The day the music died
Memphians vividly recall quiet grief, bewilderment
When news services announced that Elvis Presley was dead around 4 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1977, all of Memphis stopped.
Children and teenagers who had been watching reruns of The Andy Griffith Show sat shocked and bleary-eyed as the bulletin flashed across the bottom of the screen.
Hundreds of cars flooded onto Elvis Presley Boulevard, their occupants hoping to catch a glimpse of the ambulance carrying Elvis as it rushed past them on its way to Baptist Memorial Hospital.
Memphians who called the CA InfoLine recently said it was a day they would never forget, and they all had a story to tell about where they were when they heard.
Ron Olson, 44, a deejay on WMC-FM 99.7 (FM 100), was working on an afternoon show when a friend at Baptist called to tell him the news.
“I could hear the panic in his voice as he was yelling at me that Elvis had died,” he said. “Then, our news director, Steve Thomas (who now uses his real name, Steve Ross) came running down the hall, and we broke in on the air and announced that Elvis had died. Once the word was out, people were calling from all over the world. We stayed there all night answering the phones, and people were calling from all the networks and from the BBC, and everybody just wanted to talk to someone in Memphis.
“The sheer magnitude was unbelievable. And since he wasn’t really at the top of our playlist, we had to go dig up a couple of Elvis records, but you knew that by playing that stuff you were really having an effect on people. People would call in sobbing and crying. It was one of those moments in your career that you’ll never forget. People were really devastated.”
It wasn’t until Wayne Jackson, 55, the trumpet player for the Memphis Horns who played with Elvis on 20 records, pulled into Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Nashville that he found out.
“My friends all ran out into the parking lot to tell me Elvis had died,” he said. “There were a lot of musicians and singers who had worked with Elvis there, and we all went inside and wept appropriately.”
Ron Pokrandt, 57, and his wife Agnes, 51, of East Memphis were traveling around the world when they noticed several Turkish newspapers with Elvis’s picture outlined in black on the cover at a newsstand.
“Neither of us spoke Turkish and none of them spoke English,” he said, “but we knew that something serious must have happened. Later, we got back to the hotel and we couldn’t find anything in English on TV, but the radio was playing Elvis music interspersed with funeral music, and we got the idea. You’d hear Jailhouse Rock followed by a funeral dirge.”
Merle Ballard, 47, of Munford, said she was a little too young to remember Elvis’s initial popularity, but her cousin, who was visiting that August day, was a big Elvis fan. Ballard’s cousin wanted to see Graceland, so Ballard took off work and the two of them drove there.
“We parked right in front of the gate,” she said. “While we were trying to see through the fence, a young woman with dark hair and a dark outfit left her place at the fence and came running over to us. At first, we thought she was some kind of nut, because she was crying and screaming that Elvis had died, but then we turned on the radio and heard that it was true.
“The crowd wasn’t wild or anything at that point,” she said. “They were all just really quiet, more like zombies than anything else. Then the emergency vehicle pulled in, and we had to move before they brought the body out.”
Carol Alexander, a 57-year-old East Memphis resident, was on vacation with her family in Destin, Fla.
“We were out playing in the surf when we saw people running up on the beach,” she said. “When we got there, everyone was clustered together and they were all getting very emotional. Our kids were 12 and 14, and they were basically reacting to our reactions. I remember my husband saying, ‘My Lord, somebody must have shot the President.’
“Then the beach emptied. It was eerie watching everybody file back into the motel to listen to the news on TV. It was like somebody had drowned. You just didn’t want to be out there playing after something like that had happened.”
While in the first stages of labor with her daughter Paula at John Gaston Hospital (now the Regional Medical Center at Memphis), Bobbie McCracken, a 39-year-old Frayser resident, heard the news from nurses that Elvis had died.
“I heard about it when I was in the labor room,” she said. “All the nurses were crying… The news had everyone upset, and I remember there were a lot of deliveries that day. I think it remained the talk of the hospital for the three days I was there.”
Flocene S. Murphy, 89, was working as a receptionist in the Memphis Funeral Home on Union when Elvis’s body was prepared for the viewing at Graceland.
“When I got (to the funeral home), I was grieved not only for him but also for my friend Ginger Alden, who Elvis was engaged to marry,” she said. Murphy had taught art at Sheffield High School, which Alden attended. “The crowd was the most noisy and uncontrollable I have ever seen. Reporters and TV crews came in droves, and there were hundreds of people. We had all the rooms and halls in the building filled, and people just kept coming.”
Jay Bedwell, 37, from East Memphis, was waiting with his parents for an Elvis revue at Libertyland when a man announced to the crowd that Elvis had died.
“Everybody was sitting around in an amphitheater,” Bedwell said, “and they announced that there wouldn’t be a show because Elvis had just died, and I can remember a hush going over the crowd. At first we thought the performer playing Elvis had died. Then we started hearing people in the park talking and we just couldn’t believe it. After that, everybody just meandered around, not really knowing what to do next.”
Red West, a former member of Elvis’s Memphis Mafia who now lives in Bartlett, was in Indiana Dunes, Calif., filming the TV series Black Sheep Squadron when he heard that Elvis had died.
“I was filming a scene with Robert Conrad when the stunt coordinator came running out of the trailer and told us. Then the director did something that’s almost never done on television shoots. He stopped production for about four hours, and we all went inside and watched the coverage on TV. Later, my wife came over with my two sons, and we all cried for awhile.”
Elvis had ‘released’ West, then about 40, from his job in the entourage a year before. West said Presley had told him, “You just don’t know what it’s like until you walk around in my shoes.”
West said he knew Elvis was in poor health, and was afraid he might soon die, but when he did, it came as quite a shock.
“I guess he had to be unhappy,” West said. “It was like he was in prison, everybody wanting a little piece of his time. It made him into a hermit, because he had to depend on us for everything.”
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