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All shook up...The day that Elvis died

It may be 40 years since his death but the King's music and legend live on. Dennis Ellam looks at the enduring power of this rock and roll icon

Before there was Elvis Presley, there was nothing- so one of his ardent fans, John Lennon, once remarked. And after Elvis? When the King left the stage so abruptly, what did he leave behind?

This summer it will be 40 years since he died and there's no questions, as the anniversary approaches, that Elvis in death is every bit the colossal star that he was in life. If anything, he's even bigger.

Google his name, this icon from an era long before the internet and today more that 48 million links come up.

His recordings continue to sell in phenomenal numbers- the one billion total was passed a while ago- and indeed the most recent of them, an album of reworkings of some of his classics, backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, topped the UK charts last autumn.

His face is still instantly recognised by every generation. his songs are the world's karaoke favourites (how often have you heard someone strangle The Wonder of You?) and no Pop-Idol-Type TV show, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar, can run a series without at least one of his hits being given a makeover.

Elvis impersonators- if you don't mind they prefer to be called 'tribute acts'- are a branch of show business all to themselves.

They hold lookalike conventions, and the reflect all the eras of Elvis from the blue-jean rocker with slicked-back quiff the paunchy middle-aged balladeer in a rhinestone jumpsuit.

Many of them earn a living at pretending to be him. In all, it as once estimated, professional and amateur, there probably 35,000 performing worldwide. And the man himself still goes on tour. Raised from the dead by the miracle of digitisation, hid image playing on giant video screens and most recently accompanied by a full orchestra, he fills arenas wherever he goes,

Elvis lives! Certainly he does in the hearts and minds of the devoted fans who will descend on Graceland, his Memphis mansion home, for the summer's anniversary.

Up to 50,000 are expected during the course of a week of commemorations, on Elvis-themes package trips from around the globe, the biggest-ever gathering at the shrine itself, where a new hotel has been opened on site to cater for them.

And yet, generations of his followers weren't even born that day when a page of history turned.

August 16, 1977, just after 1.30 in the afternoon, Memphis time.

Elvis had already been dead for some hours when he was found, sprawled face down across the scarlet carpet in his ornate, gilded bathroom.

People will tell you today it was one of the JFK moments, that they can remember exactly where they were when they heard the news, it was so totally, incredibly shocking.

There were warning signs, we realise that now. But no one outside the inner Presley circle recognised the seriousness.

He was overweight, puffy and more jowly than the clean-cut heart-throb of 20 years earlier, although not obese by today's standards.

On stage he could look tired and out of condition, sweating heavily with the effort of his trademark karate movies. The silk scarves he used to mop his face and then tossed into the audience were prized trophies.

Of course no one would expect the 42 year old to be the hip-gyrating kid anymore, but at least he was touring again and he was recording once more, bu in truth there were serious concerns about his well-being, because drugs, junk food and a bohemian lifestyle were taking their toll.

Then there was the bizarre incident in 1970, when Elvis turned up at the white House offering to join President Nixon's war on drugs. In his darker moments, and there were more og them, it seemed that Elvis himself was beginning to sense his own mortality.

Did he have some kind of foreboding, that a life which had been endowed with so much success and extravagance was destined to be cut short? Years earlier he had made a very personal prediction to his backing singer and some-time lover, Kathie Westmoreland- he confided to her that he expected to die in his 40s, at around the same age that his beloved mother Gladys had passed away.

Perhaps the thought always haunted him; now, in the springtime of 1977, did Elvis have a sense that payback time was approaching fast?

He was with Kathie again, this time in a hotel room in upstate New York, a stopover on yet another tour, where she had been invited to keep him company, just to sit with him and talk during sleepless nights. He was in a melancholic mood, asking how his career could have been better, complaining that every on of his movies had been worthless, wondering what his Momma would have thought of her son as a superstar.

He turned to Kathie and asked: "Do you think people will remember me when I'm gone? Will they soon forget me?"

And then he made her promise that she would wear something white at his funeral. She laughed, trying to lighten his mood, reassuring him that he was still adored by millions, never thinking for a moment that this was a promise she would be obliged to keep, and soon. Backstage a few weeks later, at the last show of the tour, his stepbrother David Stanley, a member of the entourage for 17 years, was preparing for what would be his final public appearance.

"I may not look good tonight on stage, but I'll look good in my casket," Elvis said. If it was a strange remark, David put it down to pre-show nerves. But that summer, two days before his death, he startled David again, saying that he loved him and adding: "You'll see me again one day, in a different place".

From the accounts of the last year of Elvis's life, it's clear that for all his global success, hailed as the King of rock 'n' rill and all the culture that surrounded it,he was never sure any of it would last.

He was still at heart a poor kid from Tupelo, raised in a two-room shack, still amazed at his own success.

"Yeas, sire" and "NO, Ma'am" he would routinely reply in conversation, even when he was the biggest name on the planet, and that easy Tennessee air of politeness that was such an essential part of his 'aw, shucks!' charm was genuine.

Perhaps insecurity was one reason, also, why he spent so lavishly- on jewellery and limousines, not just for himself but for friends and staff, on a collection of guns and on private aircraft, not just pone, but two.

In one day alone, he parted with 140,000 dollars buying 14 Cadillacs to give away.

Behind the scenes, there were constant worries tat one day Elvis might simply run out of money. He earned millions upon millions of dollars in his career and  yet he had no investments, other than Graceland and two properties on the West Coast.

