Suspicious Minds: The Bizarre, 40-Year History of Elvis Presley Sightings

Getty Images
Getty Images

On August 16, 1977, something momentous happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was either the death of Elvis Presley at the age of 42, as more than 80 percent of Americans believe, or the start of the most spectacular disappearing act in the history of mankind.

"Elvis is alive” theories are as varied as they are plentiful, and they’ve been circulating since just after his death. He’s left the realm of popular entertainers and joined the ranks of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and to some, Jesus. What follows is a brief history of why some people refuse to let this American icon rest in peace.

THE FIRST SIGHTING

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Elvis is said to have purchased a one-way ticket from Memphis International Airport to Buenos Aires. He supposedly gave the name Jon Burrows, a pseudonym Elvis used when checking into hotels. Patrick Lacy, author of the book Elvis Decoded, claims to have debunked this popular and wholly unsubstantiated story by interviewing airport officials and determining that international flights weren’t available from Memphis in 1977. There’s also the question of why the most famous man on the planet would risk going into a public place in his hometown in order to book airfare for the purpose of faking his own death. Maybe Elvis figured his acting skills would help him avoid suspicion.

THE FUNERAL

A great deal of “Elvis is alive” intrigue centers on August 18, 1977, the day of Presley's funeral. Footage of the service shows pallbearers struggling to lift a 900-pound copper coffin. The King had packed on a few pounds in his later years, but there’s no way he was pushing a half-ton. One explanation: The casket was outfitted with a cooling system—the kind you’d use to keep a wax dummy of a beloved celebrity from melting on a hot summer day. Sound crazy? Presley’s cousin Gene Smith thought the body looked a little strange. “His nose looked kinda puggy-looking, and his right sideburn was sticking straight out—it looked about an inch,” Smith said in the 1991 special The Elvis Files. “And his hairline looked like a hairpiece or something was glued on.” Smith was also troubled by the smoothness of Presley’s typically calloused hands and the sweat on his brow.

Attentive fans were further spooked when they saw the King’s headstone. The inscription reads “Elvis Aaron Presley,” even though he’d been given the middle name “Aron,” possibly in memory of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. The theory here is that Elvis used the incorrect spelling to signal fans that he was still alive. Another one of Elvis’s cousins, Billy Smith, claimed the singer simply preferred the more common double-A spelling, as legal documents bearing Presley’s signature attest.

THE DEATH ITSELF

Traditionally, you can’t have a funeral without a death, and what killed the King is another major source of controversy. The medical examiner’s official cause of death was “hypertensive heart disease associated with atherosclerotic heart disease.” Elvis weighed at least 250 pounds in his final days, and one Baptist Memorial Hospital staffer told Rolling Stone, he had “the arteries of an 80-year-old man.” So a massive heart attack isn’t exactly far-fetched. But toxicologists found more than 10 drugs in Presley’s system, fueling speculation that “polypharmacy” played a role in his death.

The general confusion surrounding these and other jargony cause-of-death explanations has undoubtedly helped to foster conspiracy theories. So have issues concerning official paperwork. Elvis’s death certificate will remain under wraps until 2027, 50 years after his passing. While this may seem like further proof of a cover-up, it’s actually a matter of Tennessee law. As for Presley’s autopsy report: It’s a private family document unlikely to ever see the light of day.

THE POOL HOUSE PHOTO

The second major Elvis sighting came in the form of a photo snapped on December 31, 1977. While visiting Graceland with his family, a man named Mike Joseph took some random pictures of Presley’s pool house. A few years later, while studying them with a magnifying glass, Joseph spotted a shadowy Elvis-like figure sitting in the doorway. Experts at Kodak verified that nothing had been doctored, so it seems someone was peering out the window. In an interview with Larry King, Elvis’s good buddy Joe Esposito suggested it was another Presley associate, Al Strada, in the photo. That explanation was good enough for Joseph, but not everyone is satisfied.

A similar case of mistaken identity led to some excitement a few years later, when sports agent Larry Kolb was captured looking uncannily Elvis-like alongside his client (and Elvis’s pal) Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson in a 1984 newspaper photo. Kolb came forward with an original color version of the image proving that it was him—not Elvis—in the shot, but that’s hardly laid the matter to rest. Asked in an interview to identify the man in the background, Ali reportedly said, “That’s my friend Elvis.”

THE KING OF KALAMAZOO

In the late ‘80s, the epicenter of the “Elvis lives” universe shifted to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city Elvis played four months before his death. In 1988, a woman named Louise Welling from nearby Vicksburg claimed she had seen Presley standing in line at the local Felpausch supermarket. He was rocking a white jumpsuit, naturally, and purchasing an electrical fuse. Welling’s daughter later spied him scarfing Whoppers at Burger King. "What gives this account eerie credibility,” expert David Adler told the Los Angeles Times in an interview promoting his Presley-themed cookbook, “is that Burger King was by far Elvis's favorite fast food chain.”

BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN?

The Kalamazoo hullabaloo spawned a rash of late-’80s Elvis sightings, many of which involved the King doing un-regal things, like pumping gas or buying junk food. These were consistent with the notion that he’d faked his own death to escape the public eye (or the mafia, as one theory holds) and return to his humble roots. But Elvis loved movies—he starred in 31—and Christmas, so it almost makes sense that he would risk blowing his cover by appearing in the 1990 holiday comedy Home Alone.

Believers of this bizarre theory contend that a 55-year-old Presley turned up in the background of the scene where Catherine O’Hara’s character is stuck at the Scranton airport while trying to get home to her son. There’s a bearded guy behind her who looks a little like Elvis in Charro! (1969) and cocks his head in a manner that conspiracy theorists swear is identical to Presley’s onstage mannerisms. Curiously, director Chris Columbus went into Home Alone having just made Heartbreak Hotel, a 1988 flop about some kids who try to kidnap Elvis. Columbus and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin laugh about the theory in the DVD commentary, but the identity of the extra remains unknown. Even if the real bearded man were to come forward, it probably wouldn’t kill the story.

GROUNDSKEEPER PRESLEY

In the summer of 2016, video of a Graceland groundskeeper purported to be Elvis got the internet all shook up. In the clip, a gray-haired dude in a baseball cap and Elvis Week T-shirt fusses with some wire and holds up two fingers—apparently some type of numerological clue—as he walks past the camera.

The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube—far more than the one where a clever Elvis fan debunks the whole thing by chatting with the actual Graceland employee, an affable gentleman named Bill Barmer. “I’m not really 81,” says Barmer, who then compares himself to a Pokémon Go character.

THE FUTURE

“Elvis is alive” theories can’t go on forever. The man would now be in his 80s, and the oldest person on record only lived to 122. That means we've got maybe another 40 years of stories about the King chilling in Argentina or sipping coffee at Tim Hortons or doing whatever you do as an elderly man who’s been in hiding since the Carter Administration. Unless it turns out Elvis is immortal.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In an interview accompanying The Beatles Anthology DVD, George Harrison likens a brief 1972 encounter with Elvis at Madison Square Garden to “meeting Vishnu or Krishna or something.” His hair was black, his skin was tan, and his aura left the Beatle feeling like “a snooty little nobody.” Harrison may have been hinting at something Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper said rather deftly with their 1987 single “Elvis Is Everywhere.” Alive or dead, Presley is one pop culture deity we’ll never stop worshipping.

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER