By Tommy Hough
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, and for me, it's hard to believe we've arrived at this date. I remember the day Elvis died, and I remember the shock it sent through my neighborhood, popular culture and the music world, even among people who weren't into rock and roll.
Like a lot of events that have now receded into the cultural rearview mirror, it's difficult to overstate the mania and reaction to Elvis' death in 1977, or relate how iconic a figure he was in the mid-70s, when rock and roll had only been around for about 20 years.
In 1977, Elvis Presley hadn't become the punchline he is today. Earned or not, he was still considered by many to be the King of Rock and Roll, which people said without a hint of self-consciousness or irony. The crowds that formed outside Graceland were in utter despair following the announcement of Presley's death, so much so that one person was even run over by the funeral procession as it left the estate a few days later.
This was in part because when people thought of Elvis in 1977, they still thought of him as the young and dangerous pre-Army 1956 version of Elvis, shaking his hips and outraging parents and decent people from coast to coast. Popular culture didn't yet visualize him as the grotesque caricature he'd become since his 1968 "comeback" TV special, popping buttons off his barely-fitting satin jumpsuits. The last time most people had seen Elvis was in his Aloha from Hawaii TV special in 1973, when he was still in decent shape and voice.
But shortly after that well-received performance, the rot began to set in, both in Elvis' barbiturate-addled body and his mind. By mid-decade, to cover for his Quaalude-fog on-stage ramblings, his manager's record label actually became complicit in his addiction by releasing an album in 1974 called Having Fun With Elvis On-Stage, as though it were some kind of comedy album. They even listed Presley himself as "executive producer," perhaps to distance themselves from the project even as they callously counted the money made from it.
When Elvis' body finally gave out at the age of 42 on August 16, 1977, it wasn't a surprise to those closest to him, but it stunned the nation. Only afterwards were the depths of his addiction revealed, as were the role his handlers played as enablers, rolling Elvis over in his bed on a timed schedule like Howard Hughes to prevent bed sores, and feeding him a steady regimen of drugs as his hillbilly empire churned on around him.
With that in mind, Elvis remained a durable performer capable of holding an audience to the end, as seen in this CBS-TV special shot at a June 19, 1977, concert in Omaha, Nebraska, about two months before his death. Note how his appearance had taken on that of an old man, and cue to 41:59 for the bizarre shout-out to Elvis' long-time roadie Charlie Hodge, who would hang around on stage and give the King towels or act as a human mic stand.
A former San Diego broadcaster and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.