It was a Tuesday in 1977 when the world heard the tragic news about Elvis Presley.
And it was the same day — exactly 41 years after the nation lost its “King of Rock and Roll” — that it is mourning its “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin. Franklin, 76, died Thursday in her home in Detroit following a battle with pancreatic cancer.
“Everybody remembers where they were when they heard Elvis had died,” Scott Williams, president and chief operating officer of the Newseum, told The Washington Post. He is the former vice president of marketing and public relations for Elvis Presley Enterprises.
The same will no doubt be true for Franklin.
“No matter when she died it would have been a loss,” Williams said, but he noted it’s interesting that a day after people held a candlelight vigil Wednesday to remember Presley, they mourned Franklin.
In 1977, Presley was discovered unconscious at Graceland, his mansion in Memphis, and was rushed to nearby Baptist Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The news hit the airwaves. Newspapers and magazines scrambled to get the story on the next day’s front page. And tabloids ran blunt headlines announcing “Elvis is dead.” Variety reported at the time that “Elvis Presley, often credited as the single performer to introduce white audiences to the black boogie and blues rhythms of his native south, died yesterday at age 42, possibly of a heart attack.”
Days later, the National Enquirer published a controversial photo showing the deceased musician in a casket.
“There was mass hysteria to get the story, to get a picture, to try to get a piece of the action,” Williams said.
The nation was deeply saddened and in shock.
On Aug. 17, 1977, The Post reported it this way:
Reaction among fans, performers and music industry executives elsewhere was also emotional. In Santiago, Chile, newspapers stopped the presses and radio stations changed their evening programming to recount the life of “El Rey de Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In Memphis, the telephone system was reported unable to handle the volume of calls coming into the city from around the country. Hundreds of weeping fans gathered outside Baptist Memorial and Graceland Mansion last night.
Two European radio stations also suspended regular programming as soon as Presley’s death was announced. Radio Luxembourg, the continent’s most widely listened-to pop station, canceled all its commercials to play Presley’s music nonstop.
“This is the end of rock ‘n’ roll,” said Bob Moore Merlis, an executive with Warner Bros. Records, who compiled an anthology of Presley’s early material several years ago for RCA. “The void he will leave is impossible to gauge,” said Pat Boone, an early rival of Presley’s.
“The King is dead,” said former Beatle John Lennon last night. “But rock ‘n’ roll will never die. Long live the King.”
President Jimmy Carter issued a statement, saying, Presley’s death “deprives our country of a part of itself.”
“He was unique and irreplaceable,” Carter said. “More than 20 years ago, he burst upon the scene with an impact that was unprecedented and will probably never be equaled. His music and his personality, fusing the styles of white country and black rhythm and blues, permanently changed the face of American popular culture. His following was immense, and he was a symbol to people the world over of the vitality, rebelliousness, and good humor of his country.”
On Thursday, the news of Franklin’s death spread quickly on social media, where musicians, politicians and devoted fans mourned the loss of a beloved entertainer.
President Obama said she “helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.
Diana Ross referred to Franklin as “the wonderful golden spirit.”
John Legend said she was “the greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.”
“Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us all for many many years,” Paul McCartney wrote on Twitter. “She will be missed but the memory of her greatness as a musician and a fine human being will live with us forever. Love Paul.”
President Trump said on Twitter that Franklin was “a great woman.”
As The Post’s J. Freedom du Lac reported, Franklin was “one of the most celebrated and influential singers in the history of American vernacular song.”
Ms. Franklin secured her place on music’s Mount Rushmore in the late 1960s and early 1970s by exploring the secular sweet spot between sultry rhythm and blues and the explosive gospel music she’d grown up singing in her father’s Baptist church.
The result was potent and wildly popular, with defining soul anthems that turned Ms. Franklin into a symbol of black pride and women’s liberation.
Her calling card: “Respect,” the Otis Redding hit that became a crossover smash in 1967 after Ms. Franklin tweaked it just so (a “sock it to me” here, some sisterly vocal support there), transforming the tune into a fervent feminist anthem.