'Elvis Memphis to Madison 1977'

A moment during Elvis' Final Curtain

EIN Spotlight - By Bruce Frey

Bruce Frey witnessed Elvis stopping a brawl at a Madison Gas Station in June of 1977 - the very last time Elvis would be on tour. 

This particular public encounter with Presley at the gas station has been written about numerous times. Bruce Frey first reported the event to the local newspapers the next day and since then it has been re-told multiple times in various biographies.

Now over 30 years later, Bruce Frey tells it properly for the first time. Over the years he has gathered enough information to finally piece the puzzle together. Bruce has interviewed nearly everyone involved, including bodyguard Sam Thompson, cousin Billy Smith and Veteran Police Detective Tom McCarthy.

Here for the first time is the full story as he witnessed it.

An EIN Exclusive by Bruce Frey


Now updated: Shirley Dieu was one of the close group of friends who went with Elvis to his final vacation in Hawaii, in March 1977. (photo right)

On June 25th 1977 she was on tour with Elvis when the infamous Madison Gas Station incident took place.
Shirley recently told Bruce Frey all about Elvis' reactions and how Elvis loved to defend the underdog. See below.

ELVIS: Memphis to Madison - By Bruce Frey.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin when it still had a small town feel and the pace seemed a little less hectic. My mother still lives in the same eastside house where we grew up. I still frequently travel past the gas station were I had my encounter with Elvis Presley as a young adult. The gas station sat vacant for a long time, but recently was torn down to make way for yet another car lot. Each time I pass the station, I still envision the chance encounter with the ultimate celebrity and can picture the way everything was. It routinely brings a smile to my face.

The Skylane Standard gas station lot was located at a busy intersection at the northwest corner of Highway 51 and Highway 151. In 1977 it was a four pump station with traditional glass pane windows. You still might get your oil checked if you asked and gas was 62 cents per gallon.

My encounter with Elvis Presley was a chance meeting and apparently in June of 1977, being able to meet Elvis was about as easy as winning the lottery. Elvis had become increasingly reclusive, living a hermit like existence, and other than the concerts he performed he was not accessible to his fans. Presley was put into an increasingly more secretive routine with the threat of a tell-all book by his just fired bodyguards. His physical appearance and public’s perception of him weighed heavily on his mind.

This particular public encounter with Presley at the gas station has been written about numerous times. I first reported the event to the local newspapers and the next morning it ran on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal. The story has appeared in local newspapers on different Elvis milestones and I have seen it referred to in numerous books on Elvis life.

UPI covered the story with the tag "Elvis swings into action-but without his guitar" Most recently a local radio station tried to attract attention to the incident by getting interest in marking the spot where the king stepped out of his limo. The interest in this event near the end of Elvis’ life was fascinating, but what makes it so compelling to the average person or legendary in Elvis fan circles? Well its "Elvis" and most baby boomers remember him launching rock ‘n’ roll history and starring in a series of films. That coupled with the fact that Presley would decide to leave the comfort and security of his escorted limo ride to his hotel and confront a couple of thugs stirs intrigue in the average person. I have heard the story many times and have seen it in print and now its time to share my version as I witnessed it.

Elvis Presley performed eight times in the State of Wisconsin. His first show was a rare northern trip at the zenith of his success. Records indicate he performed on May 14, 1956 in LaCrosse, at the Mary E. Sawyer Auditorium. Police and MP’s from nearby Fort McCoy couldn’t contain the crowd and Presley was forced to flee to a second story balcony. Fan’s formed a human pyramid nearly 30 feet high to get a glimpse of him in the dressing room. The local newspapers later wrote to J Edgar Hoover of the FBI expressing concerns of this rock ‘n’ roll menace. Elvis did not return back in Wisconsin until the latter part of his career at the Milwaukee Auditorium Arena in the mid 1970’s.

Presley would appear in the Madison area for the first time on October 19, 1976.

Presley flew into Madison, for the first time Oct 18, 1976 to perform for his first ever concert in the capital city. Elvis 880 Convair touched down at the Four Lakes aviation center the night before his concert. The local manager of the airport reported that after Presley’s plane touched down he and his entourage of 20 were whisked away.

Elvis stayed at the Edgewater Hotel this trip and occupied the 4th and 5th floors exclusively. Several local high school students and local reporters attempted to get a glimpse of the king in Madison. They were all unsuccessful and turned away on each attempt.

The local papers reported that a line stayed overnight to obtain the $12.50 tickets for this first concert in Madison, and that they were being scalped for $50.00 locally. Elvis did approximately 1 hour of the 2 hour and 15 minute show. At the time he was receiving approximately $ 100.000 for 1 hour of work throughout these secondary venues.

