis: Forty and Fat”). Today, what’s become known as “Elvis Week” is big business. Hosted by EPE (Elvis Presley Enterprises), and this year running August 9 through 17, attendees can sign up for a “throwback” tour of Graceland featuring a live human guide instead of those cumbersome iPads, hear stories from those who knew and/or worked with Elvis (songwriter Mike Stoller, film co-stars Barbara Eden and Marlyn Mason), see a “Storytellers”-type presentation with former bandmates James Taylor, Glen Hardin and Jerry Scheff, get an advance listen of the upcoming Elvis On Tour box set, and witness an unending series of ETAs (Elvis Tribute Artists).
It’ll cost you; tickets for private tours of Graceland in the company of Elvis’ former wife Priscilla Presley cost $1000 (and still sold out). But the candlelight vigil, when the faithful head up Graceland’s driveway to walk, candles in hand, around the Meditation Garden all the through the night of August 15 and 16, remains free (and can even be seen virtually), a reminder of the event’s organic beginnings, nearly half a century ago.
VIDEO: Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis trailer
Hanging over everything is the success of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the kinetic biopic that’s now raked in over $250 million worldwide. It’s the first feature film about Presley to hit the big screen since 1981’s documentary This Is Elvis (though the 1978 TV biopic Elvis, starring Kurt Russell, did have a cinema run in Europe), and has jumpstarted our ongoing conversation about him once again — which was exactly the point.
In the years since his death, there’s been no shortage of articles speculating that the King’s popularity is in decline, as in Rolling Stone’s 2020 piece “Can Elvis Rise Again?” “Decline” doesn’t mean unprofitable — the estate still brings in money — but much was made of a 2017 poll of British adults that found 29% of 18-to-24 year-olds had never listened to an Elvis song. Hence the decision to let Luhrmann give Elvis a modern makeover, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring the likes of Doja Cat, Pnau, Yola, Maneskin and Jazmine Sullivan, all the better to lure in that much-desired younger demographic.
More importantly, both the movie and soundtrack work to shift the focus from the fact that Elvis is an icon to why he is an icon — his music. Purists have pointed out that the scenes in Elvis where Presley wows the crowds at the Louisiana Hayride and Russwood Park shows aren’t accurate, because he didn’t swivel his hips that wildly at the former and didn’t perform the song “Trouble” at the latter. But the point of those sequences was about communicating how impossibly exciting Elvis was when he burst on the scene, completely unlike any performer that had come before.
In our media saturated age, it can be hard to appreciate the seismic shift Elvis brought to popular music and popular culture. He didn’t record the first rock ‘n’ roll record, but he was the spark that lit the flame that made it explode, paving the way for everything that followed. That alone is enough to get Elvis into the history books. But to keep a legacy going requires constant maintenance. And Elvis’ legacy has been continually picked over since his death.
“We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” Lester Bangs wrote in his 1977 obit of Presley. But did we ever agree on Elvis to begin with? Certainly he had his detractors from the beginning; following his playful performance on The Milton Berle Show in 1956, the Catholic weekly America groused that if TV stations “would stop handling such nauseating stuff, all the Presley of our land would soon be swallowed up in the oblivion they deserve.” By the time of his death, President Jimmy Carter, was quick to acknowledge what Elvis represented to the nation in a statement released on August 17, 1977, saying, “Elvis Presley’s death deprives our country of a part of itself.” But just a few years later, Priscilla Presley (looking after her daughter Lisa Marie’s share of the estate, as she was still a minor) was told to sell off Graceland by business advisors who told her it was a financial drain; interest in Elvis was dropping, and she’d better take what money she could while she still had the chance. Instead, she partnered with businessman Jack Soden (now EPE’s president and CEO), and turned Graceland into a tourist attraction. The gamble paid off; six months after its opening in June 1982, Graceland’s earnings went into the black and have stayed there ever since.
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Seven years later, in 1989, Public Enemy’s Chuck D denounced Elvis in the mighty “Fight the Power”: “Straight up racist, that sucker was simple and plain.” Chuck later clarified it was meant more as an attack on a society that denied Black artists their due: “I never personally had something against Elvis. But the American way of putting him up as the King and the great icon is disturbing. You can’t ignore Black history … So, Elvis was just the fall guy in my lyrics for all of that. It was nothing personal – believe me.” Nonetheless, the song pushed the issue of Elvis and race into the foreground, where it’s become a regular topic of discussion. In response, Luhrmann’s film takes pains to emphasize how Black music influenced and shaped Elvis’ career, from a flashback to his childhood when he’s overcome by the contrasting sounds of a juke joint rave-up and a revival meeting, to the sizzling performances by Shonka Dukereh as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Alton Mason as Little Richard.
To the faithful who return to Graceland each year for Elvis Week, there’s no need to debate the importance of Elvis’ legacy; it’s taken as a given. But outside that circle of fandom, the issues become more complicated. “I’ve always thought that the Brits and Europeans in general understood this story a whole lot better than Americans,” says Alanna Nash, author of a number of Elvis-themed books, including the recently reissued The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. “Americans don’t quite get the scope of the tragedy and the depth of his artistry. I think in America, we tend to think of Elvis as a nostalgia act, or a cartoon of a fat guy in a white suit with a jelly doughnut. And we think of the hits and how they made us move. But that’s pretty much it. In America, the fans are mostly older. In Europe, they’re all ages. They’re well-educated. They see Elvis as a monumental artist along the lines of some classical composer, and they see him as a huge cultural figure of importance. Somebody said to me the other day, ‘You know, in Europe we spell America E-L-V-I-S.’ There’s just a depth of knowledge the European fans have for the recordings as well as his life — it just lays what the average Elvis fan in America knows in the shade.
“I asked Ernst Jorgensen [the Danish producer who’s worked on Elvis reissues since the 1980s] about this one time, and he said, ‘Why is it that everybody ridicules probably the most important star of all time? It was as if America could never forgive that he died, and he died under the circumstances that he died. I don’t know if that is the true explanation, but had Elvis been European and died the same way, we would have tried to get over that and still praise him as the greatest thing we ever had. We would have been proud of him … Is it because that America is such a young and fast-rising country that it has to move on?’”
In her book Elvis and the Memphis Mafia, Nash observed, “Indeed, it is hard to find a more perfect symbol of all that is glorious and horrific about America — about the American dream turned nightmare — than Elvis Aaron Presley.” It’s a concise summation that readily explains why Elvis’ life, as much as his work, remains a constant source of fascination.
His music helped usher in a revolution whose reverberations are being felt to this day. His life, and what it says about inspiration and creation, rock stardom and fame, and America itself, will be a subject of debate for years to come.
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