One Night With Elvis
Fans from across the globe visit Graceland to pay their respects.
Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis is a bizarre slice of civilization strewn with dilapidated barbecue shacks, check-cashing pawn shops, liquor stores, car washes (one doubles as a burger joint that serves a “Murder Burger”), and umbrella-toting prostitutes winking at passersby in the pre-dawn rain. It’s hard to believe that this neighborhood is the eternal resting place for a star of Elvis Presley’s magnitude. A few thousand feet from Graceland, cheap automobiles are available in a dismal looking car lot called Heaven-Sent Used Cars. Nearby looms one of the city’s several massive billboards that proclaim: “Johnny Cochran — America’s Lawyer,” a huge, imposing photo of the famous attorney accompanying his telephone number. Another billboard advertises “Dr. Nick’s Memories of Elvis” at a local casino, featuring Dr. George Nichopoulos himself, Elvis’ legendary prescription writer.
On the weekend of August 16, more than 30,000 worshippers solemnly filed past Elvis’ grave, each clutching a candle lit from another candle that was lit by the eternal flame at Presley’s tombstone on the mansion’s front lawn. Colored lights bathed trees in various hues as Graceland’s lawn stereo oozed Presley hymns and ballads around-the-clock, the only sound evident as several thousand worshippers patiently stood in a hushed, snail-paced line beginning at 5 a.m. on Friday to pay respects and proffer gifts at the grave of the King. Offerings included teddy bears, long-stemmed roses, poems, and assorted brands of pork rinds. In the middle of Presley Boulevard, devotees abandoned burning candles in parting tribute, creating an oasis of melting candlewax altars where flames sizzled as raindrops fell.
Welcome Elvis Fans: Feeding throngs of fans proved too exhausting for this vendor.
“I stood in line for six hours,” said Becky Baker, a 55-year-old Detroit woman who credits Presley with putting an end to her suicide attempts. “I had no desire to live ’til I heard Elvis sing,” she sobbed uncontrollably to a middle-aged man with sideburns, a pompadour, and a white Elvis suit and who claimed to be Elvis Presley, Jr. “My mother was Bonnie,” the man explained with a shrug, “one of Elvis’ early girlfriends. I was conceived when they were both 14.” He admitted to harboring lingering resentment at Lisa Marie’s refusal to recognize him as her brother. The crying woman from Detroit rubbed his hand, nodded her head, and sighed, “I knew there had to be more children, ’cause Elvis had so many girlfriends.”
A disheveled woman with unkempt gray hair aimlessly wandered back and forth on the sidewalk in front of Graceland’s graffiti-covered stone wall. She babbled incessantly to herself while dragging a worn yellow suitcase with a Greyhound luggage tag dangling from the handle. Identifying herself as “Mary from Kansas City,” she explained that she had walked several miles from the downtown Memphis bus station to reach Graceland. She distributed photocopies of tabloid headlines about recent Elvis sightings in the Midwest. The woman ventured a theory that Elvis could have been abducted by curious aliens 25 years ago. Most of the mourners simply ignored her.
The annual Elvis Candlelight Vigil held each summer to commemorate Presley’s death is a world-class freak show that would have made the late Colonel Tom Parker proud. Nowhere else would this collection of oddities be afforded such dignity and respect. A midget Elvis posed for pictures with a group of Japanese tourists. A balding Canadian man with scraggly red sideburns said it was his third trip to the vigil. He moonlights as an Elvis and Roy Orbison impersonator in his native British Columbia, crooning a verse of “Love Me Tender” to convince all who doubted him.
The most notable curiosities, however, labeled themselves Presley’s closest confidants and assembled at a University of Memphis symposium. Framed by a backdrop of velvet Elvis paintings, the informal group recounted favorite stories about how much he had meant to each of their lives, offering nothing less than complete reverence and respect as they praised the man who at one time had most of them on his payroll.
Al De Goren, the man who coined the phrase “Elvis has left the building,” recalled Presley’s generosity. Julie Parish, Elvis’ costar in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, claimed that one afternoon the entire right side of her body had gone numb “after too many diet pills.” Presley laid his hands over her in a healing manner right there on the movie set. Elvis’ dentist remembered the day Presley refused painkillers before oral surgery. “Elvis hypnotized himself,” said the dentist, obviously still in awe. “He never blinked and he never moved. It was amazing.”
Charlie Hodge, the man responsible for handing Presley his scarves and glasses of water on stage, told of the evening Elvis and the Colonel purchased 150 seats behind the stage for a group of blind fans — except no one told Elvis they were blind. Each time Presley tossed the group one of his scarves, it would simply flutter to the ground as if no one cared to catch it. Elvis almost became unglued during the performance, convinced that he had lost his ability to mesmerize an audience.
