Elvis Presley is one of the most iconic figures in music. His death, 43 years ago this Sunday, devastated fans around the world. For T.G. Sheppard, the loss was deeply personal. He vividly remembers August 16th, 1977 and the moment he learned the news.
“I was standing in my office in Nashville,” he says, “and my receptionist said JD Sumner’s on the phone.’”
J.D. Sumner was the gospel singer famous for his deep bass voice. Sumner and his Stamps Quartet sang back-up for Elvis on many of his records.
“I had just left Graceland the day before,” Sheppard recalls, “and knew something wasn’t right because J.D. never called me.”
Sheppard picked up the phone.
“I said, ‘This is bad, right J.D.?’ And he said, ‘Yes. Elvis is gone. He left us. Sometime in the early morning of the hours he passed away.”
Sheppard, who had just traveled from Memphis to Nashville, had stopped in to see Elvis the night before. He says Elvis seemed happy and upbeat.
“Elvis was playing racquetball that night and everybody was getting ready to pack up and leave on tour the next day. He would have gotten on the Lisa Marie (the plane named after his daughter) the next day and taken off on tour. He was excited because he loved to perform, he loved being on the road. That adulation an entertainer feels is an addicting thing because it’s gratification of what you do and who you are to stand on a stage in front of multitudes of people who like or love what you do. Elvis always loved that and looked forward to getting back out there.”
More than four decades later, Sheppard remembers Elvis as if he just saw him yesterday.
“I remember him talking and laughing, I can still see his facial features. It’s really uncanny.”
Sheppard met Elvis when he was just a teenager. In a rare twist of fate, he happened to be at a Memphis skating rink when Elvis rolled up in a limousine. Sheppard was an aspiring country singer and in the years that followed, the two formed a strong bond. Elvis became a friend and mentor, and Sheppard would spend a lot of time at Graceland, even living there off and on through the years.
“I have a lot of great memories of hanging around or just sitting and talking with Elvis,” Sheppard recalls. “But my fondest memories of Graceland were at Christmastime because that was always the time of year Elvis seemed to be in the best mood. He loved the holidays and was a big giver. He loved to give extravagant gifts to people and Christmas gave him the opportunity to be a kid. And Graceland was always so beautiful with Christmas decorations.”
For Sheppard, one of the biggest gifts he ever received from Elvis was his first tour bus. Elvis had always encouraged and supported Sheppard’s career, and this was a way to help move it to the next level. Sheppard remembers getting a call late one night while asleep at his own home in Memphis. It was Elvis.
“He said, ‘I need you to come out to Graceland, if you can.”
Sheppard headed over, arriving at around midnight, as Elvis was coming out of the front door. Elvis motioned him over to a waiting limo and the two got inside. Sheppard asked where they were going.
“’Elvis said we’re going to Texas. I said, Texas? And he said, ‘I’m building a plane called the Lisa Marie and I want you to see it. We’re just starting it.”
They got on a small plane, joined by several other people, to go check on progress with the Lisa Marie. As the two sat side-by-side, Elvis looked at Sheppard and said, “By the way, I bought you a bus today.”
Registering surprise at the realization Elvis was giving him his own tour bus, Sheppard looked up and said, “But, I don’t even have a band yet.”
To which Elvis replied, “Look, I’ll buy you the bus, but I ain’t paying for no damn band.”
Elvis had a great sense of humor.
When they returned to Memphis the next day, Elvis presented him with that tour bus and they rode it together from Graceland to Sheppard’s home in East Memphis. For Sheppard, the gift ran deeper than the bus itself.
“The greatest gift it gave me was the gift of confidence. If Elvis believed in me enough to buy a tour bus to help with my career, I couldn’t let him down. I was going to have to work really hard to become what he thinks I can become.”
Sheppard went on to have his own successful career with 21 No. 1 hits during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Top radio hits included “Last Cheater’s Waltz,” “I Loved ‘Em Every one,” “Party Time,” and others.
He says he once talked to Elvis about his own early dreams of becoming a singer and asked what drove the man, who would later be called “the King of Rock and Roll,” to make it happen.
“Elvis was a dreamer and I remember asking him, gosh how did you get here. How did you become who you are? And Elvis said it was like he willed it to happen. He would ride around Memphis in the old Crown Electric pickup truck back when he was an apprentice for Crown Electric Company and dream of becoming a singer. He dreamed of walking out on stage to crowds of people. He said he ‘ate it, drank it, and slept it’ for so long, it was like he willed it, and it happened.”
Sheppard says while Elvis achieved so much during his short life, he still had other dreams and goals.
“He would have really loved to become a serious actor. I mean he loved the James Dean type of acting, but those parts never really came to him. It was always musical roles that involved soundtracks. So, I think he would have loved to have fulfilled that dream, being known as a serious actor. And I think if he would have done “A Star Is Born” with Barbra Streisand, he would have had a chance to show his serious side, but it just didn’t work out. Of course, Kris Kristofferson went on to play that part.”
When Elvis died in August of ’77, he was only 42 years old.
“We lost an incredible force,” Sheppard says. Elvis was an energy, a light that was so bright. Sometimes they say the brighter the light of the star, the quicker it burns out, fades out, or goes away.”
And yet, he left behind so much, that 43 years after his death, fans still play his music, and honor his life and death with pilgrimages to Graceland on both the anniversary of his death, his birth, and all the days in-between.
“We lost a great talent, but he left behind such an incredible legacy. I mean for years it was like he was still here with TV specials and movies, and you would hear his music constantly.”
Even now, there’s a new movie in the works on the man who managed Elvis Presley’s career: Colonel Tom Parker. Actor Tom Hanks will portray the controversial figure. Shooting started in Australia, but was put on hold earlier this year in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Sheppard looks forward to seeing the film.
“I’m eager to see the movie because I worked closely with Parker when I was a record executive at RCA. He was a tough individual to please and I had to work very hard at maintaining my job. He was a powerful force.”
As Sheppard marks the anniversary of Presley’s death, he remains grateful for so many memories and enjoys getting the chance to share some of them on his weekly radio show on Elvis Radio SiriusXM Channel 19. (It airs Fridays from 3pm to 6pm EST). The show, broadcast live from Graceland, often features special guests. His first guest, when the show debuted, was Priscilla Presley.
Last year, Sheppard released his first solo album in more than two decades. It’s called “Midnight in Memphis.”
The title track was written by Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees). The album features two songs that honor Elvis. One called “I Wanna Live Like Elvis” and another called “The Day Elvis Died.”
Sheppard says he remains forever grateful for his friendship with Elvis.
“I remember so many times being up on the hill at Graceland, looking out of the windows and seeing all those people at the gate, hoping Elvis’ car would pull out, so they could get a glimpse of him. I often questioned why me? Why was I so blessed and so fortunate to have met him, became his friend, and be able to look out at people wishing they could be there? I’d pinch myself thinking, I’m looking out when really and truly I should be out at the gate, looking in.”
He describes it as an incredible time.
“I always wonder how my life would have been different if I hadn’t met Elvis. He was not just an amazing singer and talented performer. He was a great guy who came from humble beginnings and never forgot where he came from.”