Emotions over Elvis Presley’s death still lingers 40 years later

Updated August 12, 2017 - 8:05 pm

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It isn’t just the legend of Elvis Presley that has unmatched staying power 40 years after his death. The guilt, pain and regret felt by those who knew and loved him lingers, too.

Prolific session musician and producer Norbert Putnam was on vacation with his family in Hawaii when he heard his friend died of a heart attack. After years of making groundbreaking music and acting in more than two dozen movies, Presley’s career had slowed, and historical accounts of his life note he was fighting obesity and substance abuse when he passed away in his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee.

Putnam was standing in line to pay for items at a general store when he heard someone say Presley had died.

“I reached into my pocket, threw some money down, ran to the car, threw the food down, turned on the radio,” Putnam said in a phone interview with The Associated Press.

Putnam switched on the radio. The announcer said: “Elvis Presley died this morning.”

“I sat there in my car and bawled like a child who had a toy taken away from him,” Putnam said. “I could not believe it. I thought someone should have staged an intervention. I thought he could have been saved.”

Since Presley’s death, devotees of the swivel-hipped, smooth talking performer who was born into poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi, and became an international star have been flocking to Memphis for Elvis Week, the annual celebration of his life and career.

It coincides with the anniversary of Presley’s death in Memphis on Aug. 16, 1977, and it draws visitors from around the world. Most fans will have their first glimpse of a newly built entertainment complex that has replaced and updated old exhibits focused on Presley’s cars, movies and memorabilia. An estimated 30,000 people are expected to attend a candlelight vigil that begins Tuesday night and continues into Wednesday morning at Graceland, where Presley is buried.

For the first time, Graceland will charge fans for access to Presley’s gravesite during the nighttime vigil. Visitors can pay $28.75 to join the procession leading to the graves. The ticket also provides access to other parts of the property, Graceland said in a statement.

Putnam is scheduled to make a public appearance during Elvis Week to honor the late rock n’ roll pioneer. Bill Medley, the deep-voiced singer who comprised half of the Righteous Brothers duo before starting a solo career, will also be there.

Presley and Medley played the same hotel in Las Vegas in 1971. Their schedules kept them busy, but they still would catch each other’s shows.

Medley had a strong following, and Presley sang Righteous Brothers hits “Unchained Melody” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” They were friends dating back to the early 1960s.

Before Presley would go on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton, he and Medley would spend a few minutes together, talking about their mutual love for motorcycles and musical influences. Medley remembers those chats fondly, as Presley had few moments when he could just be himself, away from fans and handlers and an entourage known as the Memphis Mafia.

“We would sit there, one on one,” Medley said. “So Elvis and I just really became Bill and Elvis. We would just talk about normal stuff. … Nothing too deep.”

Putnam, a bass guitarist and member of the renowned Muscle Shoals rhythm section, played on 120 Presley songs. He recalls how much energy Presley displayed during the marathon recording sessions that ran all night at RCA Studio B in Nashville in 1970.

“Elvis could focus better than any artist I ever worked with,” Putnam said. “He would learn a new song in five to 10 minutes, and was ready to deliver a killer vocal on the first take. That was very unusual.”

Another musician who will appear during Elvis Week is Ginger Holladay. She was only 17 and in high school when she sang backup on Presley hits “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.” Holladay’s sister Mary, a backup singer for Presley, had recommended Ginger when one of his regulars fell ill. So, Ginger Holladay skipped cheerleading practice and flew to Memphis to record at American Sound studio in 1969.

“He was more at home in the studio than he was anywhere else,” Holladay said. “He loved being a musician and he loved making connections with other musicians. We got to see another part of him that was more comfortable and not so much of a performer.”

Medley says he wanted to visit Presley when he was hospitalized in the mid-1970s, but was discouraged by his handlers.

“They knew what I was going to say — enough of this crap,” Medley said. “I would have told him, ‘Listen, do you want to get away? We’ll get a couple of motorcycles and take off.’ But I never had that chance.”

Such regret probably follows Presley’s friends around to this day, Holladay said.

“We all have that guilt with Elvis,” she said. “Looking back, how could we have supported him more? I think we all have that feeling that we let him down.”

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