Hollywood Book Publicist Charlie Bennett Remembers the Day Elvis Died

Before I became a book, TV and movie publicist, Tuesday, August 16, 1977 started out like any other day for me while serving as a staff editor of the renowned Hollywood-based entertainment industry newspaper, The Hollywood Reporter (www.thehollywoodreporter.com).  I had driven into Hollywood that morning the 16 miles or so from my home in the West LA suburb of Brentwood, and was scheduled that afternoon for an interview lunch with singer Gladys Knight at the venerable Hollywood restaurant, Musso & Frank Grill (www.mussoandfrankgrill.com).  Of course, the lunch had to be unexpectedly cancelled due to the day’s historical event – – which turned out to generate many books.

August 16, 1977 turned out to be a day I will never ever forget in my media career, right up there with later events when I was a publicist backstage watching my client Johnny Carson do his last “Tonight” Show and even more recently sharing the excitement of the numerous consecutive Emmy Award wins at the Emmys with client producer/director Bertram van Munster for his hit CBS reality series, “The Amazing Race.”

As the morning of August 16, 1977 unfolded, I was planning our news coverage for the Wednesday edition of THR when a frantic, emotional telephone call came into me from our Memphis reporter, Mark Tan, saying he had police and medical emergency news sources that had “tipped” him that Elvis Presley lay dead on the bathroom floor of his Memphis mansion.  Mark was well connected in Memphis and I took this news very

seriously knowing he was not one to make such a call unless he thought it legitimate information.

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Now, remember this was an era before even fax machines.  There was no Internet, email, Skype, cell phones and all the electronic communication pathways that exist in today’s news gathering operations.  News stories were dictated over the phone by a reporter to the news desk, which was exactly what was happening with Mark’s call to me.  I jotted down the info from Mark on my yellow reporter’s note pad, realizing that my newspaper may be the first to know about this news on the West Coast, which I still believe is the case today.  But, Elvis’ reported death was unconfirmed information at this point and we had to tread very carefully to confirm it had happened.

I felt my blood begin to pump…like any good reporter at the start of reporting a major news event.  My next move was to call Elvis’ record label, RCA Records, just 4 blocks from us down Sunset Boulevard to see if their PR head, Mr. Grelun Landon could shed more “official” light on this horrific news.  I was not surprised to see that not even Grelun, a top music industry PR person, who had guided Elvis career knew nothing about what I was hearing.  Obviously shaken, Grelun said he would check this info out and get back to me immediately.  At least an hour passed when Grelun called.  He was actually sobbing and was in shock since he knew and worked with Elvis for years and was readying news coverage for Elvis new tour which was set to begin that very evening.  He gave me RCA’s official statement on Elvis’ death.  Just a few minutes later official word came from a Memphis hospital that in fact Elvis had died.  We knew we had a major story on our hands and the news of Elvis death would dominate page one of the Wednesday, August 18th edition of THR.

Without the Internet or help from Wikipedia back in 1977…we started pulling together all of the information in the newsroom we had on Elvis, actually rifling through past stacks of print editions, having Grelun send us all his Elvis press releases via messenger, etc.  Very quickly I saw we had very  limited info for his obituary and decided to go up to Hollywood Boulevard – – accompanied by a young lady THR intern (who later became a famous Hollywood TV news anchor) – – to literally scour the numerous book stores there for books on Elvis.  We bought maybe 10 books in all on Elvis, including a few biographies, before hurrying back on foot to THR, a few blocks away.  It was an unusually hot day in Hollywood and smoggy too.  At that time the newspaper was located at 6715 Sunset Boulevard, formerly serving as a fancy men’s clothing store where gangster Mickey Cohen would shop.

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Editor Jay Arnold, Mark Tan and I quickly pulled together a plan for our coverage of Elvis’ death.  I did the front page news story, including reactions from RCA Records and Barron Hilton on the singer’s ties to the famous Las Vegas Hilton Hotel.  Oddly, we did not get any return phone calls from Elvis’ long time manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who was known in media circles as elusive.  Producer-actor Bill Burrud (“Animal World”) was scheduled to have his star placed that afternoon on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it was canceled due to Elvis’ demise.  Today, both of their stars are alongside one another on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.

We worked throughout that warm afternoon and into early evening as our air conditioning began to choke and gasp and finally close down for nearly an hour before they got it going again.  At about 7 pm or so, the three of us turned in our first “takes” on the Elvis death story to THR editor-publisher, Ms. Tichi Wilkerson.  After a few rewrites and further fact checking, as well as looking for any updated info from Los Angeles television and radio stations, we finally got the layout of THR’s stories in place for a final review before turning our stories and photos over to Leo, our press room foreman.  I stayed late that evening to listen to the purr of THR presses as they began to churn out the news of Elvis death to the Hollywood creative community.  Jay and I, along with some editorial staffers went to Musso & Frank Grill for dinner and drinks (beer and martinis first).  I got to dine that day at Musso’s without Gladys Knight as it turned out.  At the bar, famed Hollywood columnist Hank Grant joined us after just finishing his radio show for CBS’ KNX Radio in Los Angeles that had featured the sad news of Elvis’ passing.

