The Day Elvis Died and Why Priscilla Spoke to My Father

This chapter didn’t make it into the published version of The Sportscaster’s Daughter.  This post is in honor of Elvis’ memory and his passing 40 years ago this week. Be sure to catch RewoundRadio on Saturday, August 19, at 12 to hear the show.

The summer before 7th grade, my friend from Alluvium, Jill Parker, and I took turns going back and forth between my house in Oakland in Northern New Jersey and her beach house in Brigantine, a small island near Atlantic City in South Jersey. 1977 was the summer of the son of Sam, the New York City black out, and of Jill and I helping to answer Dad’s fan mail. It was late afternoon on August 16, 1977, and we were walking home from the beach when a neighbor shouted out her garage that Elvis Presley had died. Elvis? He was too young to die.  We shouted back,”How?” Our neighbor wasn’t sure if it was a heart attack or a drug overdose.

Neither of us could believe it. We ran down the street back to Jill’s house to ask Mrs. Parker if she had heard about Elvis. I called home to find out if Dad knew.  Our baby sitter, Jane, had just heard the news too, and Dad was on his way to work. His show that night was a quickly-pulled-together tribute to Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n Roll.  (see this YouTube video of Dad on WABC that night.)

While details of Elvis’ death began to emerge, Dad began planning a tribute to the man that had shaped the music industry, whose life had inspired so many, including my father’s.  He envisioned a radio show that combined personal stories with music, a show that would tell the story of Elvis’s life. Dad didn’t believe Elvis had died of an overdose. He thought it was a heart attack and thought the press was trying to ruin a legend.

During the day, Dad worked the phones from our kitchen, trying to convince people to do interviews.  Priscilla Presley turned him down immediately. The Colonel, Presley’s manager, agreed to an interview. Ann Margaret eventually agreed. Sammy Davis, Jr., signed on, too.

I was in the kitchen when Dad again made the pitch to Priscilla Presley.

“You owe it to your daughter. She’ll want to know about her father.… I promise you, I’m not trying to bury him.” “Bury” was Dad’s term for ruining somebody. Lisa Marie Presley would have only been nine or so, a few years younger than me at the time. Dad knew what he was talking about. I was not yet a mother who could fully understand how much a daughter needs to be able to look up to her father, but Dad’s argument was convincing even then.

Priscilla said she’d think about it. She wanted to hear some of the other interviews first.

Dad worked on the show for months, in every free moment he had. His goal was to have it ready for the one-year anniversary of Elvis’ death. It would be a three-hour radio broadcast that would be sold to radio stations around the country. Mike Phillips was Dad’s favorite engineer at WABC, and he would produce the show. Mike was one of the friendliest engineers to us kids whenever we went into work with Dad. Dad flew to Memphis and other places to interview people.

dadwithmikep_wabc
Dad and Mike Phillips in the studio next to 8a

As Dad was already working three jobs (disc jockey, weekend sports caster, play-by-play for the Islanders), it was sometimes hard to schedule the personal interviews. He sent his then girlfriend Pat to interview some people. Dad crafted the questions, and Pat recorded the interviews.

When Pat came back from one of the interviews, there was a slight buzz on one of Pat’s tapes. Dad went ballistic. Pat shouldn’t have put the tape through the airport scanner, and Dad shouted that she should have taken it out or checked in her luggage. Pat stood her ground, that it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t dare pack the tapes in her luggage in case they got lost.  Hopefully, Mike Phillips would be able to work his magic in the editing studio and get rid of the buzz.

Dad sent Priscilla copies of some of the interviews. They revealed Elvis the person, not just the legend. They showed that Dad was trustworthy. Priscilla eventually agreed to give Dad the interview, and as she had not spoken to any media since Elvis’s death, Dad’s interview would be the first. Dad made Priscilla a personal promise that she would get to hear the final version of her interview before it aired. He wouldn’t leak anything to the press.

