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Screaming, Fainting, Unplugged Jukeboxes: How Memphis and Media Reacted to Elvis’ Death

On Tuesday, Aug. 16, 1977, Rose Phillips was one of the first people in Memphis to learn firsthand of Elvis Presley’s death.

On that day, she had gone to a late lunch with her friend Arlene Cogan, who was former president of the Chicago Elvis Presley Fan Club and a regular visitor at Graceland, at the Piccadilly Restaurant, in a shopping center just a block from Elvis’ mansion.

“We had finished,” Phillips recalls, “and we were walking through the parking lot and we heard this ambulance go by. I remember Arlene joking, ‘They’re coming after us.’ It was just a joke. Right after that we saw [Elvis’ security chief] Sam Thompson and his dad just flying through the parking lot.

“We got back to her house, which was only a block away from there. We’re only a quarter of a mile from Graceland. We just got settled in the room, and the phone rang. Arlene went to answer the phone, and it was Pauline, one of the cooks up at Graceland. And she said, ‘Arlene, Elvis is dead.’ And I heard Arlene yell, ‘No! I knew it! I knew it!’ I knew what had happened without her telling me. I saw the grief on her, and I just knew. Somehow or another, Elvis was gone. And my thought was, it’s over.”

For Phillips – who had known the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from the age of 10, when the aspiring singer visited his cousin Gene Smith in her neighborhood – Elvis Presley’s sudden death at 42 from a lethal combination of prescription drugs was a personal loss. Others around the country shared that loss on a less intimate level.

For three days, the abrupt and tragically premature exit of Memphis’ best-known native son dominated the media and roiled emotions among the singer’s legion of hometown fans in the Tennessee city of roughly 624,000. Many of them continue to pay homage to this day.

For both the local and national press, it was an unexpected and enormous story that required immediate and intense attention.

Larry Buser, who covered Elvis’ death for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the city’s morning paper, says, “My managing editor said, ‘Buser, you will never cover a bigger story in your life. You might cover something more important, but you will never cover a bigger story.’ And he’s always been right.”

Buser was a 28-year-old general assignment reporter, and it fell to him to write the paper’s lead story from other writers’ takes. “It was mayhem,” he remembers. “It was chaotic in the newsroom. This was before electronic journalism, so we’re talking physical notes being dropped on my desk…. We had multiple deadlines back at that time. I recall working all the way up to midnight and then some, updating until the very last moment we could get something into press.”

The reporter wrote several other Presley-related stories in the weeks following his death; an interview with Ginger Alden, the star’s last girlfriend, prompted an offer from the tabloid National Enquirer, which was closely covering the event with a large platoon of writers.

“They wanted me to do a follow-up story,” Buser says with a laugh. “They said, ‘We’re prepared to offer you a substantial amount of money to do a story about Elvis having a premonition of his death.’ Since I was a newspaper writer and not a creative writer, I had to decline.”

Robert Hilburn, then the Los Angeles Times’ pop music critic and an avowed Elvis fan, raced into the paper from home and penned a 5,000-word personal appreciation of Presley on a short deadline for the Sunday edition, then hopped on a plane to cover reaction on the ground in Memphis. He was unprepared for the massive, mourning crowds that were lining the city’s streets.

“It was just overwhelming, the turnout,” Hilburn says. “It was like a member of the family died… That’s what struck me, the depth of the emotion. It was a local boy – he didn’t move to New York or L.A. He had a house out here, but he lived in Graceland, he lived in Memphis, he stayed in his hometown.”

Hilburn discovered that anywhere you went, there was a story to be heard: “My God, you couldn’t walk five feet without getting another anecdote or another angle. It was there, you didn’t have to dig for it. I went across the street to the café, just to talk to some people, but I noticed the jukebox was unplugged. The guy said it was too painful – people were crying. Wherever you stepped, it just came at you. You had to push people away who wanted to talk.

“For Memphis, this was it. This was like the President of the United States for them.”

