The October 1976 night Elvis Presley surprised his fans at a Memphis gas station

Elvis comeback (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

Larry Blong standing behind Elvis Presley at Vickers gas station, Oct. 4, 1976 (Larry Blong)

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Elvis Presley woke up in his Graceland bedroom on Sunday evening October 3, 1976 in an optimistic mood. He’d been resting, lost a few pounds and was feeling good since his last concert tour. Known as the “Bicentennial Tour,” in honor of the 200th birthday year for America, he alternated each performance wearing either a blue or white Bicentennial jumpsuit. He started late August in San Antonio. At the Hemisfair Arena he received a Texas shaped plaque back stage from the Texas Chapter of the Elvis Presley Graceland Fan Club from President Jack Dennis.

Jack, who had met and interviewed Elvis in May, noted he “seemed ready to perform, but a bid tired. I actually felt sorry for him because when I saw him a few months earlier at Graceland, he was so happy and excited. He was wearing the Blue Bicentennial with blue shirt. Very kind. Perhaps he was a bit nervous because this was the first show of this tour and he was about to go on stage.”

Charlie Hodge with Elvis on stage in 1976. (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

Towards the end of the tour, wearing the White Bicentennial in Huntsville, his belt buckle fell off. Elvis finagled with it for a bit before he spontaneously tossed it into the audience for a lucky spectator. He ended the tour with two shows in Pine Bluff. This would be the last time he would wear the Bicentennial suits. It was noticeable to the band and staff that Elvis was tiring out as the tour wore on. By the time he performed in Pine Bluff, he’d feature solos from Sherrill Nielson, Kathy Westmoreland and the Stamps Quartet to help him get through it. The last show Elvis received rave reviews, especially for his performances of “One Night,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Polk Salad Annie.”

After being awake for a while, Elvis was happy to hear that baseball great Hank Aaron singled in his last at bat and drove in his 2,297th run.  He ate breakfast and called his cousin, Billy Smith. Billy lived in one of the trailers in the back yard behind the office area frequented by his Elvis’s father, Vernon. Back up in his bedroom he decided to read. It was a numerology book he’d picked up and enjoyed the previous winter while on vacation in Vail, Colorado.

His interest in numerology compelled him to want a black diamond ring. A police friend in nearby Denver called a jeweler, Bob Kortz, to see if he could get such a ring. Kortz wasn’t certain he could find one. He had never even seen a black diamond. But the pressure was on when Elvis sent word that he had two jets waiting for Kortz at Stapleton Airport to fly him to Vail once he found a black diamond.

Elvis Presley’s Black Diamond ring. (Texas Chapter of Elvis Fan Club archives)

The black diamonds are very rare and only found in Brazil and the Central African Republic. Kortz eventually found one and took it and a gold ring to Elvis’ rental house near Golden Peak. Elvis, in his bedroom eating a microwaved frozen Mexican dinner, decided he wanted the diamond set in the ring and decided to purchase it

“At first, he liked it… and then he didn’t… and then he did again,” Kortz remembers. “One of the police guys said he liked the ring, so Elvis gave it to him. Then, about an hour later, Elvis decided he liked the ring after all, so he traded it for something else with the cop.”

As midnight October 3, 1976 turned into October 4, Elvis called Billy again and told him he wanted to go ride motorcycles later.  Billy told him he would get ready and would round some of the others (Memphis Mafia) to go too. Elvis agreed and decided to take a shower.

Earlier in the year, RCA released the Elvis “Moody Blue” album. Despite competing in the world of Disco, the LP, recorded at Graceland, was one of his bestselling in years. On this night, the music charts indicated the top hits were “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by “Elton John & Kiki Dee,” “You Should Be Dancing           “ by the Bee Gees, and “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” by KC And The Sunshine Band and the number one hit that night was “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry.

But across Elvis Presley Boulevard and 99 yards south from the Graceland gates there was a small, all-night café on the end of a strip center. The restaurant’s front was almost floor to ceiling windows, three on each side of the aluminum framed glass door. Spanning the top of the glass front was a 4 foot by 36 foot long yellow sign, flanked by two Coca-Cola symbols: “OPEN 24 HOURS-HICKORY LOG-24 HOUR BREAKFAST.” In that café was a jukebox. And on that jukebox there was no Wild Cherry or Bee Gees. The owners of Hickory Log, Hobart and Bonnie Burnett, made sure that music machine played Elvis songs like “Burning Love,” “Moody Blue,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.”

Hickory Log cafe across from Graceland in 1976. (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

The Burnett’s daughter, Kathy was a psychology student at Memphis State University and had been hanging out at the Graceland gates around midnight. The café had been a regular hang-out for some of guards like Elvis’ cousin Harold Loyd and the Memphis Mafia, especially Charlie Hodge. Charlie loved to play the pinball game. The Burnett’s made certain they had plenty of rolls of quarters for Charlie, fans and tourists to play pinball and the Elvis records on the jukebox.

