All Hail King Elvis Presley
Forty years since his death, we pay homage to the king of rock ’n’ roll
Mr Elvis Presley in Follow That Dream, 1962. Photograph by United Artists/REX Shutterstock
When Mr Elvis Aaron Presley died, aged 42, on 16 August 1977, he was wearing gold pyjamas. It was far from the only rock ’n’ roll thing about the King, as he was rightly known. One evening, Mr Presley took a spin on a friend’s Triumph Bonneville 750, liked it, and insisted a dozen be delivered to his Bel Air house by midnight so that his friends could roar through the streets that night. (Mr Presley remained a Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide man himself.)
Eager to deliver a personal letter to President Richard Nixon, he approached security guards at the White House in “a navy blue gabardine karate-style two-piece suit over a high-collared shirt, a topcoat draped on his shoulders, a gold medallion round his neck and a gold-handled walking stick in his hand”, as his friend Mr Jerry Schilling recalled. He had the pockets cut out of his trousers to ensure a smoother, tighter fit. And as the gorgeous teenager he was, according to a contemporary, he used to “comb his hair of a morning using three different hair oils: butch wax for the front like you’d use for a crew cut, one kind of hair oil for the top, another for the back”. He used the butch wax “so that when he performed, his hair would fall down in a certain way”.
On the set of It Happened At The World’s Fair with Colonel Tom Parker, 1963. Photograph by Album/akg-images
And when that hair fell… Well, Mr Roy Orbison, who watched one of Mr Presley’s first performances in early 1955, said, “I can’t overemphasise how shocking he looked and seemed. He was this punk kid, just a real raw cat singing like a bird.” And moving in a way no one had seen before. His lips would sneer and his legs would jolt and jerk and thrust and almost leer of their own accord. As his guitarist Mr Scotty Moore put it, “I think with those loose britches we wore, you shook your leg and it made it look like all hell was going on down there.” For a student nurse who saw one of the King’s shows in May 1955, he was “just a great big beautiful hunk of forbidden fruit”.
Mr Presley was born at 4.35am on 8 January 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. His father, Mr Vernon Presley, was a truck driver, his mother, Mrs Gladys Presley, a homemaker. The family moved to Memphis when Mr Elvis Presley was 13. The Presleys were poor and, said Mr Kevin Kern of Elvis Presley Enterprises, “denim reminded Elvis of being poor, so he did not wear denim as an adult”.
Mr Presley began to fill the family’s pockets when he turned up at Mr Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service on 5 July 1954. First, he sang – not very well – some ballads. Then he cut “That’s All Right, Mama”, and changed everything. His voice trembled with urgent lust. He was exciting, dangerous, sex on a stick, a Mr James Dean on vinyl, “a white boy with black hips”, as The New York Times declared. He was, the headlines screamed, “a corrupter of youth”, his act “far too indecent to mention in every detail”. When he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was shown only from the waist up. “It’s like a surge of electricity going through you,” said Mr Presley. “It’s almost like making love, but it’s stronger than that. Sometimes I think my heart is going to explode.”
On The Milton Berle Show, June 1956. Photograph by MPTV
The hits poured out: “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Hound Dog”, all in 1956. They tried to emasculate him. On The Steve Allen Show, Mr Presley was dressed in white tie and tails, singing “Hound Dog” to a twee basset hound dressed in a collar, bow tie and top hat. But on The Milton Berle Show in June 1956, he was the real deal, legs jack-knifing, pelvis thrusting, the mic his erotic plaything. The movies beckoned, and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a former carnival barker, dog catcher and pet cemetery owner, introduced him to Hollywood. (The Colonel would bark like a dog to summon his assistants, one bark for Mr A, two for Ms B and so on.) Mr Presley shot Love Me Tender in 1956 and, off-set, romanced Ms Natalie Wood (of West Side Story fame), whom he took back to Memphis and, Mr Schilling reports, to the pick-up football game he often played there, “roaring up on a huge, brand new Harley-Davidson”, Ms Wood clutching him tightly from behind.
With Ms Natalie Wood, Memphis, October 1956. Photograph by Globe Photos/Zuma Press
Jailhouse Rock came out in 1957. Seats were torn up and panties moistened across the globe. The world was Mr Presley’s oyster. And then the US government drafted him, or “shafted” him, as he later told a Las Vegas audience. Had the morality police stepped in? There’s no knowing. But for two years Mr Presley lost his hair, and his freedom, serving Uncle Sam.
