On Tuesday, Aug. 16, 1977, Rose Phillips was one of the first people in Memphis to learn firsthand of Elvis Presley’s death.
On that day, she had gone to a late lunch with her friend Arlene Cogan, who was former president of the Chicago Elvis Presley Fan Club and a regular visitor at Graceland, at the Piccadilly Restaurant, in a shopping center just a block from Elvis’ mansion.
“We had finished,” Phillips recalls, “and we were walking through the parking lot and we heard this ambulance go by. I remember Arlene joking, ‘They’re coming after us.’ It was just a joke. Right after that we saw [Elvis’ security chief] Sam Thompson and his dad just flying through the parking lot.
“We got back to her house, which was only a block away from there. We’re only a quarter of a mile from Graceland. We just got settled in the room, and the phone rang. Arlene went to answer the phone, and it was Pauline, one of the cooks up at Graceland. And she said, ‘Arlene, Elvis is dead.’ And I heard Arlene yell, ‘No! I knew it! I knew it!’ I knew what had happened without her telling me. I saw the grief on her, and I just knew. Somehow or another, Elvis was gone. And my thought was, it’s over.”
For Phillips – who had known the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from the age of 10, when the aspiring singer visited his cousin Gene Smith in her neighborhood – Elvis Presley’s sudden death at 42 from a lethal combination of prescription drugs was a personal loss. Others around the country shared that loss on a less intimate level.
For three days, the abrupt and tragically premature exit of Memphis’ best-known native son dominated the media and roiled emotions among the singer’s legion of hometown fans in the Tennessee city of roughly 624,000. Many of them continue to pay homage to this day.
For both the local and national press, it was an unexpected and enormous story that required immediate and intense attention.
Larry Buser, who covered Elvis’ death for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the city’s morning paper, says, “My managing editor said, ‘Buser, you will never cover a bigger story in your life. You might cover something more important, but you will never cover a bigger story.’ And he’s always been right.”
“It was mayhem,” he remembers. “It was chaotic in the newsroom. This was before electronic journalism, so we’re talking physical notes being dropped on my desk…. We had multiple deadlines back at that time. I recall working all the way up to midnight and then some, updating until the very last moment we could get something into press.”
Robert Hilburn, then the Los Angeles Times’ pop music critic and an avowed Elvis fan, raced into the paper from home and penned a 5,000-word personal appreciation of Presley on a short deadline for the Sunday edition, then hopped on a plane to cover reaction on the ground in Memphis. He was unprepared for the massive, mourning crowds that were lining the city’s streets.
“It was just overwhelming, the turnout,” Hilburn says. “It was like a member of the family died… That’s what struck me, the depth of the emotion. It was a local boy – he didn’t move to New York or L.A. He had a house out here, but he lived in Graceland, he lived in Memphis, he stayed in his hometown.”
“For Memphis, this was it. This was like the President of the United States for them.”