45 years ago: A look into the day Elvis died

Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 11:05 PM CDT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - On the 45th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, one of Elvis’ best friends was interviewed along with the firefighter who photographed that momentous week in Memphis history.

In 1977, Raymond Chiozza was a fresh-faced recruit with the Memphis Fire Department (MFD), just 21 years old with a passion for photography. Jerry Schilling was a member of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’ inner circle.

Today, Schilling is 80 years old, but he remembers the day Elvis died like it was yesterday.

Chiozza, now the executive director of the Shelby County Emergency Communications District, opened up his archives to share some of the most emotional pictures he captured, and talked about what it was like operating the MFD switchboard when the world found out that the King of Rock and Roll had died.

Crowds of Elvis fans gather in the streets after the beloved music legend's death. Chiozza was...
Crowds of Elvis fans gather in the streets after the beloved music legend's death. Chiozza was just 21 years old when he shot this image.(Raymond Chiozza)

”I just came on duty about five minutes before the call came in,” Chiozza said, “and at the time, we didn’t know who it was. The ambulance got there and within a few minutes we received word from fire officials, the lieutenant down there, the EMS lieutenant said that it was Elvis.”

Chiozza said the phone lines soon lit up and it was all hands on deck at MFD.

“Within five to 10 minutes, every news organization in America and Britain, all over the world, was calling us,” he said, “we were frantically setting up where we could transfer those calls all over the department for other personnel to start answering them and deal with them.”

“He had been found in his bathroom,” WMC-TV anchor Mason Granger reported that evening, “unconscious, not breathing.”

Chiozza would document the massive crowd that gathered outside Graceland the next day, hundreds of heartbroken fans standing outside in the blistering summer heat.

“It’s amazing the number of law enforcement and paramedics out there treating people because it was real hot,” he said, “The fans were walking up the drive there to the mansion, and we had police and personnel up on top of the brick wall and the gate out front watching the crowd.”

Chiozza also took photographs at the cemetery, Forrest Hill South, where Elvis fans gathered to grieve and save a piece of the King’s passing.

“After they paid their respects,” Chiozza said, “they were gathering some of the flowers that were left outside to bring home with them.”

Schilling, one of Elvis’ best friends and a member of the Memphis Mafia, talked about that fateful day at Memphis Rotary on Tuesday.

More than four decades later, he said his memory of the loss of the music icon, is a little less bitter-sweet.

”That was the low end,” he said referring to the day Elvis died, “but today I thought about how he’s remembered with a new movie, with fans, with all the people here in Memphis from around the world, and that made me smile.”

In death, as in life, the King of Rock and Roll still makes an impact on so many people.

“His legacy, his story,” Schilling said, “has never been more predominant and positive, as it should be, than right now. Today.”

“It was amazing, being 21 years old,” Chiozza said, “and seeing all that. It was an experience.”

Schilling gave a sold-out private tour of the mansion on the anniversary of his friend’s death this year, as part of Elvis Week 2022, which concludes on August 17.

The final day will start with a gospel morning sing-along, then move on to a tour of the stables with Priscilla Presley and wrap up with a Viva Las Vegas farewell party at Guesthouse at Graceland.

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