Many of these places Elvis had not played before and the local crowd would be very enthusiastic for a chance to see Elvis in concert for the first time. The show’s reviews all were fair and it appears Elvis was in relatively good shape during this first Madison appearance. Mayor Paul Soglin declared it "Elvis Presley Day" to complete this inaugural appearance. After the concert Elvis immediately departed for his next engagement. This would be part of a exhausting pattern that would lead to Presley’s dark clouds as 1977 arrived.

Presley would appear in Madison, again in 1977 for the final time. After decades of performing, it would be his third to last concert performance of his life. In June of 1977 I had been out of high school for two years, attending a local college and still living at home. That night June 23, 1977, was another routine warm summer evening with little or nothing to do. My parents had gone out for the evening and tasked me with overlooking my five younger sisters, increasing my restlessness. I don’t recall what prompted my last minute outing to the Four Lakes airport to see Elvis plane come in. Obviously the boredom won out and the local talk of Elvis plane arriving under the same time and circumstances further prompted my interest. For reasons unknown one of my sisters and I jumped into my Pontiac and made the short trip to the airport. This would not be the quiet scene that played out when Elvis arrived unnoticed the previous year. Driving into the parking lot connected to the airport I observed a hefty crowd waiting for Presley’s second arrival to Madison. I surveyed the scene and thought a short wait may be in order as the excitement was slightly contagious.

As I milled about with my sister, Bernadette, I asked several fans of the planes arrival time, receiving a variety of answers, none of which I had any confidence in. Standing along a fence with a crowd watching a darkened runway started to lose it’s luster.

(Right:Bruce Frey's photo of the Lisa Marie)

Anticipating the plane’s arrival my sister and I ventured into a small airport terminal building adjacent to the runway. The door was unlocked and the building stood virtually empty except for two older gentlemen standing in the lounge area. Seeing that they were the only two people in the building we ambled toward them to inquire if they knew when the plane was due to arrive.

As I got closer I recognized both men. One was Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis manager, and Vernon Presley, Elvis father. At this moment, I had no inclination that this meeting would ignite an evening of extraordinary intrigue. What I failed to realize at this particular moment was that I was setting in motion a meeting that would eventually complete an unusual rock n’ roll trinity.

I approached Colonel Parker directly pretending not to know who he was. I asked what time Elvis plane was due to arrive. Col. Parker appeared gracious and not put off by this unsolicited contact. I’m sure of one thing in this interaction: I may have gotten a response, but in the history of this carnival huckster, I’m sure I did not receive an answer. He appeared to be what his reputation purported him to be. The colonel was dressed in a long, short sleeve Hawaiian shirt, wearing a baseball cap, baggy slacks and glasses. Mr. Presley looked on without commenting and stood in the background, quiet and unassuming. As I was walking away after this brief encounter I realized that I been talking to Elvis’s original manager. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to mark this occasion in some manner I found a half ripped envelope and asked for an autograph. What I received in return was a scribbled "Col Park" signature but never the less a memento of this occasion.

After leaving the lobby my sister and I returned to the fence along the runway area only to find that the amount of fans had doubled, taking up the best fence positions to view the runway. I glanced at my watch noting that it was close to midnight and I thought we could wait a few minutes more. Eventually the crowd began to buzz and slowly stir with rumors of the planes pending arrival. The approach of two stretch limos onto the runway seemed to confirm the buzz. A portable stairway to unload passengers from the jet was being pushed into position eliciting several screams from an eager crowd.

My best estimate is that Elvis’ plane, the Lisa Marie, named after his daughter, touched down at the Four Lakes Aviation Center for the last time sometime just before midnight. The limos went into a short positioning dance to get the best angle for its intended passengers. The plane’s engines groaned to a stop and the crew began preparing and positioning the portable steps to the doorway. The hatch opened immediately eliciting another scream from the crowd. Several staff members began to filter out from the aircraft and stepped out to mill around the limos and light up cigarettes. Several female members of Presley’s entourage departed and the crowd sensed that there couldn’t be many more left to exit the plane. A loud scream erupted and I immediately turned my attention back to the plane as Elvis appeared at the doorway to his jet. A quick wave to the crowd from about 200 yards away was slightly under whelming to me, but apparently not to the majority of people gathered.

