The re­turn of the King: the show that re­dis­cov­ered Elvis

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - PEOPLE -

Fifty years ago to­mor­row, the world wit­nessed a leg­endary tele­vi­sion spe­cial that sig­nalled Elvis Pres­ley’s come­back to su­per­star­dom. Li­adan Hynes charts his sen­sa­tional but trou­bled ca­reer

PRISCILLA Beaulieu was just 21 years old when she mar­ried Elvis Pres­ley at the Aladdin Ho­tel in Las Ve­gas in May 1967. He was more than 10 years older. To avoid crowds, the wed­ding party had sneaked out of Elvis’s Palm Springs home at mid­night the night be­fore, climb­ing over a back wall and into a car head­ing for the air­port. Frank Si­na­tra had do­nated his pri­vate jet to take the cou­ple and their clos­est friends to the cer­e­mony.

“My wed­ding was very un­usual,” Priscilla re­flected later. “It was the peo­ple clos­est to us, and pri­vate. We didn’t want a cir­cus.”

Elvis wore a tuxedo made from black pais­ley silk bro­cade, his pom­padour held up by wire. Priscilla’s dress was, Vogue re­ports, an “offthe-rack” num­ber. She had shopped in Neiman Mar­cus and other stores, wear­ing a blonde wig and adopt­ing the pseu­do­nym Mrs Hodge. At the time, the cou­ple had been to­gether for a num­ber of years — Priscilla first moved into Grace­land with Elvis and his fam­ily in 1962, while she was still at school.

Nine months af­ter their wed­ding, the cou­ple’s only child, Lisa Marie, was born. The pair first met in 1959, when Priscilla was 14 and liv­ing in West Ger­many where her father, an air force of­fi­cer, was sta­tioned. Elvis was en­listed in the army at the time, liv­ing off-base with his father. A friend of his saw Priscilla in a restau­rant and in­vited her to meet the singer.

“I just wore a lit­tle sailor dress be­cause I still didn’t be­lieve it,” she re­called later. She vis­ited Elvis’s house with friends; wit­nesses say he was im­me­di­ately taken with her, try­ing to im­press her by play­ing his songs.

These meet­ings went on for sev­eral months, un­til Elvis was dis­charged and sent back to Amer­ica. For the next two years, the pair would stay in con­tact by phone and let­ter. Se­ri­ally un­faith­ful, Elvis was in­volved with nu­mer­ous other women dur­ing this time; ru­mours reg­u­larly reached Priscilla. She none­the­less hung on. Elvis man­aged to per­suade Priscilla’s par­ents to al­low her to visit him on sev­eral oc­ca­sions dur­ing school hol­i­days. On these oc­ca­sions, he was said to have given di­rec­tion on her look. Elvis favoured heavy eye­liner, thick mas­cara and big hair, and banned his fu­ture bride from wear­ing brown or prints. She has al­ways claimed that they did not sleep to­gether un­til their wed­ding night.

Priscilla’s par­ents were even­tu­ally con­vinced to al­low their daugh­ter to move into Grace­land. The plan was she would live in Pres­ley’s father’s home in the grounds. Pres­ley Se­nior pro­vided Priscilla with pocket money and drove her to school un­til she was able to drive. It was a strange life for the teenager; ram­bling around this huge man­sion, Elvis of­ten away film­ing, his grand­mother in­creas­ingly her main com­pan­ion.

Since the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, Elvis had al­ways moved his par­ents into what­ever home he was liv­ing in.

Born in 1935, he was the only child of Ver­non and Gla­dys Pres­ley; Elvis’s twin brother Jesse was still­born. The Pres­leys were poor, liv­ing in a two-bed­room house in Mis­sis­sippi with no elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter. A close knit, re­li­gious fam­ily; mu­sic and preach­ing were a part of their son’s life from the out­set.

Mov­ing to Mem­phis, from a young age, Elvis had var­i­ous jobs to help the fam­ily’s fi­nances. Un­able to af­ford a bike, his mother bought him a gui­tar, and his mu­si­cal ap­ti­tude was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. He de­vel­oped a fond­ness for hang­ing around blues clubs, wear­ing his hair that bit longer. Elvis the af­fa­ble rebel was born.

Fa­mously, his first ever record­ing, made in the sum­mer af­ter he grad­u­ated from high school, was a gift for his mother’s birth­day. Notes made by an as­sis­tant at the time read “good bal­lad singer. Hold”.

The pro­ducer Sam Phillips asked Elvis back for fur­ther record­ings with other mu­si­cians. A band was formed. By late 1954, Elvis had quit his day job. The fol­low­ing year, he met Colonel Tom Parker, an event that would de­fine the rest of his ca­reer, and, some ar­gue, lead to the squan­der­ing of the tal­ents of one of the world’s most nat­u­ral and charis­matic per­form­ers.

Parker, who had once worked as a cir­cus pro­moter, was not in fact a real colonel. Lack­ing any vi­sion beyond the bot­tom line, he al­ways saw his big­gest star as a cash cow, to be squeezed for ev­ery inch of earn­ing po­ten­tial.

The 1950s were the pin­na­cle of Elvis’s mu­si­cal ca­reer as a genre-de­fy­ing artist un­like any­thing the main­stream had ever known. In 1957, he was drafted into the army. It was Pres­ley him­self who chose to be a reg­u­lar sol­dier rather than take up the of­fer of per­form­ing for the troops or act­ing as a re­cruit­ment model. Dur­ing this pe­riod, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post, his drug ad­dic­tion be­gan. Am­phet­a­mines were his drug of choice, with some ac­counts sug­gest­ing his mother was also an ad­dict. The Wash­ing­ton Post de­scribes the pe­riod in Ger­many as “rock-and-roll cliche: He got into fist­fights with Ger­mans, caroused around top­less clubs and brought dancers back to his ho­tel, all while fu­elled by those lit­tle pills”.

He is re­ported to have told Priscilla at the time “if I didn’t have them [the drugs], I’d never make it through the day my­self. But it’s OK, they’re safe”. In Au­gust 1958, Gla­dys Pres­ley died of a heart at­tack, an event Elvis would later call “the great tragedy of his life”. Elvis wor­shipped his mother. Hav­ing lost one child at the time of Elvis’s birth, and later suf­fer­ing a mis­car­riage, Gla­dys was deeply pro­tec­tive of her boy. “My mama never let me out of her sight,” Elvis once com­mented. Gla­dys nur­tured in her son a be­lief that he was spe­cial, and the two shared a par­tic­u­larly strong bond. Ver­non trav­elled of­ten in search of work, and as a child, Elvis and his mother would share a bed, speak­ing in their own pri­vate baby lan­guage.

On Elvis’s re­turn from the army, the mu­si­cal land­scape had changed. The Bea­tles, the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys were now the most ex­cit­ing new artists, and Elvis spent most of the 1960s lan­guish­ing in B-movie ter­ri­tory.

By the time of the leg­endary 1968 tele­vi­sion come­back, Singer Presents... Elvis, was filmed in June 1968, he had not per­formed in front of a live au­di­ence for seven years. That year, 1968, was the year of the as­sas­si­na­tions of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy. The sum­mer of love had oc­curred the pre­vi­ous year. Elvis, now 33, seemed out of touch. His last TV ap­pear­ance had been in 1960. He was the high­est paid ac­tor in Hol­ly­wood at the time, but his last Top 10 hit had been in 1965.

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