By Ken Barnes, Special for USA TODAY
years ago Friday, owing to pressures we can hardly imagine and
self-indulgences we can imagine only too well, Elvis Presley died. But
what if, by some amazing stroke of fortune, he had lived? USA TODAY
contributor Ken Barnes imagines how his career might have continued.
Aug. 16, 1977:
Around 5 a.m., Elvis gets the urge to play a little racquetball, part
of the conditioning regimen he has been halfheartedly following to
prepare for a tour scheduled to begin shortly. He calls his cousin and
closest companion, Billy Smith, who awakens his wife, Jo, and they join
Elvis and his girlfriend, Ginger Alden, and head for Graceland's court
beneath a covered walkway. It's raining, and Billy remarks that he's
sick of it.
"Ain't no problem," Elvis says, "I'll take care of
it." He raises his hands, and the rain stops on cue. Elvis says, "If
you've got a little faith, you can stop the rain."
racquetball game, he accidentally smacks himself on the shin with his
racquet. "Boy, that hurts!" he says, displaying a nasty-looking welt.
Billy and Elvis' other associates are alarmed and decide, despite Elvis'
protests, that with a tour days away, a trip to the hospital would be
prudent. Elvis is treated for deep bruising, and a doctor decrees that
he stay overnight for observation.
As always lately, Elvis can't
get to sleep, so the doctor prescribes sleep medication. Surprisingly,
it works as effectively as the star's usual three nightly packets of
Seconal, Placidyl, Demerol and several other medications, and he falls
into a deep sleep, but he is unresponsive when a nurse tries to awaken
him late in the day. However, the staff revives him, and when he regains
consciousness, he tells his buddies: "I had the strangest dream ...."
Late August 1977:
"I dreamed I died," Elvis will tell reporters later, "and I was headed
toward a pure white light, but something sent me back. It was like my
song - it was telling me, 'Your time hasn't come yet, baby.'" He
announces that the tour has been rescheduled for next March and adds
that he's starting an intensive program to "get myself together
physically, mentally and spiritually." His manager, Colonel Tom Parker,
says, "We're happy to have the boy back with us," but seasoned
Colonel-watchers detect a touch of regret at missed opportunities.
November 1977: In an exclusive interview with People,
Elvis confesses that he became a little too dependent on "the pills"
but says he's now drug-free and feeling better than ever. "Endorphins,
that's where it's at," he says. "My trainer told me about them - it's
like getting high from working out."
January 1978: To
underscore Elvis' new, clean image, the Colonel decides an anti-drug
single would be a shrewd move. Elvis' cover of Paul Revere & the
Raiders' 1966 hit Kicks ("You don't need kicks/To help you face the world each day") becomes his first top-five hit since 1972's Burning Love.
March 1978: Elvis
sets out on his longest tour ever, dazzling critics and fans with his
newly toned physique and renewed energy. Some, however, feel he slightly
undermines the message of Kicks with a vigorous midsong demonstration of karate moves.
The tour over, Elvis spends most of his time in the gym. The Colonel,
inspired, announces plans for a nationwide chain of Elvis Workout
Centers. Elvis releases a disco-style cover of Jackie Wilson's Baby, Workout, which rises to No. 6.
November 1980: Plagued
by cost overruns and whispers of illegal kickbacks, the Elvis Workout
project is shut down before any of the centers actually open. An
ill-advised follow-up single, a disco-style cover of an old Stevie
Wonder song with the title changed to Work Out, Elvis, Work Out, fails to reach the top 100.
The commercial instincts of the Elvis camp seem increasingly erratic.
Bee Gees producer Albhy Galuten, who presided over the workout-themed
releases, is let go, but new producer Barry Manilow is no improvement. A
cover of Air Supply's All Out of Love breaks into the top 30, but his take on Sheena Easton's Morning Train is a flop. And a much-heralded return to rock in the form of the Rolling Stones' Start Me Up is equally unsuccessful.
A furor erupts when new video network MTV refuses to play Elvis' first
video, shot to promote his new cover of Olivia Newton-John's Physical.
MTV could have dodged the controversy by explaining that the spectacle
of a bare-chested Elvis in a series of multihued headbands and
sweatpants was faintly ludicrous, or even that Physical was a
lousy record. But network execs foolishly state that Elvis was "outside
the demographic of our target viewers and irrelevant to the rock
audience we super-serve." Round-the-clock demonstrations outside MTV's
New York headquarters by Elvis fans, some attired only in multihued
headbands and sweatpants, cause MTV to reconsider, and Physical leaps into the top 10.
