Radio tributes to Elvis Presley on the 40th anniversary of his death two years ago brought to mind my long-ago trip to Memphis to cover the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s funeral for the Montreal Star. I was a young reporter, always on the lookout for a front-page story, and I had heard from a “source” that a Montreal travel agency had booked a charter flight to Memphis. The first few hundred Elvis fans who put their money down would travel to Memphis for the King’s funeral.
I was onto it at once. My editor approved my pitch, and I was at Dorval Airport early the next morning. My assignment was to report on the funeral – and the Montreal fans who had spent $165 each to say goodbye to their idol.
After a four-hour flight, we landed in Memphis. It was a scorcher of a day, but our travel provider had an air-conditioned bus waiting for us. We listened to Elvis songs as we toured Elvis sites in the city, inching our way through streets thronged with Elvis fans. We passed Graceland, the King’s home, and snapped photos, but the funeral there was for invited guests only. So we waited outside Forest Hill Cemetery, and saw the funeral procession enter the gates. Elvis’s casket arrived in a white hearse, followed by 17 white limousines. We waited while the casket was interred in the family vault, then watched the procession leave the cemetery. (Elvis’s remains were moved to a grave on the grounds of Graceland two months later, after a failed break-in by grave robbers.)
That was as close as we got to Elvis before we headed back to the airport, but his Montreal fans were ecstatic. “I can feel Elvis all around me,” one of them said as we drove past Graceland. “He lived and died in there.”
“If I died today, my life would be complete,” another told me.
My favourite was from a Memphis police officer doing crowd control outside the cemetery. He’d been a year behind Elvis at Humes High School, and had seen him perform at the school’s annual talent show in 1953. “He put a foot on a chair, strummed his guitar and sang his heart out. For me, that’s when rock ’n’ roll was born.”
Those memories wove themselves into my story “Farewell to the King,” a tale of four young women who travel to Memphis for Elvis’s funeral. The story is included in the short fiction collection In the Key of 13 to be released by Carrick Publishing in October.
Elvis Presley died 42 years ago today at the age of 42, after suffering a cardiac arrest. And more than four decades later, he is one of the world’s most profitable entertainers. Millions of people still buy his music and 500,000 fans visit Graceland every year to see where he lived, died and is buried. Elvis ranked No. 2 behind Michael Jackson on Forbes’ list of the highest-paid celebrities in 2018. The list, which is released every October, showed Elvis pulled in US$40 million last year.
Every year, fans from around the world gather in Memphis to mark the Aug. 16 anniversary of the King’s death. This year has been no different. Elvis Week 2019 opened on Aug. 9 and wraps up tomorrow. Events included tours of the Graceland mansion, a contest by Elvis tribute artists, an evening of reminisces by artists who shared the stage with Elvis, and an auction of his memorabilia. The highlight, as always, was the candlelight vigil. It drew tens of thousands to Graceland last night, the one night of the year fans can enter the gates free of charge, and it lasted well into this morning.
Think of it: all those fans and all the money they spend on his music, 42 years after his death. Elvis has been dead as long as he was alive.
Mai-Lei, one of the characters in “Farewell to the King,” put it this way: “There’ll never be another like him. Elvis was the King. He was ours.”