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NPR Arts & Life

40 Years After His Death, Elvis Presley Still Draws Large Crowds

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people attended a candlelight vigil in Memphis, Tenn., last night. But it wasn't an entirely somber event.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVED")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, I can preach until you're deaf and dumb. I'm in the soul saving army...

CORNISH: It was in commemoration of the king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, who passed away 40 years ago today. He died unexpectedly in his Graceland home. He was 42.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Elvis is still the reigning king. To this day, he holds the record for the most top 40 hits - 114 total. He won his first gold record in 1956 for "Heartbreak Hotel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBREAK HOTEL")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Well, since my baby left me, well, I found a new place to dwell. Well, it's down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel.

SIEGEL: Before long, Presley secured legend status.

SHAWN KLUSH: Saying the words Elvis Presley, at that point it was almost like saying Chevy or Ford or football. You know what I mean? You just don't think somebody like that would pass away.

CORNISH: That's performer and lifelong Elvis fan Shawn Klush. He's built a career off of Elvis' memory, traveling the country and the world as an Elvis tribute artist.

SIEGEL: He draws crowds everywhere he performs. Recently he went to Chile.

KLUSH: So I went down there. And you go out and stand out on the stage and there's 12,000 people in the audience. But man, I'll tell you what - son of a gun if I didn't get on stage and "In The Ghetto" starts and they sang it right back to me in English. I mean, that's - I felt a little embarrassed, almost, as if it shouldn't be me receiving these accolades. It should have been him.

SIEGEL: He says it's been more than just the music that keeps fans clambering to pay their respects. Elvis had something truly special.

KLUSH: Some musicians and entertainers have a certain quality. You know, one will have good looks. One will have a great voice. One will have this. He was the only guy that had it all.

CORNISH: As for the real Elvis, his rock star persona was a lot even for him. When asked in a 1972 press conference about it, he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESLEY: Well, the image is one thing, and a human being is another, you know? So...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How close does the image come to the man you really are?

PRESLEY: It's very hard to live up to an image. I'll put it that way.

SIEGEL: But for thousands and thousands of fans, that image is as close as they'll ever get to him.

CORNISH: Well, the image and, of course, the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUND DOG")

PRESLEY: (Singing) You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. Well, you ain't never caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine. Well, they said you was high-classed. Well, that was just a lie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.