THE LONG READ: The King and I - a DMU graduate's 50 years at the helm of Elvis' fan club
The King and I: On the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, a DMU graduate tells of his lifelong love for the singer – and his 50 years at the helm of the UK fan club.
The news landed like a hammer blow.
On a Tuesday evening in the punk-pillaged, bunting-strewn summer of 1977, Todd Slaughter switched on the TV and heard the words that turned his world upside down.
Elvis Presley had been found slumped to the floor in his bathroom at Graceland; his body cold and blue. After being rushed to hospital – “Breathe, Elvis, come on, breathe for me” yelled his doctor in the ambulance – the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was pronounced dead.
Todd meets Elvis at Indianapolis airport
A great throng of reporters had gathered outside the mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, their ranks soon swollen by stunned, sobbing mourners. And 4,000 miles away in the heart of England, gravity momentarily switched off at the Leicester home of the president of the Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain.
At least, that’s how it felt. But even as he reeled from the announcement, Todd knew it made a terrible kind of sense.
Little more than a month earlier, he’d met his idol at Indianapolis Airport, ahead of the gig that would turn out to be Presley’s last-ever show.
“He was only 42, for heaven’s sake,” says Todd, a graduate of Leicester College of Technology, one of the forerunners to De Montfort University (DMU). “It’s no age at all.
“But although his death was a shock, I have to say it wasn’t entirely a surprise.
“I’d met Elvis a few weeks before, and I’d said to people afterwards ‘from what I gather, he’s not got long to live’.
“When we were in America there was a TV crew who had been filming him, and the producer told me their make-up artist had said Elvis had a really awful pallor.
“They thought he would be dead within six months. It turned out it was nearer six weeks.”
The strange days that followed Elvis’s death slipped by in a blur of TV and radio appearances, as journalists sent cars to Todd’s home to spirit him away to studios for interviews.
“It was a really weird time,” he says. “It felt unreal, I suppose. We had an Elvis convention scheduled a few days later at the Nottingham Palais, and we decided to go ahead with it. That was hard. People were seriously grieving. Some vicars turned up thinking there’d be rich pickings for them among the audience, and I threw them all out.”
Flags flew at half-mast across Tennessee and Elvis’s home state of Mississippi when the King was buried on August 18, 1977.
In the UK, Way Down, the single that had entered the charts at number 46 three days before his death, surged to number one, and stayed there for five weeks.
“The reaction to his death was phenomenal,” says Todd. “The impact it made was beyond all comparison.
“Before he died, the fan club had 12,000 members. When he died, that shot up to 39,000.
“His record label had a pressing plant in County Durham that was about to shut down, but the demand for albums after Elvis’s death kept it open for another two and a half years.”
In all, Todd met his hero three times: In 1972, and 1973, when he took parties of British fans to Vegas to see Elvis in concert, and in June 1977, a little more than a month before Presley died.
There’s a video of that final encounter on YouTube, in which Elvis presents Todd with a trophy, for being president of the fan club for a decade. Todd slipped a news cameraman $100 to film the meeting, and it’s the last piece of footage of Elvis ever shot.
“I’ve met the Beatles, the Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny and Cher … but nothing prepared me for meeting Elvis,” says Todd, now 72 and dividing his time between homes in Staffordshire and Bournemouth.
“He was the all-time greatest entertainer in the world, and all of a sudden, you’d get the chance to stand by him, shake his hand and exchange pleasantries.
“He wasn’t a guy I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to at length. It was a matter of four minutes, not four hours. But I met him three times, and that’s three times more than virtually everybody else.”
Todd was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Leicester when he first heard the music of Elvis. He was an instant convert.
“John Lennon said before Elvis there was nothing, and that was the case, frankly.
“His impact was dramatic. It was the style of music, the revolutionary nature of the music… it was totally different from anything we’d heard before.”
“But Elvis also had a mystery about him, and that carried on throughout his life. He never appeared here or in the rest of Europe, so he had that elusiveness.
“Nobody travelled to America back then, unless you had won a competition on the back of a cornflakes packet. Going to the States was as rare as hen’s teeth.”
Todd says Elvis – like the Beatles – left a legacy that goes beyond his music.
“I’ve met people from countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain who speak English because of Elvis. In places like Czechoslovakia, listening to a foreign radio broadcast could get you taken out into the street and shot. But all the same, people tuned in to artists like Elvis and The Beatles.
“They wanted to learn English, so they could know what their favourite artists were singing about. That’s a remarkable thing, and one of the most amazing outreaches an artist can achieve: Across the world he gave us more than just a love of his music, but a love of language.
“He was a phenomenon like no other. And if you look at the success Elvis has achieved in the last 20 years, he’s still very, very relevant.”
After leaving school, Todd studied mechanical engineering at Leicester Colleges of Art and Technology, the forerunner of DMU.
He said: Going to university wasn’t like it is now. Education is far more exciting nowadays.”
He got a job with venerable Leicester engineering firm BSS, but it was a means to an end, nothing more. Todd began writing for weekly music magazine Disc and landed work with broadcaster Radio Luxembourg.
And in 1967, with the King in the midst of a sales slump following a string of dud films, Todd took over the reins of the Elvis Presley Fan Club of Great Britain, which had been formed a decade before.
It’s a role that saw him lead tours to the States to see Elvis play, including the final-ever gigs, in Cincinnati and Indianapolis – complete with a shout out from the King for the Brits in the crowd, courtesy of Presley’s much-vilified manager, Colonel Tom Parker.
“Colonel Parker was no different to any other manager,” says Todd. “A lot of music industry managers were quite awful people. The rewards back then were so huge. But he wasn’t the Svengali-figure who had an iron grasp of every aspect of Elvis’s life. And to me at least, he was quite a nice guy. He was very hospitable to the parties of Brits we took over.”
“Those last two concerts he played were amazing. He acknowledged the Brits in the crowd which brought great cheers from us, and curiosity from people from Cincinnati and Indianapolis, who’d probably never met a Brit before.”
This year he’ll have been in charge for half a century, with his highlights including the European premiere of the US TV 1968 Comeback Special at De Montfort Hall in Leicester. Around 25,000 fans have taken a trip to the States through the fan club, with 350 more flying out for the commemorations this August.
“It’s been a remarkable 50 years,” he says. “Running a fan club is not like it was 40 years ago. People who follow artists now keep up to date with news on the internet. But we’re still very active. We’re doing pretty well. We have 10,000 subscriptions.
“It’s been damned hard work, and there’s no real reward for it, but it’s been an awful lot of fun.
“Fifty years,” he adds, wryly. “That’s two life sentences for murder.”
Posted on: Wednesday 16 August 2017