As a young radio reporter for The Associated Press, Mark Knoller was dispatched to Memphis 30 years ago today to cover the death and funeral of Elvis Presley. Now a CBS News White House correspondent, Knoller recalls his coverage of the death of an icon.
I wasn't what you could call a fan of Elvis Presley, but I knew his songs and movies. I remembered seeing him on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and hearing jokes about his hip gyrations, but I was surprised by the extent to which he had touched many lives.
By the thousands, they gathered in genuine grief and disbelief on the sidewalk of Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis. They touched the gates of Graceland, which were adorned with decorative guitars and musical notes.
Back then, there were no iPods or even boom boxes. Instead, the mourners carried AM radios and battery-powered tape recorders to play Elvis' music and sing along.
They all had stories to tell about how Elvis had touched their lives. Interviewing them, I was amazed by the number of times someone told me how generous Elvis was. I don't know if it was urban legend or not — but again and again I heard the story of how Elvis was in a Cadillac dealership and bought cars for every customer in there.
The scene took on a circus atmosphere in the heat and humidity of Memphis in August. The restaurant and souvenir shops in the strip mall across the street from Graceland did big business. And there were long lines of people waiting to use the couple of pay phones there.
For reporters, a big part of the story was the cause of death. I remember interviewing the sheriff of Shelby County who had jurisdiction for Memphis. Again and again he said Elvis died of cardiac arrhythmia — irregular heartbeat. The sheriff was emphatic in stating that drug abuse was not a factor. Only later did we learn the truth about Elvis' abuse of prescription drugs. (I would think of that decades later after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.)
To this day, I smile at rumors that Elvis was spotted in a Burger King or at a gas station. I know different, as one of the reporters allowed to view the dead Elvis in his open casket in the foyer of Graceland. Without fear of contradiction, I can say that Elvis did not leave a handsome corpse. He looked bloated and his complexion was an unnatural grey. But he was well-dressed in a cream-colored suit and wore his medallion with the lightning bolt and the letters "TCB," for taking care of business — the words that had been his mantra — before we knew what a mantra was.
Reporters were frisked to make sure none of us were carrying a camera to take a picture of the dead Elvis. But it didn't do much good.
A picture was taken — by a cousin — who reportedly sold it for $18,000 to the National Enquirer, which plastered it on its front page. To this day, it is said to be the biggest-selling issue ever for the supermarket tabloid.
The funeral for Elvis was private, but reporters were allowed to cover his entombment in a family mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery a couple miles down Elvis Presley Boulevard from Graceland.
His funeral procession got a police escort and included 16 white limousines. The grounds of the cemetery were a sea of flowers. I remember a spokesperson for FTD, the flowers-by-wire service, telling us they had more orders that day for Elvis than ever before in their history. We were told 3,116 floral arrangements had been delivered.
We watched the scores of mourners, including actress Ann-Margret, follow the casket into the mausoleum in silence. I remember writing that if Elvis was truly the King of Rock 'n' Roll, his funeral was majestic in nature.
But filing my radio reports from the cemetery presented a challenge. Reporters were not allowed to leave the cemetery until the Elvis ceremony had ended. Cell phones didn't exist in 1977, so my AP colleague and I had made arrangements to use a telephone in a cemetery building a short distance away.
I slipped out of the press area and walked into the room where the phone was located. I flipped on the light and there on a slab was a dead woman being prepared for burial. I was unnerved but proceeded to dial up AP Radio in Washington and file my reports on Elvis' funeral. As I was doing that, some morticians entered the room with a casket, and lifted the dead woman, stiff as a board, into her final resting place.
She too, was being put to rest that day at Forest Hill Cemetery — a short distance from Elvis. Pity, I thought, she'll never know what she missed.