Three things resulted. One was GI Blues, a high-grossing but cheesy musical that set the tone for too many of Mr Presley’s movies, though he yearned for deeper, more demanding roles. He loved, for instance, Becket, and once challenged his major producer, Mr Hal Wallis, “When do I get my Becket?” When in 1975 Ms Barbra Streisand offered him the lead male role in her remake of A Star Is Born, Colonel Parker caused difficulties. Mr Presley had hoped it might be his From Here To Eternity – the film that rescued Mr Frank Sinatra’s career – but it was not to be.
At the termination of his military service, Friedberg, Germany, March 1960. Photograph by REX Shutterstock
A second military spin-off was his marriage to Ms Priscilla Beaulieu, the adopted daughter of an army officer, and just 14 when the King met her. They wooed, chastely – too chastely for Ms Beaulieu when, aged 18, she visited her now demobbed admirer in Memphis. “Wait a minute,” Mr Presley said. “Things can get out of hand.” The next year, he said, “I want it to be something to look forward to,” when she came back to live with his parents and continue her schooling. “It keeps the desire there.” Instead, she dyed her hair to match his blue-black locks, dressed up in her school uniform and posed for Polaroids.
She, too, took the uppers and downers the King took, speed being the third thing Mr Presley picked up in the army, from a sergeant on manoeuvres. So did the chums surrounding him, the gang the Colonel christened the Memphis Mafia. It wasn’t easy for a girl to share her man with a platoon of ever-present bantering buddies, but Ms Beaulieu managed. Until, finally, on 1 May 1967, Mr Presley and Ms Beaulieu took Mr Sinatra’s private jet from Palm Springs to Las Vegas, paid $15 for a marriage licence and tied the knot in the Aladdin Hotel. The buffet banquet afterwards included roast suckling pig and oysters Rockefeller. And several of the Memphis Mafia accompanied the loving couple on honeymoon, reports Mr Peter Guralnick in his magisterial biography Careless Love.
Mr Elvis and Ms Priscilla Presley after their wedding, Las Vegas, 1967. Photograph by Bettman/Getty Images
Married bliss attained, Mr Presley got down to business. He loved the phrase “taking care of business” and there was a TCB logo on the tail of his private Convair 880 jet, which he bought in 1975 and named Lisa Marie, after his cherished daughter (who would go on to marry Mr Michael Jackson). Not that Mr Presley had been idle. Between 1960 and the end of 1967, he made 21 films, including Blue Hawaii, and released 44 singles. Of the films, none was worthy of his intensity. Of the singles, well, there’s “Little Sister” and “Return To Sender”, but there’s also “Do The Clam” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. He was, of course, revered. The Beatles visited him in 1965 and paid homage, though things were stiff initially. “If you’re just going to sit around and stare at me, I’m going to bed,” said the King. Later Mr John Lennon asked Mr Schilling to “tell Elvis that if it hadn’t been for him, I would have been nothing”.
That was true, but it was time Mr Presley showed he still had it. In 1968, he proved that. He made an NBC special. He wore a black leather suit. He kicked off with “Heartbreak Hotel” and “All Shook Up”. He looked lissom. He felt dangerous. He throbbed through “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy”. His hair tumbled down his face. He had come back. He was a star. He was the King.
On the set of Blue Hawaii, April 1961. Photograph by Mr Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
And he carried on delivering. “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” followed swiftly. So did Vegas: two shows a night for four weeks, in a 2,000-capacity room, at the new International Hotel. Mr Presley triumphed, in a white-on-white cossack suit that nodded to a karate outfit. “Jailhouse Rock” and “Don’t Be Cruel” had Mr Cary Grant on his feet. Ms Priscilla Presley felt an energy “I don’t think I’ve felt in any entertainer since”. Colonel Parker had tears in his eyes. It was the King, in excelsis.
And then, bit by bit, the wheels came off. There was a paternity suit. There was Mr Presley’s surreal visit to President Nixon, in search of a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge. There were forays into the spiritual. There were more jewel-encrusted costumes. And there were the drugs, and the doctors and the dentists and the pharmacists who doled them out. Indeed, six days after his divorce was finalised on 9 October 1973, Mr Presley was hospitalised in Memphis, his breathing terrible, his body swollen.
Boarding his private jet, The Lisa Marie, in Cincinnati, May 1976. Photograph by Mr Ken Stewart/Zuma Press
He pulled himself together, for a bit. But his on-stage behaviour was erratic. He’d talk a lot, and wildly. He’d do 15-minute karate segments. He’d seem “sleepy”. Off stage, he’d play with guns, and look for love. He returned to hospital and found himself ministered to by Nurse Marian Cocke and Nurse Kathy Seamon. President Nixon rang to wish him well, as did Mr Sinatra. He toured again, ill-advisedly. For the Houston Press, the show was awful, “served up by a bloated, mumbling figure who didn’t act like the King of anything”. And so it went on.
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