Thirty-nine years ago today, on August 16th, 1977, the news of rock and country icon Elvis Presley’s death, at just 42 years old, sent the world into an extended period of mourning. Since that time, millions have flocked to Graceland, his longtime home in Memphis, to pay homage to the King.
In 1986, one of the countless recorded tributes to Presley was offered by Pam Tillis, the daughter of famed songwriter Mel Tillis. Still in her pre-stardom days before climbing the charts with such tunes as “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” and “Mi Vida Loca,” Tillis had been playing in bands and recording since the late Seventies without much success, but was getting her songs cut by other artists including Gloria Gaynor and Chaka Khan.
After moving to California, she returned to Music City, and her debut LP, Above and Beyond the Doll of Cutey, finally surfaced in 1983. A blend of synth-pop, rock, soul and country, the LP included a song co-written her best friend, future Oscar winner (for writing Thelma & Louise) and Nashville creator Callie Khouri. Although the album, released on Warner Bros., failed to chart, Tillis began scoring minor chart entries with other songs she recorded for the label and became a staff writer for Tree Publishing. She also became something of a fixture on the Nashville Network (TNN) series, Nashville Now, with host Ralph Emery.
One of Tillis’s many appearances on Nashville Now featured the singer-songwriter performing one of her more humorous tunes. Penned with Rick Carnes (“Longneck Bottle”), “What Would Elvis Do” first poses the title question with Tillis at a local bar jumping onstage to save the foundering band with a lively performance of “Blue Suede Shoes.” The next verse finds her in a used car lot, where she opts to drive off in a pink Cadillac (and “one for Mama, too”) rather than a cheap, boring Pinto. Swiveling her hips to a groove lifted right from Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” Tillis is playing a little beach-blanket bingo with her baby in the next verse, and consults the King when things start to heat up. It’s at this point that she breaks into a wildly operatic take on “Love Me Tender,” then stops abruptly after hitting an impossibly high note to say to the crowd, “I know you’re not supposed to do that in country music but I don’t care.”
That same rebellious attitude surfaced in 1993 when “What Would Elvis Do” took center stage in a controversy surrounding country star Ricky Van Shelton. Shelton, the deep-voiced singer behind such hits as “Somebody Lied” and “From a Jack to a King,” was ejected from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House grounds during a TV taping for refusing to sing on a group version of this song as part of the finale of the CBS special, A Country Music Celebration, organized by the CMA. His refusal, according to Shelton, came as a result of the song being out of his vocal range.
While it’s unknown what Elvis would have done in that situation, one thing he did – in 1998 – was become one of only a handful of artists inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Were he still alive today, Presley would be 81 years old.