Suspicious Minds: The Bizarre, 40-Year History of Elvis Presley Sightings

Getty Images
Getty Images

On August 16, 1977, something momentous happened in Memphis, Tennessee. It was either the death of Elvis Presley at the age of 42, as more than 80 percent of Americans believe, or the start of the most spectacular disappearing act in the history of mankind.

"Elvis is alive” theories are as varied as they are plentiful, and they’ve been circulating since just after his death. He’s left the realm of popular entertainers and joined the ranks of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and to some, Jesus. What follows is a brief history of why some people refuse to let this American icon rest in peace.

THE FIRST SIGHTING

On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Elvis is said to have purchased a one-way ticket from Memphis International Airport to Buenos Aires. He supposedly gave the name Jon Burrows, a pseudonym Elvis used when checking into hotels. Patrick Lacy, author of the book Elvis Decoded, claims to have debunked this popular and wholly unsubstantiated story by interviewing airport officials and determining that international flights weren’t available from Memphis in 1977. There’s also the question of why the most famous man on the planet would risk going into a public place in his hometown in order to book airfare for the purpose of faking his own death. Maybe Elvis figured his acting skills would help him avoid suspicion.

THE FUNERAL

A great deal of “Elvis is alive” intrigue centers on August 18, 1977, the day of Presley's funeral. Footage of the service shows pallbearers struggling to lift a 900-pound copper coffin. The King had packed on a few pounds in his later years, but there’s no way he was pushing a half-ton. One explanation: The casket was outfitted with a cooling system—the kind you’d use to keep a wax dummy of a beloved celebrity from melting on a hot summer day. Sound crazy? Presley’s cousin Gene Smith thought the body looked a little strange. “His nose looked kinda puggy-looking, and his right sideburn was sticking straight out—it looked about an inch,” Smith said in the 1991 special The Elvis Files. “And his hairline looked like a hairpiece or something was glued on.” Smith was also troubled by the smoothness of Presley’s typically calloused hands and the sweat on his brow.

Attentive fans were further spooked when they saw the King’s headstone. The inscription reads “Elvis Aaron Presley,” even though he’d been given the middle name “Aron,” possibly in memory of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. The theory here is that Elvis used the incorrect spelling to signal fans that he was still alive. Another one of Elvis’s cousins, Billy Smith, claimed the singer simply preferred the more common double-A spelling, as legal documents bearing Presley’s signature attest.

THE DEATH ITSELF

Traditionally, you can’t have a funeral without a death, and what killed the King is another major source of controversy. The medical examiner’s official cause of death was “hypertensive heart disease associated with atherosclerotic heart disease.” Elvis weighed at least 250 pounds in his final days, and one Baptist Memorial Hospital staffer told Rolling Stone, he had “the arteries of an 80-year-old man.” So a massive heart attack isn’t exactly far-fetched. But toxicologists found more than 10 drugs in Presley’s system, fueling speculation that “polypharmacy” played a role in his death.

The general confusion surrounding these and other jargony cause-of-death explanations has undoubtedly helped to foster conspiracy theories. So have issues concerning official paperwork. Elvis’s death certificate will remain under wraps until 2027, 50 years after his passing. While this may seem like further proof of a cover-up, it’s actually a matter of Tennessee law. As for Presley’s autopsy report: It’s a private family document unlikely to ever see the light of day.

THE POOL HOUSE PHOTO

The second major Elvis sighting came in the form of a photo snapped on December 31, 1977. While visiting Graceland with his family, a man named Mike Joseph took some random pictures of Presley’s pool house. A few years later, while studying them with a magnifying glass, Joseph spotted a shadowy Elvis-like figure sitting in the doorway. Experts at Kodak verified that nothing had been doctored, so it seems someone was peering out the window. In an interview with Larry King, Elvis’s good buddy Joe Esposito suggested it was another Presley associate, Al Strada, in the photo. That explanation was good enough for Joseph, but not everyone is satisfied.

