Asheville Citizen-Times 1/21/2016 – Ted Alexander, Columnist –
The crowd was wild, electricity sparking the air. As overhead lights slowly dimmed to darkness, the audience screamed in anticipation.
“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the opening music from the movie” 2001: A Space Odyssey,” grew louder, stronger — gradually overpowering the thousands of fans. A lone spotlight roamed the blacked-out Civic Center, then suddenly halted, illuminating the King, standing on the stage in a sparkling white jumpsuit.
The audience blew up with flashbulbs lighting the center as if it was a midsummer day.
Elvis had made it to Asheville.
“Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like it, before or after,” my friend Ronnie White, owner of A&B Tire and Wheel in Asheville, remembers. “After the spotlight went out, the stage lit up. Charlie Hodge, one of Elvis’ back-up singers, tossed him an acoustic guitar. El slipped the strap over his neck and began to sing ‘C.C. Rider.’”
Ronnie recites the first two lines from memory: “Oh, C., C.C. Rider, Oh, see what you have done.” He rocks back in his desk chair and leans against a wall filled with Elvis photographs, a 1-Elvis license plate, and an Elvis calendar. “Yeah, and you know what? I always thought Elvis was kind of singing about himself in ‘C.C. Rider.’ He was C.C. Rider.”
Back in 1975, the year of the three sold-out Elvis Asheville concerts, Ronnie was working for Asheville Fence Company on Sweeten Creek Road. “I pawned my .22 rifle for $45 just so I could get tickets for my wife and me for the concert,” he says. “Then the Friday of the show, I drove my personal car to the job site. I didn’t want the company truck to break down and leave me stranded.”
He grins as he thinks back. “Elvis sang all his hits, you know, ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ Sometime during the show, he sat on the edge of the stage with his legs hanging off the side and greeted women who were bringing him gifts. The line extended all the way to the back of the Civic Center and wound around the side, creating a big U. And he met every last one of the folks on line — that’s the kind of man he was. And I didn’t mind a bit because we got a chance to watch him even longer.”
Ronnie sips from a cup of coffee. “Yeah, I never met Elvis and I still loved him,” he says. “I learned to play guitar and sing just because of him. And even though he had all his fame and fortune, and besides being the world’s greatest singer, he was still a humble man — religious too.
“Sometimes he’d just come out of his house at Graceland — it wasn’t even a big mansion — and talk with fans by the fence gate. He’d give away Cadillacs, guitars, pay off people’s mortgages. That meant a lot to me. Folks don’t think that way anymore.”
He pauses, reflecting. “And when I visited Graceland, I just didn’t want to leave. I felt like I belonged there. Yeah, I sure didn’t want to leave.”
A couple of years after his Asheville concerts, in 1977, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was gone. An emotional tidal wave swept the country. Millions mourned the death of an original, never-to-be-duplicated American icon.
People still remember where they were when they heard the news he had passed. My friend Bob in Wisconsin told me his buddy, Randy, a tough farm kid, cried for three days when he heard the King had died. Another friend, Kim, mentioned that when her mother heard the news, she closed her Asheville business, walked into her back office, sat at a table, stared at the wall and broke down. “I’d never seen that before,” Kim said. “My mother was strong. She hardly ever showed emotion, and rarely tears.”
I was driving — hours from home — when the radio announcer interrupted regular programming with the news that Elvis had died. I listened briefly to detail fragments, then turned the radio off and drove straight through from Ohio. I wasn’t ready to hear miles of tribute/memorial music. I didn’t need the death confirmed over and over again.
I was too much of a fan to accept the truth.
While it’s true that some didn’t care for Elvis, millions were captivated. Even today, his image still evokes a memory, an emotion, a powerful sense of loss, certainly for his music, flair and style, but also, just maybe, for a long-departed youth.
“Elvis wasn’t supposed to die. Heck, if he could die, anyone could,” Ronnie says, standing up from his desk, shaking his head, part of him still not believing even after all the years. “And you know, it didn’t hit me until later in that awful day that nothing would be the same again with him gone.” He looked away. “I just never thought that Elvis could die. When he passed, it broke my heart.”
Like the rest of us, Ronnie, like the rest of us.
Oh, C., C.C. Rider, Oh, see what you have done.
Editor’s note: Elvis Presley would have been 81 on Jan. 8.
Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. His second novel, “After & Before,” came out in October and is available at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café and online book retailers.
Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. Contact him at TedMAlexander.com/contact.
Learn more about the author and the novels online at TedMAlexander.com/Books.html.