Friday was the 36th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.
One night in August 1977, longtime friend John Brummett called me to say he would be in my part of Arkansas for a couple of days and he wondered if I wanted to get together for an outing.
I was a 23-year-old reporter-photographer for the Courier-Index, a weekly newspaper in Marianna, run by publisher Marvin Caldwell. Brummett had lured me into the newspaper game in high school after I questioned something that was in the student publication at Little Rock McClellan High School, of which he was the sports editor. Starting as a sports writer at the old Arkansas Democrat while still in school, by 1977 he was a reporter for the state’s best and largest daily, the Arkansas Gazette.
He said he was doing a story that required him to be in eastern Arkansas for a couple of days. We decided that, after he finished news-gathering on day two (Aug. 16) of his swing, he’d drop by the paper in Marianna. As soon as I finished the day’s writing chores, we’d head for Memphis — only an hour away — and do a little adult celebrating.
Brummett was waiting on me to write a cutline (caption) for a photo I’d just taken of a family gathering in Marianna when the young man who served as the dispatcher of his father’s vending machine business next door rushed into the newspaper office with big news: “Elvis is dead!” Billy served as the town gossip because he heard a lot of rumors as he worked the radio with drivers and repairmen who worked for his father, but this time, no one believed him.
“Sure, Billy,” someone said. “Like we’re going to believe that one!” It was true that Presley, the favorite son of Memphis, was just a shadow of his former self, but he was only 42.
“It’s true,” Billy said. “I just heard it on the radio. He died over at Baptist (Hospital).”
Thirty-six years ago, there was no Internet (at least not for the public) and, as a local weekly, our newspaper did not subscribe to The Associated Press or any other wire service. We didn’t keep a television set at the paper, either, so as soon as Brummett and I headed east toward Memphis, we turned on the radio for more news.
Billy’s hard-to-swallow gossip turned out to be true.
Being news junkies, we didn’t say much. We just listened as more details were reported about the death of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll by WHBQ-AM in Memphis, which has long noted that it was the first station to play a Presley record when Dewey Phillips put “That’s Alright Mama” on one night back in 1954. We decided that there was no reason to change our plans for the night, but before we headed for the restaurants and bars of the Overton Square area (Beale Street had not yet been revived as an entertainment destination), we couldn’t resist the urge to head south after we crossed the Mississippi River bridge. We wound around until we came up from the south to cross Elvis Presley Boulevard several blocks west of Graceland.
From that distance at least a half mile away, we saw bedlam. The crowd that covered the street already numbered several hundred and kept growing. This was a day before a man drove a car into that crowd, killing two people.
But we drove on to Overton Square where we ate a good meal and eventually started drinking with large crowds in a couple of pubs. Granted, it was a subdued tone.
Occasionally, a drunk rang out with a bad version of “(You Ain’t Nothin’ But A) Hound Dog” or “Burning Love.” Others, like us, carried on quiet conversations that started with some aspect of Elvis’ shocking death and eventually meandered on to other subjects. Eventually, though, all talk usually came back to what had happened a few hours before over at Graceland on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
We stayed until the bars closed and then slowly, carefully made our way back to Marianna. Along the way on Interstate 40 and U.S. 79, we listened to all-night stations, all of which were playing Presley songs.
Brummett noted that, though he was not the Elvis fan that I always had been, he liked certain songs. Though the memory has dimmed now, it seems that one we agreed on was the King’s quirky 1970 hit, “Kentucky Rain.”
We arrived at my house after 4 a.m., each complaining that we had to be back at work in less than four hours.
The ensuing days brought the strange events that led to Presley’s burial at a nearby cemetery and then the aborted attempt by vandals to steal his body. That prompted the eventual move of his remains, as well as that of his mother, back to a memorial garden on the grounds of Graceland. It’s visited by tens of thousands each year.
Brummett and I still see each other occasionally — we worked two doors apart for about four years. But to the best of my memory, we rarely have discussed that strange trip to Memphis 36 years ago. But I doubt that either of us has forgotten.