The pilgrimage to Memphis, Tennessee that occurs each August takes on new significance this year. Friday marks a quarter-century since the death of Elvis Presley. The staff at Graceland expects the number of visitors this week alone to be about one-tenth of the total for an entire year at the mansion Elvis occupied for 20 years. From Memphis, Jeff Bossert reports on Elvis Week 2002, 25 years after the death of the entertainer known as 'The King.'
It all started Saturday with a parade along historic Beale Street, featuring nine floats reflecting Elvis' music and movies, a hunting dog club roaming to the tune Hound Dog, a Harley Davidson owners group, since he loved motorcycles, and an army tank, representing Elvis' time in the service. Among those lining the sidewalk was Helen Paterick, from Madison, Wisconsin. She has been visiting Memphis three times a year every year since his death.
"He was such a wonderful person," she said. "You know, I don't think people realized all the charity work that he did. He was just a wonderful human being."
Miz Paterick had been in town since last Wednesday, and got to Beale Street four hours before the parade started, but that's nothing, she says. She once waited in line 18 hours to see The King perform in June of 1977. And like all his fans, she was in shock on August 16 of that year, when word came that he was dead.
"My sister called me on the telephone and I said to her, 'You gotta be kidding, what kind of joke is this?" she recalled. "And she said no, it's really true and I just couldn't believe it, you know? And my uncle had passed away the same day so we couldn't get down for the funeral cause my mom expected us home with our relatives. Beat that, huh?"
Bringing up the rear of the procession down Beale Street was Mobile Graceland, a huge truck full of archival material that will visit more than 70 cities in the next year.
The parade ended with fireworks shot off from the roofs of blues clubs in the entertainment district.
"There are events that go on all over the city, some of them produced and presented by our company, and others presented by attractions and organizations throughout the city and fan club organizations," explained Todd Morgan who has been coordinating activities concerning Graceland for 19 of the 20 years the mansion has been open to the public.
"Graceland opened to the public in 1982, by 1983 we formalized it, creating Elvis Week," Mr. Morgan explained. "And it's just grown and grown through the years. This year a lot of the events are typical of any Elvis week, only everything's bigger and more exciting than ever. In fact, this will probably be the biggest Elvis week we've ever had."
When all is said and done, Graceland mansion tours, the candlelight vigil to Presley's gravesite on the eve of his death, and off-site events like Saturday's parade are expected to draw an estimated 75,000 people this week. Teri Mason, who teaches behavioral science at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, says the adoration of Elvis has all the trappings of a religion for his fans.
"It seems religious when you're there that night, but I don't believe that that's the case," she explained. "I think that what they're getting is not exactly salvation but kind of a secular redemption from just life being boring and dull and being a grind, which is what everybody is looking for."
That search for 'secular redemption' crosses generations and geography. In the line of fans waiting to buy tickets for a tour of Graceland are young couples, retirees and families. And many have traveled long distances to be here. Eva Plekner of Germany brought her mother and sister for the commemorative week. "My mom was the Elvis fan before me," she said. "And now it's her first time to Memphis with me and she's really excited because of it."
Elvis himself feared losing his fans after his two year stint in the army. Longtime Memphis journalist Bill E. Burke remembers the star coming back to Memphis for two shows when he returned to touring.
"In the afternoon concert, I was standing at the foot of the stage taking pictures of him and after about 2 or 3 songs in the concert, the girls were screaming so much and everything, remembering that he had told me so much about his fans would leave him or had left him during the Army," he recalled. "He looked down at me during one song and winked… and that was his message to me saying, 'I'm back.'"
And on this anniversary, he will be back. After a Thursday night candlelight vigil that's expected to last more than 12 hours, event organizer Todd Morgan said 30 of Elvis' backup singers and musicians will join him on stage again.
He explained, "We take all of our favorite concert footage of Elvis, drop out all of the sound except for his voice - he is presented on a 2-story high screen - and Elvis sings leads, stars in the show, introduces the band, and a couple of songs into it, you forget he's not really there."
Elvis Presley's music never faded, and it's being used in new ways to win new fans. The Walt Disney Company incorporated the King into the soundtrack of its animated film Lilo and Stitch and the sportswear giant Nike used the little-known Elvis hit A Little Less Conversation in one of its commercials. The remix of the song by JXL reached number one on the British pop charts this year:
The renewed success of A Little Less Conversation is paving the way for the newest compilation of Elvis songs, a CD with 30 of his number one-hits is due out in September. Elvis Presley Enterprises will be re-releasing his TV specials in video and DVD sets next spring. His 30 movies are still popular on the home video market as well.
In an industry where fame is so fleeting, what has made Elvis Presley as popular as ever, 25 years after his death? As Todd Morgan ponders that question, sitting at a desk cluttered with requests for interviews from all points of the globe, he recalls a promotional package developed by Elvis' record label, RCA. It explained how Elvis paved the way for so many other performers in so many other genres, and what Mr. Morgan believes keeps the fans coming back.
"I can't quote all of it, but [it went something like] 'Do you know why you know the word entourage, do you know why everybody plays Vegas, do you know why this, why that.' Then they make the point at the end of the promo: 'Before anyone did anything, Elvis did everything.' And it's the truth."
Todd Morgan believes Memphis is important to the fans not only because it's Elvis Presley's final resting place and the city he called home, but also the location of Sun Records, where a kid from Tupelo, Mississippi made a recording nearly 50 years ago, and changed the course of music, forever.