Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Bird

Charlie Parker (1920-1955) performing at the Three Deuces in New York City in 1947
Charlie Parker (1920-1955) performing at the Three Deuces in New York City in 1947

We mark the birth on August 29, 1920 – 102 years ago today – of the alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. The trumpet player (and one-time member of Charlie Parker’s quintet) Miles Davis (1926-1991) famously said:

“You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.”

Miles Davis never minced words, and he does not mince them here. Along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker was (and remains) the most innovative, influential, and technically brilliant jazz musician to have yet lived.

However, before moving on to Parker, we have one other piece of date-related musical business.

I know, I know: I am most aware that having broached the subject of Charlie Parker, it behooves us – out of awe and respect – to get on with his story. But along with Parker’s birth, one other event occurred on this date that demands – demands! – our attention. So please, allow me this brief excursion.

On this Day in Music History Stupid

The New York Post, August 29, 1977
The New York Post, August 29, 1977

On August 29, 1977 – 45 years ago today – three people were arrested in Memphis after trying to steal Elvis Presley’s body. (The New York Post headline pictured above indicates that four people were arrested for the attempted heist, but this is incorrect.)

As I think we all know (or should know, at least), Elvis died while sitting on the toilet of his mansion in Memphis – “Graceland” – on Tuesday, August 16. He was laid to rest at Memphis’ Forest Hill Cemetery in a huge, flower-strewn mausoleum two days later, on August 18, 1977.

On August 29, 11 days after Presley’s interment, the following appeared in The New York Times:

“Early this morning three men entered the cemetery over a back wall and made their way toward the white marble mausoleum. The men apparently became suspicious and turned to leave, the police said. They were then arrested. No charges were filed immediately against the men, and the police refused to identify them.”

The men had broken into the cemetery – presumably – to steal Elvis Presley’s corpse.

We should all be struck by two bits of information in that brief report in The New York Times. One, that the “men apparently became suspicious and turned to leave.” Suspicious of what, we rightly ask? And two, why weren’t they charged or identified? (FYI: they were never identified.)

These questions were not answered definitively until 2002, 25 years after the purported grave-robbery-gone-wrong had occurred.

Here’s the story!

Immediately after Elvis’ death, his family requested that he be allowed to be buried on the grounds of his “Graceland” estate. But the Memphis Board of Health said no. Whispered inquiries were made; money changed hands; and a Shelby County Deputy named Bill Talley was hired by the Presley family to stage a fake corpse-snatch. The hoax achieved precisely what it was intended to achieve: it convinced Shelby County officials and the Memphis Board of Health that the body of Elvis Presley and, for that matter, the corpse of his mother Gladys be moved to Graceland for security reasons.

On Oct. 3, 1977, Elvis’ and his mother’s coffins were moved to Graceland. Two years later, Elvis’ father Vernon died and was buried next to his wife and son. The so-called “meditation garden” where the family rests today is an absolutely must-see on any visit to Graceland.…

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