Elvis: how the King made a sensational comeback... and the toll it took on family life
Fifty years ago this week, the world witnessed a legendary television special that signalled Presley’s comeback to superstardom. Liadan Hynes charts the singer’s 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 “off-therack” 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 his Graceland home 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
His mother Gladys nurtured in her son a belief that he was special
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 okay, 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, which 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. By this time, Rolling Stone would write in his obituary that he was “nearly a total recluse, renting whole movie theatres and amusement parks to visit at night”.
Priscilla described their life at Graceland as like living “in a bubble... He didn’t really go out, he didn’t like eating in restaurants because people would take pictures of him and he didn’t want to be shot eating with a fork in his mouth”.
Steve Binder, who directed the 1968 comeback special, describes “seeing a man rediscover himself ”.
Originally, Elvis wasn’t keen, based on past TV experiences which had included a humiliating set singing Hound Dog to a real dog. When he first met Binder, Elvis asked the director for his assessment of his musical career. “In the toilet,” Binder replied.
It is a measure of the man that instead of being offended by such bluntness, Elvis admired this honesty. “From that first meeting, I knew he was champing at the bit to prove himself again,” Binder recalled later.
For the first time in years, Elvis began reasserting himself. There would be no schmaltzy special guests or corny sketches. This was going back to the original Elvis. It helped that, just back from a holiday in Hawaii, he was in peak physical condition.
Binder recalled of the first time he met The King: “I was awed, first of all by the way he looked. If he was not famous, you would still stop and stare. As a director, you’re looking to see which is the good side, the bad side. Elvis was perfect from every angle. It was like a god walking in.” Everyone around him felt the same. “From the moment he walked in the studio it was almost like all the guys there were bowing down to him, but he didn’t care whatsoever,” Binder recalled.
“Once in a while, he’d say something like, ‘I’m a little bit thirsty’ and 15 guys would run at him with Coke bottles... The demagoguery was just unbelievable, but Elvis was truly a gentleman and a sweetheart of a guy. He just acted the way a country boy would act.” Priscilla, who had never seen Elvis perform before, compared his performance to what she had witnessed in the intimacy of their den at home, when Elvis was messing about.
The heart of the hour-long special are the sit-down sessions, where Elvis sits in a circle with his musicians, some of them his original bandmates, and pounds out his hits from the 1950s. It’s one of the most compelling pieces of rock music you will ever see, and a perfect example of the singer’s innate, natural charm as he jokes easily with the musicians.
Stopping mid-song to prove he could still master his signature lip curl, he laughs, “wait a minute, there’s something wrong with my lip”.
There were anecdotes about the time the police, deeming his show salacious, monitored a performance, and he had to stand still, allowed only to move his little finger. Colleagues and Priscilla remember him as suffering stage fright. “Elvis was hardly ever nervous — but he was then,” drummer DJ Fontana told Rolling Stone.
When the show aired on December 3, 1968, the special won 42% of the television viewing audience and was NBC’s highest rated show that year. The soundtrack made it to the Top 10. The comeback was a turning point for The King. His movie career came to an end shortly afterwards. By the summer of 1969 he had begun his first residency in Las Vegas. Vegas wasn’t always the inevitable downward spiral it seems now. Early performances saw his energy levels higher than ever, as he thrived on the buzz of live audiences again.
But the relentless schedule the Colonel had signed him up to, and the fact that Elvis was in debt to his manager by the time of his death, so was unable to stop working, were his undoing.
His marriage to Priscilla ended in late 1973, by which time he was deeply dependent on prescription drugs including amphetamines, barbiturates, and tranquillisers. His overindulgence tipped over into dangerous levels; onstage he would forget his lines. Crash diets damaged his health. Giving people cars was a long-standing habit, but his spending was entirely out of control.
Priscilla and Elvis remained friends and raised their daughter, Lisa Marie, together, with Priscilla being the executor of Elvis’s estate.
“I’m just so tired of being Elvis Presley,” he would say in the final months of his life.
He suffered a heart attack and died in 1977, aged 44.
After her relationship with Elvis fell apart, Priscilla dated Robert Kardashian for a time. It was Priscilla who was behind the transformation of her former home, Graceland, into the money-making tourist attraction it is today.
Now in her seventies, she is said to be a dedicated grandmother to her daughter Lisa Marie’s twin girls.
As well as Lisa Marie, Priscilla has a second child, Navarone Anthony Garibaldi, with her former long-term partner Marco Garibaldi.
Lisa Marie Presley, born in early 1968, was the sole heir to her father’s fortune when he died. She was just nine at the time. She has been married four times, most famously to Michael Jackson for two years, and to actor Nicholas Cage.
She is currently engaged in a court battle with her ex-husband Michael Lockwood over custody of their twins.
Her daughter Riley is a successful model who has been the face of Dior.
TROUBLED TALENT: Elvis Presley with wife Priscilla and their daughter Lisa Marie and (right) during his later years Priscilla and his colleagues said he struggled with stage fright