January 1985: Along with most of the day's superstars, Elvis is enlisted to sing a passage on charity mega-single We Are the World.
When asked to check his ego at the door, Elvis pauses, nods his head
and says, "Yep, it's still there!" He tells variations of this story,
often using a line like "the ego flies on Tuesday, baby," in most of his
subsequent live appearances.
July 1985: The Colonel had been persuaded, reluctantly, to see the benefits of Elvis' singing on We Are the World,
but when Bob Geldof approaches him about Elvis performing at Live Aid,
the enigmatic manager tells him, "Sure thing. He'll do it for a million
dollars in cash." Geldof moves on to the next star on his list.
Elvis is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's initial class
with nine other seminal artists. His performance with Chuck Berry,
Little Richard, Keith Richards and Paul Shaffer's band on Berry's Promised Land is a highlight, though Little Richard hogs the microphone and Berry tries to upstage Elvis with a prolonged duckwalk.
Concert attendance slips as audiences tire of Elvis' lengthy monologues
about the benefits of healthy eating, mysticism and frequent gym
workouts. And the records get worse: The last straw is a cover of
Culture Club's Karma Chameleon. RCA suggests working with Jim
Steinman of Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler fame. He tells Elvis, "You can't
cover any old hit and expect it to become a hit again just because it
has your name on it." Steinman's original song for Elvis, Total Eclipse of the Dashboard Light, fails to hit the top 100.
June 1988: NBC and Elvis Enterprises announce a TV special for late November, 20 years after Elvis' '68 Comeback Special.
Plans for Elvis to appear solo are scuttled when RCA threatens to
withdraw support unlesss its new star, Rick Astley, is included. In the
end, a leather-clad Elvis, looking impressively buff at 53, revisits his
classic hits of the late '60s and '70s, including In the Ghetto, Burning Love and Suspicious Minds. And - while critics are divided as to the merits of his duet with Astley on Steamroller Blues and Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up - the global ratings are astronomical.
Although Elvis is back on top, his eccentricities are increasing. He
visits President Bush at the White House, presenting Bush with a set of
Elvis-logo dumbbells and offering his help in stamping out the nation's
crack problem. He also allows his mystical bent to resurface, retelling
the tale of his near-death experience to audiences and commissioning a
midset New Age instrumental featuring cellos and mouth harps, which soon
becomes known as The Harmonica Convergence. A new adaptation of an old Creedence Clearwater Revival hit, retitled Who'll Stop the Rain (I Will), is his first record to miss the charts in three years. It won't be the last.
Elvis calls a news conference to announce his retirement from touring.
"I turn 60 this month. I can use a little rest," he says. With that,
what critics like to call the "Fit Elvis era" is over.
Colonel Parker dies of a stroke. Through all the dubious decisions, the
excessive percentage skimmed from Elvis' earnings - even the
revelations of the Colonel's identity as an undocumented immigrant -
Elvis had stayed loyal to his business partner. But weeks after the
Colonel's death, he announces a one-off concert in London as a gesture
to all the foreign fans who had never seen him because Parker was afraid
that if he went out of the USA, he'd never get back in. The concert, at
Wembley Stadium in May, is a triumph, though marred by hundreds of
emergency medical calls to treat elderly fans who had fainted from sheer
disbelief that their dream had come true. It is Elvis' last live
November 2002: Clive Davis becomes president
of RCA and hits on a plan to revive Elvis' sluggish recording career. He
takes Elvis into the studio to record the first in a series of Elvis Sings the Great American Songbook
albums. They have a little trouble finding material at first, since
Elvis has already sung most of the great American songbook, but they
widen the scope to include more recent standards. Elvis' version of
Jennifer Holliday's And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going becomes an adult-contemporary chart-topper.
October 2007: The Songbook
series having run its course, Davis taps another of his favorite
gimmicks: the duets album. Elvis is paired with the likes of Aretha
Franklin, Tony Bennett, Elvis Costello, Kelly Clarkson, daughter Lisa
Marie Presley, Whitney Houston, Astley and Mariah Carey. The critically
panned album makes its debut at No. 1 and spins off a hit single, Elvis
and Michael Jackson's unique duet on Heartbreak Hotel, which weaves together the artists' separate, title-sharing hits.
Aug. 16, 2012:
Elvis dies in his sleep at Graceland on the 25th anniversary of the
first Harmonic Convergence ... and 35 years to the day after his
near-death in Memphis. He is surrounded by his inner circle, one of whom
anonymously reports Elvis' last words. The insider swears that Elvis
murmurs, "Return to sender."