Elvis Has Left The Building
Tuesday, August 16, 1977. It was a scheduled day off, but there I was anyway, at Peaches Records and Tapes in Atlanta, perusing a shipment of Oldie 45s delivered the evening before. I was the store’s singles buyer, a prominent slot. The record companies and radio stations knew we endeavored to stock every 45 available. When items priced at less than a buck made for 3% to 4% of a store’s weekly sales of $100,000 or more, it was obvious we moved a lot of singles. The music industry also knew our store helped to “break” new records, with promo men lurking about to push their new releases. But while it seemed job one was stocking the hits, maintaining our extensive inventory of oldies was just as important. Customers, from way outside the Atlanta area, especially on the weekends, would traverse to Peachtree Road in order to add stacks of Oldie 45s to their collections. When they’d pick one, they’d pick another, and another. They were happy with what they bought. We were happy too. Ca-Ching!
It was a choice shipment of oldies that I’d put out the next day. Since it was Tuesday, they could sit in the stockroom another 24 hours. They’d be on the shelves by lunchtime Wednesday, with many purchased by Sunday. Classics by the Drifters, Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, Aretha Franklin, Hank Williams and a big shipment of Elvis Presley oldies ordered the week before would bolster my department’s share of store sales. The increase would commence tomorrow. It was a day off, after all.
On leaving the stockroom, I noticed an album entitled My Aim Is True by an Elvis Costello. It had only been released in the U.K. the month before but our chain’s Imports buyer, Greg Biggs, had it in our stores already. Elvis Costello? What’s that all about? Something to check out later.
Several hours passed on a rather leisurely day when the news bulletin came in from Memphis. I was visiting my folks at their house, south of Atlanta. Having gotten bad news when TV shows were interrupted several times over the last 10-15 years, we knew the drill. We got real quiet real fast. Elvis Presley was dead.
First there was the pain over losing someone who had made great music, someone who changed music. There was also pain over the sadness and confusion many of us assumed had permeated Presley’s life in recent years. Then something else kicked in: the recollection of several boxes of oldies in the Peaches stockroom. Hurridly I told my folks I needed to get to work. In less than twenty minutes, I made it from I-75 near the State Farmers Market to 2282 Peachtree Road on Atlanta’s north side. Five minutes after walking into the store, the Elvis Presley 45s were in the racks, even as some customers grabbed whatever was in my hands as I walked out of the stockroom.
Our full inventory of Elvis Presley 45s, given the hysteria. wouldn’t last more than an hour or two. A big order was called in to our warehouse in Los Angeles. Amazingly enough, they arrived in two days. Our store got a heavy shipment of Presley albums as well. It didn’t matter to the customers packing the store which albums. They’d just as happily take the soundtrack to Presley’s Speedway movie if all the greatest hits collections were sold out. The Elvis Presley albums and singles that collected dust a month or so before were now hot commodities.
The fascination with all things Presley lasted a few weeks more. As summer turned to autumn, customers who weren’t likely to visit record stores continued to stop by Peaches looking for Elvis Presley records. They were only a few years younger than Elvis was (42 when he passed away) but they seemed quite older and a bit out of place among us long-hairs. The people buying records by “The King of Rock and Roll” didn’t care much for the rock and rollers who, as it turned out, were just discovering another Elvis. Elvis Costello, that is.
Have You Heard The News? . . . A few weeks after Presley’s death a promo guy from Atlantic Records called the store about an impromptu appearance for later that afternoon by teen star Leif Garrett. Word of his appearance would be leaked just in time for a couple of hundred girls, mostly pre-teens, to come to the store, see the 16 year-old Garrett, then jump and scream and jump and scream some more.
Another of the store’s buyers, Jack Redus, and I were informed that we’d be joining Leif Garrett, along with a WQXI disc jockey, a guy from Atlantic and Garrett’s management team for dinner at a Buckhead hotel restaurant, 2-3 miles north of Peaches. Fine. It was part of the job. So even if Garrett’s teeny-bopper product made David Cassidy’s recordings seem profound, if forced to, we could forget that and be gracious guests. We’d make small talk and ask Garrett about his acting roles, like in the Walking Tall films. It would be an evening of steaks, beers (for those of us over 18) and conversation with Buford Pusser’s son.
There wasn’t that much conversation, though. It was, instead, a rather awkward time as Garrett appeared bored and weary over the day’s events. We didn’t get his opinions on Buford Pusser and vigalante justice. He did express interest, though, in watching an exhibition NFL game on TV that evening, thus putting to rest Jack’s idea of sneaking him out to a Randy Bachman (the Guess Who, BTO) concert at the Great Southeast Music Hall. “I felt sorry for the kid, said Jack, “I thought he might enjoy seeing a rock and roll show with a real musician.”
So upstairs to his hotel room went Leif Garrett. The NFL awaited. But before Garrett left the table, his manager added a new dimension to hyperbole. He laid it on thicker than the steaks before us. “You know, guys,” he told us, grabbing at his heart and looking above, “Elvis is gone. He was the King, but this young man, Leif Garrett, is going to take his place.” OK. Whatever. All of a sudden, getting home to watch the exhibition football game seemed appealing.
My friend Jack shouldn’t have worried over Leif Garrett’s lack of exposure to the rock scene. Garrett would get to see plenty — and then some. The quiet and well-mannered teen, who seemed, like Donny Osmond, a candidate for a Chocks overdose, became a poster boy for bad behavior. A little more than two years after our dinner, Garrett, under the influence of quaaludes and alcohol, crashed his car, leaving his passenger and best friend, Roland Winkler, a paraplegic. At least three drug arrests followed, including two within five years for possession of heroin.
Garrett’s troubles hardly registered with us at Peaches. Even just a few days after the dinner, we gave him little thought. His records hardly sold at most Peaches stores. It was at the suburban stores in malls and strip centers that his fans did their music shopping. At Peaches, we were still doing our best to keep a full stock of Presley records and promote the new groups we favored, such as the Dwight Twilley Band and Talking Heads.
Now I Try To Be Amused. . . Also getting a lot of our attention was Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. In a time in which “corporate rock” was rearing its ugly head, the album served as a revelation. Costello brilliantly coalesced the rebellious spirit of the New Wave movement with an incisive approach to both words and music. Already it seemed a sure-bet that he would continue to create smart and engaging songs, with much of his material calling to mind the Beatles. It wasn’t so much that his songs were Beatlesque, it was just that no other act had shown such a creative spark within the rock idiom since The Beatles. Very quickly Costello lived up to his promise, and even with a few albums (out of more than 30) that disappointed even his most ardent followers over the decades, his has been a brilliant career.
As a recording artist, Elvis Costello has been at it for over 35 years, only 8 years less than the time Elvis Presley spent on this earth. When thinking back to that morning of August 16, 1977, it was obvious by looking at the cover of My Aim Is True that Elvis Costello was a determined young man. On what was a sad day for the world of music, the promise of fresh new sounds was sitting in the Peaches stockroom, waiting to be unwrapped and heard. There’d be good rockin’ for thousands of nights to come.