Friday, August 13, 2010
August 16, 1977
“Guess who died?” she said.
The question itself gave me a jolt.
“Who?” I asked.
“Elvis Presley” was the answer.
The first records I remember hearing, probably because I liked them, were “I’ll Remember You,” the Frank Ifield hit whose wailing harmonica inspired John Lennon to play the instrument on the Beatles’ early hits; “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” songwriter Carole King’s first attempt at recording her own compositions; Lenny Welch’s weepy “Since I Fell for You”; and “Stuck on You” by Elvis Presley.
The latter title was prophetic. I had no interest in seeking out other recordings by Ifield, King, or Welch, but Presley’s distinctive style had me hooked. All those “uh-uh-uh,”s “yessiree,”s and “oh yeah”s were unlike anything my ears had heard.
I believe my mother had the record, the wear and tear around the RCA Victor label marking it as a disc purchased from the bargain bin, but I wanted more, and I vividly recall my mother taking me to the cramped Record Rendezvous in downtown Cleveland to buy another Elvis. I remember the walls decorated with the latest albums by everyone from Ricky Nelson to Lawrence Welk. These were 33 1/3 record albums whose covers were impressive even if the artwork wasn’t particularly eye catching simply because they were fairly large, over 10 down and across. And your sense of smell could identify a record store even if there wasn’t any music playing. Those heavy vinyl platters had a pleasing scent that compact discs lack.
I don’t remember the title of the Elvis 45 I picked up, only the picture sleeve that it came in, but I do know it didn’t impress me since the King was more subdued than he was when performing “Stuck on You.” There were none of those “uh-uh-uh”s and “oh yeah”s that made him sound so different. No matter. There were other Elvises to come including the Blue Hawaii soundtrack that I can still see beneath the Christmas tree in either ‘61 or ‘62. Yes, Elvis was also a movie star, and that may have been more significant to me than his success as a recording artist. I was already obsessed with movies, and I would see most of Presley’s films. There was a triple feature of Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, and Kid Galahad at the Garden. Girls, Girls, Girls reissued in support of John Wayne in Circus World at the Lyceum. Follow That Dream and It Happened at the World’s Fair on ABC-TV, a network that acknowledged the King’s status as the world’s biggest star by preceding the telecast of every film with a clip displaying that name - ELVIS - repeatedly. There was Tickle Me at the Garden in 1965, and, earlier, Fun in Acapulco paired with something called Hootenany Hoot at the same theater. I still recall the buttered popcorn I consumed in the dark on that visit to the Garden, although I don’t know why it stands out more than other buttered popcorns I ate at the movies.
It was when Roustabout played at the Garden that Elvis encouraged a friendship with one of my classmates in Sister Cora’s second grade class at St. Procop. John Sorma had approached the manager to ask him when the Elvis Presley movie would begin. The next day at school, I established that it was Roustabout’s star, not its flimsy plot or the presence of Barbara Stanwyck in the cast, that brought Sorma to the West 25th Street movie house (open only on weekends) on a Sunday night. My other friends were callously excised from my life as Sorma and I became inseparable. We endured his older brother’s teasing about the superiority of the Beatles, exchanged records, and, with my mother, saw Viva Las Vegas and Kissin’ Cousins at the Garden together. We were each other’s best friends, but we both acknowledged that a demotion was possible if either of us were to meet Elvis.
Sorma moved away after second grade, so our friendship was not as enduring as the King’s popularity, but the years 1964-1965 are among the most vivid in my memory. We shared the fun of being Elvis fans, and also the ups and downs that come with any relationship. I remember his mother, a quiet chain smoker who collected the coupons packaged with Raleigh cigarettes, and died of cancer in summer ‘65. Nine years later, long after we had drifted apart, his brother Patrick, a reserved, comforting sort, got his picture in the local paper when they reported his death in some sort of scuffle that ended in gunfire. Twenty years after that, John Sorma lost control of his car on Lorain Avenue, and joined his mother, his brother, and Elvis in death.
“Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind,” Elvis once sang. I have many, and Elvis was present in some of the best, sometimes as a peripheral figure, and other times dominating them. Is it any wonder that Elvis was so deeply mourned? For millions of people, Elvis was, as NBC’s David Brinkley said, “a part of our lives.”
Whatever happened to the rest of the Sorma clan? I don’t know, but John’s older sister did not marry Sean Connery’s brother as he breathlessly reported she was going to do when he came by my house in summer ‘65 for no reason but to tell me this fib. Besides, his sister was in love with Elvis, having written “I love you” in lipstick on a black-and-white photo of the King published in one of those movie magazines so popular at the time. I remember seeing it on her bed the time her brother and I snuck into her room.
