August 16, 2007

A Look Back at the Death of Elvis

Memphis Press-Scimitar, Memphis, Tenn., Aug. 17, 1977 (Newseum collection)
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Memphis Press-Scimitar, Memphis, Tenn., Aug. 17, 1977 (Newseum collection)

New York Post, New York, N.Y., Aug. 17, 1977 (Newseum collection)
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New York Post, New York, N.Y., Aug. 17, 1977 (Newseum collection)
The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., Aug. 17, 1977 (Newseum collection)
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The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., Aug. 17, 1977 (Newseum collection)

On the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1977, the world was stunned by news reports announcing the death of music legend Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tenn. Newspapers, TV and radio stations were swamped with “Is it true?” calls from incredulous fans of the 42-year-old “King of Rock ’n’ Roll.”

Many people turned to broadcast media for details on the breaking news from Memphis, but some news executives misjudged public interest in the story. The top-rated CBS Evening News did not report Elvis’s death until six and a half minutes into its broadcast. By then, many viewers who had tuned in for news about Elvis had switched to other networks, resulting in the CBS newscast’s lowest ratings in years. Both ABC and NBC led their evening newscasts with the story and produced same-day, late-night tributes, which garnered high ratings.

Even though celebrity journalism was not the obsession that it is today, the news of Elvis’s death dominated the next day’s front pages. In Memphis, The Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Press-Scimitar were so swamped with requests for extra copies of their Aug. 17 editions that they jointly published a special “Elvis Presley Edition” a week later to meet the demand.

The Aug. 17 New York Post had a special angle on the Elvis story, thanks to Post reporter Steve Dunleavy, whose book “Elvis: What Happened?” had just been published. Excerpts from the controversial book, including sensational allegations of Presley’s extensive drug use, had been slated to run the following week, but the Post printed the first installment that day, thrusting the relatively unknown book into the spotlight.

Three decades after his death, Elvis Presley still generates media coverage, from articles about the faithful fans who flock to his Memphis home to the occasional tabloid report of an Elvis sighting. And this week, Elvis’s likeness once again graces front pages as the nation remembers the King on the 30th anniversary of his death.

The Aug. 17, 1977, edition of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, with the headline “Memphis Leads World in Mourning for Elvis Presley,” is among the historic front pages featured in the Newseum’s News History gallery.

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