It was a mild, sun-splashed Tuesday afternoon, one of those August days that seems to last forever.
Especially when you are 20 and trying to wring the most out of every moment left before you leave home for college, knowing you are leaving home for good.
Of course, it was the day Elvis Presley died.
It was 30 years ago today, Aug. 16, 1977.
When I heard the news that day, I was at the Pizza Hut on Grand Avenue in Wausau, Wisconsin, where I worked. (That is not it above, but ours looked just like that. Sadly, Pizza Hut is abandoning that classic design.)
What I was doing there that afternoon, I don’t remember. Perhaps getting off work, perhaps giving my two weeks’ notice, perhaps just hanging out.
When I heard the news, my first reaction was surprise. My next reaction was that Elvis was old news, old music for old people.
No, I didn’t appreciate Elvis then. That took a few years, a friend who recognized Elvis’ ironic and iconic significance, a blue vinyl record album and a couple of trips to Memphis.
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Curious to see how Elvis’ death was covered in the time before the Internet and hundreds of cable channels, I went back to the microfilm earlier today.
In the Aug. 17, 1977, edition of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the story of Elvis’ death was placed prominently in the upper left corner of the front page. It had the biggest picture, but not the biggest headline. The day’s lead story: “Carter likely to pick judge to head FBI.” The smaller headline, under Elvis’ smiling face: “Fans young and old mourn Elvis the King.”
Some of the more interesting coverage came in the days that followed.
A Press-Gazette writer named Mark Moran wondered about Elvis’ legacy, and that of other rockers, and asked:
“In 20 years, will Alice Cooper still be a household word? Will Ted Nugent’s head band be auctioned off for $5,000? Will Led Zeppelin T-shirts be honored museum pieces?”
I’d have to say yes, perhaps and yes.
Finally, there was this item. There had been a run on Elvis records, and only a few 45s remained anywhere in Green Bay.
Two record stores in Green Bay’s new downtown mall, Galaxy of Sound and Musicland, reported “panic buying” and said they were cleaned out of 125 albums by noon Wednesday. Two other record stores, the hipper, funkier Freedom Records and Pipe Dreams, said they were sold out of even their used, cutout and Christmas albums by Elvis.
All those record stores are gone now, and so is the mall. But Elvis lives.
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Three years later, done with college, I was living in Green Bay, where I started to get my Elvis education from The Hose. We’d often wind up at the small house he shared with his brother, usually quaffing or having quaffed a few Hamm’s beers. We’d watch basketball or listen to tunes or do both at the same time.
The Hose appreciated Elvis on a couple of levels. First, that it was cool to like the early Elvis, that there was something good going on with that music. Second, that you just had to laugh at some of the things Elvis did and said, something that covers most of his films, save for “King Creole.”
So I started buying some Elvis compilations (and the “King Creole” soundtrack). Then, in 1985, I came across the album that instantly became my favorite and remains so today.
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By the late ’80s, The Hose and his lovely wife were living in Memphis, of all places. So I made a couple of trips down, a couple of pilgrimages to Graceland.
Janet and I will never forget the adventure of 1988, which found us at dusty hotels in Nashville and Chattanooga, with car trouble in Atlanta that required a drive home to Wisconsin without the fifth gear on our five-speed transmission and wandering across Alabama and Mississippi’s back roads on our way to — where else? — Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., on our way to Memphis.
If you have not seen Graceland — it’s pronounced “GRACE-lunn,” not “Grace-LAND” — you must try to go some day. Everyone has a little different take on it.
I’ve not been there in almost 20 years and I still vividly remember two things — the Jungle Room and all those Elvis fans. It is a remarkable place for people-watching.
The soundtrack for those trips to Graceland came from several Elvis albums, and one in particular.
“Reconsider Baby” is a 1985 compilation of a dozen of Elvis’ blues tunes recorded from 1954 to 1971. That it was on blue vinyl was just icing on the cake. Some of it is raw and unpolished and a little unruly, and that’s what’s so great about it. Elvis often was most interesting when he sang the blues.
Peter Guralnick’s liner notes to “Reconsider Baby” point out that Elvis’ 1968 comeback TV special “was a nakedly intimate, almost embarrassingly spontaneous live concert … which focused not surprisingly on the blues.”
So here, from a February 1969 session, is an alternate take of Elvis covering a Percy Mayfield tune.
“Stranger In My Own Home Town,” Elvis Presley, from “Reconsider Baby,” 1985. It’s out of print.