I was twenty years old the night I heard that Elvis Presley had died at his home in Memphis. The date was August 16, 1977.
My shift as a checker at a grocery store ended at nine o’clock that evening. Unlike most nights, I drove home without the radio on. When I got home, my parents asked me whether I had heard the news.
They told me. I reacted in shock to the few details we knew that night: heart attack, at his mansion called Graceland, and fans were holding a vigil in front of the home.
I went to my room and began tuning in radio stations on my Sony AM/FM/record player. All over the radio dial, disc jockeys were playing Elvis songs, interviewing fans, and sharing stories about man who elevated rock-and-roll into popular culture.
I became an Elvis fan on December 6, 1968. That was the night NBC broadcast Singer Presents Elvis. Singer referred to the sewing machine company that sponsored the one-hour special.
The show was billed as the first television appearance by Elvis in nearly a decade. I was impressed with the long list of hits he performed. I was really impressed by the closing song If I Can Dream. The next day, I bought the record.
Over the years, I’d buy each new Presley single. In the Ghetto was the next single release coming in the spring of 1969. Suspicious Minds came later that year. Kentucky Rain would soon follow. I bought them all.
I saw the songs shift from rock-and-roll to more of a country-rock sound in the mid-1970s. It didn’t matter to me. I was a fan right on through to college where I studied to be a radio announcer and ended up being a television reporter. I even had a part time job at a radio station where I could play his records even as his popularity flattened in the last two years of his life.
And that leads to that night in August when I heard that Elvis had died. The disc jockeys I listened to that evening were paying tribute to the man who popularized the music of a generation. Radio was hosting a wake. Those of us who enjoyed the music took part by simply tuning in.
At 11:30 that evening, I moved from the radio in my bedroom to the television set in the living room. NBC was airing a half hour Presley retrospective with David Brinkley as the anchor.
A friend of mine recorded the audio from that broadcast and gave me a copy. I have probably played that tape hundreds of times. I’ll never forget how David Brinkley kicked off the broadcast with what amounted to a reason why America cared about the loss of the rock-and-roll icon:
“It didn’t matter a great deal whether you liked Elvis or not. He changed our lives. So did a lot of other peoplechange parts of our lives. Montovani played Charmagne. We heard it a thousand times on the radio, in elevators and at the dentist office.
But it didn’t change anything. Elvis Presley did. He changed the way then teenage America thought about things: public entertainment, popular attitudes, toward behavior and attitudes about dressing and sex. And so when he died today from a heart ailment at the age of forty-two, people felt a sense of loss whether they ever liked his singing or not.”
I got through that night thanks to the community of broadcasters who wouldn’t let this death go unnoticed. The fans kept up the outpouring of sympathy on through the funeral a few days later. That affection for Elvis has kept on going ever since.
Soon, we would read of allegations of drug abuse, physical decline, and just plain weird things that went on during those final years. The image of a slick rock-and-roll icon was tarnished for a long time.
But the music endured. And with time, the entertainment industry has found a place for the man who, as David Brinkley said so eloquently some thirty-six years ago, changed things.
We have Elvis Presley to thank for that as well.