A recent vacation to Memphis and the home of the late King of Rock and Roll brought many memories flooding back to my mind. Not that Elvis and I ever made memories together, and not that I had ever been to Graceland before. But, like many of you, I was a fan. A huge fan.
Like many in the entertainment industry, upon Presley’s death in 1977, fandom became obsession. For example, not many months before Elvis’ death I had been given tickets to see him in concert in Cincinnati in what was to have been one of his final concerts, and because I didn’t want to fight the crowds, I gave the tickets to someone else. Not smart. Not even a little bit. Three to four months later I would have swam alligator infested waters to see Elvis in concert.
Many say that the passing of Elvis was akin to the assassination of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy, in that they remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. Like them, I, too, remember. I was on the air at WSRW, filling in for one of the guys on vacation (I usually was on the air in the evening). I remember going to the AP teletype machine (remember, it was 1977), and saw the bulletin in bold print, much as a national emergency bulletin would appear, announcing that earlier in the afternoonPresley had been found dead in Graceland, his Memphis mansion. I also remember waiting to announce it to make certain it was real and not a hoax. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a hoax.
As days, weeks and months passed, while performing music in clubs and stage shows around the country, we would get an increasing number of requests to perform some of Elvis’ music. One song became two, two became three, then three became a set, a set became two sets, and before long we were doing a lot of Elvis shows. I never tried to impersonate, but some of the material I did showed some resemblance to his voice, and therefore we worked a lot.
In the early 1980s, I began working regularly at a club in Cincinnati, during which we did an entire set dedicated to Elvis’ music. In time, it became popular, and the crowds grew. I never dressed the part, but we put together a rather high energy set, showcasing primarily his music in the ‘70s up to the time of his death. We would usually open the night with that set complete with his version of “CC Rider,” and I would make my entrance running across the dance floor and leaping onto the stage. Our timing being well rehearsed, by the time I made it to the stage I would break into the song. It was a pretty good effect and the people seemed to like it.
One evening upon my arrival to the club, I arrived with a pounding headache, almost migraine-like, and told the owner of the club that I was hurting too badly to perform. He had some special guests in attendance that night and asked that I try to do the show. I relented and agreed, but asked if he had some aspirin, and he gave me one. One? That, I told him, will do nothing for this headache, but he assured me it would. I should have asked more questions, but I did not (children, don’t ever do that).
About a half-an-hour later, the headache had subsided, and I was on the mend and prepared to dazzle.
Showtime came, I really felt great and was glad I stayed around, although I wondered what was in that one aspirin-looking pill he gave me, and what pharmacy he bought it from. I learned later he was a coast-to-coast truck driver through the week. I probably wouldn’t have one of those pharmacies in my town.
The band began vamping “CC Rider,” the keyboard player made my introduction, and the show was about to happen. I came running across the floor as if I really were Elvis, and leaped for the stage — about one long pace too far from the stage, and my foot caught about half way up the front of the structure and I went crashing through the instruments, the amplifiers and for good measure, I took the huge velvet curtain back-drop down as I plummeted to the floor behind the stage. Amazing! If that wasn’t amazing enough, the band had not missed a beat. They were still vamping “CC Rider” and never missed a beat.
So, I picked up my skinned knees and cut face, proudly wearing my pretty powder puff blue leisure suit I climbed through the rubble I had created at the rear of the stage, dragged myself to the microphone, seeing the horror on the faces of the crowd with their wide open eyes and mouths and sang, “Oh See CC Rider.” I never missed a beat. Those in the audience who knew me knew I did some comedy in my act, and thought I meant to do that, and just got into the show. Even more surprising, the band thought I meant to do that, too. Just to be clear, I did not.
After the Elvis set, I changed clothes and applied bandages to my injuries while the crew recreated the set I unintentionally demolished.
After the show a friend who played at another club in town played hooky at his gig to come see mine. The first words from his mouth were, “So, you think you’re Elvis?” I never spoke to him again (just kidding).
As I stood there soaking in the glory of Elvis’ Graceland, I tried to imagine what he might have said regarding my catastrophic performance in Cincinnati that night, and I couldn’t help thinking that he would have said, “please don’t tell anyone that story.”
Herb Day is a longtime local radio personality and singer-musician. He can be heard Tuesday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon on 88.7 WOBO-FM, and can be reached at [email protected]