August 16, 1977, was an unspeakably sad day for the music world. On that day, Elvis Presley passed away. His death caused a shockwave of grief that started at Graceland and spread quickly to the rest of the world. Many fans of The King who were alive then can still remember what they were doing when they heard the news. Elvis’ guitarist James Burton remembers when he found out.
When Elvis Presley died, he was getting ready to go on tour. In an interview with Musicians Hall of Fame Backstage, James Burton talked about being ready to start the first leg of the tour when they heard the news.
On August 16, 1977, Burton and other members of the band boarded their private plane in Burbank, California. They then flew to Las Vegas to pick up other personnel. Once everyone was on the jet, they headed to the east coast. The first show of the tour was in Portland, Maine. That was their destination. They didn’t make it that far, though.
According to Burton, they were in the air for about half an hour when a call came into the pilot. He was instructed to turn around and head back to Las Vegas. They didn’t give the pilot a reason, only the command to return.
The News of Elvis Presley’s Death
Before he could fly back to Vegas, he had to refuel. So, they landed in Pueblo, Colorado to refuel and prepare for the unplanned return trip. James Burton got off the plane to stretch his legs. According to Burton, Marty Harrell, Elvis Presley’s bass trombone player, wanted answers. He told Burton that he was going to go into the airport and make some phone calls to see if he could figure out why they had to return to Vegas. After all, the band had a show to do and they needed to be there on time.
At this time, Burton decided that he would go call his wife. However, he never made it to the phone. Harrell came out of the airport with tears in his eyes. He approached Burton, wrapped him in a hug, and told him the Elvis Presley was dead. Burton told the interviewer, “I couldn’t believe it. It was a shock. I just couldn’t believe it.”
He asked Harrell if it was some kind of joke. The trombone player assured him that he was serious. Burton recalled that it was, “A sad flight back to Vegas.”
The Road Back to Graceland
According to James Burton, getting a flight back to Memphis was nearly impossible. Had it not been for an Elvis Presley fan working at American Airlines he may not have gotten a flight. He was told that there were already 500 people on waiting lists for Memphis-bound flights. Luckily for him, that fan pulled some strings and got him on a flight the next day.
After landing in Memphis, he called his wife, who was in Louisiana at the time, and told her to meet him there. Then, he went to Graceland. When he got there, Elvis’ wife Priscilla Presley wanted to take Burton into the room where they had The King prepared for viewing. He wouldn’t go until his wife was there with him, though.
According to Burton, several of Elvis Presley’s famous friends spent hours with the deceased King. He said that Ann Margret stayed in the room with him for hours at a time only to come out and go back in moments later. James Brown also stayed at The King’s side for hours on end. Burton said that James didn’t want to leave.
Burton ended his story by recalling Elvis Presley’s funeral procession. He said that thousands of fans lined the streets to pay their respects as The King rode to his final resting place.
Elvis Presley is currently buried in the Meditation Garden on the Graceland grounds.