Thousands Flock to Memphis to Remember the King

They've come to pay their respects to the King, even though he's gone.

Thousands of fans have flocked to Memphis and this northern Mississippi hamlet to reminisce about the King of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, on the 29th anniversary of his death.

"He's not gone. It's been 30 years, but people still appreciate his music and what he did," said Laura Jackson, 22, of Baltimore, one of the many faithful to travel to the midsouth in mid-August to convene with fellow fans of the singer, who died on Aug. 16, 1977.

Sidebar: A Memphis Mafioso Remembers Elvis

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In what has become an annual pop culture pilgrimage, these fans descend on Memphis to remember Elvis — a performer renowned for the gyrations that catapulted him to the top of the pop charts in the 1950s and the jumpsuits that punctuated his paunch in later years.

Though Jackson was born half a decade after Elvis' death, she is part of a new generation embracing the King. It was her second pilgrimage to Elvis Week, and she didn't seem to mind standing in the sweltering Mississippi heat on Aug. 14 to tour the birthplace of Presley, some 100 miles southeast of Memphis.

It was here, in a two-room frame house built for $180, where Elvis was born to Gladys and Vernon Presley on Jan. 8, 1935.

"He never forgot where he came from, and I think that's one of the outstanding features of why he has become what he is today," said Dick Guyton, the executive director of the Elvis Presley Birthplace.

And those roots have become a cottage industry across this region, as fans flock to the pilgrimage.

Visitors can see a meditation chapel built near Presley's birthplace on land Elvis donated to Tupelo following a 1957 concert. They can stand at the counter of the Tupelo Hardware Company in the spot where Gladys Presley decided to purchase a guitar rather than a gun for young Elvis.

Judy Hite, a granddaughter of the hardware company's founder, said their store gets between 5,000 and 8,000 Elvis fans a year and they sell a heck of a lot of guitars, even to people who don't play.

"People buy guitars even if they don't play guitar just because the King got his here," she said.

Elvis' shadow stretches across this region, from the booth at Johnnie's Drive-In where he wolfed down burgers as a boy to the numerous streets that bear his name. Even a liquor store near his Memphis mansion is called Graceland.

So how did the week of Aug. 8 to 15 become an Elvis holiday?

"It's got as much to do with the calendar as what it commemorates," said Todd Morgan, a spokesman for Elvis Presley Enterprises, which runs Graceland. Approximately 30,000 fans come to Graceland during that week.

"The difference for Elvis Week is that maybe 5,000 of them are people who are here specifically because it's Elvis Week," Morgan said.

Elvis Presley Enterprises officially marked the death and opened the gates of Graceland for a candlelight vigil in 1982, he said.

"Fans were coming back, coming to Memphis every year around the anniversary of his death," he said.

And the iconic performer continues to garner a new fan base through the licensing of his image.

"We see new Elvis fans every year," Guyton said. "The movie 'Lilo and Stitch' by Walt Disney created a whole new Elvis generation with its music. So we see small children in here wanting to buy CDs and posters and T-shirts."

On Aug. 14, Camille Gargar, 62, of Paris, France, was among the fans flocking to Tupelo to see the birthplace and the hardware store. He was part of a French tour group called Elvis My Happiness (named after Elvis' first recording at Sun Studios), which spends one week each year visiting Memphis and one week visiting a North American destination tied to an Elvis film.

This year, the 40-person group will fly to Mexico to experience the locale of Elvis' 1963 film "Fun in Acapulco."

"He means generosity because he had human qualities far from his singing," Gargar said. "He was a great singer and a great human being."

At the birthplace, fans can see much of the collection of Janelle McComb, an Elvis fan who spearheaded the Tupelo museum. The collection shows just how early Elvis' image was merchandised, with such objects as Elvis' "Teddy Bear" perfume from the 1950s.

"I could never become so rich that I would forget what it's like to be poor," says an Elvis quote included in the exhibition.

The fans in Memphis and Tupelo repeatedly mention his generosity when asked about the singer's appeal.

"He was just a special person; he never got too big or too famous or too rich," said Linda Durham, 55, of Whitney, Texas.

She took one last look at Graceland Aug. 14 with her daughter Angel and three other friends, dressed in "Elvis Lives" and "Got Elvis?" T-shirts, before heading home.

"We call it the pilgrimage," she said of the visit, the group's 14th annual trip to Elvis Week.

Her daughter, Angel Durham, 36, added: "You come here it's like being in a bubble, there is no outside world, there is nothing, it's just Memphis and Elvis.

"If you get it you understand it and if you don't, then you just never will."

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