A similar case of mistaken identity led to some excitement a few years later, when sports agent Larry Kolb was captured looking uncannily Elvis-like alongside his client (and Elvis’s pal) Muhammad Ali and Jesse Jackson in a 1984 newspaper photo. Kolb came forward with an original color version of the image proving that it was him—not Elvis—in the shot, but that’s hardly laid the matter to rest. Asked in an interview to identify the man in the background, Ali reportedly said, “That’s my friend Elvis.”

THE KING OF KALAMAZOO

In the late ‘80s, the epicenter of the “Elvis lives” universe shifted to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a city Elvis played four months before his death. In 1988, a woman named Louise Welling from nearby Vicksburg claimed she had seen Presley standing in line at the local Felpausch supermarket. He was rocking a white jumpsuit, naturally, and purchasing an electrical fuse. Welling’s daughter later spied him scarfing Whoppers at Burger King. "What gives this account eerie credibility,” expert David Adler told the Los Angeles Times in an interview promoting his Presley-themed cookbook, “is that Burger King was by far Elvis's favorite fast food chain.”

BACK ON THE BIG SCREEN?

The Kalamazoo hullabaloo spawned a rash of late-’80s Elvis sightings, many of which involved the King doing un-regal things, like pumping gas or buying junk food. These were consistent with the notion that he’d faked his own death to escape the public eye (or the mafia, as one theory holds) and return to his humble roots. But Elvis loved movies—he starred in 31—and Christmas, so it almost makes sense that he would risk blowing his cover by appearing in the 1990 holiday comedy Home Alone.

Believers of this bizarre theory contend that a 55-year-old Presley turned up in the background of the scene where Catherine O’Hara’s character is stuck at the Scranton airport while trying to get home to her son. There’s a bearded guy behind her who looks a little like Elvis in Charro! (1969) and cocks his head in a manner that conspiracy theorists swear is identical to Presley’s onstage mannerisms. Curiously, director Chris Columbus went into Home Alone having just made Heartbreak Hotel, a 1988 flop about some kids who try to kidnap Elvis. Columbus and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin laugh about the theory in the DVD commentary, but the identity of the extra remains unknown. Even if the real bearded man were to come forward, it probably wouldn’t kill the story.

GROUNDSKEEPER PRESLEY

In the summer of 2016, video of a Graceland groundskeeper purported to be Elvis got the internet all shook up. In the clip, a gray-haired dude in a baseball cap and Elvis Week T-shirt fusses with some wire and holds up two fingers—apparently some type of numerological clue—as he walks past the camera.

The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube—far more than the one where a clever Elvis fan debunks the whole thing by chatting with the actual Graceland employee, an affable gentleman named Bill Barmer. “I’m not really 81,” says Barmer, who then compares himself to a Pokémon Go character.

THE FUTURE

“Elvis is alive” theories can’t go on forever. The man would now be in his 80s, and the oldest person on record only lived to 122. That means we've got maybe another 40 years of stories about the King chilling in Argentina or sipping coffee at Tim Hortons or doing whatever you do as an elderly man who’s been in hiding since the Carter Administration. Unless it turns out Elvis is immortal.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In an interview accompanying The Beatles Anthology DVD, George Harrison likens a brief 1972 encounter with Elvis at Madison Square Garden to “meeting Vishnu or Krishna or something.” His hair was black, his skin was tan, and his aura left the Beatle feeling like “a snooty little nobody.” Harrison may have been hinting at something Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper said rather deftly with their 1987 single “Elvis Is Everywhere.” Alive or dead, Presley is one pop culture deity we’ll never stop worshipping.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Songwriters

A songwriter in her natural habitat.
A songwriter in her natural habitat.
Soundtrap, Unsplash

Behind every club banger and power ballad is an eclectic team of individuals, each with their own role in its creation and promotion. Needless to say, it couldn’t happen without the songwriters. These gifted musicians don’t just pen the lyrics that fuel all your car concerts and karaoke nights—they also manage egos, help artists articulate their innermost feelings, and juggle their own side gigs. So what does a songwriting career actually look like? Mental Floss chatted with three experienced songwriters about everything from how they make money to how they make hits.

