30 YEARS LATER, STILL LOVING HIM TENDER

Elvis thinks people have forgotten him.

This is nearly five decades ago. Elvis is fresh off a two-year stint in the Army, much of it spent in West Germany. Now he fears everything is gone, that the public has moved on.

Elvis takes a train to tape a TV show with Frank Sinatra. “He was scared to death,” Ray Walker tells me. Walker, in his 70s now, was a member of the Jordanaires, Elvis’ backup group. He still remembers that train ride.

“He was coming back to what he thought was a forgotten past. … As we went along, there were people standing on the tracks. Elvis told us, ‘If you see people, come and get me. If I’m asleep, wake me up.’

“Well, Elvis got up and down all night long. He went out the back of the train and waved to all those people. He threw little things to them, whatever he had.

“He was so grateful they remembered him.”

It is hard to believe that in 1960 Elvis Presley worried about obsolescence. But raised by poor parents who once lost their home when the father went to jail for forgery, Presley understood life’s frailty.

“I never expected to be anybody important,” he once said. And you got the feeling, even through his final, bloated years, that he still believed that. Always raking in the dough

Last week was the 30-year anniversary of Elvis’ death. The man who worried about being forgotten still earns tens of millions of dollars each year, which ranks in the highest echelons of all performers – living or dead.

But in many ways, Elvis died before he passed away. Fans mourned the frantic young rebel who got swallowed by a fat man in a jumpsuit. Friends mourned the man who once said he couldn’t understand drinking or smoking but who became a walking pharmacy. Music lovers mourned the energy of songs such as “Mystery Train” or “A Big Hunk O’ Love” that was drained in favor of schmaltzy ballads and Las Vegas arrangements.

As a writer, I mourned the story. Elvis in the beginning was the pauper turned prince, more Horatio Alger than Alger could have written. His climb from a truck driver who stepped into a recording studio to cut a record for his mother is beyond compare in American history. And from 1955-58, it was a rocket ride.

To hear Presley interviewed in those years is to hear a decent, simple man as overwhelmed by his success as the fans who swooned for him. Like this from 1956:

“I came offstage and my manager told me they were hollering because I was wiggling my legs … so I went back out for an encore and I kinda did a little more.”

Or this, when told a reviewer had called his fans “idiots:”

“I just don’t see that. … They’re somebody’s kids. They’re somebody’s decent kids that were raised in a decent home. … If they want to pay their money and come out and jump around … it’s their business. They’re gonna grow up someday and grow out of it. … They’re just human beings like he is.” A long, slow, sad decline

Elvis’ meteoric rise reached its pinnacle in 1958, the year he was drafted. By that point, he already had recorded “Hound Dog,””Love Me Tender,””Don’t Be Cruel,””Jailhouse Rock,””Teddy Bear” and “Loving You” to name a few – a stellar career by any measure.

And then, apparently, came the saddest thing that would ever happen to him. His mother died. Elvis returned from the Army for the funeral. Another Jordanaire, Gordon Stoker, went to Memphis.

Says Walker: “Gordon told me, When we walked into the house, Elvis was sitting on the stairs – that’s where he’d always greet us – and it was the saddest, loneliest thing I’d ever seen. His eyes filled with tears and he just shook his head and he said, ‘I don’t know, guys, I just don’t know.’ …”

Had this been a better story, that would have stayed the saddest moment. But the Elvis story went on too long, got too sordid, fat, druggy and weird.

Still, anniversaries evoke different memories. Last week, his family remembered Presley one way, fans remembered him another and a friend recalled a ride in which a man learned he was not so easily forgotten. Thirty years after his death, Elvis still can wave from the back of the train.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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