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Elvis 40 Years Ago: In the Press-ence of The King

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I once, just once, was this close to Elvis Presley.

It was June, 1972 a heady time to be in the music business, which still featured lots of small, independent labels run by colorful -- if sometimes crooked -- characters who actually cared about making great records.

As a cub reporter for the trade magazine Record World, I got to cover one of the most thrilling music-related events of that spring -- Elvis's press conference at Madison Square Garden on June 9th, just before his first-ever New York performances.

Having staged a dramatic comeback a few years earlier, The King strode into the press room still looking like royalty -- tall, tan, impossibly handsome and projecting an otherworldly charisma. I got goose bumps just being near the man whose music introduced me -- and countless millions all over the world -- to an ecstatic world beyond our everyday experience.

Elvis fielded questions about his hair (he'd stopped using "greasy kid's stuff") and his opinion of Vietnam War protesters (he declined to comment). When asked whether he was indeed the shy, humble person his image suggested, he stood up and unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a colossal Vegas-style gold belt buckle. 'Nuff said.

In some vault somewhere there is TV footage of me and Record World's then-editor Gregg Geller -- at the advanced age of 24, two years older than I -- sitting next to each other at that press conference. Gregg recalls, "I was so awestruck to be in the presence of The King that I was incapable of asking a question (one of my greatest regrets -- ever!) I also remember the Colonel's role in the proceedings. He was selling pencils -- the better to take notes with. It was a press conference, after all." (Colonel Tom Parker was Elvis' legendary manager and another larger-than-life figure.)

That night's show wasn't Elvis at his best, but it hardly mattered. He gave the overflowing crowd an enthralling communal experience -- taking us from cries of exultation to tears of grief and back again, with a dollop of self-deprecating humor lest we start singing in tongues -- from the over-the-top "Also Sprach Zarathustra" introduction to the stirring finale of "The Impossible Dream," by way of "All Shook Up" and "Heartbreak Hotel."

Five years later, when news broke that Elvis had died, a deep gloom settled in at the Record World offices. Writer and Elvis fanatic David McGee, author of books on B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Steve Earle, who now runs the fantastic web publication The Bluegrass Special -- which will be relaunched next month as Deep Roots -- was the most heartbroken, and the most eloquent. He wrote, "In Elvis, I found someone to believe in; in rock and roll, as I learned it from him, I found a way of life that I wouldn't swap for any amount of money, because it was, and is, endlessly rewarding and fulfilling. It's only natural that I feel a certain hollowness inside of me now. A certain hollowness? I feel as if my guts had been ripped out."

Elvis recorded three songs written by my dad. "My Heart Cries for You" was composed -- on a bet -- with orchestra leader/composer Percy faith in 10 minutes at the race track, and quickly became a No. 1 hit for Guy Mitchell in 1950. It was a throwaway for Elvis, sung for fun and memorialized on the Elvis at Home album.

Also on that album was "What Now My Love," which became a staple of Elvis' live show and appeared on the multi-million-selling Elvis Aloha from Hawaii album/DVD. The song's been recorded by hundreds of artists, but none can top the grandeur of Elvis's live performance, though Miss Piggy's interpretation is also in a class by itself. The third was "Fool," a moderate hit single and side one/cut one on Elvis's self-titled 1973 record, which has come to be known as the "Fool album."

None of these approached Elvis's best recordings, but 40 years later, hearing them or anything else by The King brings back the thrill -- and the goose bumps -- from that spring day in 1972.

(Elvis Presley died 35 years ago this week. This blog was initially posted, in slightly different form, in January 2010, when The King would have turned 75.)