Peter Cavanaugh

Forty years gone

It was the autumn of 1956. Barbara was a 14-year-old honor student, Girl Scout award winner and founding member of our St. Joseph’s Catholic Youth Organization in Syracuse when she carved five letters onto her lower left arm - E-L-V-I-S.

None of us boys were a bit surprised. Elvis was that cool.

The nuns were shocked and alarmed. It was further confirmation of what Father Shannon has assured them. Elvis Presley was “an occasion of sin.” Father would know. He heard Confessions. “Bless me, Father, for I have rocked.”

It was 40 years ago this week (Aug. 16, 1977) that Elvis died at the age of 42. Last year his estate earned an estimated $27 million dollars. It’s as though he never “left the building” at all.

When I first heard Heartbreak Hotel on the radio in February of 1956, I thought it was by Mahalia Jackson. Ms. Jackson was a black American gospel singer with a powerful contralto voice, not a skinny “hillbilly kid” of 21 - a dirt-poor truck driver originally from the backwater town of Tupelo, Mississippi, population 21,000.

Elvis and his family moved to Memphis when he turned 13. Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records at 706 Union Avenue, always told friends if he could “find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, (he) could make a billion dollars.” Sam sounded cynical at best, racist at worst. He was neither.

When Elvis Presley wandered into Sam’s little Sun Studio to record a song for his mother’s birthday, Phillips found his “white man.” Then a few more impoverished, unknown, wild, white Southern boys crossed the Sun doorway including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Imagine.

When Eileen and I finally visited Sun Studio, I was amazed to see how tiny it was - not much bigger than a large family garage. We also spent time at Graceland, now located in a fairly sketchy part of Memphis. The tour ended at Elvis’s grave, where he quietly rests along with his parents and twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, who was stillborn.

We had finally seen Elvis in person on New Year’s Eve of 1975 along with 62,000 others at Pontiac, Michigan’s Silverdome Stadium, now 176 acres of rubble and ruin just north of Detroit on I-75.

It turned out to be the highest attendance number of his career, ushering in America’s Bicentennial Year with a 25 song set list, opening with the twelve bar classic, C.C. Ryder. His voice was magnificent, but there was a lot more Elvis by then.

He split his white jump suit pants right down the middle at the end of All Shook Up. But he wasn’t, casually strolling off stage and emerging a few minutes later freshly attired in gold. During the interim his band played on, horns wailing away like Judgment Day. It was seamless - unlike those pants.

I happened to be at the radio station when our red UPI Bulletin Light started flashing in the newsroom. It was an early Tuesday evening. Elvis dead? I quickly found a copy of That’s All Right in our WTAC library - the first song Elvis ever had played on the radio.

One of my favorite Elvis songs is the fairly obscure country ballad, Old Shep, recorded by the legendary Red Foley in 1935, the year Elvis was born. It offers a heart-rending close:

“If dog’s have a heaven, there’s one thing for sure ... Old Shep has a wonderful home.”

I like to think he does.

With Elvis - 40 years gone.