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Heartbreak Hotel Is Still OpenPosted Thursday, August 19, 2010, at 10:15 AM
The e-mail came from a friend: " Here we are at August 16, 33 years later. Guess you know where my thoughts are today."
I didn't immediately know what she was talking about. August 16? 33 years later? Her son or daughter's birthday? Her anniversary? "Guess you know where my thoughts are today?" The ending seemed more sad than celebratory.
Then, I realized the message was from Liz in Maryland. Liz The Elvis Lady. The woman I met years ago, while doing a news story, who fascinated me with her Elvis Room full of Elvis records and dolls and plates and clocks and movie posters and cardboard cutouts. A room full of "collectables" she paid way too much for. The woman with tales of travels to Elvis concerts all over the U.S. Her constant quest to get gossip from one of his confidants, grab one of his wet silk hankies or, the Holy Moment that never materialized, the chance to bow in his presence or, at least, shake his hand.
Of course! The 33rd anniversary of Elvis' death. After all these years, thousands still return to Memphis each year for Elvis Week because, as imperfect as he was, Elvis remains an idol to millions.
The anniversary means that, 33 years ago on August 16, my brother, Ron, and I were on the road heading to Memphis. I was in Salem visiting my family when we learned Willie Nelson and EmmyLou Harris were going to play a concert in Memphis. We loved both artists so off we went. A road trip with my little brother who was in college and all grown up.
Late afternoon, at a town I can't remember, I pulled over and Ron jumped out to get us some drinks at a little dairy freeze type place. As he stood in line, the news came over the radio: Elvis Presley was dead. Dead at Graceland. I was shocked and jumped out screaming, "Ron!...Ron!". He looked at me alarmed and started walking rapidly toward the car.
"Elvis died. Elvis is dead," I yelled. "I just heard it on the radio." Ron stopped with look of relief. I had him scared something really bad had happened. He turned around and went back for our drinks. Apparently, not everyone considered Elvis' death earth shattering news, my brother among them.
By the time we arrived in Memphis, radio stations were all Elvis, all the time and we noticed groups of people scattered around street corners and yards discussing the news.
When we entered the arena at the fairgrounds, a large crowd was already gathered for the Willie and EmmyLou show. But the mood seemed subdued, not as boisterous as most pre-concert crowds.
I was surprised when EmmyLou was called to the stage with no mention that Memphis was in mourning. Harris and her always top notch band played without mentioning Elvis' death.
After a break, it was time for Willie and people greeted him with rowdy cheers and he and his family band gave it their all as usual. Again, no mention of Elvis.
But, late in the show, a man walked from the wings and stood at the side of the stage. Willie looked over and motioned him to come help with backup vocals.
It was Jerry Lee Lewis! Another rock and roll pioneer. The Louisiana wild man known for abusing his piano and, like Elvis, shooting up televisions and taking too many pills. Jerry Lee, the angry, high guy who, legend has it, showed up at the Graceland gates, one night, with a gun to confront his friend and rival.
But, this night, Jerry Lee was quiet and respectful. After singing backup on couple of songs, he stepped away from the mike. Willie looked over at his sister, Bobbi, and nodded at her. She pushed back the piano bench and got up so Jerry Lee could take her place. But there would be no fireworks, no Great Balls of Fire, from Jerry Lee that night. He played and sang a gospel song.
As I recall, the show ended with no mention that Elvis had left the building. Permanently.
Outside, as we drove through and out of town, the crowds had grown. More people standing around visiting. Certainly talking about Elvis, pros and cons. Those who mourned the sad, too soon death of a legend. Those speculating Elvis, the man who had it all, had killed himself with drugs and fried foods.
The next day, my friend, Liz The Elvis Lady, was among the throng. She remembers several days of standing outside Graceland and elsewhere being tortured by August Memphis heat and humidity. She remembers people passing out from the heat or their grief. Thousands of sad, lost fans uncertain what to do. Just knowing they had to be there.
Liz The Elvis Lady has visited Memphis many times since Elvis' death. But not during Elvis Week. Too many sad, bad memories.
33 years later, the big event of Elvis week is a candlelight vigil at Graceland, where people show their continued love and respect for Elvis.
The rest of the week is dedicated to having fun: the Walk a Mile in My Shoes all Elvis City of Memphis Tour, the Rock a Hula Girls Benefit Dinner, Sing Like a King Karaoke, the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Contest.
Like Liz The Elvis Lady, other real fans, people who can't make it to Elvis Week, still remember The King in their own ways. Pulling up concert video on You Tube, watching the corny movies the Colonel made him do, or playing old 45s or scratchy record albums or remastered cds. Liz used the birthday check I gave her to subscribe to the All Elvis satellite radio station.
Are enough younger people being recruited to keep Elvis' memory alive as his original fans get older and fewer?
Who knows? But, as long as there are people who were alive in the 50's, 60's, and 70's to remember the talented performer and all his successes and failures and come backs, Elvis Week will continue and every day is Elvis Day.
Elvis will never leave their building.
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I used to call this blog "Stranger In Town" but time goes by quickly. After a year in these parts, I realize people will still say, 'he's from off' but I now proudly claim I am a "Stranger No More"! After a lifetime in living in big cities, small town life has produced surprises, good and bad but, after more than a year, I love it (most of the time!). I promise to keep on writing about stuff that interests me and things I think of to complain about. I hope you will continue to check in occasionally to read and comment.
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