The day the music died was August 16, 1977, when Elvis Presley was found dead at his Graceland estate in Memphis — exactly one week before he was to perform in Lexington to a sold-out house at Rupp Arena.
Selling tickets for the scheduled August 23 Elvis concert was the biggest camp-out at Rupp Arena up to that time, according to a 1978 Herald article. Rupp Arena had opened in late 1976. Its first concert was Lawrence Welk and his orchestra, in October, featuring a guest appearance by Welk friend and legendary University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp.
The 1978 article noted that one woman called a Lexington disc jockey after Elvis’ death asking if her concert ticket would be “good enough” for admission to the performer’s funeral in Memphis. It was not.
For others the tickets attained something of a sacred souvenir status.
Lana Gillespie, now 70, spent two days in the civic center line starting July 29 after the announcement that Elvis tickets would go on sale on July 31. Her friend Pat Shannon, who had sang the Elvis hit “Love Me Tender” at his 1976 wedding, was there with her.
Shannon, an Elvis superfan, would sing “Jailhouse Rock” at his daughter’s wedding years later: “That’s the only one I thought I could pull off.”
At one point during the two-day ticket wait, a friend of Gillespie’s tried to cut line. Gillespie, who slept on concrete in the same clothes for two days, was not having it. The friendship ended — “She never spoke to me again” — but Gillespie got her tickets.
“A lot of people forget, but I don’t forget,” said Gillespie, who had previously seen Elvis twice in concert. “His music made me happy during some very dark days in my life.”
Days after he bought his Elvis tickets Shannon was playing golf in Rochester, Minnesota. At the bar, a man approached him and said, “’Man, Elvis was the king.’ And I said, ‘Was? I’m going to see him next week.’”
That’s how Shannon learned that in fact, nobody in Lexington would be seeing Elvis.
Shannon’s ticket has been in the top drawer of a bedroom chest. He and Gillespie recently brought out their tickets out for a Herald-Leader photographer.
Gillespie still has her tickets: one in her jewelry box, the other with a picture of Elvis.
Gillespie was devastated to hear that Elvis had died: “I started with Elvis when I was probably about 12 years old with a bulletin board in my bedroom in Winchester. I bought the 45s in town. They bring back places I was at when I heard that song, or people I was with — just good, good memories.”
Betty Nigoff braved the Elvis ticket line for her husband Lowell Nigoff, a big fan of the singer. The two were on their way to New Orleans when they heard that Elvis had died.
“She wanted to turn around and go back to Graceland,” Lowell Nigoff said of his wife. “And I said, ‘It’s going to be a zoo.’”
The Nigoffs still have their tickets, in a wooden keepsake box.
Tom Minter, who then ran the civic center, said that eight lines were set up at the concession stand to handle the hard tickets; in those days, there were no electronic tickets nor Ticketmaster. The eight lines leading to the concession stands were necessary because so many people were in line, and the box office had only four windows.
Initially, the concert crowd was to be limited to the lower arena.
But the lower arena sold out in 45 minutes. Minter got on the phone to Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and asked to sell the rest of the house. More than 21,000 tickets were sold.
Nor was there preferential treatment in jumping the line or setting aside VIP tickets: Jake Graves, a prominent Lexington bank executive, waited in line for a day and a half, Minter said.
The response to Presley’s death on August 16 was felt worldwide — Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of former president John F. Kennedy, was among those who attended the Memphis funeral — but it left Lexington civic center officials with a problem.
They couldn’t hold the sold-out Elvis concert, obviously. But neither could they offer a replacement concert of equal value, because who was bigger with Elvis fans than Elvis?
Concert accounting is a murky field when the performer is unable to provide a show, whether by accident or death. Minter asked that ticket-holders return their tickets for refunds; he wanted just a piece of ticket for accounting and offered to return most of the ticket to the fans, but at year’s end 8,000 intact tickets remained: Elvis fans were not letting go of their tickets, even after a local collectibles expert estimated they could sell them for $50-$100 a pop and urged them to keep their tickets intact for better sale prices.
The civic center hit upon an incentive of offering those returning tickets a Lucite box in which their truncated tickets could be mounted and preserved, for a nominal fee. That didn’t get many takers, Minter said. In all, it took a year-and-a-half for the civic center to settle up with the representatives of Team Elvis.
Minter will never forget the excitement of the not-quite-Elvis concert. Nor, apparently, would those who stood in line.
“Several years later (radio executive) Ralph Hacker and I were standing in line to go to the Louvre in Paris and some guy turned around and said, ‘I know you! I’ve still got my Elvis ticket,’” Minter said.