For many people it is hard to believe that it has been 30 years [August 16th] since the death of rock-and-roll legend Elvis Presley. Every year, 600,000 people from around the world visit his home, Graceland, in the U.S. southern city of Memphis, Tennessee. VOA's Deborah Block recently went to Memphis and Graceland, and spoke with three people who were close to Elvis.
In the mid-1950s, Elvis Presley played a new kind of music, fusing country and rhythm-and-blues with a new rock-and-roll style. He swiveled his hips on stage, mimicking the moves of black entertainers. At first, many people did not know what to think about him. But it was not long before young people went crazy over his music and flocked to his concerts. Elvis became known as the king of rock and roll.
Bernard Lansky met Elvis when he was in high school. Lansky owned a clothing shop in an African-American neighborhood with clubs where black singers performed. Elvis would stop to admire the clothes in the window. One day Lansky asked him to come in.
"He said, 'I don't have money but when I get rich I'm going to buy you out.' I said, 'Do me a favor, don't buy me out, buy from me, I'd appreciate it’," Lansky recalled.
Elvis wanted clothes that would make him stand out. Lansky gave the young man some clothes on credit. Soon after, Elvis sang on national television and became a star.
Elvis became a life-long customer. Lanksy made a coat to match Elvis' pink Cadillac and designed shirts for him in unusual color combinations – shirts Lansky still sells today.
"I used to turn up the collar on them, and he said, 'That's messing up my hair and I said, 'Don't worry about it,' and he said, 'That looks good, real nice,' and I said, 'That's different, you've got to have something different.'"
George Klein also met Elvis as a teenager and they became fast friends. "I miss Elvis immensely and I think of him every day. He was the best friend I ever had."
Klein was part of a group of people known as the "Memphis Mafia" that traveled with Elvis and kept him company at his Graceland home. Elvis lived at his beloved estate for 20 years until the day he died. The 1970s décor is a mixture of cutting-edge and traditional decorating styles.
"He felt relaxed in there,” said Klein. “It's a comfortable home, it really is. When you walk in you feel comfortable, you feel safe and everything."
Klein says Graceland was Elvis's escape, since he could not go anywhere else without being noticed. He says they often partied with women they met. "We'd get the girls up at Graceland and play music and watch television and have a great time. We'd start at 10 o'clock and maybe break up at four in the morning."
Elvis was often photographed with women in show business. But those he dated were usually not part of the entertainment world.
Klein says, "He liked ladies who were normal, everyday girls away from show business."
Memphis schoolteacher JoCathy Brownlee Elkington dated Elvis for a few months in 1975. On their first date he surprised her with a brand new car. "And Elvis said to me, 'Honey, I hope this one is OK. It is the best I could do at two o'clock in the morning’," she remembers.
As rock music changed over the decades, Elvis adapted and had at least one top 40 hit on the music charts every year.
"He could sing anything,” says former friend Klein, “and he always said, 'As long as my voice doesn't fail me I know I'll be in show business.' "
Despite his many hit songs, Elvis won only three American Grammy music awards – all for gospel albums. At a young age Elvis began singing gospel music at church.
"It was gospel music, Elvis's favorite music to relax with and to enjoy when he was by himself," explained Klein.
Elvis showcased his music in more from 30 films. Klein says although Elvis had a lucrative movie career, he hungered for better roles. "Halfway through Elvis's career he became disenchanted with his movies. And I'd ask him, 'What's the new movie about?' He'd say, 'Same story, different location. I beat up the guy, get the girl and sing 12 songs.' "
JoCathy Brownlee Elkington says that after nearly 20 years of fame, Elvis still found it unbelievable that he was a household name. "He said to me one time, 'You know, that's so unreal to me that they're talking about me,' and if you mention his first name in a remote part of Africa people would know who he was."
The former girlfriend remembers a sweet, caring person. But she also recalls a man who was overweight and had been abusing prescription drugs for years. "He would either be really, really up or really, really down. That was sad to me. You never knew what kind of mood he was going to be in."
On August 16, 1977 Elvis Presley died at Graceland at the age of 42. He was buried in a white suit – designed by Bernard Lansky. "And he was a gentlemen,” said Lansky. “A real gentlemen."
And George Klein was one of the pallbearers at the funeral. "He was like a brother to me."
About half the visitors to Graceland are under the age of 35 and were not even born when Elvis Presley died. His music is still immensely popular worldwide. If Elvis were alive today, he would be 72 years old, but to his fans he is forever young.