Freeze Frame: The Elvis Presley photo that broke the world’s heart
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When the King of Rock n’ Roll Elvis Presley was just 23, he was in the midst of the biggest rise of his legendary music career.
The young crooner had hit the big time in the late 1950s and had taken emergency leave from a stint in the US army after learning his mother, Gladys, was gravely ill.
Elvis was unusually devoted to his parents Vernon and Gladys, who humbly raised their son in Memphis before he became a worldwide phenomenon.
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As their only child after his twin was born still, Elvis was truly the apple of his mother’s eye.
The mother-son duo were so close that Elvis even shared a bed with her until he was in his teens. “She was the number-one girl in his life, and he was dedicating his career to her,” a reporter for the Memphis Press Scimitar once wrote.
During his long stretches away on tour or recording music, Elvis’ mother had “neglected” her health. Reports at the time claimed she began drinking heavily and was diagnosed with serious liver problems.
However Elvis biographer Sally Hoedel, who wrote Elvis: Destined to Die Youngsaid Gladys had underlying health issues that contributed to her early death.
“Gladys has always been painted as this woman whose son became famous, bought her a big house and she just struggled to deal with it all and essentially died of a broken heart,” Hoedel wrote.
“But that’s not how it works. I think Elvis and Vernon [Elvis’ father] both knew who knew how sick she was before he left for the army.”
Gladys’ ill health meant the singer was allowed to return home on an emergency furlough from the army on August 12, 1958 to visit.
Just two days later, Gladys died at age 46 in a Memphis hospital from a reported heart attack. Elvis was described as “sobbing and crying hysterically” in the hours and days following his beloved mother’s death.
She was the number-one girl in his life, and he was dedicating his career to her
On the day of Gladys’ death, Elvis and his father Vernon addressed the waiting press on the steps of their now-famous Graceland home.
An iconic photo of a grief-stricken Elvis was snapped as he sat next to his heartbroken father.
Few could forget the look of devastation in the music legend’s eyes as he grappled with the loss of his number one fan and supporter. The photo, even 64 years on, is still remembered as one of Elvis’ toughest personal moments.
The moment was also memorably immortalised in film in Baz Luhrmann’s 2022 movie Elvis.
Elvis’ public display of grief was bittersweet for the Jailhouse Rock hitmaker. The black-and-white images of Elvis and Vernon were plastered across newspapers around the country.
The coverage softened the harsh critique of Elvis and his “controversial” music and dance moves in the press.
The AP reported that Elvis was in “near hysteria” at his mother’s funeral on August 16.
The publication also shared Elvis’ “grief-stricken” words at his mother’s graveside. “Goodbye, darling. We loved you,” he said. “Oh God, everything I have is gone. I lived my life for you. I loved you so much.”
Following Gladys’ death, The Evening News reported the King of Rock and Roll had always put his parents’ first following his meteoric rise to fame.
“Unlike so many sons, when fortune smiled, Elvis Presley thought first of his parents’ welfare. He provided generously for them,” the report read.
“It was gratifying to note he saw his mother just a few hours before she died, having arrived home on emergency leave from the armed forces.”
It is said that Elvis never truly got over his mother’s premature death – even until the day he died 19 years later to the exact day at age 42.
“It broke my heart,” Elvis said before his own death in 1977. “She was always my best girl.”
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