In between tours, waiting for the fees to roll in, he was borrowing from the banks to raise spending money. So, in that final year, pressure was bearing down from several directions, some of them financial and others emotional. 

When did Elvis's decline start to gather pace? There was a turning point in the summer of 1976, according to the British music writer Ray Connolly in his recent biography Being Elvis: A Lonely Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20) 

It came with the sacking of Red West and two other bodyguards,, after they had a skirmish with fans in Las Vegas.

West was a High School buddy, one of Elvis's inner circle since he start of his career and much distrusted by the singer's manipulative father Vernon Presley, who seized on thhe incident to insist that the inner circle had to be culled.

Elvis fired all three- and immediately felt remorseful. A few weeks later he took s call from Red and for over an hour he talked to his old friend about personal things, his health worries and his regrets.

He never realised the conversation was being taped. West was working with a tabloid journalist on a book that would very soon raise the curtain on the lifestyle the King had kept secret for so long.

But by bit, as instalments were published over coming months, the stories emerged: about his bizarre sex life and his demands for a supply of beautiful young girls on tour even before his marriage to Priscilla broke down ; about his bursts of raging anger and, most damning of all, about his addiction to drugs.

Not street narcotics, but powerful prescription drugs. Elvis had the money and the influence to obtain whatever he wanted whatever time of day or night he demanded it. On plenty of occasions, Red or one of the boys flew across the country to collect his medications.

The book's detail was shocking. Loyal fans denounced Red West as a liar and a traitor, out for revenge.

But the myth was being picked apart, and with each new revelation Elvis was despairing: "What is my daughter going to think about her Daddy when she grows up and reads things like his about me?" he wept.

In the final months of his life, the superstar feared that he had betrayed his church-going, #God-fearing upbringing which, poor as it was, had taught him absolute right from wrong. The legendary manager who had steered his career, the brutally business-like Col Tom Parker, saw things differently, reasoning that scandal would sell tickets and albums.

And so, by the spring of 1977, ELvis was on tour again, through small cities and big towns, one after another.

How ironic that his ghost is playing the pick of massive arenas around the world today- the mortal Elvis, by the end, was being paraded around as many theatres as Col Parker could pack into an itinerary, putting in performances that were often mediocre, sometimes disastrous and only occasionally flashing with the old brilliance, A TV documentary crew was following the tour; one more deal to bring in the dollars that Parker had signed off, but they struggled to find usable footage. Inevitably the night came when he couldn't go on, and he was flown back to hospital in Memphis.

Officially the diagnosis was gastric flu. Those around him knew how the real problem would be solved, with handfuls of more pills, and in less than a month he was on the road again. Cancellations cost money. 

"I'm just so tired of being Elvis Presley," he said wearily, unwinding in the limousine after one show.

Ao why, at that time, didn't he heed the advice of real friends who loved him, ex-wife Priscilla, for instance, and take a prolonged break?

It could have been the Colonel talking when he replied that he simply had to keep earning: "I have 39 emplyees depending on me," he said.

TCB- Taking Care of Business. For years, that had been the motto of the Presley industry.

His final show was on June 25, in Indianapolis, in front of a crowd of 18000. The last song he performed in public was Can't Help Falling in Love.

There were plans for more touring in the autumn, perhaps even his first world tout, talk of more recording sessions, but for the time being Elvis was allowed some down-time.

Back at Graceland he was reunited with his fiancee Ginger Alden; they'd had a tempestuous relationship for years, but that January Elvis had decided to place it on a more stable footing, presenting her with an engagement ring, set with a diamond from one of his own pieces. 

Perhaps he was putting things in order, one more clue to his state of mind.

At around the same time he was persuaded to sign his will, leaving control of his estate to his father, and he assigned the deeds of Graceland to Priscilla as their divorce settlement.

The much-feared book by Red West was published in its entirety at the start of August, but so much of it had been leaked in advance that the shock had been largely diffused. 

Besides, at the time, its claims seemed to be too outrageous to be true.

The last days at Graceland at least allowed Elvis moments of simle peace, though his mood swings were always unpredictable.

His daughter Lisa Marie came to stay, and for a while he could enjoy being a doting Dad, even taking her on a trip to the fairground, albeit at dead of night when it was specially opened for them.

He watched movies, tried a few sessions on his little-used exercise bike- he weighed 17 stones by now- and he caught up with some reading, mainly religious titles, one of them and investigation into the Shroud of Turin.

The last day of his life, like every day, started in mid-afternoon.

He played with Lisa in the garden for a while, had his hair washed and the grey roots recoloured, paid a late-night visit to the dentist- medics were on-call around the clock for Elvis- and by 4 am he and Ginger were working out on the racquetball court.

His sleep cycle was totally disordered.

For a while he tinkered at the piano (the last song Elvis ever sang was Blue Eyes Cryin' In The Rain), took a helping of sleeping pills and depressants and then two hours later, a second dose.

The tour was due to restart the next day; that afternoon he had to fly to Maine. He needed rest.

Just after eight in the morning he swallowed a third clutch of pills, got out of bed and headed for his bathroom, his private sanctuary, saying he was going to read.

Ginger stirred drowsily... "Don't fall asleep in there." she murmured.

Five hours later- too late- she woke again, washed, dressed and then found him.

A heart attack was the official cause of death, but months later the autopsy report would list a cocktail of 14 drugs in his body.

The King was gone. He was laid out in his casket in the hallway of Graceland, dressed in a white suit, the image of Elvis in his vibrant youth, and in one day 25,000 fans filed past to pay their tearful respects.

Forty years on, they will still be arriving.


 


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