The number on the pay phone outside the Majik Market grocery store across the street from his mansion is 332-9925. Since it was ringing with a vengeance and since the visitor was standing nearby, he shrugged and picked it up.
"Hi there," boomed a big, happy voice with lots of echo in the background. "This is Edmonton, Alberta, calling. You're on the air! Who are we talking to? What's it like down there? Can you tell us anything?"
American graffiti: a very fat lady in black shorts, wooden heels and a baby-blue T-shirt. One side of the shirt is lettered: "Leading the Angelic Choir In Sweet Infinity." The other proclaims. "He Has Not Left Us. He Is In Another Room."
Not police strikes or fireman strikes or evening curfews or even a country wide power blackout could keep them away. Yesterday, on the first anniversary of his death, an estimated 10,000 of Elvis Presley's faithful came to Memphis, a city that had seemed to take leave of its senses temporarily while the world looked on.
At the crack of noon yesterday, the temperature was 90 degrees. And steaming. Elvis Presley Boulevard, once known as U.S. 51, was stopped a quarter of a mile in each direction. Outside the wrought-iron gates that formed grace notes in front of his house, several dozen people, in various stages of undress, milled aimlessly, waiting, it seemed, for something to happen. Anything. They looked glazed as drugged children. Occassionally National Guardsmen would nudge them along.
Against the high brick wall that runs down the boulevard, protecting the 13 1/2 acres, several thousand other people formed a jagged line. They were waiting to get a look at his grave. Inside, on the rolling lawn, under landsome old oaks and sycamores, emergency police tended to the heat-struck. Many said the scene was a revisitation of one year age, if on a smaller, less catastrophic scale.
The crowd size was a disappointment to some. "Why, last week, on Tuesday alone, we had 12,000 in here," said a slightly miffed Vester Presley, Elvis' uncle and longtime keeper of the gate at Graceland. Still the numbers seemed large enough and gaudy enough, worthy of the quality and size of the king's own myth. As author Greil Marcus once put it in "Mystery Train," his book on rock 'n' roll, this was a man "who has made history, and who has triumphed over it."
One year after his death, Graceland and Memphis are kind of Lourdes for rock 'n' roll believers.Who can say what devotion future years will bring?
Some notes on yesterday's triumph:
She came on a package bus tour from Harrisburg, Pa. The trip cost $132. In her apartment at home, she has maybe $1,000 worth of Presleyana - records, books, pictures, jewelry. Her money is hard-won, she says: She works by the hour at a Hardee's hamburger stand. Her name is Anna Pawlak, and she's in her 20s. She is wearing khaki shorts and a paisley top. Across the street, her girlfriend is holding Pawlak's place in the cemetery lin. She has loved E, she thinks, since she was 6 years old.
"I never did get to see the guy alive," she sayd, still a little disgusted over her luck. "I had tickets to him in Harrisburg and Hershey, but he died. Once, 1 drove to Baltimore, and they had already sold out the tickets. In two hours. We're spending tonight behind those gates at Graceland, I don't care what the National Guard says." (Police estimate about 150 people slept inside the gates on Tuesday night.)
She says this as a clerk wraps a commemorative plate she's just purchased. The plate cost $50. She wanted Uncle Vester's new book, "A Presley Speaks," too, but it sold out earlier in the day. She has her name on a list. "For $25 you get the book and Elvis' scarf inside. It's an exact repolica."
"Hon, your isue number is 1827," the lady behind the counter says now. "This is a limited edition. Your papers are in the bottom of the box. It's your own special number."
"You mean nobody can take it away from me?"
"Nobody, Hon." A Father's Memorial
The inscription on the flat white stone under which he and his mother Gladys lie was written by his father. It reads, in part:
ELVIS AARON PRESLEY
Jan. 8, 1935. Aug. 16, 1977
He was a precious gift from God. He was admired not only as an entertainer, but for the great humanitarian that he was. God saw that he needed some rest, and called him home to be with Him.
This is followed by Elvis' TCB trademark insigna. Taking Care of Business.
Late in the day, a mother comes draggin her small son. The boy is in an all white, studded suit with a superman cape. A miniature Elvis. People snap his picture. Momma grins.
He was crazy for things that rolled. Or flew. Or sped over water. An accounting of his assets filed in Shelby County Probate Court after his death included two Stutz Blackhawks, a Ferrari Custom, a Fleetwood, an International Scout, a jeep, a Ford Bronco, a Chevy pickup, two Harley Davidsons, three custom supercycles with VW engines, a Jetstar cycle, three tractors, six golf carts, three mobile homes and two airplanes. In 1970, for Christmas, he bought seven Mercedes - and laid them on friends like Kleenex. "I can never forget the longing to be somebody," he said once. "I guess if you are poor you always think bigger and want more than those who have everything when they were born, We didn't."
The shopping center across from the mansion is mostly garish souvenir shops now. You can get any Elvis thing imaginable. A few businesses that were there before Death Day hang in - a Red Wing shoe shop, a brokerage, a dentist's office. The Beef and Liberty Restaurant, hastily converted to a mourner's haven, has E posters slapped over wall menus; candles and statuettes sit on the Nauggahyde booths.
Dr. William Pope, D.D.S. has apparently glimpsed the future. In his window are Elvis sketches for $2.Inquire within. Booming Flower Trade
All who came this week were not fans. Bud Lipinski works for a florist's transworld delivery association in Detroit. He is soft-spoken and middle-aged. His company sent him down to supervise the tens of thousands of floral orders coming in from everywhere.He works out of the flower shop directly across from Graceland. There are about 140 florists in Memphis, he says. This thing has been a headache.
"We take them across three times a day in that white truck. It's a steamer out there. So they don't last very long. But we've got plenty of replacements." He laughs grimly. The walk-in business is pretty brisk, too, he adds. "They come in on impulse for single long-stem roses and for two- and three-hundred dollar sprays. I never saw anything like it."
