On the sultry Tuesday afternoon of August 16, 1977, it seemed that the only news in the world was that Elvis Presley had died at the age of 42. All the planet’s other happenings were of secondary concern.
Presley’s health had been declining for years, reducing him to a bloated, mumbling caricature of the handsome young man who’d changed the sound and thrust of popular music, supercharging it with sexiness and glamour. But dying? That was unthinkable.
Newspapers outdid themselves on the day following his death with the size and loudness of their headlines. Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal, Presley’s hometown daily, ran a two-line, six-column-wide banner headline that said, “Death Captures Crown Of Rock And Roll/Elvis Dies Apparently After Heart Attack.”
London’s The Daily Mirror gave over its entire front page to his passing under the heading “ELVIS PRESLEY IS DEAD,” followed by a sidebar subhead that asked, “Was King of Rock Killed by Drugs?” Looming large in the layout was a photo of the clearly overweight monarch.
Even the graphically stodgy New York Times accorded his death top-of-front-page status the next day, placing the story and his picture opposite an article concerning the potentially warming relations between Russia and the US. The ever-enterprising National Enquirer, in its September 6 edition, ran a closeup picture of Presley in his coffin under the headline “ELVIS/THE UNTOLD STORY.”
Wikipedia lists 173 songs about Elvis or that “substantially” or “nominally” refer to him. Of these, two had a special impact on country music in the weeks immediately following his death. The first was Ronnie McDowell’s “The King is Gone,” the second Merle Haggard’s “From Graceland to the Promised Land.”
McDowell came out of nowhere with a singing voice that sounded eerily like Presley’s. His song, which he co-wrote, recounted his growing up idolizing and imitating the star. It charted on both the country and pop charts on September 10, 1977, and reached No. 13 in both instances.
More significantly, it launched McDowell’s recording career. Over the next 13 years, he would score three Top 10 hits, including the No. 1 singles “Older Women” and “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation.”
Haggard, who also wrote his Elvis tribute, surprised some at the reverence he felt for a performer so unlike himself. “From Graceland to the Promised Land” entered the country chart on October 8, 1977 and the pop chart on October 22. It went No. 4 country but only to No. 58 pop.
“Elvis touched the life of every ear that heard him,” Haggard intoned, “and they couldn’t help but listen when he sang.” Surely Presley was Heaven-bound, Haggard opined, asserting that “Jesus finally came to lead him home.” As a further act of respect, Haggard used the Jordanaires, Presley’s longtime backup singers, to accompany him on the record.
Presley’s prominence on the pop charts was diminishing at the time of his death. “Moody Blue,” which charted in the last week of 1976, peaked at No. 31 after only a 13-week run. Its follow-up, “Way Down,” debuted about three weeks before Presley’s death and topped out at No. 18 nearly three months afterward.
He did considerably better on the country rankings, where “Moody Blue” and “Way Down” both reached No. 1. After sprinkling four Top 10 country singles during the rest of the decade, Presley again scored a No. 1 in 1981 with Jerry Reed’s “Guitar Man.”
Even disembodied, the King still reigns. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, followed by the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
Just last month, Graceland reached a deal for a $75 million expansion. And on the current Billboard top country albums chart, The Essential Elvis Presley sits enthroned at No. 18.