O'TOOLE: When Elvis left the building for good

Aug 7, 2012


I carefully pulled the record from its sleeve and propped the cover where I could maintain eye contact with Elvis. I laid the disk on my white plastic Fisher Price phonograph player and gently brought the needle to the vinyl. There was a crackle of static and then the warm, rich bass and gentle piano notes introducing “Love Letters” permeated my room. Elvis began to croon in a honeyed voice. I rocked to the rhythm in my little white rocking chair and sang along, straining to emulate the tenderness and longing in his voice.

From the album cover, Elvis stared back at me, a gold record behind him on an emerald green background. His hair was a dome so shiny black it reflected the light, every strand perfect, even the curl that had sprung loose at his forehead. The corners of his eyes crinkled. His pillowy lips were cocked in his trademark crooked grin, the upper lip not quite curled. And those cheekbones — Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, them cheekbones! Sorry, Johnny Depp, but Elvis had the carved-by-Michelangelo cheekbones long before you were born.

“It Hurts Me," “Indescribably Blue," “Lonely Man," “A Mess of Blues” — the song titles alone evoked melancholy and isolation. Even the upbeat tracks had Elvis pleading, yearning. But the sound was so intense, so alive. How could someone with such verve be dead?

I imagined him on a hospital gurney, covered by a white sheet. I imagined if I sang and rocked and played the music loud and long enough, the aliveness of it might travel all the way to Memphis Baptist Hospital and revive him. For days, I kept my vigil in my rocking chair. I left my room only for meals and bathroom breaks.

My resuscitation efforts didn’t work. The dozens of Elvis sightings reported in the media through the years following his death couldn’t convince me otherwise — including the story that a Kalamazoo woman swore she saw Elvis wolfing Whoppers at a local Burger King.

My Elvis enthusiasm only increased after he died. My Mom and I watched Elvis movies on TV every weekend. “Blue Hawaii,” “GI Blues,” “Loving You,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Fun in Acapulco” — these are just a few of Elvis’s 31 movies I recall seeing as a little girl.

I loved the colorful, exotic locations. I loved that Elvis raced cars and motorcycles, sailed boats and flew planes. That he fought with his fists for women’s honor. And, of course, that he sang in every one of them.

Chocolate activates endorphins in the brain that give you pleasure — as much pleasure as sex, some say. That’s what Elvis music always did for me, even before I ever had sex.

In my preteen days, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was my favorite Elvis song. I didn’t know what falling in love was about, but I loved the sweet music and his deep, tender voice. Now that I know, I love the song even more.

I always loved the hits like “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Heartbreak Hotel," “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Teddy Bear” and “All Shook Up." But since the invention of MP3s in my 30s, I’ve discovered I love the rockabilly sound of “Mystery Train” and “Baby, Let’s Play House”; the R&B of “Reconsider Baby” and “Down In The Alley”; the spirituality of “How Great Thou Art” and “I Believe."

My children absorbed Elvis music with their mother’s milk. I crooned “Can’t Help Falling Love” and “Love Me Tender” to lull them to sleep. On a drive home from a South Carolina vacation, “Rock-A-Hula Baby” was the only song that stopped my 6-month-old firstborn from squalling. (If you know the song title, you know most of the lyrics.)

She is 9 now, and just last weekend she asked for an Elvis movie marathon. Of course I obliged her. We laughed and sang and bonded over Elvis, just as I did with my own mom 30-some years ago.

My toddler prefers the music to the movies. “That’s All Right, Mama” is her favorite.

Graceland hosts a candlelight vigil at Elvis’s grave every August. I wish I could be there this year on the 35th deathiversary. But I can’t, so I will light a candle for Elvis at home.

“Before Elvis, there was nothing,” John Lennon once said. After Elvis, there was everything.

— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist



Kelly, I enjoyed your touching story very much. I too remember the day Elvis died like it was yesterday. I just couldn't believe it. I was just out of college, male and at work, so crying was not to be done in public. I held back tears for 3 hours until I was alone. Then, I just couldn't hold it any more. I cried like a baby. I was and still am a huge fan of his. He brought an awful lot of enjoyment to me as a kid and even today hardly a day goes by that I don't listen to his music. There's just no other voice like his, especially on tender ballads. Thank you for your story.

Kelly O'Toole

You're welcome. And thank YOU for taking the time to comment. It's always nice to know when I've struck a chord with a reader. Thanks, as well, for sharing your own story.


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