A huge spray is coming through the door now. It is from another shop, and Lipinski has been waiting for it. "Is that Vernon's? Bring it over here, I'll take care of it myself," he says to the delivery man.The spray, made of ferns and red roses, has a white banner dangling from it. The message, in gold sparkle&:
It's been one year since you left us, son. It's almost unbearable still. I miss you terribly. I loved you so much. Daddy.
"Put that one in the freezer," Lipinski says. The Blackout
The power blackout struck a little after midnight yesterday. All of Memphis and most of Shelby County, roughly one million people, were affected. The outage lasted about two hours. Downtown there were reports of widespread looting, but only 30 arrests. Authorities first blamed sabotage connected with the strikes, later accused a reportedly inebriaged security guard at a power substation in his first night on the job. This added to threats of walkouts by sanitation and other city workers.
Tuesday evening, in the Holiday Inn Rivermont, a high-rise hotel squating on the Mississippi's bluffs, guests appear on room balconies under whirring helicopters and a full, clear Tennessee moon, and talk back and forth. The hotel is hosting several hundred black youths at a national gospel quartet convention. It is strange to hear "halleljahs" and high-pitched prayers cutting the night. One man on a 13th-floor balcony leans over and announces to everyone below that he has special Elvis candles for sale. "For $2, you got one," he shouts. He has several takers. By 3 a.m. Wednesday, the city and the hotel are back asleep. Coping With the Curfew
"Well, welcome to Mumph-is." David Berry is bearded, huge, Southern-friendly. He is a lifelong Memphian, a fan of Faulkner, a sometime writer of his own. He is also a milkman who goes to work every morning at five o'clock. "It gives you a place to think."
He is standing in a smart tavern called the Bombay Bicyle Club. The bar is in Overton Square, a kind of small Georgetown. It is 6:45 p.m. In 30 minutes because of the curfew, the place will close. Berry has come in, he says, to spy on the upwardly mobiles. He is talking of his native city and of the curfew.
"They mean business. Just like after Martin Luther King was killed. They clamped the lid down tight that time. We had one last month, too, when the firemen went out, but it only lasted three days. You could say we know how to adjust to curfews around here. All we do is go over to somebody's apartment with a pool and have curfew parties."
He comes closer. "You want a line on this town?" Across the river in Arkansas they got a dog track pulls down 100 million a year. Once of the richest parimutuel operations in the United States. Ain't 25,000 people in West Memphis, so you can guess where all the business comes from. Yet the city fathers boast there's no gambling in town, this is a clean, Godfearin' city. We may be Bible Belt down here, but we're also just hedonists and hypocrites like everybody else." The Legend's Roots
The legend started here, in this one-story brick building at 706 Union Avenue. A raw-18-year-old truck driver who yes-sirred his elders and who made $42 a week for the Crown Electric Co. parked his Ford pickup outside the Memphis Recording Service, cleared his throat, and went in to make a $4 record of the Inksports' "My Happiness." It was a hot summer in 1953. The boy's name was Presley. He said he just wanted to make a record for his momma's birthday.
Sam Phillips' old studio still stands. So, in fact, does the man - a legend himself - who discovered and first recorded the King of rock 'n' roll, who used to tell his friends that if he could find a young white singer he could make sound like a black man, he would make a million bucks. Sam Phillips, 55, is hard to get to these days. He's interviewed-out on Elvis, he says. Though he never did make that million bucks off Presley (and in fact sold Elvis' recording contract for a mere $35,000 to powerful RCA-Victor in 1954), Phillips is still a wealthy man with three radio stations in the South and a small recording business.
That's why he's restoring the old studio at 706 Union to exactly what it was in the early '50s when unknowns named Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and, yes, Elvis Presley dropped by. You can go there today and see the restoration in progress.
A carpenter named Randy talks about the restoration. "There was a busload of Belgians," Randy says during a break in the gutted building. "They were offering good money for the cruddy old wall tiles. We got them piled out back. Mr. Phillips told us not to throw them away. It's crazy I never saw anything like it."
A quarter of a mile away, in the family's current studio, Sam Phillips' son, Jerry, 30, a producer and song writer, says this about his father and Elvis: "My father knew Elvis as a real person before Elvis became something other than what he was. I remember him bringing Elvis over to our house when I was a kid. It was just a social thing. Sam's genius was in being able to perceive talent and draw it out.He felt bad when Elvis became a recluse and retreated behind Graceland. They didn't keep much in touch."
Graceland is a stark contrast to the public housing on Alabama Street, where Elvis Presley lived with his mother and father when he first met Sam Phillips. No. 462 has been torn down now, but others of the Lauder dale Courts remain to give you an idea what the unknown and impoverished Presley's life was like."I remember we left Tupelo overnight," he once said. "Dad packed all his belongings in boxes and put them on the top and in the trunk of a 1939 Plymouth. We just headed for Memphis. "Things had to be better." Legacy
Perhaps where he came from, the dirt-poor South he eventually triumphed over, is his greatest legacy. At the end, if reports are to be believed, Elvis Presley was a joyless and grotesquely overweight human being - a convict of his own fabulous myth and wealth. You can see him in those sad Las Vegas costumes, posturing through songs he couldn't sing any more, and let that image dispel the one that really counts - a polite small-town boy from Tupelo who rewrote forever the face of his own country's culture.
"It may be that he never took any of it seriously." Greil Marcus has written. That is possible, though when you dig out old records and hear that voice careen through "Blue Moon of Kentucky," or "Jailhouse Rock," you can't help believing that he loved it, too. Elvis Presley truly was a mystery train. It was a life not lived in vain. Yesterday proved it again.