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Thursday, August 16, 2012
What the magazine business learned from Elvis Presley's death
When Elvis Presley died, thirty-five years ago today, People was already America's most popular magazine. Amazingly, they didn't put him on the cover.
The issue that was on the stands when he died featured an interview with actor Tom Bosley, which gave them an excuse to go with a picture of the new Charlie's Angels
A week after, when Presley records were topping charts all over the world, it was Sissy Spacek and a story about Keith Jarrett. The week after that they actually had his former girlfriend Ann-Margret in a two-shot with Marty Feldman but still, amazingly, they restrained themselves.
It wasn't until the September 5th issue that they allowed themselves the small panel top-left saying "Elvis - his last live-in lover raps".
The people running People aren't fools and they weren't fools then. However the things that seem clear with hindsight were not clear at the time. People had a number of guidelines. It preferred to lead with females. It tended to avoid sleaze. It had found musicians as cover subjects to be divisive. Elvis was more popular in the south than the north. In what we now realise were his later years he didn't matter to many people beyond his shrinking constituency of original fans. And celebrity death wasn't the guaranteed seller of copies that it is today.
When John Lennon died, a mere three years later, everybody in the media had learned the lesson of Elvis Presley, that dead celebrities are actually more popular than living ones, and the magazine covers poured forth in an unending flow.