In the mid ‘60s, my interest in Elvis started to wane. Movies were my passion, and my tastes became more sophisticated, no longer limited to Elvis and American International horror flicks. But in 1968 came NBC’s presentation of Elvis, his first TV special, and that dynamic comeback revived my enthusiasm, as did such classic recordings as “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain.” Soon after, he was lost to Vegas.
I pretty much lost interest in contemporary music in the early ‘70s, but Elvis seemed equally apathetic. His last top 10 hit was 1972's “Burning Love,” and though his concerts sold out within hours of being announced, his off-stage antics attracted more attention than his on-stage performances. The National Enquirer, Star, and other lurid tabloids splashed his increasingly bulky frame on its covers as they detailed every move he made, whether it was midnight snowmobiling in Colorado, his interest in numerology, or his habit of giving Cadillacs to complete strangers. When the King of Rock and Roll got fat, the media gloated, but no matter how many times he split his sequined pants, his appeal to women of all ages remained undimmed. By 1975, there were also frequent reports of his hospitalizations and his insistence that the windows of the hotel rooms he stayed in while on tour be covered in tin foil to block out all traces of sunlight.
In the late ‘50s, when his gyrations on stage were compared to that of a stripper, he defended himself by insisting he lived a “straight, clean life,” and that image followed him to Hollywood where it was believed his parties, fabled for the number of females present, were innocuous affairs with no drinks stronger than Pepsi. The reports of drug use that exploded following his death, itself drug-induced, took his fans by surprise. They all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the coroner announced that the King’s crown was toppled by “cardiac arrhythmia - a severe, irregular heartbeat.” In 1979, Geraldo Rivera would demolish that myth with an hour long report detailing Presley’s addiction to prescription drugs, but on August 16, 1977, the ABC news reporter known for his maverick style presided over the network’s late evening reminiscences of the fallen King. NBC competed with an excellent report anchored by veteran newscaster David Brinkley who closed the broadcast by saying Elvis “changed our lives, like it or not.”
CBS, however, bungled the story badly. After my mother informed me of Elvis’ passing, I turned on The CBS Evening News in the misguided belief that they would have the most comprehensive report - after all, it was on their Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show that Presley made his most notable early appearances. Instead, CBS led their news that night with a report on former president Gerald Ford’s endorsement of the Salt II treaty. Roger Mudd, subbing for the vacationing Walter Cronkite, later told TV Guide that he protested the decision, but was overruled by the producer.
An embarrassed CBS, criticized for their failure to recognize one of the most important news stories of the year, compensated for their gaffe with a thoughtful half-hour news special two nights later. Hosted by Charles Kuralt, who had been present at a news conference Elvis held for the media upon his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1960, the special was memorable for emphasizing Presley’s impact on culture and society, the result being a more thoughtful program worthy of the time capsule. “Try to remember, try to remember,” Kuralt intoned from a darkened studio highlighted only by some black-and-white photos of Elvis in his prime. “1956 was the year Elvis Presley had his first national impact. Ike was in his glory, Grace was in her palace, and all was well with the world, except an Alabama preacher named Martin Luther King didn’t think so.”
Elvis may not have invented rock and roll, but he was the genre’s most creative innovator, forging a style that would influence almost every performer who emerged in his wake. And it was Elvis who made rock and roll an international phenomenon that would give rise to the Beatles, the only performers whose popularity and impact rivaled his own.
Rock and rollers, and popular music performers in general, come and go, and only a handful endure or are even remembered by anyone but those present during their brief blaze of glory. On August 16, 1977, the biggest star in music was Peter Frampton whose multimillion selling live album had replaced Carole King’s 1971 Tapestry as the biggest selling disc in history. But Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors would soon displace it, and the band itself would push Frampton off the radar within months. The disco explosion that followed the December release of Saturday Night Fever with its throbbing Bee Gees soundtrack would fade as quickly as it arrived, as New Wave bands like Blondie dominated the charts. Michael Jackson’s brief reign in the ‘80s, spurred by MTV and music videos, would crumble long before the dramatic charges of child molestation that forever tainted his image in the ‘90s. Other sounds and equally fleeting bands and singers would rise in years to come, but none have challenged Elvis whose collection of number one hits would reach the top of the Billboard charts in 2001.
Elvis is many things, including an anagram for “lives.” Indeed, he does, 30 years after leaving the building for a final time.
Brian W. Fairbanks
August 12, 2007