I remember my shock the day Elvis died, August 16th, 1977. There was a radio bulletin with the unexpected news; how old was he? The answer was 42, and he was a mess, but that’s another story. An hour or so later the phone rang; it was another promo guy/friend Patt Morriss. "We don’t think you should be alone Don," he said, so he and another friend, Big Bag, came over to the house bringing a case of beer and some other stuff. I put on Elvis’ Greatest Hits, and we held our own little wake for the death of the King. It was a very sad day, in some ways the end of an era in Rock and Roll.
When he hit in 1956, Elvis changed the White Bread music of the day. Remember,’How much is that doggie in the Window?’ There had been others before: Bill Haley, Little Richard... and but Elvis had the whole package; handsome, great voice, and he moved his ass and hips.
So it’s just a few years later, maybe 1982 that I find myself in the Airport Hilton in Memphis on a mission, we were planning a syndicated Radio Special on Elvis’ life, and I was going to his home for research. In the hotel gift shop there was a pile of Memphis newspapers from the day of the funeral and assorted mugs and T-shirts, etc… His memory was already good business.
I met a guy who would also be going over to Graceland the next day, he was after the rights to Elvis’ image, which he did get and made him rich, along with the rights to Marilyn Monroe and many others. The next day he drove us over to Graceland. As we drove up the circular drive to that iconic house, we were met by Jack Odom, a lawyer whom the family had hired to run Graceland and turn it into a must visit attraction. He was friendly and welcoming, and said that while he and the licensing guy had meeting, I would have a private tour of the mansion with a guide, we’ll call him, Jeff.
So we enter the house; the phenomenon that was to make the house a worldwide tourist attraction was just beginning, and two women of a certain age with Beehive hairdos were exiting. I must admit I felt goose bumps when we entered the foyer and looked around.
On the left was the dining room, a long table with a color TV on at the end, and straight ahead the stairway to the second floor where Elvis died. Jeff said, ‘I’m sorry sir but the family has asked that Elvis’ bedroom and bath be kept private. It wouldn’t be opened to the public until many years later. To my right was a large living room, I seem to remember a sea of white; rugs, leather furniture, and against one wall a beautiful white Concert Steinway piano. I pointed out the piano to Jeff and he said, "Mr. Henry Mancini had a private visit one night and played that piano for two hours alone."
Well, that was unexpected and I began to get a sense of Elvis’ wide reach in the music world. Well, that was unexpected and I began to get a feeling of Elvis’ reach in the music world.
Paul Simon - Graceland
I said I needed to use the bathroom, and Jeff told me there were no public facilities in the house, but the Presley’s personal downtown bath was next to the kitchen and I could use that. I entered the bathroom and immediately noticed the walls were covered with the names of some of the great musical artists of our time, and as I stood at the urinal, I noticed right at eye-level scrawled: "Bob Dylan was here," and a date.
As I exited the bathroom the door to the kitchen opened and out came a little old lady sipping an iced tea. Surprised, I said hello and told her my name, “Pleased to meet you," she replied, "I'm Aunt Nash." The legendary Aunt Nashville, whom in Elvis Will was granted the right to live in Graceland until she died. Fascinated, I said that she must miss Elvis terribly, and she replied, "Oh no sir, I hear him up there every night singing in the shower." Young Jeff took my arm and suggested we should move on, eyeing my tape recorder.
We went down steep stairs into what would be the basement, and it was divided into two rooms: in one a soda fountain with the famous three TV sets and "TCB" painted on the wall, and the other a Pool room with a paisley ceiling treatment and an original Keene Big Eye painting.
"This is the only room Mr. Presley decorated himself," Jeff told me. Back upstairs and into the most amazing room in the house: The Jungle Room. The dark green shag carpet resembled grass covering the floor and up one wall. A massive chair faced the far wall that had boulders and vegetation around the bottom.
Fans tour the "Jungle Room" - image via The Daily Mail
Jeff flipped a switch and the room darkened and colored lights began shimmering on falling water. "Mr. Presley liked to relax sitting here and watching this wall in the evening," Jeff told me. "I'll bet he did," I replied. We went through a kitchen that would make a small hotel envious, and exited into the back yard.
Right behind the house was a big white double-wide trailer with rough wooden stairs, and sitting on them was an elderly man in a straw hat. "Hi he said, I’m Uncle Vester, I’ll sell you my book for five dollars." Vernon’s brother, Vester, was the long-time Caretaker at Graceland, and was a wonderful, friendly character, who shared some personal memories of his nephew. After I left I wished that I had bought the book and had him sign it, but it was just another lost opportunity.
Then Jeff led me over to a small pool with four tombstones: Vernon, Gladys, Elvis, and Jesse Garon, the twin brother who had died at birth, and was said to have haunted Elvis all his life. There was an eternal flame that was not turned on, and the entire plot was covered with Teddy Bears and other gifts brought by fans to decorate his grave.
The Presley Gravesite - Image via Houston Post
Jeff said that they picked all the stuff up every week or so, and donated it to an orphanage. I then went through a building full of memorabilia — Elvis’ Jump Suits, boots, a collection of badges from police departments across the country, gold records, etc. Then I was taken back to Jack Odom’s office where he had sandwiches and cold drinks and we chatted a bit.
Finally he said, "Well, what are you guys willing to pay for the rights to a radio show?" I told him that I had a $250,000 dollar budget for the rights for one use. He smiled and said, "Dick Clark has offered a million dollars." I told him how much I’d enjoyed my visit and good luck with his plans to market Graceland to the world. I could have been upset that I hadn’t known about Clark’s offer going in, but if I had, I’d never gotten a private visit to Graceland, in Memphis, Tennesse.
Marc Cohn - Walking in Memphis
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