As usual, my sister Lynda had to go and ruin everything.
August 16, 1977, had started off just fine. Kindergarten was still a week away. My father had a rare day off from the Memphis Police homicide unit. And we were moving into our new home, the suburban “upstairs-downstairs” house I had always wanted.
I was bumping on my butt down those newly-carpeted dream stairs when Lynda came galloping over me with the news she’d just heard on the radio: “Mom! Daddy! Elvis is dead!”
Purple-mimeographed police notes I pilfered from Daddy’s briefcase a few days later confirmed it: There was no bait-and-switch, no wax figure, no Kalamazoo, Mich. gas station sightings. The King was gone. Forever.
Now 40, I have long felt cheated in having just missed the heyday of some of rock’s greatest acts. I envy you, Boomers. The Beatles broke up two years before by my 1972 birth. To me, Woodstock was just a “Peanuts” character.
But Elvis I could squarely claim as mine. I had missed the’68 Comeback Special and Aloha From Hawaii: Via Satellite, whose one billion viewers surpassed the moon landing audience. But he had performed in my own little lifetime. (And I thought those spangled jumpsuits were AWESOME.)
His death was particularly poignant for Memphians. He wasn’t just a worldwide superstar; he was our hometown hero. He tossed Cadillac keys to strangers, advocated for children’s charities. My mother knew him as a teenager, though she dismissed him as a “greaser.” Her now-boyfriend Dick played football with him at Humes High School.
Today Alzheimer’s lurks behind Dick’s sunny, strapping frame. He was recently found by police, lost, dehydrated and too disoriented to use his cell phone. At Christmas I always ask him for Elvis stories—how he helped the shy Tupelo transfer student with math; how the coach kicked Elvis off the team for refusing to cut his hair—to try and keep those memories, any memories, alive for him, my Mom…
And me. I’ve worried for some time that as Elvis fans pass on, they’ll take his legacy, on which blue-collar Memphis depends so much, with them.
But I was wrong. On a trip home last week for my mom’s birthday, my boyfriend and I toured all things Elvis—Beale Street, Sun Studio and of course Graceland. August 2012 marks the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ passing.
To my astonishment, fans were already pouring in to the Jungle Room. T-shirts airbrushed with Elvis’ face; a German fan wearing dyed-black hair in sideburns; flower wreaths for the Mississippi mama’s boy competing for space around his grave.
Many visitors were half my age. Yet these “hipsters,” with their tattoos and pink hair and mismatched socks, knew more about Elvis than I did. Our Sun Studio guide, Lydia, was a paper-pale waif with an encyclopedic knowledge of the blues and a mean guitar riff. Now 24, she moved to Memphis from Michigan to learn recording techniques at Sam Phillips’ studio where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ike Turner got their starts too. That’s a hunk of burnin’ love that comforts me.
In 1977, I knew nothing about dubious doctors or the “Memphis Mafia” who allegedly enabled Elvis’ downfall—still don’t. Just those cool blue eyes, the curling lip and the hips I hope hipsters and many others will love for decades to come.
Don’t be cruel! Got a favorite Elvis memory or song? Tell us!
Photo credit: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images