Shortly before the tribute was to air, Dad and us kids were stood in the Grand Union grocery store in downtown Oakland picking up a few groceries.  We were waiting in the check out line, when Dad noticed the cover of one of the tabloids. “Priscilla Presley Breaks Silence.”

Dad grabbed the tabloid and started skimming. “Sonofabitch! Sonofabitch!”

“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked.

His face darkened in rage. “I’ll tell you in the car. Hurry up.”

We rushed to bag the groceries. Dad sped home. “That sonofabitch Sklar leaked the story.  I promised her. I fucking promised her!”

Rick Sklar was Dad’s boss at WABC. He had listened to segments of the show. Even though Sklar wasn’t personally involved in the project, Dad used the ABC studios to produce the program. Sklar had wanted to check on the show’s quality. Dad didn’t trust him, didn’t want him to hear anything ahead of the live airing, but in the end, he had to let him listen or he might lose studio time. Sklar had lied to him. He had betrayed and embarrassed my father.

The first person Dad called when we got home was Sklar. It was scary. When my Dad was mad, it was best to lie low and stay out of his way. Even from my bedroom downstairs, I could hear him shouting. The hole in the wall next to the kitchen phone was probably from that day.

The second person he called was Priscilla. He apologized. He took full responsibility, even though he hadn’t okayed the leak. He hadn’t even known about it, but a promise was a promise, and he had failed her.

I don’t know how Priscilla responded to Dad’s call. For me, it was clear that Dad made the show because he admired Elvis. He wanted Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, to know the whole story about her father, not just the trash.

The show was aired around the country and eventually around the world. It was critically acclaimed. For years, it was broadcast on the anniversary of Elvis’s death. The royalties helped pay for my Dad’s wedding to Pat that fall. Even in 1978, my father had been an innovator. His bosses at WABC had told him nobody would want to listen to a 3-hour radio tribute. It was too long. But fans did listen. People told him he would never get Priscilla to talk. She had never given an interview, even following her initial divorce from Elvis. Why would Dad be any different? And yet she talked to him.

I wish I had a copy of this show. I consider it one of his finest works, both as a disc jockey and as a person. I wish someone would make a show about my own father, in the way that he did for Lisa Marie’s benefit. My father made a career of unearthing people’s stories, of understanding the person behind the public image. Some of his interviews of sports personalities inspired full-length movies, like The Rookie and Eight Seconds.

There is still so much I don’t know about my father. And yet I know such a show would only include his accomplishments, in radio and sportscasting. They wouldn’t help me understand him as a person, because my father didn’t let people get close to him.

Postscript, August 13, 2017

A special thank you to Lee Chambers of Digital Media Creatives who recently found a copy of the albums distributed to ABC stations on eBay and has restored it for me to be able to listen to.  I have also tried to find the article from the tabloid we saw in the super market that day, but have not been able to find it, the pre-digital era. I suppose too that tabloids are not as well archived for research purposes.

Elvis Memories - cue sheets
Elvis Memories Cue Sheets, Photo courtesy of Lee Chambers

Postscript, August 16, 2017

Lee reached out to the disc jockeys and producers at Rewound Radio who is now airing my father’s show, Elvis Memories, on Saturday, August 19, at 12 p.m. I’ve been listening to the restored version. It may be hard to imagine the context, the historical significance now, in an era of instant tweeting, but to hear Priscilla speak for the first time after Elvis’ death gave me chills. She beautifully recalls the day Lisa Marie was born. To many, Elvis was a music legend, but to Lisa Marie, he was just a father. Thank you to Allan Sniffen and John Troll for rebroadcasting such an important show.  Thank you also to Sam Press, whom I met on Facebook and who uncovered the WABC TV interview from the night Elvis died.

 

One thought on “The Day Elvis Died and Why Priscilla Spoke to My Father

  1. Fascinating account of a unique happening about the iconic Elvis. More, this is a moving tribute from “the sportscaster’s daughter,” who might be forgiven if she was bitter toward this father (read the book!), but instead has published this loving tribute.

    Like

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