40 years ago today, Elvis was found dead by his then-girlfriend Ginger Alden, hours before he was to leave for another tour. The details surrounding his death have become part of his legend. The cause of death was so contested for over a decade. It was finally settled in 1994 when his autopsy was reopened to conclude heart attack as the cause.
Thousands of fans have flocked to Graceland for the candlelight vigil to honor his memory, as they have every year since 1977. Since Graceland opened its doors as a museum in 1982, the week of his death has come to be known as “Elvis Week”. The week has been drawing as many as 40,000 visitors a year.
Elvis’ life and career personify the American dream growing up poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, to becoming a superstar. His story, however, would end a tragedy, dying early at 42, after years of prescription drug abuse, ill health and an impossible lifestyle.
In just 23 years, Elvis cut a path that few could duplicate. Recording over 665 masters, 22 #1 albums, 36 #1 singles and 33 movies.
My Elvis story
My Elvis story starts roughly 11 years before his death. Like many people, I was introduced to the music of my parents. I was initially drawn to his classics, like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and “Little Sister”, one of my mom’s favorites. I played my parents’ copies of his records over and over again until I finally bought my own.
The first music I ever bought was 1973 RCA – DPL2-0056(e). This was a 2-record set that cost $5.99, a great bargain at the time… but hard to come by when you’re 7.
I would grow to surpass my parents’ interest in Elvis, getting every book, magazine, and record I could get my hands on. I was drawn by the charisma, the rags-to-riches story and of course, the music.
That hot August day in 1977, I was already in bed when my parents woke me up to watch the news. The story had broke that evening. I had been pestering my parents since July of 1975 to see Elvis, as his tours brought him close to the US-Canadian border in Niagara Falls, Buffalo or Rochester.
Luckily today you can find all his concert details online, from the set lists to what jump suit he wore at the concert. Not quite the same but I tell myself it is.
I eventually discovered and bought lots of other music while my interest in Elvis changed as well. Never waning, I learned and discovered different aspects of his life and career. Elvis’ adult contemporary music exposed me to mature themes that saw me through my parents’ divorce with songs like “Don’t Cry Daddy”.
And then, through my own dating life with songs like “Only the Strong Survive”
and then to “Paralyzed”.
Today, I see examples the ills of the music business to the failings of the celebrity lifestyle all embodied in Elvis’ life and career.
A shining example of the ills of the music business – that at the same time, represents both Elvis’ poor management and the exploitation of record labels – happened in 1973. Elvis’ manager, racked with gambling debts, sold off all future music royalties to all his recordings for the measly sum of just $5.4 million dollars. This egregious deal would later be overturned in court in 1982. This brought all royalties to his estate.
Turns out that great deal on the double album set for $5.99 that I so enjoyed in childhood was merely RCA cashing in on Elvis’ catalog free from the bonds of having to pay out royalties.
The story continues, as recently as 2015 Sony (the new parent company of RCA) was once again in court fighting with his estate over royalties.
The Side we didn’t see
The latest story, leading up to Elvis Week, we learn that Elvis was a huge Star Trek fan and even named one of his horses after the popular sci-fi show. I feel a special thrill, personally, when my favorite pop culture icons cross paths.
40 years in, I am still discovering more things about Elvis and his incredible yet short life.
Now I wonder if Elvis got to see Star Wars…