Week in Rock History: Elvis Dies at Graceland

Plus, Woodstock takes place and Stevie Wonder releases his first single

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Elvis Presley performs in 1977.
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This week in rock history, "Little" Stevie Wonder released his debut single, the Woodstock Festival invaded upstate New York, Diana Ross gave birth to her love child with Berry Gordy, Elvis Presley was discovered dead and Michael Jackson bought the Beatles’ catalog of songs.

August 16, 1962: "Little" Stevie Wonder releases his first single
The name was not a misnomer: "Little" Stevie Wonder was signed to Motown subset Tamla Records at the age of 11. Born Stevland Hardaway Judkins, he earned his formative stage name from producer Clarence Paul, who remarked, "We can't keep calling him the eighth wonder of the world!"

Wonder’s career began swiftly. At age 12, he released his first single, "I Call It Pretty Music But the Old People Call It the Blues." The single charted modestly and roused enough public interest in the perky young R&B prodigy that Tamla released two Wonder records, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie and Tribute to Uncle Ray, in 1962. The polished R&B pieces hinted at the flashier, wizened soul that would emerge in Wonder’s next recordings, beginning with his breakthrough 1963 single, "Fingertips - Pt. 2," a fiery live call-and-response taped at a Motortown Revue concert in Chicago.

Ever since, Wonder’s distinguished career has never strayed far from his roots – he still records for Motown Records.

August 15, 1969: Woodstock Festival is held in Bethel, New York
The original Woodstock Festival is an indelible moment in American pop culture – although the three-day event was actually held in Bethel, NY, not its namesake town.

An estimated 500,000 music fans attended the bohemian gathering, and 32 musical acts performed. Headliners were Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie on Friday, Jefferson Airplane and the Who on Saturday and Sha-Na-Na and Jimi Hendrix on Sunday (although the performances spilled well into Monday morning). Janis Joplin, Santana and the Grateful Dead also delivered climactic sets. Hendrix’s 2-hour finale, and especially his incandescent rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," cemented his legend and remains an iconic moment of the festival and of the entire decade.

Woodstock spawned countless imitating festivals, including the disastrous Woodstock ’99, but the original remains a widely adored symbol of peaceful, optimistic artistry and community.

August 14, 1971: Diana Ross gives birth to her first child; the father is Motown Records founder Berry Gordy
Even the publicity mastermind of Motown Records couldn’t hide his love child forever. The label’s most successful female artist, Diana Ross, gave birth to her first child several months after she married her music business manager, Robert Ellis Silberstein – but her daughter had been fathered by married Motown founder Berry Gordy, with whom Ross had an affair for several years in the 1960s.

Many years later, Gordy told interviewer Barbara Walters that he and Ross reconciled briefly after their 1970 breakup, and she became pregnant unbeknownst to him. Gordy maintained that he did not know the child was his for many years; he and Ross told their daughter her true paternity when she was a teenager. Rhonda Ross Kendrick is now a successful actress.

August 16, 1977: Elvis Presley found dead in the bathroom of Graceland
Well, according to most people. To a few conspiracy theorists, he’s alive in the rural South and/or hanging out with aliens. But historical consensus and police reports date the death of the King to a muggy afternoon in 1977, when he had a heart attack in the bathroom of his Graceland mansion. He was 42.

That evening, Presley was scheduled to depart from Memphis on an extensive tour. It was his attempt to recapture public goodwill that had been heavily tarnished by erratic recent performances and the lurid tell-all book Elvis: What Happened?, which detailed the singer’s drug abuse and other unhealthy habits. Due to the book, a substance overdose was also implied as a cause of his death for many years, though that theory was debunked by the coroner who reopened Presley’s autopsy in 1994.

Presley’s memorial was held at Graceland two days after his death; an estimated 80,000 people gathered along the funeral route, and several thousand more assembled to view the casket.

August 14, 1985: Michael Jackson buys the publishing rights to over 250 Lennon-McCartney songs
Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson met in the 1970s and became fast friends – so much so that McCartney constantly urged Jackson to take more control of his financial security. McCartney insisted that investing in music publishing rights was the best path to wealth in their industry, and Jackson took it to heart in 1985 – when he entered into a cutthroat bidding war with McCartney for the rights to the Beatles song oeuvre. Jackson won and ponied up $47.5 million for the rights to more than 250 songs that McCartney had cowritten with John Lennon.

Jackson’s move was shrewd; the Lennon-McCartney catalog swelled to an estimated $1 billion in value through commercial use. But it effectively ended his friendship with Macca. Jackson sold part of thecatalog to Sony Music in 1995 and reportedly said that in the event of his death, he wanted the Beatles rights to revert to McCartney. However, Jackson’s estate and Sony currently retain the rights to the band’s songs.

LAST WEEK: Jerry Garcia Dies; Janis Joplin Performs in Concert for the Last Time