For decades following his death, reported sightings of Elvis Presley, the acclaimed "King of Rock and Roll," persist. As is the case with religious saints, it is Elvis's death day and not his birthday that receives ritual attention, attracting tens of thousands of individuals to Memphis, Tennessee, for Elvis Week. To understand his "immortality" one must know something of the man, his time, music, and the transcendence power of late- twentieth-century media celebritydom.
Death shaped Presley's fate from the moment of his birth in 1935, when his identical twin brother died in delivery. His parents—poor and originally from Mississippi—became extremely protective of their surviving son and supportive of his singing talents, which were nurtured in an Assembly of God choir and at church revivals. Following his graduation from a Memphis high school, Presley drove trucks during the day and took vocational classes at night. One day he happened across the Sun City recording studio, where he paid four dollars to cut two disks for his mother. Sun president Sam Phillips, looking for a Southern disc jockey, talent scout, and record producer long inspired by Memphis blues, happened to hear a copy of Presley's rendition of an Ink Spots song. Thus began a legendary career as he went on to record 149 songs that made it to Billboard 's Hot 100, spending more weeks at the top of the charts (eighty) than any other performer.
Presley's career coincided with the beginning of the rock and roll movement, which itself was part of a broader social phenomenon—an emerging teenage culture made possible by postwar prosperity. The rapidly developing recording and television industries saturated popular culture with his image and sounds at a time when the massive baby boom generation passed through childhood and adolescence. As baby boomers sought their generational identity, rock and roll became their identifying music and this singer their own icon (as Frank Sinatra was for the preceding generation). Presley's death at age forty-two shocked a generation often accused of never having had to grow up.
In adolescence and early adulthood this generation asserted itself by challenging the values and lifestyles of its parents, including their death taboos and denials. Boomer music was to develop a dark side with its associations with death, in its lyrics and in the untimely deaths of its performers, often because of "noble excess" (Pattison 1987, p. 123). Thanatological (death-related) themes came to be embedded within the very names of the performing groups, such as the Grateful Dead and the Dead Kennedys.
Parodies of such connections between rock and death were inevitable. A decade before Presley's death there were rumors of Paul McCartney's demise, with some critics claiming that the intent was to increase sales of the first album released by the Beatles' Apple Records company. This coupled with the climate of conspiracy suspicions of the 1960s and 1970s supported beliefs that Elvis was not dead.
The music industry found death to be a formidable marketing tool, often inflating the value of deceased performers' works. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the posthumous releases by dead rockers often outsold the recordings of the living. In 1983, nearly three decades after their release, seven of Presley's songs were among the top forty- nine best-selling singles, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Elvis sightings began almost immediately after his death from a drug overdose on August 16, 1977. There were many interests served and many places where he could be seen. In capitalist economies, particularly in the performing industries, one can now remain "alive" as long as one generates revenue. In the case of Presley, those having an interest in his immortalization included the city of Memphis, where the Presley home was one of the largest generators of tourist dollars; the Presley estate, which profited from rereleases, greatest hit anthologies, and reformattings of the singer's performances with new music technologies (e.g., stereo LPs to cassettes to CDs); and even the U.S. Postal Service, whose revenues were bolstered with the 1993 release of its Elvis stamp. For decades after his death, Elvis impersonators abounded, given a high demand for their appearances at various social and commercial functions for midlife boomers nostalgic for their youth. In 2000, according to the March 19, 2001, issue of Forbes magazine, Elvis was the king of deceased performers, earning $35 million for his estate, including $15 million from admissions to his Graceland mansion.
Americans really do not believe that Elvis is alive. A 1997 Gallup poll found that only 4 percent of Americans believed such was the case, whereas 93 percent were certain he was dead. So why the publicity given to reports to the contrary? The same poll found that nearly half of Americans still considered themselves "fans" of his twenty years after his demise, with the highest rate occurring among baby boomers. Two years later, the Gallup organization found that one-third of Americans viewed Presley as the greatest rock and roll performer of all time—six times the proportion of the second most-mentioned star. Indeed, Elvis "lives" in the American collective memory, particularly in that of baby boomers.
Pattison, Robert. The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Fong, Mei, and Debra Lau. "Earnings from the Crypt." In the Forbes [web site]. Available from www.forbes.com/2001/02/28/crypt.html .
MICHAEL C. KEARL
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