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spacer Sam Phillips, Memphis, Tennessee, 1981
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Sam Phillips, Memphis, Tennessee, 1981

The man who started Sun Records, who discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, arguably the most important music producer on the planet until George Martin came along and met The Beatles, is here standing under a tree, out behind Elvis’ beloved Graceland, looking just about too cool for words. How did we get here? It all started with a story that nearly got me killed. In 1974, Elvis was mounting yet another comeback tour and, in anticipation of a September stop at the University of Maryland, I cobbled together a little history of The King, warts and all. It must have been a slow news day; the piece wound up on the front page, and included a line I would soon regret writing: “The Pelvis has turned into The Paunch.” That evening, five songs into his set, The King held up a copy of The Post, turned his profile to the faithful and asked, “Does this look like a paunch to you?” Cheers filled the hall. “Well,” he said, ever the polite Southern gentleman, “tell that to Mr. Tom Zito!” He pronounced it zit-toe. Shouts of anger filled the arena. “Let’s lynch him,” somebody yelled a few rows behind me. I ran out of Cole Field House faster than I’d ever run before. Seven years later, on the day before Graceland was to be opened to The King’s adoring public, I was bounding through its hollowed halls, having been dispatched by my editor, Shelby Coffey, another Tennessee boy. (Our colleague, the late Henry Mitchell, had once interviewed a young Elvis in his mother’s bathtub, before the subject had become The King and the author had left the Commercial Appeal in Memphis to join The Post.) Rummaging through the baggage of a decedent’s life always provokes a sharp sense of voyeurism and violation – a fascinated pity, a mind racing to yield the key of life only fathomable in death. Rosebud! And now I was sitting in Elvis’ trophy room, surrounded by drawers stuffed with scrapbooks mailed by devoted fans, a letter from Richard Nixon thanking Elvis for his call, his Honorable Discharge Certificate from the Army. And I was opening a black guitar case, pulling from it the same Gibson J-200 guitar he had been strumming on stage at Cole Field House. An index card with a typed list of songs – starting with “1) ‘That’s Alright Mama’” and ending with “16) ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’” – was still taped to the top of the instrument. I strummed the guitar, The King’s Guitar. It had gone badly out of tune, but there was still an unmistakable resonance of instant melancholy. I was painfully aware that if the rightful owner had been home right now, he would have had good reason to dip into his collection of guns – some of which he used to blow out television screens when he saw something that bothered him – and train one of them on me. I told my guide that I needed some fresh air, and he escorted me out the back door of the mansion. “Why, do you know who that is standing over there?” he asked me. “That would be Mr. Sam Phillips…” Excuse me, sir. Do you mind if I take your picture?

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