Dr. Oran Smith

Remembering Elvis, 40 Years Later

August 18, 2017

Dr. Oran Smith

“Before Elvis there was nothing.” — John Lennon

My mother-in-law dangled a carrot before me. If I would just finish that doctoral dissertation, she would send my wife and me to Scotland. That was quite an incentive to ward off the dreaded disorder of ABD: All But Dissertation. I kept my end of the bargain, and so did she, so a short time after I marched across the USC stage at the Koger Center, we were on our way to the United Kingdom.

From Edinburgh we proceeded on the wrong side of the road north in our rented Punto until we reached Inverness. Seeing it was nearly dusk, we knocked on the door of the first B&B we saw and were welcomed by a sturdy woman who assured us there was plenty of room. She mentioned that the only other traveler was a resident of the remotest of the Orkney Islands, who had ventured down for some business with one of the Queen’s ministries.

We met him the next morning. He was very shy. To break the silence, we introduced ourselves as Americans. His response, in a bizarre-to-us accent, was: “So, do you like Elvis Presley?” The year was 1995. The King of Rock and Roll had been dead (or in deep cover) for nearly 20 years.

The Scot’s question that morning — the first notion that struck him — made an indelible impression. Why? Perhaps because I had been a student of all things Elvis since I served as my grandmother’s taxi service. A visit to pick up “Wimmie” (her name was Wylma) would often bring the songs from one of two soundtrack albums she adored: the movie “Harum Scarum” (not so great) or the 1968 NBC Comeback Special (fantastic).

Palling around with my uncle fed the obsession. Shortly before Elvis’ death, my mother’s brother was able to realize his lifelong dream of opening a record store. I’ll never forget the gloom that day 40 years ago today, as customers cleaned him out of Elvis music, and the subsequent tributes (like Ronnie McDowell’s “The King is Gone”).

When I took up residence in the Midlands in the late 1980s, I began working in Columbia and eventually made the Leesville community my home. I soon discovered Elvis connections. The Elvis Atlas (an honest to goodness book) seems to indicate that Big E would have driven US 1 from Augusta to Columbia for concerts in his early years. If the Atlas is to be believed, he would have passed directly in front of my home in Leesville as he made his way to the Township for the show with Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters on Monday night, March 19, 1956. (All seats were $1.) That same year he visited Charleston and Spartanburg as well.

Elvis would not return to any venue in South Carolina until he played the Carolina Coliseum on February 18, 1977, almost six months to the day before his death. Several Columbians who attended the concert tell me they are quite certain that Elvis looked directly into their eyes that night and that they made a connection with him. An audio recording of his performance of “Hurt” that evening indicates that he clearly connected with more than one fan. Even the low-quality YouTube version reveals a crowd madly roaring its approval of his performance of a song that may have been revealing more than they knew.

Several Columbians who attended the concert tell me they are quite certain that Elvis looked directly into their eyes that night and that they made a connection with him.

After the concert, Elvis stayed in the penthouse of the Sheraton (later the Radisson). When the building closed as a hotel, it was acquired by the University of South Carolina, which assigned the Institute of Public Affairs and its Survey Research Laboratory part of the penthouse floor for offices. But the supreme honor went to the cubicles of the IPA call center, which conducted one of the most respected public opinion surveys in the country from Elvis’ bedroom.

Today, 40 years after his death, the passion for the King of Rock and Roll has hardly diminished. At Graceland, hundreds of thousands visit annually, and teenage girls still weep at his grave. A national satellite radio station plays nothing but his music 24/7, and when a well-known television talk show host recently proclaimed that Elvis Presley was “the greatest entertainer who ever lived,” no on argued.

The King may be dead, but the obsession with his legacy lives on.

This article originally appeared in The State newspaper on August 16, 2017.