LOUISVILLE, Ky. — All summer long, at precisely 7:07 p.m., the bells at Bellarmine University have played an old but seemingly familiar tune. That can’t-quite-place-it melody, like the Muzak-elevator version of a ballad — the lick without the lyrics.
What is that song? But then the build comes — that dreamy eighth, dotted-quarter series of notes from the chorus. And it hits you like a lullaby.
Why is Bellarmine University playing Elvis’ “Love Me Tender?”
And why in the world is it at precisely 7:07 p.m. every night?
So you look to social media for answers. And you get some inventive — even inspired — conjecture:
With no words, might it actually be the original song from 1861 — “Aura Lea?”
But why at 7:07 p.m.?
Armchair philosophers theorize:
Matthew 18:21-22? That’s when Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive his brother. Seven times? Jesus replied 70 times seven times. (7:07) It’s a Catholic University, after all.
Or maybe it’s symbolic of July 7, 1954? That’s the night Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips first played Elvis on the radio.
But then a more practical proposal appears: Didn’t the late Bellarmine president love Elvis and set the school song to “Love Me Tender?”
Time to solve the mystery. Time to email the expert.
“What you’re hearing is actually Bellarmine’s alma mater, which uses the tune from ‘Aura Lea,’ a southern folk song from which ‘Love Me Tender’ also borrows the tune,” Jason Cissell, director of media relations at Bellarmine, tells me.
Ah. The online sages were right.
“The words to Bellarmine’s alma mater were written in 1992 by our former president, Joseph McGowan, who happened to be quite the Elvis fan and could sing a pretty convincing Elvis cover. The tune you’re hearing is coming from the bell tower atop McGowan Hall, the last campus building he constructed, which has since been named in his memory.”
But what about that 7:07 p.m. thing? A reference to Matthew 18?
“I definitely prefer your friend’s answer to mine,” Cissell said. “Perhaps we’ll adopt that explanation if there’s not a good one. Actually, as I was typing that, someone told me that they’re intended to play at 7:05 as a nod to Dr. McGowan’s July 5 birthday. I wonder if our timer is off? I’ll listen tonight.”
Then he offered: “Let me ask around and see if I can find someone who can talk about the McGowan-Elvis connection with a little more flavor than I can.”
Adding flourish to the depth of the man: That his obituary called him the rare university president known for his Elvis impersonation. That he sang “Blue Christmas” at the annual faculty and staff Christmas party. That the campus radio station played an Elvis marathon the day he died.
“The first time I heard him sing we were with a group of students,” Fred Rhodes, a professor, and longtime friend, said of Dr. McGowan. “They gave him the mic, and he said, ‘I think I’ll sing.’
“He did, and it blew me and everyone else in the room’s minds. He was fantastic as a human being and a leader, but he had this really talented kind of artistic piece to him.”
Now back to that timer. Was it just off?
In fact, it was.
“We confirmed what you already knew,” Cissell said. “The timer associated with our bells was off by two minutes. It has been fixed.”
Back to the nod to McGowan’s birthday.
So do people in the neighborhood like it? Is that the only song the bells play?
“The great thing is that we’ve not had anyone say, ‘Stop that.'” Cissell joked.
So far, the bells have played Elvis and Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond, another McGowan favorite.
Neighbors like it. A few have asked for more variety.
Maybe “My Old Kentucky Home” on Derby Day? “The Star Spangled Banner” on July 4?
The good news: The bell chimes are an electronic system with a massive 10,000-song catalog.
The bad news: There are limits.
“It’s not like upload a song, and it converts it to chimes,” Cissell said.
This is not Spotify.
“Without fully opening up the request line, we’d love to hear ideas,” he said.
Alums and neighbors, here’s your chance.
(Post Script: A special shout-out goes to Ray Weaver, owner of Noteworthy Music, for fielding this reporter’s ridiculous questions about the sheet music for Elvis’ famous tune.)
Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com