MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Elvis Presley fans hoisted colorful umbrellas against a hot sun and massed in folding chairs outside Graceland on Wednesday, awaiting a candlelight vigil marking the 35th anniversary of the death of the rock 'n' roll icon.
Elvis admirers flocked by the thousands to Memphis from around the U.S. and from as far off as England and Japan, many waiting for hours to enter the Memphis mansion where Presley is buried on the grounds.
Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, of a heart attack after suffering from prescription drug abuse. His death at 42 marked the end of a soaring musical career that ended all too abruptly for legions of fans still mesmerized today by his singing, sex appeal and on-stage charisma.
The vigil marks the high point of Elvis Week, the annual celebration of Presley's life and career. Organizers have said they expected 75,000 people to attend Elvis Week, with many taking part in the vigil that was beginning Wednesday evening and to last into Thursday.
This year also brings another highlight with a 35th-anniversary tribute concert planned at an area arena Thursday night. Ex-wife Priscilla Presley and daughter Lisa Marie Presley were expected to attend the concert featuring live musicians playing along with videotaped footage of Elvis singing.
On Wednesday afternoon, Cheryl Skogen and friend Susan Struss held up black umbrellas with polka dots near the front of the line as they waited to enter Graceland's grounds. As longtime Elvis fans and neighbors in Los Angeles, they said they decided to come to Elvis Week without their husbands. They got up well before dawn Wednesday for a prime spot in the line.
There, women wore pink and black T-shirts emblazoned with Elvis' picture. Some men dressed in black shirts, dark sunglasses and pompadours, Elvis-style.
Skogen said she first came to Graceland in 1981 — before the home became a museum and a tourist attraction — and has visited several times since. She remembers first seeing Elvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and being enthralled with his hip-swiveling performance at a Lack Tahoe concert.
"The first time I saw him he changed my life," said Skogen, now 66 and retired. "I had never seen anybody dance like he did or sing like he did or look like he did. He captured my heart."
A few spots down the line, Allen Black, 47, who sat in a blue and white chair alongside the outer wall of Graceland and talked about his memories of where he was when he first heard Elvis had died. He was 12 at the time.
"I was trying to record a song off the radio, and the news came on the radio, and I went to tell my dad," Black said, tears welling in his eyes. "He didn't believe me. It just stunned him."
Black — who is from Aurora, Colo., scene of the July 20 movie theatre shooting massacre — said Elvis was a great performer but also someone who treated others well.
"For some people, it's the music, but for a lot of people, it's the man, the charisma, the humanitarian," Black said. "At first, they probably got drawn in by the music, and then the more they learn about the man, and the way he treated people, it draws them in even more."
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