As he entered the limo I did what every person does when they’re faced with a small parking lot and a big crowd, find a fast exit out ahead of them. I tapped my sister on the shoulder and said "I think that’s it, let’s get out of here" We jogged to my car as the rest of crowd lingered. My decision to leave before the crowd put into motion a series of events that would allow me to complete the rock ‘n’ roll trilogy that this evening had already begun.

Driving home in my Pontiac I had no idea that Elvis Presley had been involved in several gas station incidents in his lifetime. The most famous occurred in his hometown of Memphis on October 18, 1956 when the owner of a local gas station became perturbed that female fans were hanging around Elvis car and impolitely demanded Elvis leave his station. Words were exchanged and the station manager, Ed Hopper, cuffed Elvis to the back of his head starting a fight. The stations attendant, Aubrey Brown, all 6’4 of him also took on Elvis. Elvis handled both men until the police arrived.

All three participants ended up in front of the local judge (right) with Elvis being acquitted and the other two fined for assault and battery. They were subsequently also fired by the station’s manager for attacking there hometown rock ‘n’ roll star.

Another unconfirmed gas station encounter talked about in Presley circles was of a late night encounter in West Los Angeles, According to associates, Presley was driving down Sunset Boulevard when someone in a group of people milling around a gas station gave him the one-finger salute. Elvis wheeled the car around and confronted this person, after several heated words, knocked him down with two kicks to the head. That there may have been a confrontation is not in doubt. That Elvis Presley knocked someone out with karate kicks on Sunset Boulevard and that it was never reported leaves the story open to question. Many in Presley’s entourage believes slight exaggerations may have been involved in Presley’s account of the incident.

That evening in my car I could not have imagined that I was about to run directly into Presley’s last gas station confrontation. The drive from the airport to my home with light traffic would be a short one. It would take me quickly from the airport and past the old Badger drive-in, on Highway 51 were I had watched several Elvis movies with my family on the outdoor screens. I was only hoping my parents wouldn't be home yet and that one of my sister’s would cover for me. I did not want to be discovered missing from my babysitting duties.

As I neared the intersection where the gas station was located I noticed a black limo stopped in traffic while facing a green light. The limo sat through the traffic light while it turned to red and I impatiently considered pulling around it. I looked at the vehicle more closely to determine what type of vehicle trouble it was having or if it was involved in some kind of accident. As I was deciding to pull around the car to continue home, I looked to my right and noticed a disturbance in the gas station lot. As I looked over, I saw a young attendant holding a clipboard to do the final readings of the pumps. It appeared two other boys were confronting him and engaged in a shouting match. As I was trying to determine the body language of this interaction a physical fight broke out and I watched as the two boys attempted to attack the attendant. Stuck at a red light, late to get home, behind a limo that may or may not be with the Presley group, and watching a gas station attendant physically attacked caused my senses to temporarily overload and basically freeze.

As I watched the fight develop the limo’s right rear door was thrown open, not in a casual manner, but in a violent, purposeful shove that almost sprung the door back on the person exiting. I peered out looking at the open door as the figure I immediately recognized as Elvis Presley rushed out of the limo directly towards the fight. I told my sister, or I guess yelled at her "That’s Elvis Presley".

I immediately checked my rear mirror and looked back checking for traffic and backed up to the driveway leading to the gas station lot. I pulled in as quickly as I could with squealing tires, adding to the hysteria and came to a stop about 20ft from the fight. I jumped from my car and walked briskly up to the group, which caused Elvis to temporarily check me out to see what part, I played in this drama. I raised my hands up to signal that I was not part of this group and watched as Elvis walked up to the fight as it was still progressing. At this point the two boys were on top of the attendant and attempting to strike blows. I saw Elvis take a posture behind them without them being aware of his presence yet and strike a martial arts pose, "I’ll take you two on".

At this point as strange as this scene already was, it was about to become even more peculiar. The two boys stopped just briefly from there physical attack to look up and all three, the two attackers, and the victim seemed to freeze and stare in a comical way that you would associate with someone seeing a ghost in a old comedy movie.

 

They physically froze with their mouths wide open and a look of total awe became deeply etched into each of their faces. The attacker’s punches became frozen in mid-air.

The attendant was the first one to scramble up and fled to the security of the gas station. As he ran his feet could not keep up with the speed in which he wanted to get there and he stumbled and fell no less than three times before reaching the confines of the gas station. I felt compassion for this attendant that he was so traumatized by the violent attack that forced him to flee in this manner. Later when the attendant returned to the scene I learned the cause of his terror filled run was to get to a phone to call friends and let them know Elvis Presley was at his gas station.