1. It’s common for songwriters to have their own music careers.

From Carole King to Pharrell Williams, the music industry has long teemed with talented artists who’ve written songs for other acts—so it’s not exactly surprising that so many songwriters are nurturing what they call their own “artist projects.” In fact, all three songwriters interviewed for this article have released new music in the last few months. Daniel Capellaro released the EP Nightside [A] in November under the moniker “Dvniel”; Skyler Stonestreet’s first single as “The Sunshine State” dropped in late October; and Trent Park has been unveiling a steady stream of singles and corresponding music videos since June.

Though it seems like it could be difficult to constantly fork over songs that they might want to release themselves, the collaborative nature of the business prevents this from being a major issue. Often, the songwriter is working off ideas and emotions specific to the artist they’re writing for, so the song truly feels like it belongs to that artist. Other times, the song gets tweaked by so many writers and producers that it’s no longer the original songwriter’s personal opus. “When a song comes out, sometimes I’m like, ‘Ah that was good, but I would’ve done it a totally different way,” Park says. “But that means it wouldn’t be the song that it is.”

2. Songwriters sometimes have to fake it ’til they make it.

In a business built on relationships, it’s pivotal for up-and-coming songwriters to always be on the lookout for new connections. Sometimes, this means acting first and thinking later. During Capellaro’s early days in Los Angeles, his demo CD was his de facto business card. About a month after giving one to an executive from Universal Music Group, he got a call from the company asking when he was playing next. Having no dates lined up, he picked one at random: March 16. “So I hang up and I'm like, ‘OK, I’ve just committed to playing a show. I've got no venue. I've got no band. I have to get all this put together in the next 30 days,” Capellaro remembers.

He found a former bass player from the band Lifehouse on Craigslist, and the two set about securing the rest of the band. For the venue, Capellaro chose a well-known rehearsal space called SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals), only to find out that the Universal exec slated to see the show “[had] never signed a single act at SIR—she hates that place.” It was too late to switch venues, so Capellaro reassured his Universal contact over the phone that “she won’t recognize it” and immediately transported everything in his recently furnished living room to the stage to give it a whole new look. “I had a couch, a rug, tea candles,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like MTV Unplugged.” The hard-to-please executive was duly impressed. “She’s like ‘You sound great. How long have you guys been playing together?’ and I’m like, ‘Ah, you know, for a while.’ I didn’t want to tell her ‘Four days.’”

When asked what surprised him most about the industry, Park answered without hesitation: “That nobody knows what they’re doing.” He, too, confessed to occasional fibbery. “There are some times when I reach out to an artist and I say, ‘I love your stuff. I have a song for you,'” he says. “I’m completely lying. I just want to work with that person, and once they reach out I end up formulating songs in the vein of their stuff.”

3. Songwriters don’t just write for career music artists.

Songwriters like Capellaro and Stonestreet, who are signed to music publishing companies, mainly do work on songs for fellow artists. Park, on the other hand, is an independent songwriter—so his clients sometimes come from other industries altogether. “Right now I'm writing for a couple lawyers that are just doing it as a passion, but they pay me really well,” he says. “I’m there for everyone. Honestly, it’s way better money.” Park also spent a few weeks writing songs for the wife of a billionaire app developer. Not only did she pay him triple his per-song rate and triple his per-diem rate, she also insisted on posting him up in a luxury hotel and giving him an additional $500 each day for food and other expenses. “That was a really cool [scenario],” Park says, “I’m hoping for more of those.”

