Sarah Gene Michael-Rush and George Klein, 2012
I can’t tell you where I was when JFK was shot– I was yet to be born. But I remember the day Elvis died. I was 12 years old in 1977 and the only image I had of Elvis at that point, was due to the often-cruel media’s portrayal of him. At the time, the only impression I had of him was a washed-up, has-been, past-his-prime rock star. I hadn’t realized then that there were a few songs of his I’d heard on the radio during the ’70s that I really liked. “Kentucky Rain,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Moody Blue.” I didn’t associate those songs stuck in my head with the image of the chunky guy in the white jumpsuits.
On the day he died, my family and I were vacationing up at our home in the Pocono Mountains. My mother and I were doing a craft project in the living room when we heard the news on our little transistor radio. I heard about how thousands were gathering at Graceland in the hot, sticky Memphis heat– and they were devastated. Days later I saw that awful picture of Elvis in his coffin, on a magazine in the grocery store checkout line. I was horrified. It was one of many times I began to see how cruel the media was toward him.
My life moved on. I rarely thought about Elvis again. Jump forward to 2002. I had an adorable, passionate 8 year-old daughter whom I adored. One day she came home from a friend’s house where they watched the animated Disney movie, “Lilo and Stitch,” whose soundtrack, I learned, was all Elvis music. For days afterward, Sarah was going around the house belting out “A hunka-hunka Burnin’ Looooove…” with great drama and passion. We thought it was so cute. Music has always been a very important part of my life and spiritual life, so I tried to encourage that in Sarah. Music was always playing in our house.
For Christmas that year, we bought her a CD of 30 of Elvis’ hits, which included “Burnin’ Love.” I had no idea that I was throwing gasoline onto what was then just a small fire. Sarah played that CD on her cheap plastic CD player over and over and over again, memorizing all the songs, twisting and gyrating to the beat and singing along energetically. It wasn’t long before the CD had to be replaced because it was literally unplayable. She’d worn it out.
Five years later we were visiting my parents in Southern Mississippi. On the way down through the state, inevitably we passed many billboards advertising Graceland. Sarah stared out the window, begging us to go. We said maybe another time. I think we both assumed it was just a cheesy tourist trap. However, when we left my parents’ house several days later, we were a little stressed. I don’t know what happened, but there’d been some family tension. Larry and I decided to swing East as we made our way north, and head to Memphis. Sarah didn’t realize what we were doing until she saw the sign: “Welcome to Graceland.”
I thought she was going to hyperventilate. She was 13.
Graceland really is a magical place if you care at all for Elvis’ music. I’m sure that was the day that pushed me over the line into identifying as an Elvis fan myself. There’s just a sense of “presence” there. It’s hard to explain. He’s everywhere throughout the modest mansion. We took the tour, listening to the narrative on the provided headphones, as we made our way through the famous house. The best part, of course, was watching my daughter take it all in. She was in awe. Her face lit up as she wandered through the rooms. I doubt that we learned anything that day from the narrative that she didn’t already know. I stood back as she knelt at his grave and shed tears for a man who died 17 years before she was born. Her sadness was very real.
She knew even then that his life was tragic. How could it not be, being as big a star as he was, and often taken advantage of by people who used him as a commodity to make themselves millions? No one sugar-coated his life story. But the power of his music, his talent, his passion, and impact on music was overwhelming. That trip changed her life. She was an Elvis fan for 5 years already, but after that, his music, his story and his image were engraved in her soul.
The fact that his life was so tragic and that he struggled so much seemed to make her love him even more. It added power to his music for her, and became the thing she always went back to whenever she faced difficulties or disappointments in her own life. Her grandmother, Sukoo, made her Elvis curtains for her room. She got many more of his CDs with her own money over the years, and built up her collection. She read all the more reputable books on his life, and the bad news in those books never made her love him any less–only more.
Her love for Elvis became like another living presence in our house. I fell in love with his music, and began to understand why he was such a powerful influence on Rock ‘n Roll and on other musicians across many genres. I understood why the Church was terrified of him, and how Elvis’ presence could literally shake up a passionate heart, make them feel things they never felt, and get those feet moving, even if you had no idea where to move them. I became an unapologetic enthusiastic fan. Sarah and I danced often in the kitchen when his music was on the CD player. If I noticed that Elvis songs were the only songs playing on her iPod, I could sense that maybe she was having a bad day and needed a lift and encouragement. Elvis has always made her feel better.
Sukoo gave Sarah a silver TCB lightening necklace many years ago. She only takes it off to go swimming.
We took another trip to Graceland in 2012, after Sarah graduated from high school. It was in August, so the humidity was very high and as soon as we stepped out of the car, the sweat pores opened. It rained off and on that day, but that did nothing to cool things off, just made the humidity worse. Since it was a Friday, Sarah knew that Elvis’ best friend from high school, George Klein, would be in the radio studio that afternoon. She’d brought Klein’s memoir of Elvis with her, hoping to get an autograph. We were skeptical. We knew he started his show at 3 p.m., so we went over to the front of the studio to wait. People were hanging around, but it wasn’t crowded. Suddenly, a man came up behind us, touched Sarah on the shoulder and said, “I’ll be with you in a moment, honey,” and as he headed through the studio door, we realized it was George Klein!
Sarah started laughing a bit breathlessly, staring after him, looking and forth to us and the closed door as if needing affirmation that that just really happened. I was laughing with her, and Larry just looked confused– it had all happened so fast. Then minutes later, Klein came back out the door and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Now, what can I do for you, honey?”
It took a moment for her to speak. But she finally found her voice and asked him to sign her book, which he did without hesitation, and posed for a picture. He gave her a one-armed hug, and then went back to work. We were still laughing and Sarah’s eyes were filled with tears.
Later, while on our second tour through the mansion, Sarah was watching a video of Elvis from the Hawaii TV special on a large screen in the Jumpsuit room. The walls were filled with memorabilia and several of his iconic jumpsuits were on display. The room was hot, as it was packed with tourists. I watched Sarah as she watched Elvis do one of her favorite songs, “An American Trilogy,” with tears trickling down her face while she smiled.
We heard the thunder outside as it was getting louder, and then suddenly there was a loud BANG! and the lights went off for just a minute or two. As the lights came back on, there was complete silence until someone said, “Hey, Elvis,” and we all responded with nervous laughter.
I don’t remember the year we started the ritual. But we are a family of rituals and traditions that may seem odd to someone else. We have a habit of remembering our favorite dead musicians on their birthdays and death days. It started with Elvis. On August 16th and January 8th, Sarah prepares fried catfish, okra, and cornbread for dinner, followed by banana pudding for dessert. All day long Elvis sings on a repeated circuit on her ipod speaker, from the time she wakes that day till we all go to bed that night. (We do the same for Johnny Cash on his appropriate days) That evening we watch one of Elvis’ many recorded concerts or one of the movies that isn’t particularly cheesy. We’ve done this for years.
Over the years listening to Sarah’s music come down the hall, I’ve recognized Elvis songs that I overheard coming from my brother Don’s room when I was just a little kid myself. Songs that became ingrained in my consciousness, only to reconnect many years later. I’ve been known to spontaneously dance in the kitchen when an Elvis song comes on, or sing loudly along with him in the car. His music has brought more joy and passion into our lives, and has become a significant part of the soundtrack of our family’s life.
All because of a silly little blue alien named Stitch.