There is much emotion among many in the nation today as Graceland was opened this morning to the public for a memorial service for Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis. With powerful words and numerous musical selections, the program was a stirring reminder of the connection fans around the globe have for the man who changed music and culture. Elvis’ family has become a part of the national fabric the way the Kennedy family formed emotional chords of unity. This phenomenon has been rather remarkable to witness going on for 50 years. Growing up as a teenager in the 70s I was drawn to the music and mood that was conveyed in performances ranging from Treat Me Nice to Its Midnight. From my rural and too-often redneck community, I found strength in Elvis having worn pink shirts and a ducktail in a direct middle finger salute to the norms of his time. His message was not lost on a kid from Hancock who was trying to bend the norms in his hometown, too.
While there are many stories and photos today of the program and the grief in Memphis, I want to take a different path with this post and in so doing add some trivia for fans that are always in search of another aspect to the larger story concerning EP they might not have been aware of previously.
My name is Chuck Houston, President of Houston Brothers, Inc., a funeral car dealer in Marietta, GA. Around 1984, I was the last person to drive the hearse that carried Elvis to his grave. Our Company, then known as Crain S&S Sales which my father owned, bought, sold, leased and traded cars with SCI. He did so for many years. He originally sold the car new to SCI. We came back into possession of Elvis’s hearse when Memphis FH updated their rolling stock.We were loaning the hearse to a funeral home in South Florida until their new vehicle was ready for delivery. My father was reluctant to loan the car out. He wanted to hang on to it, the only car he ever wanted to keep in 50 years of business.The funeral home in Florida was one of his biggest customers and needed a white/white loaner desperately. Elvis’s hearse happened to be the only white hearse on the lot. Another employee and I, both of us about 21 at the time (we were going to drop off the car and then spend a few days of spring break in Ft. Lauderdale) took off toward Miami on I-75 around 7:00 pm.Around 10:00 we ran out of gas just north of Valdosta, GA. What was odd is that a tank of gas in those days would carry you from Marietta, GA to the Live Oak exit in Florida with gas left in the tank. That was based on the many, many cars my friend and I delivered to the south Florida area in the early ’80s. Therefore we never checked the gas gauge until we were in the vicinity of Live Oak.
After running out of gas, we walked about two miles to the next exit, bought a can and some gas and started back up the northbound return ramp toward Elvis’s hearse. Before reaching the highway a Lowndes County Sheriff stopped us, asked where we were going and called us a cab. We got her going again and headed for the gas station to fill her up. Heading south again, we were on our way. Just as the weigh station (the last one on southbound 75) came into sight the engine cut off. I dropped her into neutral while traveling around 65 mph and turned the ignition. When I did, fire shot out from under the hood on both sides. I eased her to the shoulder next to the weigh station return ramp and my friend and I jumped from the hearse as the fire engulfed the front end of the hearse.My friend and I met at the rear of the car and realized all of our possessions were in the rear of the hearse and the doors were locked. We couldn’t get back in the front to retrieve the keys due to the fire having already spread. A truck driver appeared with a fire extinguisher but it was too late. Neither of us wanted to get close for fear the hearse would blow up. So there we stood and watched as Elvis’s hearse went up in flames. A fire truck finally arrived and all they could save was the rear quarter panels, the rear door, and bumper.