4. There are countless ways to create a song—and countless people involved.

Songwriting isn’t exactly a linear process. “You can start from any place,” Capellaro says. “You can start with someone toe-tapping, or have a piano pulled up and just start playing a C chord over and over again.” Often, the record label has already started for you—they’ll send an instrumental track to multiple songwriters, who each adds their own lyrics and melody. Then, the label simply chooses their favorite.

Other songs originate in songwriting camps. Basically, a record label will gather various songwriters in a house, split them into small groups, and “see if magic happens,” Stonestreet says. During a camp meant to generate hits for Dua Lipa a few years ago, it did: Stonestreet and several other writers penned her 2018 single “IDGAF.”

But even after a track has lyrics and a melody, there’s always a chance it’ll undergo another round of edits. Maybe a label liked a certain producer’s work on another song, so they ask them to tweak this one; or they bring in a new writer to fine-tune a few words or add a post-chorus. Big artists also sometimes have personal collaborators that they want credited on the song, whether or not they actually helped create it. “That’s why when you look at a Katy Perry song, you’re like ‘How did 14 people write this one song that has the most juvenile lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life?’ They didn’t—it’s all politics,” Capellaro says.

5. Songwriters don’t make much from music streaming services like Spotify.

Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are notorious for pocketing most of the earnings from artists’ work. Spotify, for example, pays the rights holder as little as $0.006 for each stream—and that paltry sum must then be split among all the people involved in making the song. Songwriters, producers, musicians, managers, label executives, and any number of other people could each be entitled to a certain percentage of the profits. “I have over a million streams on one catalog, and that translated to $785,” Capellaro says. “If I sold a million copies, I would’ve had a house up in [Beverly Hills].” Not only are the rates low, but artists also have to somehow make their songs stand out from the tens of thousands of other new songs released each week, which Capellaro admits is “virtually impossible.”

6. Songwriters often juggle other jobs.

Since songwriters can’t rely on streaming dividends for income—and salaried music publishing positions don’t always come easy—they often make ends meet with a variety of side gigs. Park realized early in his career that while songwriters were mainly earning money from royalties, producers were often paid an hourly rate or up-front lump sum. “So I learned how to produce,” he says. Then, he purchased a mic and other equipment so he could record vocals at home—like hooks for people’s rap or EDM songs. “Basically, I’m an a la carte thing,” he explained. Park eventually branched out into music video production, and he’s now directed videos for chart-topping artists like G-Eazy and Ty Dolla $ign. He also served as a music technical consultant for 2020’s The High Note, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson; in that position, he made sure the dialogue, instruments, and other music-related details matched real life.

Even when a songwriter appears to be working a job entirely unrelated to the music industry, there could be a shrewd reason for doing so. Capellaro spent more than a decade running a restaurant called Amici in Brentwood, California. “I knew I wanted to be there because that’s where the celebrities live,” he explains. Sure enough, he connected with people like J.J. Abrams, Laura Dern, and Bonnie Hunt, who was hosting her NBC talk show at the time. One evening while refilling Hunt’s water glass, Capellaro posed a question: “Hey Bonnie, what would it take to be on your show?” She asked if he had a CD on hand, which he did, and booked him as a musical guest within weeks. The day after the taping, Hunt dined at Amici again and lauded Capellaro for his performance. “I’m like, ‘This is so surreal. I was just on your show yesterday, and now I’m bringing you sea bass.” A producer who caught the performance later reached out to Capellaro and ended up inviting him to his studio for songwriting sessions—which yielded hits for Chris Brown and Boyz II Men.

It was also at Amici that Capellaro developed a friendship with Marc Caruso, a music engineer who happened to be the founder of a music publishing company called Angry Mob Music Group. About five years ago, Caruso, knowing Capellaro was itching to give up his restaurant job and focus on music full-time, offered him a music publishing deal; Capellaro’s been there ever since.