Pat Rainer was then a 28-year-old Memphis State graduate student working for Jim Blake’s eccentric indie label Barbarian Records and Televista Projects, a video company operated by artist-musician Tav Falco and Memphis music fixture Randall Lyon. She recalls the first word of Elvis’ death as “a tremendous shock.”

She adds, “I can remember driving to Baptist Hospital and sitting there staring at the emergency room and thinking, ‘He’s in there dead? I just can’t even comprehend it.’”

On Aug. 17, Rainer and Lyon took an early Portapak video unit to Graceland, where Elvis’ body was laid out for a public viewing, to document the near-hysterical scene.

“I remember throngs and throngs of people lined up and down Elvis Presley Boulevard as far as you could see,” she says. “This was in flippin’ August – it was so hot. People passing out, people having to be put on stretchers, ambulances and EMT workers trying to get up the street through the crowd to where people had passed out and carrying ‘em out, Memphis police officers in uniform with bullhorns on either side of the gates of Graceland trying to control the crowd and telling people to not push and shove…It was insane, and that went on for hours, hours.”

Rainer and Lyon ferried pop critic Robert Palmer of the New York Times, a former Memphian, and a Washington Post reporter to the Aug. 18 funeral, and walked their video equipment into the private ceremony as if they belonged there.

“Here’s one thing that is a very vivid memory to me: There were more helicopters overhead than I have ever seen,” she says. “There was this long line of white limousines that made a procession from Graceland up to Forest Hill Cemetery. You could hear helicopters overhead with those rotors beating, like a million mechanical angels following those people.”

Though he would go on to write two books about Elvis (and is now better known as co-director of the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary “Best of Enemies”), Robert Gordon was then a self-described “punky 16-year-old” considerably less interested in the uproar surrounding Presley’s death.

“I considered Elvis a joke at the time, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say,” Gordon confesses. “The things I remember that really made an impact on me at the time were, one, the phone lines went down because everybody was calling in and out in disbelief. Two, you couldn’t get a flower in town — all the florists were bought out by the Elvis fans who were arriving. That hipped me at that moment to the notion that this was bigger than I understood.”

He continues, “Probably what was more impactful in my life at the time than Elvis was his fans. I had sold buttons at an Elvis concert in Memphis – me and my friend had a bootleg button business. I wasn’t into any sort of cultural analysis or awareness at the time, but the world of the fans struck me as really unusual and odd. When he died, me and some friends got a picnic blanket and a picnic lunch and went down to Forest Hill Cemetery and laid under a tree and watched the people in line….We went there to gawk.”

The unprecedented outpouring of affection that materialized at Elvis’ death abides in August of every year in Memphis’ annual Elvis Week, a citywide celebration that includes a fan reunion, concerts, symposia and even a 5K run. One of this year’s guest speakers will be Peter Guralnick, author of the definitive two-volume Presley biography.

Guralnick says of the event’s import, “I’ve seen people come together from the far-flung corners of the country and the world, and recognize each other, see each other for the first time since last year, recognize in these people that they’ve seen someone with whom they share a common bond. People have denigrated this by saying it’s like a religion, but I don’t think that’s what it is at all. It’s a community — and it’s a community in a world in which we’ve seen the disintegration of community — that sticks together and that continues to have real meaning for them.”

Rose Phillips – who, decades after her first encounter with Elvis, married the nephew of Sam Phillips, who produced the singer’s first records – recounts a story from that fateful summer suggesting that the fans’ intense identification and adoration has always spanned the globe, and in fact predated their idol’s death.

“The first song I heard after he died was ‘The Wonder of You,’ and it just broke me apart,” she says, momentarily choking back tears. “It reminded me: When I was in Rome [during the summer of 1977], we were sitting outside the Catacombs, and there were people from different countries there, and they’d heard us talking.

“And one Asian girl said, ‘America?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘U.S.A.?’ The next word she said was ‘Memphis.’ I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ She said, ‘Elvis?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ And the Japanese people in her little delegation started singing ‘The Wonder of You.’ Every word in flawless English. I thought, they are really connected to this man. A world away, and they’re connected to him.”

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