If it’s August, I guess it’s time, or  an excuse, to mourn The King again.

The King of Rock ‘n Roll, The Hill Billy Cat, the Pelvis, however you want to call him.

Has it really been three decades since Elvis degenerated from a brief period of unique talent to a drugged out Vegas lounge act and recluse, crapped out on his commode at 42 from years of  ingesting too many  controlled  substances along with a diet that included deep-fried peanut butter, mayonnaise and banana sandwiches?

Yuck. But I digress.

I certainly didn’t know that summer evening when Walter Cronkite interrupted his newscast with the news from Memphis that the following afternoon I would see Elvis Presley’s corpse. Twice.

The late Jerry Schwartz, my esteemed competitor on the morning rag — the Journal and Constitution had separate reporting staffs in 1977 — would see it too. Twice.

Minutes after hearing that Elvis had died, an editor telephoned with instructions to get to Memphis on the next available plane. I arrived well after dark, and, arriving by cab at Graceland, found a crowd on the sidewalk.  The scene struck me as a skewed version of those crowds you see on TV in front of the White House at moments of national trauma.

There seemed to be hundreds, from grandmothers to kids, crowding the sidewalk, as many, mostly women, pushed against the front gate, decorated with metal musical notes and the stylized form of a gyrating (and slender) Elvis. Some clearly were there to be seen, like the 51-year-old grandmother from Missouri, her gray hair glinting in the TV lights, as she told me she rode a motorcycle. “Elvis rides one too, you know.”

Traffic crept along Elvis Presley Boulevard as the King’s fans mobbed a car bringing the early edition of the morning Memphis Commercial Appeal with the banner headline: “Death Captures Crown of Rock and Roll.” Their staff had done a solid writing job, as I recall, but what impressed me was the (black and white) cartoon on the editorial page: no words — just a pair of empty shoes. Blue suede, I presume.

The following afternoon, the Presley family opened Graceland so his fans could view Elvis’ body in the foyer of the mansion, for a last look before a private burial.

As viewing time approached, the temperature was crowding an oppressive, steamy 90 degrees. The 50,000 mourners, some of them on the sidewalk from overnight, were lined four and five abreast down two blocks and around a corner, waiting and sweating.

At 3 p.m., the gates finally opened, and we moved across the 100 yards or  so to the mansion. Elvis lay in his casket in the darkened foyer, dimly lighted by a floor lamp, surrounded by Memphis cops and the King’s personal body guards, wearing tuxedos.

Some mourners fainted in the August heat.

We were told not to linger, and we circled single file around the casket for a last look at Elvis, clad in a white suit and tie, his face puffy and waxen looking.  Then we headed out the door and onto the steamy lawn. It took no more than a dozen seconds.I recall a woman in an aquamarine pant suit clinging to her male companion as they left Graceland, bawling uncontrollably.

The tears were contagious, overwhelming women who had yet to see the body, as their bemused husbands and boyfriends wore expressions that said “I guess I need to be here, but I’d rather be (at a bar, fishing, tuning the pickup.)

Once outside, I compared notes with Schwartz, and we disagreed on the color of Elvis’ pale shirt. To spare us both annoying phone calls from our editors about contradictory stories (and the lesser matter of accuracy), we agreed another look was essential.

The still waiting mourners stretched outside the gate and down a block at least. Going to the end of the line clearly wouldn’t do, we agreed. Waving our press badges, we butted back into line. And got away with it; while I can’t speak for Jerry, of course, I think we expected nothing less.

I’ve pondered in recent years over why our actions didn’t start a riot, or at least get one or both of us punched out. Perhaps it was a gentler time then. Maybe I’m stretching  here, but I’ll  throw out the idea that  there wasn’t  the animosity toward the press 30 years ago that exists in today’s polarized atmosphere. We didn’t have talk radio then,

Whatever the reason, Schwartz and I took that second look at Elvis, and agreed that his shirt was a very light, pale, blue. Almost white.