(Right:The young attendant who Elvis saved from a beating)

I watched as Presley engaged the two attackers warily asking "Is this all over now?" Both boys assured Presley that this was indeed over apologized and shook Presley’s hand. I noticed that Presley’s security that was waiting in the limousine scurried out to assist. Behind Presley, dressed in the red and white Elvis Presley concert jackets were Dick Grub, a former Palm Springs police officer, and Sam Thompson a former Memphis police officer. Accompanying them was local Madison police detective Tom McCarthy. I had no doubt that if this situation went the wrong way Elvis would not be left alone to fend for him self for very long.

As I watched this scene unfold I studied this rock ‘ n’ roll legend from about an arms length away. I watched Presley as he nodded at me and gave a slight noticeable grin. He seemed to be enjoying a private inside joke with me at the way this scene had unfolded. He glanced past me to see my sister approaching adjusting her painter’s pants and seemed more amused than ever. Presley had jet-black hair, with long side burns and was sporting trademark large aviator glasses. He wore a dark blue nylon running jacket with large white stripes going down each sleeve and matching pants. I could clearly make out the writing on the jacket over his left chest which read "DEA STAFF."

The jacket was zipped up to his chest and underneath I could see the shiny brightness of some sort of stage costume. The high collar of his outfit was evident, as well as the gold chains dangling from a large concert belt he wore.

It appeared that Presley was still partially in his stage costume, covered up by his DEA jacket and matching blue nylon pants. Presley looked slightly taller than six feet wearing black boots with heels. He appeared to weigh around 230 pounds and it was apparent he was heavy but not anywhere near the obese person the media would later parody. His eyes looked clear and the famous Presley grin stayed on his face throughout the encounter. Elvis was definitely enjoying this moment. In studying his face I noticed although older, and heavier, this was basically the same face that had become so famous worldwide since bursting onto the music scene in 1954.

I walked a few steps towards him and extended my hand trying to be somewhat casual and not appearing star struck. Looking back at this night I might have failed at appearing casual. I remember coming up blank with any small talk to engage with the king of rock ‘n’ roll when I broke the ice and introduced myself, extending my hand. Elvis immediately shook my hand and I recall telling him "I didn’t expect to meet Elvis Presley at a Madison gas station at this hour". I also recalled that as I griped his right hand it felt slightly encumbered by large rings. Elvis commented that he had a show the next night and I remarked we had tickets and were looking forward to seeing him in concert.

(Right: Elvis performing the following night)

As the small talk progressed I was interrupted by a shout "It’s him, it’s the king!" I looked back and before me was a group of 30 people and growing surrounding the gas station lot. Cameras were going off, women were screaming and the development of a full concert crowd scene appeared well under way. Presley sensing the growing crowd and growing unruliness, signed a couple of autographs and posed for a couple of pictures. Prompted by his security staff, he waved to the crowd and stated simply "We got to be going". The amused grin that I first observed on Presley never left him as he entered his limousine. With that he entered the limousine and was whisked away waving from the limo as it departed. The crowd milled about, seemingly stunned for sometime and I eventually left the gas station in the same manner, stunned.

The next morning I relayed this story to my family and friends, several of whom didn’t believe me. When they questioned this event so adamantly I myself wonder what I really saw. I saw Elvis Presley, that I was sure of, but did he really break up a gas station fight ready to brawl with the combatants? I was sure he had. Not knowing what to do I called the local newspaper the next morning and asked the female attendant on duty if they were interested in any stories about Elvis Presley in Madison. She replied with a very monotone voice, and said she would see if anyone was available. I was transferred to another line where I spoke to another person who asked rather bluntly what information I had. I told this person that I had been at a gas station last night, and that Elvis had jumped from his limo and broke up an attack by two boys on the attendant. Having gained their attention I was put through to a writer for the paper who took my information and put it on the front page.

 

The story took on a local life of its own and among Presley fans a legendary mark to chart his life.

Many books, newspapers, and magazine articles have referred to this incident to comment on Presley’s later life and career. As I have read the various articles and quotes about this incident, it never seemed to be right or conveyed the way I witnessed it. Now over 30 years later as the story seemed to still be in the mainstream of Presley fans consciousness and hearing the story related with varying degrees of success by others, I felt I would set out and try and tell it properly for final time. In doing so I would need further insight to complete this saga. Over the years I have gathered enough information to finally piece the puzzle together.

