Rod Gilchrist on nearly meeting the King
41 years ago, I met Elvis. Well, sort of. I was very close to him. Within touching distance anyway. Admittedly, Elvis was dead at the time. He was in his coffin. Sorry to be macabre. It was a big oak coffin. It had to be to carry Elvis. He was eighteen stone at the time of his tragic, early death at the age of 42, on 16th August, 1977 – 41 years ago today. The coffin was lead-lined, with scarlet silk upholstery. Elvis was lying in state at the entrance hall of Graceland, his mock-colonial mansion in Memphis, Tennessee.
Mourners – more than a million, they said – had flown into Memphis from all over America and had patiently lined up to pay homage to the King. I was there as the Daily Mail’s American correspondent.
Standing in a crescent shape, behind the coffin, looking like beefy bouncers at a provincial disco, arms folded, were what Elvis called the Memphis Mafia. They were all formally dressed in black tuxedos and it was their job to gently unpeel the mourners who kept throwing themselves onto the body, wailing, ‘Oh Elvis, I love you. Please come back to me.’
Elvis was also dressed in a tux and bow tie, his hair gleaming with brilliantine, and I swear the undertakers had managed to curl the left side of his lip into that famous Elvis leer. A tartan rug covered his legs and his hands had been carefully placed on the rug; so it looked as if he was just resting. There was a large ring that seemed to cover most of the fingers on his right hand. It was the size of a Teddy boy’s knuckleduster, designed with the letters TCB spread across.
‘What’s TCB?’ I asked one of the Memphis Mafia.
‘Where you from, boy?’ he asked.
‘England,’ I spluttered.
‘Well, you tell the folks in England, TCB means taking care of business – which Elvis always did.’
I thought of that hot day in 1977 when the new Elvis On Tour exhibition opened at the O2 recently. More than 200 artefacts from Graceland are on show, including his white concert jumpsuits (pictured).
Elvis’s funeral took place only two days after his death. It was held in Graceland, before he was laid to rest in Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis. The cemetery lies beside an eight-lane highway, which echoed to the sound of honking horns from passing trucks.
Meanwhile, down the highway, on Elvis Presley Boulevard, employees at the Dunkin’ Donuts opposite Graceland’s gates were performing their own special homage. As Elvis’s coffin was carried into the cemetery, the busboys lined up beside the pole flying the Dunkin’ Donuts flag – its emblem was a jam-filled, ring doughnut with a big bite taken out of it. They bowed their heads, as the flag was lowered to half mast. Pure American baroque.