The return of the King: the show that rediscovered Elvis
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.