Veteran Madison Police Detective, Tom McCarthy, was in the limousine and worked as local security consultant for the Dane County Coliseum where Presley performed the night of the incident. As a local law enforcement officer, McCarthy had the legal authority to take charge of a situation if an arrest had to be made or some local legal authority were needed for any event that presented itself. Detective McCarthy was quoted as saying "Elvis was ready to fight, that was the bad part about it". McCarthy recalls that he remembers Elvis spotting the fight at the gas station and kept repeating that he needed to do something about it, and that Presley stated "Look at those two punks, I don’t go for this two on one deal."

McCarthy seeing a brawl happening at a service station late at night realized the situation could present several dangerous scenarios. McCarthy along with the other security staff urged Presley to forget about it and stated they would call the local police that it was too dangerous to get out of the limousine. McCarthy also realized he didn’t want anything happening to the King of Rock n Roll in Madison, at least not on his watch. McCarthy stated that Presley was adamant about intervening and no argument was swaying him otherwise. McCarthy recalls that he believes Presley opened the door as the limo was still moving and he may have even place a foot out onto the payment dragging it, willing the limo to stop. McCarthy feared that Presley was now jeopardizing his own safety while leaving a moving vehicle ordered the driver to stop. McCarthy recalls that the fight stopped immediately as the combatants realized who was breaking it up. McCarthy went on to state that Presley told the three boys involved in the fight "I found you as enemies, and I leave you as friends."

After reentering the limousine McCarthy recalls that Presley was very amused by the situation commenting on the boy’s faces when they turned around to see him standing over them.

McCarthy would spend the next several days being involved in personal security for Presley while he stayed at the Sheraton hotel. McCarthy found it sad that Presley was a virtual prisoner in his own room. McCarthy commented that several of the band members and staff enjoyed Olin Park located next to the Sheraton and tried to get Presley to play pick-up softball game with them. Presley was tempted but stated if he played the game it would be ruined as soon as someone recognized him. McCarthy sadly relayed that Presley seemed to be affected by the medicine he was taking and for a while he did not think the last Madison Elvis Concert would take place.

McCarthy recalls seeing several staff physically holding Presley up in order to get him into his concert outfit and even than it was doubtful if the show would go on right up to the opening act. McCarthy also relates that after the concert, Presley realized that a large diamond from his ring had come loose during the concert and that he lost it at some point on the Coliseum floor. Several coliseum staff had attempted to locate the diamond during the clean up, but were never able to find it. McCarthy believes it may have been swept up and thrown out. McCarthy stated that Presley was a gentleman. Presley only became bothersome when he continued to pester McCarthy to play cards for his detective’s badge.

Dick Grob was also present as Presley’s personal bodyguard in Madison that night. Grob was hired by Presley in 1970 and was a former Palm Springs police officer. Grob had gone on every tour with Presley from 1970 through 1975 when he quit the police department to work full time as Presley’s personal security and bodyguard until Presley’s death in 1977.

In Sean Shaver’s and Hal Noland’s book "The life of Elvis Presley" Grob recalls "a strange thing happened in Madison, Wis." Dick Grob recalls ...

"We were on the way to the hotel and we stopped at a red light." There were two guys arguing real loud with the service station attendant about some gasoline charges". A shouting match started and I told the driver to go ahead and move it’. "Elvis said, "No, wait a minute , let’s see what’s happening here!" We waited and the shouting match became even more heated so we pulled around the corner. Presley decided it wasn’t fair because the station attendant was a little guy and the other two guys were pretty good size. Elvis decided to even up the odds, so he leaped out of the car. I almost fainted. ‘God here was Elvis jumping out of the car in the middle of a street brawl without letting us know what he was going to do’. ‘Hell, he coulda been shot’. ‘Sam and I almost tore the doors off the car getting out there to be with him’.

Grob went on to relate that Elvis confronted the boys who were taken by surprise. The whole incident stopped, everyone stood around and talked for five minutes. We than got back in the limousine and took off.

Shirley Dieu first met Elvis and his gang back in 1975 when she attended a Las Vegas concert. Less than a year later she started a relationship with Joe Esposito and ended up living with him in Beverly Hills for five years.
During this time Shirley regularly went on tour with Elvis, as well as holidaying with him. She was one of the close group of friends who went with Elvis to his final vacation in Hawaii, in March 1977.

On June 25th 1977 she was on tour with Elvis when the infamous Madison Gas Station incident took place.

"I do remember being there - but not seeing the incident. Just hearing Elvis talk about it. I do know that he was excited about having done it, he was that kind of guy. Elvis loved to see people's reactions, for instance when he had just given them a car, or out of nowhere showed up at a place where no one was expecting him. The "shock value"! That was his way of feeling good.