On the drive home out Sunset Boulevard, I passed the world famous Beverly Hills Hotel and flashed back on a moment there years earlier when I had seen Elvis having lunch in the hotel’s Polo Lounge and how gracious he was thanking me for a review I did of his performance at the Hilton in Las Vegas.  I had only seen Elvis perform that once in Las Vegas, having years earlier missed him as a teenager when the State Theatre in Hartford was sold out for his one night show.  For me, Elvis’ earlier records on Sun were the best he ever did, especially “Mystery Train.”  He continues to sell his treasured recordings today in numbers no one could ever have imagined back then.  He was known back then as “The King of Rock and Roll”, “Elvis the Pelvis” and “Swivel Hips.”…Elvis lives.

Professional national book publicist Charlie Barrett formed The Barrett Company in 1992 as a full service media relations and media marketing / communications agency.  The Los Angeles headquartered firm offers 21st century integrated media outreach and media marketing expertise with an emphasis on the publishing and entertainment industries serving authors/publishers, Hollywood celebrities, motion pictures and television.

Since the firm’s creation TBC has served authors with such companies as Simon & Schuster, Globe Pequot Press, Norton and studios and TV outlets from Warner Brothers and Paramount, to cable TV network American Movie Classics (Mad Men) to ABC, CBS, Fox Television, as well as self-published author publishers such as Xlibris, Author House, i-Universe and numerous celebrities from Johnny Carson to Ed McMahon to Kevin Costner to Oprah Winfrey (Oprah’s Big Give television series on ABC).

The Barrett Company serves major publisher, small press and self-published authors with Harper Collins, Little Brown, Penguin Press, Oxford University Press, CreateSpace, Viking Press, Random House, Holm Press, Ben Bella Books, SMU Press and NYU Press – – creating and performing a range of publicity services and media outreach for both fiction and non-fiction book releases areas, generating media attention/coverage in print, broadcast and the growing on line digital medias. TBC is developing new book marketing strategies for e-books and author activity with Kindle, Nook You Tube, Twitter and Facebook

Mr. Barrett formed The Barrett Company after serving in top PR and media relations positions with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) for more than ten years, where he was in charge of media relations for The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson and also, Today, among other well-known NBC shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, Fame and numerous highly-rated NBC specials, including The American Film Institute Awards and The American Movie Awards. As a film publicist in Hollywood, Charlie has worked with Dennis Hopper, Robert Stack, Tatum O’Neal, Steve McQueen, and Candice Bergen.

Charlie began his media career as a reporter with The Associated Press in New Haven, CT and later served on the editorial staffs of both The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles and Billboard in New York.  He has also authored numerous articles for magazines and newspapers on the performing arts and travel as well as appearing as a regular contributor on major US radio talk shows discussing celebrities, films, television and books. Charlie was voted the Book Publicist of the Year award by the Southern California Book Publicists Society.  TBC is a member of The Publishers Association of Los Angeles, The Academy of TV Arts and Sciences (ATAS gives the Emmy Award) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the Oscar).

The Barrett Company is well known and regarded among the world’s media outlets for its credibility and creativity.  Through years of client assignments TBC has developed remarkable and successful PR campaigns for a wide range of authors/publishers, Hollywood creatives, companies and celebrities, which have paved the way for the firm to produce media, consumer and trade events of all descriptions both in the US and overseas, from Book Expo to NATPE (the renowned annual television program executive conference) to  the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, The Frankfurt Book Fair  and The Cannes International Film Festival. The TBC web site is at www.thebarrettco.com.

We’re having a Facebook party!!!!

Charlie Barrett - Facebook  Party 2

Pump Up Your Book will be hosting Hollywood book publicist Charlie Barrett Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 9 – 11 p.m. (eastern time – adust to your time zone) at Pump Up Your Book’s Facebook page.  Tell your book friends that not only will this give them an opportunity to chat with Charlie about book publicity BUT…

WE’RE GIVING AWAY A KINDLE ($189 VALUE)!!!!

CLICK HERE TO JOIN US!

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Hollywood Book Publicist Charlie Bennett Remembers the Day Elvis Died

  1. I was just a girl but I do remember exactly where I was when I heard that Elvis had died. I was at my Grandparents and I was devastated!

  2. Thanks for the comment Michelle! I remember I was living with my grandmother at the time and everyone was boohooing! Great post, Charlie!

  3. I have some friends who are trying to talk me into going to see Elvis’ mansion in Memphis. Anyone been there?

  4. Wow, what a great post. I have always loved Elvis – since a young girl. You know, as crazy at it sounds, I clearly remember when Elvis died and the story was breaking. I was only 3 (yes, I have a weird way of remembering things from my youngest days, lol). I was on vacation with my grandparents and we were in a motel when it happened. I had no idea who this man was at that time, but knew that it was a huge deal.

  5. What a moving post. I was only nine when Elvis died, and I honestly don’t remember much of it. How amazing the way news used to travel. It’s hard to imagine not having news 24/7 the way we do now; yet, I know we did because computers weren’t even in schools until I was in high school. My how things have changed.

    Thanks for sharing this story with us.

    Cheryl

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