It’s summer 1977. I’m 13 years old, and my freshman year of high school will be starting in just a couple of weeks (in those days, everyone went back to school the day after Labor Day). We live in a trailer park. I’m skinny, brainy, and have few friends. My main refuge is music and books. I hadn’t yet reached full puberty, and vaguely had an idea that boys might be cute. That’s who I was when Elvis died.
In our house, the favored radio station was KGW AM (FM stations were a rarity back then, and those that were out there were hard to pick up). They were a typical Top 40 station of the day, playing not only current hits but an occasional oldie.
Elvis Presley had just released his first album in ages, Moody Blue. The big hit was “Way Down.” I already liked Elvis’ music; my folks had records that I listened to all the time on the record player in my room. In particular, there was a double album set that my mom ordered from television. I would stack the two records on the player, Side 1 first, and them turn them over when both had played so I could hear the rest of the music. I remember hearing “Way Down” only a few times on the radio.
And then, one day, it seemed to be all Elvis, all the time. I remember hearing the news that Elvis had died of a heart attack at age 42. As I was 13, that seemed impossibly old to me. My father, after all, was 40 … and we all know our parents are impossibly old.
Elvis’ death hit fans like the proverbial ton of bricks. I don’t think I clearly understood how that felt until David Bowie passed away. Like Bowie had been for me, Elvis felt like a family member to his fans. He’d been in their living rooms on TV, had been on their record players and radios for twenty years, and many of them had seen him perform.
As I got older (and, frankly, puberty happened), I understood something else about Elvis. He was a very sensual figure. Those screaming fans back in the day were seeing something that had never been seen before, to be honest: a man who understood how to use raw sexuality on stage.
And then there was that voice. Elvis was a baritone with an extension into both tenor and bass. He could sing blues, rock, ballads, and gospel with equal ease and sincerity. It’s no wonder that Sam Phillips started paying attention when a 19-year-old Crown Electric truck driver came into Sun Studios to make a record for his mother.
Over and over, I have thought about how different music would be if that had never happened. It’s impossible to say!
Fans always have “their Elvis” … by which they mean the period of music they prefer. For me, it’s 1968. Elvis was 33 years old, wearing a black leather suit, and exuding both humor and sensuality during what his management hoped would be a traditional Christmas special and was anything but.
On this day, in 1977, Elvis “left the building” for the very last time. Needless to say, Moody Blue became the number one album for a while (this is common when an artist passes away).
But Elvis wasn’t done yet. His most recent #1 hit was in 2002, when (for the first time ever) an Elvis song was licensed for remix. “A Little Less Conversation,” remixed by JXL, hit the top of the charts.
I am going to visit Graceland next month, making a pilgrimage that many fans make on an annual basis but others do only once in their lives. I will share photographs from my trip and talk about my experiences. Right now, I want to share the music.
Here’s “my Elvis.”
Here are “Way Down” and the remixed “A Little Less Conversation” (complete with a nod to “Jailhouse Rock”). Today, let’s enjoy the music.