A force of the universe

Forty years ago today, we stepped off an airplane in Kansas City, Mo. Our nerves were somewhat frayed because it was the first day of an attempt to quit smoking cigarettes.

Our attention was quickly diverted from nicotine withdrawal, though, when the business associate meeting us at the airport abruptly announced, “Elvis Presley just died.”

Elvis had been a constant presence in our life since childhood. His early songs on Sun Records dominated our radio station’s Platter Party in 1955. His switch to RCA in 1956 had “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” topping music charts.

Elvis was the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the hundreds of millions of records he sold over the next two decades cemented his place in music history.

Elvis Presley’s story is well known to baby boomers. He was a teenager driving a truck for an electric company when he stopped at Sun Records in Memphis to cut a “vanity record” for his mother. For a couple of bucks, Sun would let you sing into its microphones and give you a vinyl recording to take home.

But a woman named Marion Keisker who worked at Sun thought he had an interesting sound and recommended that Sun owner Sam Phillips call Elvis. Phillips paired the young man with bassist Bill Black and electric guitar player Scotty Moore — their jam sessions produced Elvis’ first records and started his meteoric rise.

His mid-’50s television appearances drove ratings; he made movies; he served a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army; he came back and made more movies. But, through it all, he sold records.

From 1961 to 1968, he did no concerts — just made movies. His star waned as dull movie followed dull movie and the British Invasion swept rock ‘n’ roll. But he restarted his career with a comeback TV special in 1968 — then began concert appearances in 1969 in Las Vegas and auditoriums throughout the country.

He may have been a rock star, but he had a magnificent voice. He sang everything from gospel to country, rock to opera. He maintained a grueling touring schedule from 1969 until his death.

He was only 42 years old when he died on Aug. 16, 1977, of heart problems probably brought on by a dependence on prescription drugs. In those 42 years, though, he changed music history and made a lot of people who saw him in person believe they’d seen a force of the universe.

That is certainly how we felt.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.

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