7. Songwriters have to form close bonds with artists in a few hours or less.

Because the goal is to create a song that feels personal to the artist, songwriters usually prefer to work directly with them whenever possible. And getting the artist to give them some seed of inspiration means forging a deep friendship with them within minutes of entering the studio.

“There’s so much trust that needs to happen in the room. You’re telling potentially intimate details about yourself that would be uncomfortable sharing [with a stranger]. So much of it is trying to create a safe place for the artist and a safe place for the writers, all the while dealing with egos the size of tall buildings,” Capellaro says. “It’s almost like a therapy session: What’s your mood today? What happened over the weekend? What’re you pissed off about? What’re you inspired by at this very moment? Because it can change at 5 p.m. today, and maybe that inspires the song.”

Stonestreet expressed a similar sentiment. “I honestly love when the artist is involved. You won’t know anything specific unless you’re sitting there having a conversation—it can be emotional. You form a relationship, and you trust each other to handle the information.”

8. Songwriters have to say “no” without actually saying “no.”

Songwriters have to find creative ways of steering a song in the right direction without flatly rejecting an artist’s not-so-great suggestion. Stonestreet might toss out a compliment and lean on the lackluster reaction of the room as evidence that they haven’t yet struck gold. Something to the effect of: “‘That’s cool, and I like it, but maybe it’s not jumping out, and it’s not making everyone jump around the room and [giving everyone] that feeling of ‘This is so exciting.’”

“I always say, ‘Let’s try it,’” Park says. “‘I don’t necessarily hear what you’re talking about, but let’s try it.’” Sometimes, hearing their idea come to life is enough to make the artist realize it isn’t a great fit. Park also occasionally asks the artist’s manager, significant other, or another trusted party to weigh in, hoping they’ll side with him. “But I am always honest. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think the idea works. If you like it, 100-percent do it. It’s not my vibe, but it’s your song.'”

And since the artist does have final say, the writers also need to know when to cut their losses. If the artist is hell-bent on certain subpar lyrics? “You’re going to go with whatever they’re going to like,” Capellaro says.

9. Songs sometimes get lost in the abyss.

Earlier this year, Stonestreet wrote Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s duet “Stuck with U,” which got released mere weeks later. “I just heard the demo of it last week, and it’s coming out Friday. I don’t understand what’s going on,” she thought at the time. “That was a freak thing. Usually you do have to wait a minute.” A minute could be a year—or never. “So many people have to say yes to the song for it to come out … All the label’s people, the artist’s team, your team.” Even after getting all those green lights, a single could still test poorly among advance radio reviewers and end up stalling indefinitely.

Sometimes, a record label neglects to send the finished product back to the songwriter. “I think some songs can go into a complete abyss where they just sit on a hard drive for years and years,” Stonestreet says.

10. Songwriters have mixed feelings about making music via Zoom.

Since songwriting often involves multiple people spending long hours in a small studio, the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend the whole system. So songwriters went virtual. Some, like Park and Stonestreet, already had recording equipment at home; Capellaro, meanwhile, quickly invested in a mic, a monitor, cables, and all the other requisite gadgets. To shift the workflow online, they’ve had to more clearly define each person’s task for each song.

“I’m a vocalist, so I’m going to record vocals in my house, and I will send the stems to producer X, Y, or Z, have them tune them for me [and] put them into the rest of the track," Capellaro says. “I can have another guy master it, [and] we can always hop on a FaceTime or Zoom call to get it written and recorded.” This streamlined process has actually helped with productivity. “I have been writing more music since March than I was previously,” Capellaro says.

Making music via video chat tends to work better with fewer people, so Stonestreet has enjoyed the opportunity for more one-on-one sessions. When there are several people on the call, they cut down on confusion over who’s speaking (and singing) by thoroughly explaining each suggestion. “You really talk things through, which has been really nice,” she says. That said, the camaraderie born in the studio is hard to recreate on a computer screen, and songwriters are eager to experience that again. “I love Zoom, but I also really miss people in the room with me,” Stonestreet says.