Elvis died 46 years ago. A new documentary dives into one of his greatest moments
While Aug. 16 is a sad day for Elvis fans, this year, a new documentary is celebrating a more triumphant part of the singer’s career
Editor’s note: This article originally published Aug. 14, 2018. It has been updated.
My dad left Memphis the day Elvis died.
Memphis, Tennessee, was the perfect home for my father, Paul Peterson, who’d been an Elvis Presley fan ever since age 10, when the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll shook those hips and changed music history with “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956. But a new job opportunity in Bloomington, Illinois, led him to pack his bags and leave Graceland behind on Aug. 16, 1977.
My dad didn’t know his moving day would become a day of musical tragedy. Driving his 1973 Chevy Camaro, he was en route to rent a U-Haul when the first announcements hit the air waves, but because his car didn’t have a working radio, he didn't hear the news right away. But terrible news has a way of finding people, and this was, after all, Memphis: Elvis Presley was dead at 42.
“I was shocked. You knew he’d been in poor health and you knew he was doing things that weren’t good for him, but at the same time, he was only 42,” the now-Provo, Utah, resident said. “Elvis Presley had been a big part of my life ever since 1956 and he’s only 42, so you figured you’ve got at least another 20 years coming. And then he was dead.”
While Aug. 16 is a sad day for Elvis fans, this year, a new documentary is celebrating a more triumphant part of the singer’s career. “Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback” goes behind the scenes of the popular NBC special that marked Elvis’ return to live performance after several years out of the public eye. Airing on Dec. 3, 1968, “nearly half of the entire TV-watching audience” tuned in to see Presley clad in a black leather suit, according to a news release sent to the Deseret News.
Told from the perspective of Steve Binder, director of the “Comeback Special,” “Reinventing Elvis” — which hit Paramount+ on Aug. 15 — includes interviews and memories from Elvis experts and people who were there in person, along with new versions of some of Elvis’ biggest hits.
Although my dad wasn’t there in person, he vividly remembers the combination of excitement and hope he felt as a 22-year-old fan, watching with his mother from his home in San Bernardino, California.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But then the show comes on, and there’s this whole wow factor,” he said. “Elvis had been mired in mediocrity for years, … and then you have the ‘Comeback Special.’ Die-hard Elvis fans were just delighted because this was an Elvis we hadn’t seen in (many) years. He looked great, he sounded great … it was just unbelievably brilliant. This is the Elvis we’d been wanting to see for so many years, and here he was.”
‘My eyes were locked’
For some of my friends, the soundtrack to their childhood was reruns of "Sesame Street" or "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." At my house, it was music and more often than not, that music was Elvis. My dad passed along his love for the King — we have matching burgundy Elvis shirts to prove it — but my mom was just as passionate. While I was in elementary school, she managed a tribute show called "Legends in Concert" in my Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, hometown.
This meant my childhood was an eclectic world filled with performers impersonating Little Richard, the Blues Brothers, Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Elvis, among others. Imagine my disappointment in 1997, when I discovered that not only did my second-grade peers have no idea who Little Richard was, but that they were also unimpressed with my large collection of blue and red sweat-soaked scarves that various Elvis impersonators had personally autographed.
Impersonators came and went, but in my family’s opinion, one of the best — if not the best — Elvis tribute artist to enter "Legends in Concert" was James Lowrey. Lowrey had the look and the sound, and we loved listening to him close out the show every night. Although it’d been close to 20 years since I had last spoken to Lowrey, talking with him for this story was natural as he shared with me his love of Elvis — a love-turned-career that all started with the legendary “Comeback Special.”
“When Elvis came on TV, for the entire 60 minutes I sat down in front of the TV and my eyes were locked — even on the commercials — like I didn’t want to miss anything,” said Lowrey, who was 4½ years old when the NBC special first aired. “I wasn’t told to sit down and watch Elvis — I had never heard Elvis’ music before then. My father was not an Elvis fan; my mother was, but my father was very jealous of Elvis, so Elvis wasn’t played in my household until I got the fever.”
Two years after the “Comeback Special,” Lowrey bought his first Elvis album with money he earned from raking lawns. By age 10, he was performing Elvis tributes in talent shows. Lowrey was able to see Elvis in his Tampa, Florida, hometown at age 11, thanks to his mother’s three-day campout for tickets. The concert was four days shy of his 12th birthday and 11 months before Elvis’ death.
He was just 11 at the time, but Lowrey still remembers that concert — his first concert. He watched Elvis onstage Sept. 2, 1976, at the Curtis Hixon Hall, a relatively intimate venue (around 8,000 seats) for such a performer.
From the seats up high, Elvis looked pretty small and the young fan was determined to get a closer look at his hero. With his cousin by his side, Lowrey ran down the aisles, pushing his way through all the women clamoring for a scarf so he could get a good look at the singer. Standing as close as he could get to the stage, Lowrey took advantage of a long pause in between songs to belt out in a deep voice especially impressive for his age, “ELVIS!”
“He looked like he was startled and he pointed his finger at me like a gun and shot me like that, and then he went back to throwing scarves out to the girls,” Lowrey recalled with a laugh. “So I didn’t get a scarf, but I did get his attention for a split section. My mother (later told me) my voice was so loud, you could hear me in the back of the arena.”
But even then, a young Lowrey could notice that Elvis wasn't looking his best.
“His health was bad,” he said. “I have two photos from the concert … (and) you can tell how unhealthy he was. It’s a sad thing, because I can honestly say even though I was only (11) years old, I could just see that. … (But) it really didn’t matter if he was heavier or thinner — it was still him. I don’t really even know another entertainer … that you could actually say that about.”
‘It’s like the world stood still’
But Aug. 16, 1977, still came — moving day for my dad and just three weeks before Lowrey’s 13th birthday.
My dad moved on — quite literally, starting a new job and life outside of Memphis. But his love for Elvis has stayed with him through the years, and thanks to his effective indoctrination, I'll carry my family's Elvis love and hopefully pass it on to my kids.
"He was the King of Rock n’ Roll, but he could do ballads, he could do standards, certainly he could do blues and country — but it’s always Elvis Presley. … And connected to that, … he had this charisma about him," my dad said. "And he came to be a humble man, too. Thankful for his gifts, always gracious to his fans.”
Like my dad, Lowrey's love for Elvis and his music has never waned. Unlike my dad, though, Elvis became something much bigger in Lowrey's life after the King died. Since age 14, Lowrey’s career has continued the singer’s legacy through emulating the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll onstage.
“It was almost like a ‘you don’t know what you have until you lose it’ kind of deal,” he said. “And when Elvis was lost, it’s like the world stood still and (people) kind of realized, ‘Wow, we knew he was great. … We knew he was there, we just never knew that he would leave. … And that’s kind of how I felt.”
Now, the new documentary “Reinventing Elvis: The ‘68 Comeback” is taking Lowrey and likely many Elvis fans back to the moment that launched their fandom.
“I think ‘Hound Dog’ is just as exciting (now) as it was to my 4-year-old ears,” he said. “There’s just something about Elvis — the sound, his look, the way he moved and then moved beyond that in the way that he treated people. … He was still beautiful even to the end, … and he had a smile that could light up the room.”