But above all he was always for the underdog and would never ever tolerate seeing someone being picked on, no matter who they were. He even got upset when Nixon was being put down in the media. He just hated to see everyone picking on Nixon, and not because it had any thing to do with politics, it was all about being the victim. He would be there to defend anyone, even the president of the United States if they were being picked on.

So having said that, you'd understand that he kept talking about the incident for several days after it happened. -

- Shirley Dieu

Sam Thompson was the other personal bodyguard accompanying Presley in Madison that evening. Thompson had first met Presley through his sister, Linda, who had been dating Presley at the time. When Thompson met Presley he was working as a deputy with Shelby County Sheriff’s department in Tennesse. Thompson accompanied Presley from 1973 through 1976 and in 1976 was hired as a full time personal bodyguard.
I was able to contact Thompson who is currently working as the commissioner of the Nevada transportation services authority, being appointed by the governor of Nevada. Over time most of Presley’s inner circle have become increasingly guarded with the information of their experiences with Presley. The Presley industry has become a gold mine with new projects being developed daily and their accounts are valuable. Thompson was extremely gracious in relaying his recollections of that evening in Madison. He relayed to me that he would have to go over his notes to get more recollections of the facts of that night and said he even had the phone number in his notes of the hotel he was to contact upon arriving in Madison.

Thompson recalls that the entourage had just finished a show at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa the night before and that they flew directly to Madison. Getting into the limo Thompson recalls that the limousine driver, Grob and McCarthy were in the front passenger seats. Presley, Ginger Alden, Joe Esposito, and Thompson were all seated in the back seat. Thompson recalls that it was around 1 am on Saturday June 24th and thought Presley was still in his stage costume sitting in the back seat between Alden, his current girlfriend and Esposito, his personal stage manager. Thompson recalls he was in the jump seat for the short ride to the hotel. Presley’s father and David Stanley, another bodyguard would be in the other limousine following. Thompson remembers that the group in the limousine saw the gas station incident developing. Thompson also remembers Presley demanding the car to be stopped, the driver hesitated and Presley leaned over Alden and jumped out. According to Thompson, the limousine had not reached a full stop as he jumped out. Grob jumped out quickly with Thompson and McCarthy scrambling to catch up. Thompson stated the driver and Alden stayed in the limousine and were the only ones not to exit the vehicle.

Thompson also remembers that he and Grob were dressed in there red Elvis "On Tour" concert jackets that evening. Presley was standing between the two aggressors and the night clerk. The clerk looked roughed up and Presley dropped into a karate stance. As Thompson recalls this broke up any fight that was in them and they all asked for autographs and shook Presley’s hand. Presley did show them his DEA badge which he kept with him, but he was still wearing his jumpsuit from the concert.

Thompson remembers looking out the rear window of the limousine as they sped away and looks of shock on the faces of three men. Presley laughed and talked about the incident quite a bit that night. Thompson believes Presley really cherished his role as a peacemaker that evening. Thompson was personally concerned that one of the young men at the station may have a weapon or that Presley would pull out one of his automatic pistols that he was carrying that night and start shooting. Thompson believes the only reason the limousine stopped was because Presley burst out of the backseat.

I went over what Presley was wearing that night and was confused by Thompson’s recollection of what Presley had been wearing. Thompson recalls that Presley had little time to change out of his concert outfit as they headed to Madison from their previous venue. Thompson was aware that Presley did own some dark jackets with DEA logos on them but just could not recall which one he may have put on. Hearing Thompson’s recollection and confusion about Presley’s clothing that evening, I believe the confusion stemmed from the fact that Presley may have had both outfits on, having not changed completely out of his concert outfit and put on his DEA running outfit over it.

(Go here for EIN's Sam Thompson, Elvis' bodyguard, 2011 Interview)

I attempted to find the source of Presley’s DEA outfit mystery and contacted Elvis Presley archives at Graceland. They were confused about the outfit and did not seem to have any information. I reminded them that they currently had the DEA running suit displayed in Graceland, which they confirmed. The archivist stated that they never learned the origin of this particular outfit.

I contacted the DEA museum collection manager, Vince Lutes, who informed me that Presley had acquired the "DEA Staff" running outfit through his personal contacts in the DEA. Lutes stated that this particular outfit was only available to DEA officials and staff workers at this time and that the general public would not have been able to obtain one. Presley was obviously very fond of this outfit as he can be seen in numerous photos towards the end of his life wearing this.

Presley would be seen wearing this same outfit as he was photographed by a fan for the last time as he returned to Graceland in the early morning hours before he died. It’s presumable that Presley being known for his custom styling would be wearing his concert suit and belt with his dark blue nylon DEA outfit covering his stage outfit, packing heat, and a federal badge to break up this early morning gas station fight.

