This week in history: Elvis’ sudden death shocks Chicago

Long live the King — Elvis Presley’s unexpected death on Aug. 16, 1977 led to an outpouring of love from Chicagoans.

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Contact sheet of various shots from a concert performance by Elvis Presley at Chicago Stadium on June 17, 1972

This contact sheet shows various shots from a concert performance by Elvis Presley at Chicago Stadium on June 17, 1972. The beloved singer died Aug. 16, 1972.

Photo by Jack Lenahan/Chicago Sun-Times.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Few musical acts can compare with the phenomenon created by Elvis Presley in the late 1950s. Between his hits and his hips, Elvis won over millions of adoring, lifelong fans. Although his appeal faded and new styles and sounds overtook his rock n’ roll vibe, his fans never quite left him.

So when Presley died unexpectedly on Aug. 16, 1977, the Chicago Daily News blasted the brief atop the front page, likely the only paper in the city to announce his death as he would’ve died just before the newspaper hit the stands.

“Elvis Presley, the Mississippi boy whose country rock guitar and gyrating hips launched a new style in popular music, died Tuesday afternoon at Baptist Hospital, police said. He was 42,” the paper said. “He entered the hospital for what was described as a respiratory ailment.”

Though the initial announcement covered just six short paragraphs, the time of mourning in Chicago would go on for weeks as all corners of the city shared their grief in their own way.

The next day, the editorial board memorialized Presley’s cultural impact and observed how much had changed since his debut.

“The mind runs through the social turmoil, the political protests and the lifestyle changes of more recent years and tells you that the ‘care-free good old days’ of the ‘50s are indeed long gone. But the periodic reappearances of Elvis had created a comforting bond to which the emotions could cling and that eclipsed the passage of decades,” the board opined.

By 1977, Presley’s look and sound had certainly aged, the board observed. Now balding and sporting a “paunch,” the singer never tried to update his act to modern tastes, but maybe that was a good thing. “He wasn’t the Elvis of old, but he didn’t magnify the slippage with what would have been a futile and embarrassing grab for the contemporary audience.”

Over in the columnist pages, Robert J. Herguth heard from radio DJs devastated by the news.

“I’ve never seen any performer’s death affect so many people,” Steve King from WLS Radio, the city’s top rock station, said. “People called in last night, weeping and upset. They’re from 9 years old into their 50s. They feel like they’ve lost a friend.”

King had attended what would be Presley's last concert in Indianapolis a little over a month before his death. “He brought his father and girlfriend onstage,” the DJ said. “You felt he was trying to get off that pedestal and really meet his fans.”

A country music executive in Wilmette told Herguth that some of Presley’s recordings may never be released.

“Elvis waxed some impromptu gospel quartets with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis about 1958. All four singers began with Sun and just happened to visit there at the same time. To release the quartets now, you’d need so many lawyers and so many contracts. They’ve been in the can 19 years.”

The record executive would eventually get his wish. The record would later be released and later made into a musical.

Three days after the singer’s death, a group of young people held a two-car parade that afternoon in the Loop, according to Herguth’s column.

And on Aug. 20, the paper announced a fundraiser in the King’s honor.

“An Elvis Presley memorial fund has been set up by the Chicago Heart Assn. Contributions, which will be used to support heart research, may be sent to the association, 20 N. Wacker, Chicago 60606. Acknowledgments will be sent to Presley’s father.”

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