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40 Years After Death of Elvis Presley, the Faithful Still Flock to Graceland

In the four decades since he died, the worshipful mystique around Elvis Presley has only grown.
Front page of the Daily News dated Aug. 17, 1977 , Headline:
The front page of the New York Daily News announces his death.NY Daily News via Getty Images

Forty years ago, on Aug. 16, 1977, hundreds of rock-and-roll fans braved the Tennessee heat and converged on Graceland in Memphis to pay their last respects to Elvis Presley, who had just died from heart failure at the tender age of 42.

On the line of mourners that snaked around the sprawling estate, an NBC News correspondent interviewed one young man whose grief seemed to sum up the solemn mood.

"I've never been as emotional about anything or anyone's death than I have Elvis," Phillip Foley said at the time. He had heard the news that afternoon, while he was at a swimming pool, and his first thought was to "go get a fifth of whiskey and play some of his old records and, you know, just think back a little bit."

Foley, with his brows furrowed, then turned to the big picture: "I'd like to say one thing, if I could. It means a lot to me, and I mean it down deep. Whether you be black or white, redneck or freak, from Memphis to Moscow — to me, Elvis Presley will always be the king of rock-and-roll."

In the four decades since he died, the worshipful mystique around Elvis has only grown. The King's admirers — even those born long after shaking your pelvis on national television ceased to be the most scandalous thing in American pop culture — tend to talk about the King as though he were a secular messiah.

"When I get to heaven, there will be two people that I will be seeing. First, my husband — then Elvis," said Nancie Craft, the president of an Elvis fan club in Texas who told NBC News she would put herself in the "top 10 percent" of diehards.

Photos: Remembering Elvis: The Day ‘The King’ Died

Craft is one of an estimated 80,000 fans who are once again descending on Graceland this week for the 40th anniversary of Elvis' death. (Craft, for her part, travels there twice a year with a friend.) Elvis buffs from around the world held a candlelight vigil outside the estate-turned-museum on Tuesday. The rock star's former wife, Priscilla Presley, and their daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, thanked the devoted crowd.

Amid the heartfelt tributes, some fans were unhappy about a new $28.75 price tag on visits to the King's grave. Graceland told the Associated Press that visitors who show up at the vigil starting Tuesday night and running into Wednesday must have an "Elvis Week Property Pass" wristband.

But for the most part, the week of nostalgia seemed to unify those who made the pilgrimage — the true believers enraptured by the King's sultry voice, all-American charisma and ahead-of-his-time sex appeal.

"It just touches your soul," said Craft. "And you see the other people that are there from all over the world. We would love for him to still be around and still be sharing."