Billy Smith may have the final say in this saga with insight and perspective that few in Elvis Presley’s life ever could have had. Smith was Presley’s first cousin, the son of Presley’s mom’s oldest brother, Travis. Billy was eight years younger than Elvis and grew up with him in Tueplo, Miss. Smith’s family followed the Presley’s migration to Memphis where they moved in with the Presley’s in Graceland. When Smith was old enough he joined the inner circle of the Memphis Mafia, a close group of associates and friends that would accompany Elvis everywhere. After Smith married, he and his wife Jo lived behind the main house on the Graceland property. In the last years of Presley’s life, because of this close family tie, Smith became Presley’s most trusted confidant and companion.

Through a series of communications with several of Presley’s associates and contact with the author of a Presley publication, I was able to contact him and ask a series of questions related to the Madison incident. Smith guarding his personal privacy and recollections consented to add some incite to what Presley relayed to him and why he believed Presley flew into action that night. He was happy to share this incident to anyone that wished to relate the good that Presley did and not dwell on his problems that plagued him in the latter part of his life.
Smith recalls accompanying Presley to Madison in 1977 but not making the 1976 trip. Smith was able to remember all the players and security that normally escorted Presley on this last tour and remembered that Alden, Presley’s current girlfriend came on most of the 1977 tours but that Presley was also seeing another woman at the time. Although Smith did not witness the gas station fight personally, he said that Presley would recount the incident to him several times at the end of this tour when they returned home to Graceland and that Presley was very proud of what he did. Knowing Presley as he did, Smith knows that Elvis would relate this story with more color and excitement than he could ever remember. Smith stated that Elvis seemed quite proud with the outcome whenever he would share it.

Smith went onto to inform that being younger than Elvis, Presley was always protecting him than and continued this role as they grew into adults. Smith remembers Presley as a shy man but was not shy when it came to putting himself on the line for someone in need. Presley was straight forward in these situations and he would let people know exactly how he felt. Presley could take care of himself and anyone with him as he was very skilled in karate. It was not just for show, he had earned his black belt. Smith recalls that Presley could not stand to see a bully, or in this particular Madison case, two, jump on one individual. When Presley saw this situation unfold he decided he would even the odds. Smith stated "Presley was just that way"

Presley told Smith that he got the boys that were involved in the fight to shake hands and put their differences behind them. Smith knows that if Presley would have had more time that evening he surely would of given each of those boys a car, that was his way. Smith believes that Presley didn’t care if it was a complete stranger or his best friend, if someone was in need, or in trouble he was there to help. Smith notes that he had been on the road and cross- country trips many times with Presley when he would stop and give complete strangers, money, cars, or other items. Smith remembers a time when they were on a cross country trip during Presley’s movie days and they were behind a car that had a child fall out. Presley stopped the vehicle and took them to the hospital, not leaving till he was sure the child would be alright.

Great Elvis photos, Madison 1977 concert. Right a classic image taken by Bruce Frey from his seat.

Billy Smith was happy that I was interested in this point in Presley’s life. He hoped that it would show the good deeds he did. Smith wrote a very sincere letter giving me the details as Presley had relayed to him it to him numerous times, with each recounting getting some sincere pleasure at the outcome. As Billy Smith summed up Presley disliked bullies immensely. Presley would not hesitate to go to someone’s aid regardless of his celebrity status. Smith recalls growing up with Presley before his fame and was witness to his cousin’s anger at bullies and what they represented. Presley, at times, would become a target of these same bullies while growing up in Memphis. Presley strived to become independent of this same type of people and sought to protect his cousin from them as well.

It has been 30 years since I saw Elvis Presley burst from his limousine in Madison to defend a younger boy from a physical attack . After Smith’s reflections on what prompted his famous cousin into action that evening, it allowed me to examine not only what occurred but why it may have happened.

Many of the general public in 1977 believed that Elvis Presley was in a professional decline at this point in his career. What most of the public failed to grasp at this time was that this was not only a professional decline, but a very personal decline of his life, a public spiral out of control. Somehow during this spiral, after arriving in Madison that evening, Elvis may have been able to see through the grogginess of his endless cross- country tours and reached back, maybe for the final time in his life, to find the real person that he may have misplaced along the road.

