Published August 16, 2011
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Silent mourners with heads bowed and yellow-orange candlelight leading the way paid their respects to Elvis Presley at his grave at Graceland, his longtime Memphis home, to remember the 34th anniversary of his sudden death.
Thousands of Elvis devotees, candles in hand, walked in the humid night to the graves of Elvis and his relatives, some wiping away tears as they filed past. Flower arrangements and heart-shaped wreaths decorated the burial site as "If I Can Dream" and other songs played softly in the background.
The vigil was to extend past midnight and into Tuesday morning, marking the anniversary of the King's death on Aug. 16, 1977. The vigil is the main draw of "Elvis Week," and some waited hours outside the stately mansion for the procession to start.
Paula Penna came with her family from Campinas, Brazil, for her sixth vigil. Penna, who met her Brazilian husband in an Elvis fan club, cried and hugged him, her sister and aunt after paying her respects.
She said Elvis songs have helped her family though good and bad. All four have Elvis tattoos.
"Elvis music keeps the family together," said Penna, who also was born on Aug. 16 and will celebrate her 27th birthday Tuesday. "I promised to come every year to pay tribute to Elvis because he is very important to the family life."
Fans like 60-year-old Joe Makowski -- who claims he saw Elvis in concert 81 times -- and his girlfriend, Pamela Hembree, were among the first in line and waited for hours along Graceland's outer brick wall. A New Jersey native who owns four of Elvis' concert-worn scarves and has attended several vigils, he said it was time to introduce Hembree to the Elvis Week experience honoring the life and career of the rock `n' roll star.
"I get to meet new fans and meet new people, so that's why I line up here early in the day," said Makowski, who went to Las Vegas twice a year between 1971 and 1976 to see Elvis perform. "The biggest thing I get out of it is seeing the young fans that weren't even born until years after he passed away."
Makowski said he admires Elvis because of his singing and performing prowess, of course, but also for what he called the singer's overall coolness.
"He helped me break out of my shell because I was kind of a shy kid," said Makowski, an actor who now lives in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Patrick Lucas sported sideburns and pompadour going as he walked to the vigil with the rest of the Elvis Presley Fans of Alabama, a club he joined on the Internet. Hunter, 22, came from Ehlange-Mess, Luxembourg, for the vigil.
"I try to be like him, in the ways that he was nice to people and how he treated people," Lucas said. "He was a giving person."
Temperatures were in the high 80s much of the day, sharply down from the suffocating 100-degree heat that greeted Elvis fans last August. About 15,000 to 20,000 people attended, according to estimates by police and an Elvis Presley Enterprises spokesman -- nothing near the 75,000-strong crowd that's expected to flock to Graceland in 2012 for the 35th anniversary of the singer's death.
The annual vigil began when some Elvis fans traveled to Graceland the year their idol died. It grew into an organized event in 1982.
This year, fans have something else to commemorate. It was 55 years ago -- 1956 -- when the first two Elvis albums were released. That year alone, Elvis sold 10 million singles and 800,000 LPs.
Glenys Sites said she still remembers watching Elvis perform "Love Me Tender" for the first time.
"He's got everything -- stage presence, charisma; he was sexy, great voice," Sites said. "There's never been anybody like him. I don't think he'll ever die."
Many still remember where they were when they found out the singer was dead.
Debbie Moller says she was seated on her couch when her sister called that August day in 1977 at the mansion. She didn't believe her sister at first, so she turned on the radio.
"I was bawling non-stop," said Moller, who makes Elvis T-shirts and is now attending her 15th vigil.
Like many who make the walk up the hill and see the Elvis gravesite and those of his parents, Moller expected to get emotional.
"I cry," said Moller, of Colorado Springs, Colo. "The songs they play make you think back to what you were doing they day he died."