Their ardor undampened by a fierce rainstorm, more than 7,000 Elvis Presley fans began a candlelight vigil at his Graceland mansion Thursday night to pay homage to the king of rock 'n' roll 25 years after his death.
To the sound of Elvis' voice singing "Memories,'' fans began wending their way up the driveway of his Graceland estate toward his gravesite, where they rekindled a flame that burned by the singer's grave.
The ceremony began an hour late because of a thunderstorm that swept into Memphis just as fans were congregating outside Graceland's gates. A minister led the crowd in the Lord's Prayer before the vigil, which was expected to last all night.
"Elvis had the greatest fans in the world and always will,'' Graceland manager Todd Morgan told fans.
He said the ceremony would have a worldwide audience on the Internet with a live "vigilcast.''
"We see it more as a celebration of Elvis' life than a time for grief,'' said Jane Anderson, the 68-year-old president of an Elvis fan club in Shreveport, La.
Anderson was here when the vigil tradition began the year after Elvis' death and remembers it happening spontaneously.
"We didn't know it was going to happen but someone just started lighting candles and that was the beginning,'' she said. "And we're still here. We feel that Elvis is in the trees and behind the fence.''
Undaunted by the inclement weather, thousands of fans amassed in front of the gates lit their candles - including some battery operated to avoid being extinguished - and began their pilgrimage up the driveway to where Elvis is buried.
Priscilla Parker of Pittsburgh has made it to 22 of the vigils.
"We are celebrating Elvis and his life and we're here as a big family,'' said Parker, who runs another fan club. "This is really the Elvis family reunion.''
The reunion of thousands is going on in a city intoxicated with Elvis mania. "Welcome Elvis Fans,'' say banners posted everywhere from the airport - where Elvis music greets travelers - to supermarkets to a liquor store with a sign declaring, "Welcome to Memphis, Elvis' home away from Las Vegas.''
Wreaths at Graceland have arrived from fans as far away as Brazil and Japan. A British group has their own bus riding around town. Among those gathered at the ornate wrought-iron gates of Graceland were Randy and Kelly Bart, a husband and wife whose romance began here 12 years ago. He was from Ontario, Canada; she was from Bartlett, Ill., and they hit it off immediately.
"We had so much in common to talk about,'' said Kelly, a 31-year-old systems analyst. "We both loved Elvis and his music.''
Randy, a 36-year-old school custodian, told her the amazing coincidence that he was born on Jan. 8, Elvis' birthday. He also has a modified Elvis hairdo - pompadour and sideburns. Both were barely out of grammar school when Elvis died, but their dedication to the King continued as adults.
"I saw him on TV in `Jailhouse Rock' and it just hit me,'' said Randy. "How could you not be drawn to Elvis?''
Both came here regularly but never expected to find love. They kept in touch for a year and in 1991, Randy remembers, "We got engaged at Graceland in the meditation garden and a year later we were married.''
They celebrated their 10th anniversary on Aug. 10. The Illinois couple were among a handful of fan club VIPs invited by RCA Records on Thursday to preview the newly mixed album of Elvis' 30 No. 1 hits, which will be released in September.
The fan club presidents did not have to stand in line all day for the vigil. They are always the first to enter the grounds of Graceland. But others, including 38-year-old Dana Heffley of Shepherdsville, Ky., began lining up at 6 a.m. for the event that didn't begin until well into the night.
"I've been a fan since I was 14,'' said Heffley, who recently got an Elvis tattoo on her arm emblazoned with the words, "Forever the King.''
She said her fiancee refused to make the trip with her. "But we're going to be married and it's going to be here in the Graceland wedding chapel. I haven't told him yet.''