Forty years ago – Aug. 16, 1977 – The King died on the throne. It was an infamous ending for one of the most famous men to ever live.
Elvis Aron Presley was only 42 when he died, leaving his legions of fans to ponder what might have been in the future for this legendary entertainer.
Would he have aged gracefully, like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby? Or would he have become a caricature of himself as John Barrymore did at the end of his alcohol-addled career?
Elvis’ path to international fame was extraordinary. He was born dirt-poor during the Great Depression. His father, Vernon, was jailed for forging a check to feed his family.
The odds were stacked against young Elvis.
It would be like a child being born in Pueblo Pintado and within 20 years becoming world-famous.
That kind of lightning doesn’t strike often.
Elvis’ psyche was scarred at birth. His twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn and Elvis would often wonder why Jesse had died and he had lived.
A shy child, Elvis made few friends at all-white Humes High School. He was seen as being odd – wearing his hair long in an era of crew cuts – and always lugging around his guitar.
His high school music teacher failed him. She wasn’t the last to fail to recognize Elvis’ talent.
There was Jim Denny, who worked for the Grand Ol’ Opry. He told Elvis to stick to driving a truck. (Denny also fired country icon Hank Williams, Sr.)
According to legend, Elvis went to Sun Studios in Memphis to make a record for his mother. Sun owner Sam Phillips had often said if he could find a white singer with a black voice he could make a million dollars.
He found it in 1953, but didn’t realize it at first. Then a song came in and Phillips couldn’t find the original singer, so he decided to re-record it. His secretary reminded him of the Presley kid with the sideburns. It was the summer of 1954.
Phillips called in 19-year-old Elvis, teaming him with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. But the trio couldn’t get the song right.
Phillips was ready to quit when, during a break, the trio began fooling around, jamming as musicians do. They started doing a song called “That’s Alright, Mama.”
Phillips ran into the studio and Elvis began to apologize.
Don’t apologize, Phillips told them, but whatever you’re doing, do it again!
Elvis became a local sensation, then regional.
That’s when Col. Tom Parker got involved. The cunning colonel took Elvis to heights few performers ever reach.
In January 1956, Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel” and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was born.
He took the music world by storm, scoring Number One records in country, rhythm and blues, pop, rock, adult contemporary, gospel. Often his songs topped multiple charts at the same time – something that had never been done before.
In another first, Elvis released a single and saw both sides become gold records. The record was “Hound Dog,” with “Don’t Be Cruel” on the flip side.
So what would Elvis’ future have been like?
Well, consider this: 40 years after his death he remains a top-selling artist and thousands of people visit his home, Graceland Mansion, each year. (Graceland is the second most popular private home to visit, trailing only the White House.)
Crowds of fans come to Memphis on the anniversary of his death to remember The King who left too soon.
It would seem that Elvis Presley, were he alive, would still be relevant today.
The King is dead, long live The King.
John Christian Hopkins, an award-winning novelist and humor columnist, is a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. See his writings at http://authorjohnchopkins.blogspot.com.