The Graceland vigil continued over night, with more han 300 still there at dawn; I read in the morning Commercial Appeal that two women were killed crossing the street, struck by a drunken driver. I missed it, fortunately, because I went to a blues club and witnessed a poignant tribute to Elvis.

Without fanfare, a trio of elderly black men at least 25 years older than Elvis began their last set with a unannounced, dirgelike, instrumental rendition of “Hound Dog.”

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery

Bill Montgomery, aka "Monty," packed it in a few years back after 38 years as a reporter with the AJC, covering mostly crime and other forms of public insanity, such as political campaigns, strip club crackdowns, and the Georgia legislature. His career includes coverage of zanies that run the gamut from Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner to Larry Flynt, and crime reporting that followed the 1973 Alday family killings in South Georgia to the execution of ringleader Carl Isaacs 30 years later, and the 20-year saga of Palm Beach millionaire James V. Sullivan, who hired the murder of his estranged wife at her Buckhead condo by a gunman packing a pistol in a box of roses. Montgomery lives in a Decatur condo with his wife Linda and their Boston terrier.

  1. Cliff Green

    Elvis is dead? I’m not so sure. For a moment, let’s just look at the “facts” in your story. You claim that you and Jerry Schwartz saw Elvis in his coffin, twice. Well, here’s the first problem: Schwartz, may he rest in peace, is dead, and I haven’t seen you in at least 10 years.
    Now listen to this: there is a guy here in Candler Park who walks around the block at sunup, when the light is either too dim to see his face, or it is so bright it blinds one from viewing him clearly. In addition, he has been heard to hum the tune to “Don’t Be Cruel,” considered by most critics to have been Elvis’s greatest accomplishment.
    I ain’t saying; I’m just saying.

    1. Bill Montgomery

      Whoever he is, he sings Elvis’ best song. They don’t come any better.

    2. Hey, Cliff (and Monty!) Nice blast from the past. Does anybody remember who wrote a piece that ran a couple of years later, debunking the persistent rumors that Elvis was still alive? I don’t know who wrote it, but it was a hoot. As I remember, the lede went something like this:

      “Elvis is dead. He is defunct, deceased, kaput, extinct, departed from this life, gone to meet his Maker, at rest, lifeless, sleeping the eternal sleep, pushing up daisies. He has shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to be with Jesus. He is a past Presley.”

      …and went on from there. Not that it did any good.

  2. Tom Baxter

    I remember that night I got assigned to get a local angle, and found the guy who had been his bunk mate in the Army living down in College Park or thereabouts. He said Elvis bought everybody in his unit shower shoes and other nice additions to barracks life, and set him up once on a double date with the Miss of one of the states.

  3. Robert Lamb

    Nice job, Bill. (You too, Cliff.) And let’s have a moment of silence for Jerry Schwartz.

  4. I don’t believe for one minute that Elvis is dead. I think he is alive and well living in a monestary in outer mongolia. He needed to get out of the spotlight for a while and ended up loving the monastic life.

  5. Nice story, Mr. Montgomery.

    I think you may have mis-remembered one minor detail: Roger Mudd reported Elvis’s death for CBS, not Uncle Walter. Cronkite was on vacation that day.

    Interestingly, CBS, then the No. 1 network newscast, got trounced in the ratings that night because the execs decided not to make Elvis’s death the lead story. In fact, Mudd didn’t announce the news until more than six minutes into the broadcast — and after a commercial break! By then, millions of viewers had changed the channel.

    I know this only because I read a very good book about the media coverage of the death, called “When Elvis Died,” as I was researching and writing an exhibit about The King for the Newseum (http://www.newseum.org/exhibits-and-theaters/temporary-exhibits/elvis/index.html). The book is out of print now, but can still be found in some dusty libraries if you’re lucky.

    Thanks for the good read.

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