(Pictured: Ronnie McDowell with Dick Clark on American Bandstand.)
On my travels this spring I am carrying a 16-gig USB stick on which I have loaded most of the compilations I have. And so it came to pass that I was on a deserted highway somewhere in rural Minnesota when “The King Is Gone” by Ronnie McDowell came up.
McDowell was a self-described “working boy earning a living in clubs around Bowling Green, Kentucky,” 27 years old, on August 16, 1977, when he heard about Elvis Presley’s death on the radio. Within 15 minutes, he started composing a song in his head; two days later he played what he had for another musician, and together, they finished the song. Not long after, McDowell recorded it with a band including a guitarist named Bucky Barrett, who had been scheduled to join Presley’s band for some tour dates in late August. In a classic showbiz story, McDowell took an acetate to a radio station in Madison, Tennessee, and asked them to play it. He had to talk his way past the receptionist but finally got “The King Is Gone” on the air. The response made McDowell and his record company believe they were onto something.
“The King Is Gone” was released on Scorpion, an independent label whose most famous acts in 1977 were country veterans Roy Drusky and Jean Shepard. McDowell, who had begun writing songs while serving in the Navy, had placed songs with both artists, as well as the Wilburn Brothers and Porter Wagoner. He had recorded only a couple of singles himself before “The King Is Gone.”
“The King Is Gone” first shows up at ARSA on a survey from KFI in Los Angeles on August 29, less than two weeks after Presley’s death. On September 12, WAKY in Louisville debuted it at #1. The same week, in Kansas City, it went from #10 to #1 at KBEQ and from #34 to #1 at WHB. (In November, it recorded its only other #1 listing, at CFGO in Ottawa.) It made the Top 10 at a number of influential stations, including WLS in Chicago, KTKT in Tuscon, and WDRC in Hartford. It peaked at #13 on both the Hot 100 and on Billboard‘s country chart, and it crept into the lower reaches of the Easy Listening Top 50.
The record’s success led McDowell to appearances on American Bandstand and The Midnight Special in the fall of 1977. He says it sold six million copies, a million of them in a single week shortly after its release, but he banked only about $28,000 from it. (He jokes that he’s grateful that his manager/label owner Slim Williamson covered the hot checks he wrote to pay the session musicians.) He has enjoyed some good paydays since then, however, because “The King Is Gone” led to a successful career. He performed the voice of Elvis in numerous commercials, movies, and TV programs, and was one of the top stars in country for a while. He put 15 singles into the Billboard country Top 10 between 1981 and 1987, and a 16th peaked at #11.
Unlike many country stars from the 70s to the 90s, who have given up recording new music and rely on touring to make a living, McDowell has embraced the Internet as a way of reaching the audience. He calls it “an outlet that has nothing to do with radio and all those omnipotent God program directors” who won’t play songs by older artists.
McDowell still performs “The King Is Gone” at every show, but it’s never been a part of radio oldies libraries. In fact, I don’t remember hearing it after it dropped off the air at the end of 1977. Its greatest exposure after that might have been in the early 90s when Rhino put it on a late volume of their Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series. To our ears today, it sounds overwrought and cheesy. But in the fall of 1977, we did not have much experience losing cultural icons, and certainly not icons as big as Elvis Presley. And “The King Is Gone” helped us cope.