Struggling with English in a thick Korean accent, Master Kang Rhee, Presley’s long-time karate instructor, remembered that Elvis often didn’t know his own strength when using bodyguard Red West as a practice dummy. Rhee used to applaud enthusiastically as Elvis smashed up hotel furniture with hand chops and flying kicks. “Master Tiger [Elvis] deserve all kind of black belt,” Rhee noted, praising the star’s martial arts prowess. At the end of his talk, Kang Rhee, dressed in a black business suit, removed his shoes and socks to give a karate demonstration, complete with grunts and the classic air punches that became a staple of Presley’s Las Vegas act.
Larry Geller, Elvis’ hairdresser and spiritual adviser, called Presley “an Adonis and modern-day Robin Hood” who had hair “so fine that it needed lots of hairspray.” The hair stylist has previously claimed that Elvis was reading a book about Jesus the moment he died, a book the barber had given him five days before his death. Geller at one time had been ostracized by Colonel Parker and the Memphis Mafia, who blamed him for Presley’s fascination with different religions. At one point, Colonel Tom refused to let him be alone with Presley, limiting barber sessions to a half hour with a chaperon. The Colonel eventually confiscated all spiritual books Geller had given the singer, which Priscilla convinced Elvis to burn one night at Graceland.
Red West was the unexpected guest. West and his brother Sonny had written a tell-all book entitled Elvis, What Happened? after being fired from their bodyguard roles. Presley contemplated having the pair killed after the book came out but failed to carry through with the scheme. Years later, a tearful West has nothing but kind words for his former boss, and recollections about various attempts to break the monotony of life with Elvis in Las Vegas. For one prank, the Memphis Mafia staged an assassination attempt on Elvis, loading everyone’s guns with blanks in an afternoon shoot-out where Presley played dead as those not in on the joke jumped on his body to protect him from the imaginary bullets.
Leave it to Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and the man who discovered Elvis, to be the one speaker willing to toss a few irreverent barbs in everyone’s direction. Phillips is widely regarded as the man who unleashed rock ‘n’ roll with the release of “Rocket ’88′” by Jackie Brentson. In the early 1950s, Phillips had discovered a black singing group known as the Prisonaires incarcerated at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. Impressed, Phillips began soliciting tapes of songs from other convicts, including one who sounded an awful lot like the Presley kid that had made acetate recordings 10 months earlier at Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Phillips was forced to give Presley a second listen, eventually hooking him up with guitarist Scotty Moore’s group, the Starlite Wranglers. Moore was initially impressed more with the singer’s name than voice because he thought the name “Elvis Presley” sounded like it came from a science fiction movie. Two years later, Phillips sold Presley’s contract to Colonel Tom Parker for $35,000.
Admitting that “anybody this damn old ought to be dead,” Phillips opened his address expressing admiration for the RCA microphone before him. He praised its aluminum strip and magnetic poles as he noted, “You make the performer feel like he owns that microphone,” the excitement rising in his voice. Admitting that he had more tolerance for Red than Red’s brother Sonny, Phillips praised West for being “exactly what Elvis needed in a bodyguard.” He said the brothers’ tell-all book wasn’t written to make money, but rather “to help Presley straighten his life out.” Phillips spoke in a stream of consciousness delivery that veered off on various tangents before suddenly returning to the topic at hand as he forgave West for writing the book.
Sam Phillips has claimed to have had no regrets about selling Elvis to the Colonel, whom he called “a fat boy with a long tongue and fat mouth.” But he can’t hide his disdain for the man who once had a carnival sideshow featuring dancing chickens on a plugged-in hot plate. “I’ll never say anything against Tom Parker . . . I wish he were still alive — then I would!” Phillips then turned his sarcasm towards Charlie Hodge: “It ain’t easy passin’ a glass of water to Elvis Presley. Forget the scarves.” He finally got around to exalting Presley, lauding him as a man of his word. “Elvis wouldn’t break a damn contract, even if it cost him his lower anatomy. He was the most important personality of the 20th and 21st centuries . . . I loved him because I wanted to kiss him and never got to.” As the audience laughed nervously at Phillips’ peculiar anecdotes, the legendary record producer concluded with a philosophical flurry of words that put a perspective on the two-day Memphis spectacle that few in the throng of 30,000 Graceland mourners would dare acknowledge. “We’re not talkin’ about no damn deities, and we don’t need another pope,” Phillips said quietly of the man who drew revelers from all corners of the globe on the 25th anniversary of his death. “No use in kidding ourselves. Elvis Presley got himself in the mess he made, and you know he did.” &