Who knows what went on in Elvis Presley’s mind that night as his limousine wheeled down a dark unfamiliar highway to another concert. At this point he was at the end of a string of 52 concert dates that left him by all accounts physically ill and emotionally numb. Presley, with only 53 days left in his life did not know his final days were upon him. Seeing this bully scenario played out in front of him at the gas station, obviously provoked an eruption of emotions that only took him a second to recognize and react to. Who knows what particular scenario from his younger days played out in his head? Protecting his younger cousins in Tupelo or himself being surrounded and taunted by bullies because he dressed strange and chose to be different?

Whatever childhood drama played out in his mind it was enough to see through his current haze and personal problems to become that young impulsive kid from Memphis again. To reach back for that short personal moment, escaping the confines of his private limousine and personal security entourage, possibly for the last time in his life, must of brought back a strange familiarity and personal satisfaction. No wonder the world famous Presley grin never left his face that evening. What I saw start off as a smile of amusement, transformed into one of satisfaction before he departed. Of all the things I can recount from that evening, his smile left a strange lasting impression on me and at the time I did not realize the significance of it.

With all of Presley’s personal problems at this time in his life, this event must of held something more special to him than even he understood. It may have allowed him to become Elvis Presley, the person once again and not the icon he was trapped parodying. After the Madison show he would perform only twice again in Cincinnati, Ohio and Indianapolis. He would return to Graceland and hibernate waiting for the next concert tour that wouldn’t come. While at his home he would relate to Smith numerous times the story of his encounter in Madison.

The personal relevance to him may have never been understood but it obviously was important enough to retell. How could Elvis Presley comprehended at that moment that events that shaped his life in the 1950’s in Tueplo and Memphis would be brought back to a gas station fight in Madison in 1977?

Looking back on this now I saw more than a famous rock legend interrupt a local gas station fight. I was fortunate to stumble across this event randomly that evening and even more fortunate to be able to examine it and understand the deeper meaning behind it.

(Right:The plaque in Madison notes the spot)

Recently, I saw the Madison newspapers list of the most memorable moments in Madison’s 150- year history. Presley’s gas station fight made it near the top of the list. Reading the article I noted once again that many of the facts were misplaced or incorrect. A story like this will take on a life of it’s own to eventually create a local legend. In this particular instance I believe the facts stand well enough alone. I have been fortunate to revisit them with the help of some of Presley’s insiders. It speaks highly of the man when people in his life go out of the way to talk about his good qualities and want others to understand them. In this strange tale I was able to see a legend create a pretty good local Madison story. How was I to know that a little bit of Elvis personal history would be shared that night and brought all the way back from Memphis to a tiny corner gas station lot at the Skylane Standard in Madison, Wis., June 24, 1977.

Original Article by Bruce Frey.
-Copyright EIN January 2011 - DO NOT COPY. (Now Updated June, 2012)
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

Click here to comment on this article

All the images - some from Cincinnati - are taken from the book 'The Final Curtain'

The TV interview with Bruce Frey is featured on DVD 2 of the box-set The Final Curtain.

Go here to the EIN in-depth 'The Final Curtain' Review


The complete soundboard recording of Elvis' final Madison concert is featured in The Final Curtain - as well as home-video footage from the actual concert (Right: a screen grab)

Bruce Frey was there at the concert. He recently wrote to EIN stating..

When Elvis stopped at the gas station to break up the late night fight he was in good shape, wide eyed, and not bloated in the least.  He looked happy and healthy.  Through various accounts he barely made the Madison show, having to be propped up by staff to get dressed.   The concert was almost cancelled just before the show was scheduled to start.   What makes a man go through such a drastic change from healthy and upbeat to bloated and mumbling the next night?  Obviously the drugs Elvis was taking had a huge effect on his appearance and how his shows would go.  The tremendous ups and downs of performing is exhausting to even contemplate.  The inner circle Vernon, Dr Nick, and mostly the colonel are responsible for witnessing this first hand and not taking the right moral actions that were needed in 1977.   

When the elderly lady yelled out the request for “old shep”  in response to Elvis asking for requests he seemed shocked by the response and taken off guard. Elvis seemed to have to emotionally recover briefly from this moment of reflection.  It would have been a night to remember if he would of gave us a few bars…   Bruce Frey

Go here for other relevant EIN interviews and articles:

'The Dark Side Of Colonel Parker' - EIN Spotlight:

Billy Smith, Elvis' cousin, opens up to EIN

Sam Thompson, Elvis' bodyguard, 2011 Interview

Jerry Schilling Interview with EIN:

Marty Lacker opens up to EIN: Part 1 of our two part interview with Marty Lacker.

Lamar Fike talks to EIN:

Sonny West talks to EIN:

Red West Interview: 

Linda Thompson - Interview Special:


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