A little further down the street was a Vicker’s Gas Station. Regular gasoline was selling for 52.9 cents per gallon. Ethyl was 54.9. Cigarettes were $4.25 a carton. Anti-Freeze was $3.49.

“My brother Steve and I were at the Gate having arrived around six p.m.,” said Larry Blong, then a 21-year-old college student who lived nearby. “There were a few fans there, maybe fifty or so, knowing that Elvis was home and hoping of course that Elvis would decide to go out.  Elvis used to go and play racquetball at the Tanner Building, but since Elvis had the racquetball building built in his backyard that reason was off the board.”

Larry Blong as ‘Double El” in 1976 (Larry Blong)

“Around 3 am or so Elvis ventured outside and fired up his Harley,” Blong recalled. “Shortly thereafter Elvis came motoring down the drive with a few of the boys in tow.  We caught a great glimpse of Elvis as he always slowed down at the gate in order to acknowledge and wave to the fans.  Elvis never forgot the fans and always remembered that without the fans he might be back to Precision Tool or driving a truck. Kathy, Steve and I didn’t bother to follow Elvis on his Harley, I guess because we had seen him so many times come in and out of the gates.”

Elvis, with Linda Thompson on the back, along with his entourage took the cycles out for a spin. Later they pulled into Vickers. At the gas pump was a sign, “SELF SERV PULL TO LAST PUMP NO SMOKING.”

Graceland’s front gate guard that night was Elvis’ cousin Harold Loyd. He approached Larry, Steve and Kathy and “blurted out that Elvis was in the Vickers gas station and had been in there for fifteen minutes,” Larry said. “So the three of us scampered down the hill and got into Kathy’s Trans Am.  In less than a minute we pulled into the Vickers and standing in the middle of a semi-circle was the ‘King.’”

Kathy remembered that “somebody hollered, ‘Hey, Elvis is at the Vickers gas station up the street,’ so we all ran up there and he was getting gas for his motorcycle and for the ones he bought the guys in his group.”

“I couldn’t really believe what was happening,” said Larry. “I mean how do you walk up to Elvis Presley?  But it was real.  I walked up to Elvis and he actually stuck his hand out to shake hands with me before I put mine out to greet him.  To me this just showed how humble and gracious Elvis Presley was, despite the fact that he is the greatest entertainer the world will ever know.”

Elvis Presley with his cousin Billy Smith riding the Harley in 1976.

“I immediately focused in on Elvis’ face,” he continued. “He was wearing pink tinted shades.  I was amazed at how full Elvis’ lips were. The inside of his sideburns were gray. Elvis took a glove off and showed us a black diamond that he said was very rare.  While talking to Memphis resident Alan Wade, I think his name was, Elvis said that whoever did the painting on his Harley ‘did a fantastic job’.  Elvis signed a credit card for 83 cents worth of gas.  I guess that’s all the Harley could hold.  Elvis was drinking a Coke and a fan (named Karen) asked if she could have the empty bottle.  Of course Elvis obliged.”

“There were a lot of fans there and people were taking pictures and he was talking and signing autographs and was saying how he was superstitious and into numerology and then he showed us this ring he had just gotten and everybody gathered around to see it,” Kathy said. “Then someone said, ‘Let’s go Elvis, we’re drawing a crowd.’ And he said, ‘When we stop drawing a crowd is when we have to worry because that’s when we stop driving new motorcycles.’ I guess he realized that his fans were his fame and his money and that everything he had was the result of their spending the money they had on him.”

“Elvis asked the boys for a cigar, and when they came up empty Elvis slapped his chest with both hands several times and said, ‘What is this, what exactly is this?’” Larry said. “Then they must have made a motion to leave and Elvis said, ‘You don’t say when to go man, you don’t say when to go.’… After Elvis slowly got back on the bike, Steve and I got our second handshakes of the night.  I actually offered Elvis some advice telling him to get out more.  Imagine me giving Elvis advice…”

Elvis Presley at Vickers gas station on Oct. 4, 1976. (Texas Elvis Fan Club archives)

“Just then a girl, Cindy Van Plew from Michigan, asked Elvis if she could have a ride back to the gate,” Larry continued. “Without a helmet Elvis couldn’t say yes, but at the same time didn’t want to hurt her feelings.  Elvis humorously said, ‘Well honey I’m not going right back to the gate, I gotta’ go throw my 5:30 paper route.’ The crowd laughed and with that the King and His Court pulled out of the Vickers.”

As the sun rose that morning, Elvis eventually came back home to Graceland and went to sleep. During that day the US Supreme Court lifted the 1972 ban on the death penalty for convicted murders. Candidate Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford prepared for their televised debate that night. Barbara Walters started earning her $1 million salary by joining anchorman Harry Reasoner on the ABC evening news. In San Francisco, a former Pan American flight attendant gave birth to a baby girl. With her husband, they give their new daughter the name, Alicia Silverstone.

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