by Cameron Crews
Elvis has reentered the building, thanks to the new biopic Elvis, which was released in June. The film, directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby), stars Austin Butler as the King of rock ’n’ roll. The movie sent shockwaves worldwide and continues to do so as new generations are introduced to Elvis Presley and his music. But the film also meant a lot to those fans who got to experience his greatness when he was still alive.
Elvis’ career lasted from 1953 until 1977 when he unexpectedly passed away. Sales of his records began to slide in the ’60s, but the Tupelo, Miss., native returned with a bang in 1968 with a television special. He went on multiple tours throughout his career, with the final one being the last year of his life.
He visited Charlotte multiple times, first in February 1956. His final concert here was on February 21, 1977, 45 years ago. His 1968 movie Speedway, co-starring Nancy Sinatra, was filmed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. During one of his 1956 performances, he told the crowd, “I’m coming back to Charlotte; I’ll be back here again.” (Still relatively unknown, he was even spotted by some fans during intermission, taking a smoke break outside.)
Elvis made good on his promise, returning to Queen City many times. Charlotte native Debbie Thompson was one of those fans who got to see him on one of the many occasions he returned. She was a 21-year-old college student on March 9, 1974, when Elvis performed at the Charlotte Coliseum (now known as Bojangles Coliseum). Her then-boyfriend purchased third-row tickets for under $10 and took her along, but she had no idea what she was in for.
“I was kind of a beach music person. I knew everything about Elvis, but I didn’t know if I was a fan. But I went, and I’m telling you, it changed my life,” Thompson says.
Thompson had never been in an atmosphere like this before, primarily due to the flash cubes on the cameras that fans around her were using. The moment Elvis walked on stage, the entire arena flashed a blinding white as everyone tried to snap a picture of the King.
“It was not so much the music for me as it was the person that he was — he’s magic, for him to come out and crowds to act that way. When he was on stage, you knew you saw history,” Thompson says.
He sang everything from “Suspicious Minds” to “Hound Dog” and everything in between, and when he was done, the famous phrase “Elvis has left the building” echoed across the speakers, signaling for people to leave as they waited for one more song that never came.
“They announced that ‘Elvis has left the building’ for people to leave. I mean, It’s just something you don’t forget. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, but nothing with that magnitude,” Thompson says.
Elvis’ impact on Thompson extended beyond seeing him in concert. When he toured here in 1976, she worked as a social worker with Big Brothers, an organization that provides mentoring to young children who may not have it at home. At the time, the group was running entirely on donations, and she decided to contact Elvis’ staff and ask if there was anything the King would be willing to donate that could be auctioned off to support Big Brothers. He agreed and donated the bedsheets he slept in while staying at a Charlotte hotel.
“I went to pick them up at the hotel next door to the coliseum on Independence Boulevard. And when I got there, I was met by two policemen who brought the sheets to me and followed me back to the office because they were afraid I’d get mobbed,” Thompson says.
As Thompson recalls, Big Brothers auctioned off 1-inch squares of the bedsheets and pillowcases for $1 apiece and sold every inch, all due to Elvis and his staff’s generosity.
“I think he had such a good heart,” Thompson says.
Although it has been 45 years since his untimely passing, Elvis’ impact remains. With new fans streaming his music and buying Elvis-branded merchandise, the King of rock ’n’ roll will live forever, and his impact on the Queen City will never be forgotten.
Cameron Crews is a sophomore communication major at N.C. State University and an editorial intern at SouthPark. She’s seen Elvis four times and recommends that anyone — regardless of whether they’re an Elvis fan or not — goes to see it. Elvis is now showing in theaters and will be on streaming services in the fall.