MEMPHIS, Aug 13, (AFP): Elvis Presley, American icon and King of rock ‘n’ roll, transformed popular culture, sold over a billion records and is idolized as ever on the 40th anniversary of his tragic death.
His Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee — the second most famous home in the United States after the White House — expects more than 50,000 people to descend for the biggest ever annual celebration of his life 40 years after his death aged 42 on Aug 16, 1977.
Presley is considered the best selling artist of all time, shifting an estimated billion records. In 2016, Forbes ranked him fourth highest earning dead celebrity at $27 million, still moving a million albums.
“He is the only person of modern times who is instantly recognizable throughout the world by his first name,” said British author and artist Ted Harrison, who has written two books about Presley.
“Say ‘Elvis’ in Beijing, Nicaragua, Estonia or Fiji and you get an immediate recognition across language and culture,” he told AFP.
His unique voice and style blended R&B, blues, country, gospel and black music, challenging social and racial barriers at the time, and earning him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” for his gyrating moves.
Oozing style, charisma and appeal, he was the fantasy of millions of women and inspired everyone who came after him, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to today’s chart-topper Bruno Mars.
“Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail,” Bob Dylan has said.
In the late 1960s, the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein called him “the greatest cultural force in the 20th century.”
Hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” are instantly recognizable. His music has been reissued and repackaged countless times since his death.
More than 20 million people have visited Graceland, his home for 20 years, after Priscilla, his ex-wife and mother of his only child Lisa Marie, opened it to the public in 1982.
The estate says it pulls in 600,000 visitors a year and contributes around $150 million a year to the Memphis economy. Neither is it showing any sign of slowing down.
In March, it opened a brand-new $45 million entertainment complex and hotel spread across 40 acres.
Die-hard fans are often moved to tears at his gravesite at Graceland, where he is interred next to his beloved parents, Gladys and Vernon, and grandmother Minnie Mae, covered in flowers, tributes and mementos.
“It gives you that fire,” said Stephanie Harris, 42, from Michigan who sells life insurance. “His music is transcendent to our generation because there’s nothing like the ‘Hound Dog’ baby.”
In downtown Memphis, home of the blues, you can buy everything Elvis — from Christmas tree decorations to luggage. Cardboard Elvis cutouts greet you outside bars and his music blares out of loudspeakers.
“He’s the celebrity of all celebrities,” said Lisa Bseiso, 36, who set up The Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Qatar, the Middle Eastern kingdom where she was born and raised.
“Forty years after his death, that’s why he’s a phenomenon. He’s still as powerful, as loving.”
Born to a truck driver father and sewing-machine operator in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Jan 8, 1935, Presley grew up an only child after his brother was stillborn.
In 1948, he and his parents moved to Memphis, he graduated high school, cut his first record aged 19 and became an almost instant star.
As an early rebel whose hip-swiveling, pulsating leg-tapping had conservatives up in arms, his music also crossed the racial divide in a South where the specter of segregation still loomed large.
“Far more worrying to many white Americans was the way he took African-American music and presented it mainstream,” says Harrison.
Then came a two-year stint in the US Army during the Cold War, he was shipped off to West Germany, promoted to sergeant and after leaving the military turned into a respectable family entertainer.
But if he embodied the American dream — the poor boy made good who doted on his parents and liked to buy Cadillacs for strangers off the street on a whim — he also personified American excess.
He became a total recluse, abusing a dizzying array of prescription pills, overate, becoming a bloated shadow of his once lithe self in declining health and plagued by poor management.
His last live performance was on June 25, 1977, in Indianapolis and on Aug 16, 1977, the day before his next scheduled concert, he was found dead in his bathroom.
Forty years ago, on Aug 16, 1977, “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” Elvis Presley died and rock lost its first superstar.
Presley was found unconscious at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, and declared dead at hospital. He was just 42.
The cause was pronounced as cardiac arrhythmia. But rumours quickly swirled. One of his former bodyguards described him as drugged and paranoid in an interview recorded several hours before his death.
His heavy use of opioids and prescription pills — largely unknown to his legions fans during his lifetime — was later determined to have played at least a role in his tragic death.
On Aug 17, tens of thousands of fans descend on Graceland to pay homage to their idol, who had been semi-retired since 1972.
On the six-lane “Elvis Presley Boulevard,” inundated with people, the cocktail of emotion, scorching heat and a stampede causes dozens of fainting fits as ambulances rush to the scene.
Many refuse to believe that Presley is dead. In the crush, a car driver runs over and kills two of Presley’s fans.
Fans are granted just two hours to bow over the copper coffin of the “King.”
Some in tears, they lay bouquets of red roses before Presley, dressed in a cream suit, a blue shirt and a silver tie.
In Washington, the White House receives hundreds of phone calls demanding a day of national mourning.
A couple of Californians write in a telegram sent to president Jimmy Carter that no death, since that of the ex-president John Fitzgerald Kennedy, has moved the American people so much.
Carter describes Presley as “unique and irreplaceable” and “he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humour of his country.”
Across the country, record dealers are cleaned out.
In a single day, 250,000 copies of Presley’s last album “Moody Blue” are sold. Record pressing factories work day and night to meet demand. The “King” had already sold more than 500 million records during his lifetime.
Around his mansion, with the city’s hotels full, around 200 die-hard fans spend the night of Aug 17-18 under the stars.
One of them, with wild eyes, says he can’t find sleep in his spot near the doorway where there are two wrought iron Elvises, guitars in their hands, surrounded by wreaths.
One fan, who owns 300 of the star’s records, tells AFP Presley’s death is the most painful moment in his life and a knife blow.
In the early morning, 3,000-5,000 fans gather in front of the mansion, some wearing t-shirts and pennants of their idol.
The journalists present — around 100 — are kept at a slight distance by bodyguards, dressed smartly and wearing flashy jewellery.
The funeral starts with a Baptist service attended by a small group at Graceland. The crowd has to content itself with the passage in the afternoon of the funeral cortege made up of a hearse and around 15 white Cadillacs.
His body is taken along the boulevard named after him to the Forest Hills cemetery several kilometres (miles) to the north.
The “King” is buried in the family mausoleum of pink marble, near his mother, before around 50 people including his family, close friends and several celebrities like actors John Wayne and Burt Reynolds.