Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio.
On Wednesday, tens of thousands of fans will flock to Graceland to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Today, Presley’s widespread influence and appeal are well established. But four decades ago, much of the media was caught off guard by the public’s response to the singer’s passing.
In 1977, before cable news or the Internet, the nightly news broadcasts of CBS, NBC and ABC were at their zenith. Newspapers were enjoying their most prosperous years. But in newsrooms across America, and particularly in the media mecca of New York, Presley was barely on the radar. If they regarded him at all, it was as a 1950s icon.
Elvis was only 42, so his passing was unexpected. But what really surprised journalists was the national reaction to Presley’s death. To them, his influence had ended when the Beatles hit the scene. But as the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1977, progressed, they couldn’t ignore the grass-roots rumblings. Tens of thousands began trekking to Memphis, some walking off their jobs. Newsroom phone lines were burning up with people seeking more information.
CBS News was the ratings leader, but its anchor, Walter Cronkite, was on vacation. His fill-in was Roger Mudd, but — lacking the managing-editor authority that Cronkite enjoyed — he was at the mercy of a producer. CBS led its evening news with a story about President Gerald Ford’s endorsement of the Panama Canal treaty.
At NBC, anchor David Brinkley — a Southerner — understood the place Presley occupied in the lives of millions. ABC’s Harry Reasoner joined Brinkley in leading with the Presley story. As described in the 1980 book “When Elvis Died,” by Neal and Janice Gregory, “Millions of viewers, not finding the information they sought, immediately tuned out the video eye and switched to one of the other networks.” A CBS producer later confessed, “I had no idea that he had that much popularity.”
By early evening, editors at the nation’s newspapers were slowly recognizing the magnitude of the national reaction. At the New York Times, according to the Gregorys, “some mild panic occurred when editors discovered no one had prepared an advance obituary” of Presley.
But Elvis had never disappeared. After his blazing start in the 1950s, he starred throughout the 1960s in a string of highly profitable, if sometimes artistically challenged, feature films. By the 1970s he was selling out the largest arenas in the United States, including four consecutive standing-room-only shows at Madison Square Garden in 1972. The following year, he became the first solo performer to have a live concert broadcast around the world via satellite. A scant seven weeks before his death, he had completed yet another sold-out arena tour.
The media often fails to notice the divide between its interests and the issues important to Middle America. The death of Elvis Presley was a prime example. A CBS News poll in 2002 determined that while Presley’s popularity cut across demographics and regions, “Elvis’ fans are more likely to come from the Midwest — 51% of those who live there describe themselves as fans.”
In fairness, Presley’s appeal was not entirely lost on more erudite observers. No less a cultured connoisseur than William F. Buckley Jr. came out as a fan, writing in a 2001 essay, “Elvis Presley had the most beautiful singing voice of any human being on Earth.” He followed with a novel, “Elvis in the Morning,” to bemused reviews.
But Elvis was loved most by commoners. Why? Aside from his talent, he expressed pride in his country regardless of who occupied the Oval Office. He openly expressed his love for his mother, served honorably in the Army, called people “sir” and “ma’am,” showered complete strangers with lavish gifts, and stayed outwardly humble and devoutly spiritual.
Publicly, he shied away from politics. Asked his opinion of the Vietnam War, he replied, “I’d just sooner keep my own personal views about that to myself, ’cause I’m just an entertainer and I’d rather not say.” It remains the gold standard for celebrity answers to political questions.
In his last couple of years, Presley noticeably gained weight, and we learned after his death that he had become addicted to prescription drugs. Even his faults were quintessentially American.
Hundreds of thousands of fans visit Graceland each year, millions continue to buy his records, and new Elvis-related projects abound. Even the news media seems to have caught up with the trend, a hopeful sign that eventually they become attuned to the heartland, even if it takes a few decades to get there.