Elvis Presley left his building, Graceland mansion, in the back of an ambulance heading for Baptist Hospital the afternoon of August 16, 1977.
The paramedics who attended him before departure, and his personal physician who pounded, pleaded and coaxed, knew what we all would learn shortly. An era had ended. Presley had travel plans to head for Portland, Maine to kick off a concert tour that very night, but those dates would be tragically unfulfilled.
Elvis had a song on the charts at the time of his death. “Way Down” was receiving airplay, especially on Memphis stations like WHBQ, where I was working.
Perhaps you’ve saved a newspaper emblazoned with bold headlines of a historic event. It’s always interesting to go back and look past the big article at the small stories and the ads to see the forgotten details of life that the major events displaced in our long term memories. I’ve run across a radio version of that. I’ve found an air check recorded the Thursday before Elvis died, revealing a host of things long forgotten.
WHBQ-AM was, in August of 1977, a part of a nationally successful chain called RKO General, and they were the top station in Memphis radio ratings. The week prior to Presley’s departure, I was minding my own business, which was playing the hits late at night on the radio. I happened to tape the show one evening in August of ‘77. Dickie “Doo” Edwards preceded me on the air daily. At the beginning of my shift at 10 PM, Dickie and I would do a crossover, a quick quip on his way out and me on my way in. It was raining that night, and the tape reminded me that we weren’t able to get a good look at the Perseid meteor showers because of the cloud cover.
According to the public service announcements on the air check, In His Own Likeness was about to start at Circuit Playhouse. And according to the commercials, not only was there a big sale going on at Scott Sound Center, but Melissa Manchester and Leo Sayer were playing Dixon-Myers Hall that weekend. We were giving away tickets for that concert, but those weren’t the only tickets up for grabs. A little later in the evening as I rolled the current number one song, “Float On” by the Floaters, there was a mention of another upcoming concert. Now, the date for that show would have been in late August. By the time most of the lucky winners picked up their tickets, they knew the passes were for a show that would never happen. Nonetheless, as far as I know, all the tickets were claimed.
Tuesday the 16th of August, I was filling in for the afternoon jock, Bob Landree, who was on vacation. I hadn’t been in the seat long when a caller on the request line told me her roommate, an ER nurse at Baptist, just told her Elvis had died. When you are in radio and you answer the phone, you are likely to hear anything, so there is a natural inclination to dismiss the call as a prank and just move on. But the next call was from my wife, who worked for City Court which was still in the old Police station on Adams, and her report was from officers working the scene, so I knew it was true.
I didn’t make the announcement on the air. In true RKO Radio form, that charge was left to the newsperson on duty. I didn’t roll a tape that day either, and that omission still bugs me. I fielded phone calls from around the world. Simply for being at that station at that time, I became an Elvis expert right on the spot.
Thousands converged on Graceland.
35 years have passed. If you lived in Memphis then, you probably still have the Press Scimitar or Commercial Appeal up in the attic somewhere. “Death Captures Crown Of Rock And Roll,” read the CA, while the Press Scimitar led with “A Lonely Life Ends On Elvis Presley Boulevard.”
The afternoon paper is long gone. 56 WHBQ, as we knew it, flowered and passed, leaving behind its music heritage. But thousands still come every year, and bring with them new fans who weren’t even born when Elvis left his building.
Elvis was well off, and could have lived anywhere in the world. But he always came back to the only place he could truly find rest, Memphis, Tennessee.