Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Elvis & Me

We never met.  But our paths crossed many times, including once in a fairly spectacular way.  This is the story of my cosmic connection with The King.

I’ve come to believe that just about everyone who grew up or lived in Memphis around the time I did has an Elvis story to tell.  I have several--one of which is quite remarkable, and perhaps a tad magical, or at least it seems that way to me.

Elvis has always been a part of my life.  Back in 1959 or 1960, shortly after my parents moved to the house I grew up in, they bought a Motorola stereo hi-fi, and one of the very first albums they brought home was Elvis’s 1956 debut LP on the black RCA label, cleverly titled, “Elvis Presley.”  I was about two and a half years old.  Thus the first music I ever recall hearing in life was that Elvis record, about half of which was recorded in Memphis.  (It is, by the way, a vastly underappreciated album).  This record started me on a lifelong love of music, and remains one of my favorites to this day.

My family lived about six miles from Graceland.  We passed the mansion at least once a week on the way to this or that.  Sometimes the gates would be standing wide.  It’s hard to believe such a thing might happen in today’s nut-filled, security conscious world.  But back in those days, when Elvis wasn’t home he left the gates open, so that fans could drive right up to the house, get out and look around.  One day when I was about 7 Mom and I did just that, completely on the spur of the moment.  There’s not much to report.  We got out of the car, approached the door, knocked, milled around for a while, and then we left.  At that age, I didn’t really have any idea of just how important this figure was to world culture.  But at the same time, for some reason I never forgot that visit.

Elvis used to wind up in Baptist Memorial Hospital every now and then with intestinal blockages and whatnot. You could always tell he was there because one of the hospital windows would be covered up in aluminum foil.  One of my best friends was in the facility during one of Elvis’ stays.  He tells a story about how he just wandered into Elvis’ room one afternoon and started up a conversation.  Elvis was very friendly.

One of Elvis’ best friends from high school was a guy named George Klein.  Klein was a DJ in Memphis during the golden era of Top 40 AM radio.   It was largely through him and his colleagues at WHBQ-AM that I was kept up to date on the world of pop music during the 60’s and early 70s, via the AM radio in my mom’s car and also through my mom’s tiny little 9 volt transistor radio that used to hang on a wall hook in the kitchen, which she would let me borrow from time to time.  That was how you did it back then.

In 1974, Elvis held the first of his Memphis homecoming concerts.  Until that time, he’d avoided performing in Memphis, on the theory that he might get no respect in his home town.  Boy, was that theory wrong.   I was there.  The place was insane.  My mother was a homebody, and very rarely went out for anything.   It was the first time she’d ever suggested going to a concert.   This was in the “fat Elvis” era, or so I’m told.  But he looked vivacious, energetic and in his prime to me.  The man was magnetic.  And parenthetically, this was where I first heard the phrase, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

In 1976, I worked a summer as the “drive out boy” for John Ellis Chevrolet, which was a new car dealership near the airport, a short drive from Graceland.  I was one of the guys who drove the cars to be serviced in and out of the bays.  One day one of Elvis’ people brought one of his trucks in for service.  Yep, I drove Elvis’ truck.  How about that.

Elvis was famous for meeting people on the street and doing massive favors for them, such as buying them a car.  Later that year, Elvis walked into that dealership with someone he’d met and did just that.  He paid in full, writing a personal check.  I was no longer working for the company, but my father was.  He didn’t sell Elvis the car, but he did get The King’s autograph on his business card, which I still have.

In August of 1977, I was pumping gas into my somewhat disreputable 1961 Buick LeSabre at a station just a few blocks from my girlfriend’s house, preparatory to picking her up for a date, when some guy walked up to me and said, “Have you heard?  Elvis died.”  My girlfriend and I had never discussed Elvis at any time.  But that night she was a wreck, crying and wringing her hands as we listened to disc jockeys on the FM dial playing one Elvis record after another and telling Elvis stories all evening long.   She was inconsolable.   I was choked up too.   We both felt like we’d lost a member of the family.  Neither one of us could really explain why we felt that way.  Perhaps it was because all three of us shared Memphis accents.  Maybe it was because Elvis had, without us really thinking about it, become the center of our home town’s cultural pulse.   Maybe it was because he’d stolen our hearts while we weren’t looking. 

The Commercial Appeal front page, August 19, 1977
And now here’s the point this little essay has been leading up to.  Elvis was laid to rest on Thursday, August 18, 1977.  The next day—37 years ago today—the late King and I shared a rare distinction:  both of us landed on the front page of our hometown newspaper.  Coverage of Elvis’ funeral dominated the page, of course.  And there’d been a horrible accident in front of Graceland that morning, where someone had crashed a car into the crowd of mourners.  But below that article was, believe it or not, a piece about my home, quoting me, based on a story I’d written.

Detail from the lower right corner of the page
It came about this way.  The Commercial Appeal used to have a humorist on staff named Lydel Sims.   His columns ran on the front page.  Sims was a folksy kind of guy, writing about southern folkore, southern people, southern critters, and so on.  He relied on his readers for a lot of those tales.  I saw myself as a writer and smart-aleck-to-be.  So one day, at the age of about 18, on a whim I wrote him a letter about a humorous incident that had happened to me.  He turned it into a column and put it on the front page.  I wound up doing this several times, and each time I did, Sims would make use of my material.  So on August 19, right there on the front page of the historic edition of the Commercial Appeal that was dedicated to coverage of Elvis’ funeral, there is a cutesy article about a real-life house cat named Tex cowering from a mockingbird, complete with an illustration, based on a story I had written for Sims.  The day Elvis was being laid to rest and his fabulous career was coming to a close, I was setting out on my path as a writer hopeful and humorist-wannabe.  Amazingly, our orbits  had intersected.

Nor was this the last time our footsteps would cross.   In 1980, I landed my first professional job in broadcasting as a news reporter for WHBQ-AM.  It’s the station that had introduced Elvis to the world, playing his single, “That’s All Right Mama” in 1954.  A huge oil painting of Dewey Phillips, the pioneering DJ who’d spun that record, hung in the lobby.  I was there during some of the final months the station still broadcast in the Top 40 music format.  Shortly after that, it went all news/talk.  (Now it’s sports/talk).   Later that same year, I went to work at (what was then) the ABC affiliate next door, WHBQ-TV, writing news copy and filling in as a reporter.  That was the station that had announced Elvis’ death to the world.

What’s the point of all this?   None, really, except to marvel, once again, at the amazing interconnectedness of life.  The world truly is a magical place.  Never doubt that for a moment.   As we sail along, we send out ripples.  You never know whom they’ll touch—or whose will touch you.


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