MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It's Elvis Week here in Memphis, and thousands of fans are expected to descend upon Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, for Friday night's (Aug. 15) candlelight vigil. However, as of Monday (Aug. 11), just a few hundred fans were chilling out on the front yard of the famous estate.
Andy Childs, a musician who was born and raised in Memphis, spent about an hour playing Elvis covers -- some of the most familiar songs ever recorded -- and after the sun went down, Jailhouse Rock was shown on a big screen up by the stone wall near Elvis Presley Boulevard. People quietly settled in with blankets and lawn chairs, occasionally shouting out the dialogue from the movie before Elvis himself could speak it onscreen.
It's all got me a little shook up, to be honest. Of all the places to spend a Monday night, what was I doing on Elvis' lawn? Earlier in the night, before anybody was on stage, the event planners invited me to go up to the house and take some photos. Surprisingly, I had a few minutes alone in the memorial garden where Presley and his parents are buried. I took time to read the memorial wreaths from all over the world and to respectfully consider how this one man changed popular music.
Of course, I've been to Graceland before. I am kind of in love with it. There are few places in the world that can make me cry, but this is one of them. In the Jungle Room, I can always keep it together, but as soon as I get to the annex with all the awards and outfits, then I know what's coming next -- the racquetball room. I envision the day Elvis died -- Aug. 16, 1977 -- sweaty from a game, maybe playing a little something on the piano and then going upstairs to freshen up. And a few hours later, that was that.
At least until August 1978 when his most devoted fans flocked to Graceland to honor their musical idol on the one-year anniversary of his death. They came back in 1979, too, and again in 1980, and the tradition continues. This year, for some reason, it's not blistering hot in August in Memphis (a rarity), so there's no telling how many people will show up. At least there's plenty to do.
Dixie Locke Emmons, who was Presley's girlfriend early in his career, will make her first appearance this year at the Elvis Insiders Conference to share stories about dating the King. Songwriting legend Mike Stoller, co-writer of "Jailhouse Rock" and "Hound Dog" (with Jerry Leiber) is in Memphis this week, too. So is Presley's drummer, D.J. Fontana, as well as Presley's film co-stars Edward Faulkner, Darlene Tomkins, Celeste Yarnall and Francine York.
Two of Presley's friends, bodyguard Jerry Schilling and disc jockey George Klein, chatted for a few minutes for the moviegoers on Monday night. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the legendary TV special that aired on NBC in 1968, dancer Susan Henning and show producer Steve Binder will travel to Memphis to discuss Presley's momentous comeback that was originally seen by 42 percent of the TV viewing audience. Joe Guercio, Presley's musical director in the 1970s, will talk about his experiences on the road, with an emphasis in the Las Vegas years. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra also debuts a new show on Saturday, titled Elvis: From Broadway to Memphis, with Leah Hocking (from the Broadway cast of All Shook Up) and Austin Miller (from the Grease-inspired TV show, You're the One That I Want).
Naturally, many of Presley's most ardent fans have already toured Graceland, so the event organizers were wise to add on a few attractions around the perimeter of the property. Twenty recently discovered photos taken by George Kalinsky at a 1972 concert at Madison Square Garden are on public display for the first time in the Sincerely Elvis lobby. To mark the 50th anniversary of Presley's Army induction, there's a special exhibit at Graceland Crossing (across the street from the mansion). Nearby, an exhibit on the '68 TV special features videos, photos and memorabilia from the taping. When I dropped by after the movie, there was live music, too. It was Elvis Presley covers, as you'd expect, but the singer was actually quite convincing. I couldn't help but notice a mother and her young son, dressed in identical white jumpsuits, dancing along.
The Elvis Expo opens on Wednesday morning (Aug. 13) with more than 65 booths and 35,000 square feet of Elvis stuff at every turn. Later that day, 22 Elvis impersonators, pre-selected from competitions in the U.S., Canada and Australia, will vie for the title of the ultimate Elvis tribute artist. The winner gets a 12-week paid performance contract with the Legends in Concert franchise. Last year's contest winner, Shawn Kluth, is performing this week with opening act Sammy Shore, the comedian who opened shows for Presley in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, the requisite gift shops are well-stocked with collectible tins and stemware, a new Elvis and Priscilla Barbie doll set and a new dance remix of "Baby Let's Play House" by Italian DJ Spankox -- along with a multitude of CDs, DVDs, postcards, T-shirts, cardboard cutouts, cookie jars, lunchboxes, suitcases, lawn chairs, wall art, canvas bags, wall plaques and (of course) teddy bears.
But the lasting impression of any Elvis Week is the candlelight vigil. Open to the public, it tends to go all night and well into the next morning -- which, in this case, is Aug. 16, the day he died. Even after 31 years, Elvis Presley's legacy lives on. Approaching the front gates that are adorned with musical notes, I was handed a big black marker in case I wanted to write something on the stone wall. From one end to the other, it looked like a million names are already scribbled there. So I just wrote this: "I Miss You Elvis." I'm clearly not the only one.
View photos taken at Graceland.