It’s been 40 years since Elvis left Graceland

August 5, 2017

The Tallahasse Democrat
By: Mark Hinson

I was in my teens getting a haircut in Marianna when my barber broke the news about Elvis Presley dropping dead at Graceland in Memphis. The singer was only 42. The barber was quite upset. I shrugged as I sat in the chair getting an uneven, shaky trim.

By the late ‘70s, Elvis was a bloated relic wearing a silly sequined jumpsuit and doing ridiculous karate kicks for all the blue-haired ladies in Las Vegas. My friends and I were into punk, funk and disco. For us, Elvis had died long before Aug. 16, 1977.

Then a funny thing happened to Elvis once he passed into the afterlife. The radio stations began playing his early, raw, edgy tunes from the Sun Records days in the mid-’50s: “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Mystery Train,” “That’s All Right” and “Baby Let’s Play House.” In the days before YouTube, this was a revelation. Then there were the hits from the first days at RCA: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “All Shook Up” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” No wonder white bread America was terrified of Elvis The Pelvis. It all made sense.

 

I suddenly became an Elvis fan and embraced all of his many facets — Dangerous Young Elvis, Lazy Movie Star Elvis, Southern Gun Nut Elvis, Pill-Poppin’ Elvis, Black Leather Elvis, Cape-Wearing Elvis, Peanut Butter-And-Nana Sandwich Elvis and, of course, Dead Elvis.

On Aug. 16, 1987, three buddies and I made the drive from Tallahassee to Memphis to pay our respects at Graceland. We bought the day’s last tickets available to tour Elvis’ mansion, which is significantly smaller than most of the houses around Ox Bottom Manor in Tallahassee. When we emerged from The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s petite palace, a massive candlelight vigil was taking shape at the gates of Graceland for the 10th anniversary of his death. Our shuttle van slowly parted the throng. It was like being in the middle of the mob scene at Ayatollah Khomeini’s chaotic funeral procession in June 1987. The smell of grief was palpable in the air, a powerful thing.

In 1997, when I returned to Memphis to cover a conference about Elvis during Death Week, there was more of a carnival atmosphere. If you’ve met one Elvis impersonator, you’ve pretty much met them all, even the midgets wearing tiny jumpsuits. One grumpy Elvis manqué said he was offended when he had to purchase a ticket to tour “his home.”

During the 20th anniversary candlelight vigil, I was invited to camp out in a tent on the front lawn of Graceland. I watched as thousands of silent mourners filed up the driveway to Elvis’ final resting place in the backyard. It was a genuinely somber moment.

It was so putridity hot on Aug. 16, 2007, that my three traveling companions and I did a drive-by of Graceland and bought a few souvenirs at the shopping mall across the street. Before heatstroke claimed us, we headed to the Peabody Hotel to watch the famous ducks swim in the lobby fountain and to buy shirts from Bernard Lansky. The elderly Lansky used to sell Elvis all of his loud and attention-grabbing suits in the ‘50s. They remained buddies. When I was in the Lansky Bros. shop, which is housed indoors at the Peabody, Priscilla Presley dropped by to say hello to Bernard. I was standing just a few feet away from Mrs. Elvis Presley but it took me a few minutes to recognize her face.

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Evidently her cosmetic surgeon studied with Dr. Moreau on the Island of Lost Souls.

Big changes at Graceland

During the 1997 conference, one or two Elvis scholars predicted the Presley pilgrim parade to Graceland every 10 years would dwindle as the hardcore fans grew older and died off.

Evidently, Priscilla Presley and the rest of The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s kin don’t think it’s going to happen. A sprawling, $45 million entertainment complex, which includes the 450-room The Guest House At Graceland hotel, just opened directly across the street from the Graceland mansion. If you want to book a night at the four-star Guest House At Graceland in the TCB Suite on Aug. 15, it will cost you $759 (plus tax). Yowza. How many Chinese billionaires are they expecting in Memphis for Death Week 2017?

I will not be lodging in the TCB Suite when I punch my return ticket later this month at Graceland. It costs nearly $40 to walk through the mansion but it’s worth every penny. There’s a different Elvis waiting there for everyone and every need.

If you’re looking for Excessive Elvis, linger in the gaudy, shag-carpeted splendor of The Jungle Room. The Impressive Elvis lives down the hall where his umpteen gold records line the walls. Grumpy Old Elvis is a personal favorite.

My friend, Deborah Maloy, grew up in the neighborhood behind Graceland. When she was a child in the ‘70s, she and her pals played in the woods bordering Elvis’ horse pasture in the backyard.

“I hate Elvis because he used to tear down our forts and chase us out of the woods,” she told me once. “He was mean. We used to throw hickory nuts at him when he drove by on his motorcycle.”

When Alice met Elvis

Eccentric Elvis is another favorite. During the ‘60s, Elvis bought a pet chimpanzee named Scatter. The party-hearty, 40-pound Scatter was an old circus and TV performer who liked to smoke, drink and goose women. When Elvis was making all those cheeseball movies in Hollywood, Scatter followed along and was a big hit at parties. After Elvis grew bored, Scatter was shipped off to live in a cage at Graceland. The poor chimp was unhappy and bit the people who fed him. Scatter died under mysterious circumstances and is allegedly buried in the back yard of Graceland, somewhere near Elvis’ grave.

Last year, when Alice Cooper performed in Tallahassee, I talked to the macabre musician and he told me about meeting Crazy Karate Elvis. It happened during the King’s early tenure in Las Vegas. Elvis summoned Alice — along with Chubby Checker and Linda Lovelace, of all people — to his suite at the Hilton Hotel for a meeting with the Memphis Mafia.

“Elvis comes in and this is not Fat Elvis,” Alice said. “This is Rock ‘n’ Roll Best Elvis. Black Leather Elvis. And he comes in and meets everybody and he goes, ‘Hey, man, you’re the cat with the snake, ain’t cha?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘I love the makeup, man, that thing you do is so cool and you cut your head off and all that stuff, I really dig it, man.”

Elvis quickly pulled Alice aside and took him into the suite’s spacious kitchen.

“He opens up a kitchen drawer and hands me a loaded Smith & Wesson .38,” Alice said. “He said, ‘I’m going to show you how to take this gun out of someone’s hand.’ And I go, ‘OK.’ So immediately, I open it to take the bullets out and he said, ‘No, no, leave ‘em in. It’s all right.’”

Who hands a loaded gun to a man who pretends to commit suicide onstage for a living?

“There was that one second of going, ‘Kill him,’” Cooper said. “I’m holding a loaded gun on Elvis, this is the ultimate Alice thing to do. Then I thought, ‘No, just shoot him in the leg.’ Before I could think of anything else, I was on the floor, his boot was on my neck and my gun was on the other side of the building. He didn’t hurt me, but now I know how to take a gun out of someone’s hand.”

Next time, remind me to tell you about the day Stoned To The Gills Elvis met President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1970.