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

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REPORTAGE -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.