MEMPHIS, Tenn. Elvis Presley fans from around the world made their annual pilgrimage to Graceland on Thursday to pay their respects to the rock n' roll icon with a solemn candlelight vigil on the 36th anniversary of his death.
Thousands of Presley fans carried lit candles as they walked silently through the Mediation Garden at Graceland, Presley's longtime Memphis home. The garden is the location of Presley's grave and also is the spot where his mother, father and grandmother are buried.
Wreaths of flowers and pictures of Presley encircled the grave, while shadows cast by the glowing candles danced along the stone wall surrounding the garden. Soft music played in the mild night, as some in the procession bowed their heads or cried quietly.
Each year, fans of Presley's music and movies come to Memphis for Elvis Week, the weeklong celebration of his life and career. Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, of a heart attack after battling prescription drug abuse.
The vigil is the highlight of Elvis Week, which this year featured a listening party at Stax Records for the recent release of the three-CD box set "Elvis at Stax." Performances by Presley tribute artists and a screening of the "Aloha from Hawaii" television program from January 1973 are other featured events of the weeklong reunion, which wraps up Saturday.
Police estimated 35,000 people would attend the vigil. Last year, an estimated 75,000 people descended on Graceland for the event. Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla Presley and his daughter Lisa Marie Presley spoke at last year's event, the first time they appeared together at the vigil since it began.
Christine Jeffords made her fifth trip to Graceland with her husband Jon and three other members of a fan club called the Elvis Midwest Mafia, whose members are from Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. They wore red T-shirts with Presley's image emblazoned on a king of hearts playing card on the front.
The back of their shirts had a quote that gives one reason why fans have made repeated trips to Memphis for Elvis Week and the vigil: "If you have a friend who is an Elvis fan, you have a friend for life."
"Where else can you go where you meet people from year to year who have the same passion?" said Christine Jeffords, a pre-school teacher from Hartford, Wis.
Jeffords, 52, smiles when she talks about buying her first Presley 45, "Let Yourself Go," which she bought as a young teen with money she had saved from babysitting jobs. She said the vigil is a way to remember not only his career, but also his giving personality and ability to make people happy with his music.
"If you were sad or happy or whatever, he was such a big part of your life," Jeffords said. "I always felt in my heart that he was a good person, a beautiful person."
The vigil started as an informal gathering the year after his death. It has blossomed into a major tourist event. Fans begin lining up along the outer wall of Graceland about 12 hours before the vigil, and many will stay until the early morning hours of the next day.
The event also has become an international affair and a tribute to the Tupelo, Miss., native's worldwide popularity, hosting fans from Australia, Brazil, England and Japan and other foreign countries.
Miguel Salinas Caceres, 53, came with other members of a fan club whose members are from Chile. Making his first visit to Graceland, Salinas Caceres recalled making scrapbooks of newspaper article clippings about Presley when he was a teen.
The articles and scrapbooks were a way he and his family followed and learned about Presley because they could not afford a record player or even the records themselves. He said his family used to pay a neighbor who owned a television so that they could watch Presley movies and other TV programs at the neighbors' house.
"For a person who is an Elvis fan and has the chance to come to the place he lived, it's emotional for me," said Salinas Caceres, of Santiago, Chile. "It's hard to believe that I'm here on the street where he walked, the street corners where he stood, the restaurants where he ate."
His fellow fan club member Rodrigo Gandarillas, a native Chilean who now lives in Houston, is on his second visit to Graceland. An Elvis tribute artist himself, the 39-year-old Gandarillas said the vigil is a way to give thanks for the enjoyment Presley has given him.
"The thing that impacts me the most about the vigil is the large amount of people from different countries, different races and different languages who understand 'the King's' musical message," Gandarillas said.