It seems like just the other day that his primal scream—and pelvis—dug a permanent dirt-road detour around what used to be called Tin Pan Alley. It couldn't possibly be two decades since those good old greasy-kid days. Yet his own don't-be-cruel dirge aside, a whole generation had better brace itself to be all shook up. This week (Jan. 8, to be painfully precise), Elvis Presley turns 40 years old.
The sullen smolder, the serpentine moves, the sideburns and hair (if not the pompadour cut) are still there. The voice tends to be croony where it used to be raunchy, and his lamé bodysuits paunch out in some different places. But the star born in a two-room Mississippi shack is not all that far from his $5 million-a-year prime. Elvis has an 18-room antebellum hillbilly palace—Graceland—on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis; two other mansions in California; a stable full of cars (including a gold-plated Cadillac sprinkled with diamond dust); a phalanx of bureaucrats and bodyguards befitting a President; and a 24-year-old former Miss Universe contender girlfriend, Linda Thompson, who regards him as "second to only one in my life. And that one is God."
Indeed, the picture of Elvis that emerges is the sybaritic reclusiveness of a Howard Hughes combined with the ambivalent social consciousness of a Billy Jack. He is inaccessible to just about everyone except his Memphis Mafia retinue. He generally sleeps until late afternoon and almost never ventures out when he does awaken. Says Linda, now a model: "In the two-and-a-half years we've been together, we've only been to a restaurant once outside of Vegas."
For recreation, Elvis sings gospel songs with his cronies or watches one of the TV sets that adorn almost every room. His favorite shows include football and Kung Fu. That is scarcely surprising since Elvis' other pastime is karate. He has been studying the martial art for 16 years and holds an eighth-degree black belt. That training came in handy during a recent Las Vegas performance, when two karate-trained men attacked him from the audience. Elvis and his cohorts dispatched the drunken pair so swiftly that not even the band noticed.
Presley often rehearses with 20-odd pounds of weights on his wrists and ankles to sweat off bothersome fat. When chided about his midriff on one recent tour, Elvis protested that it was just a bullet-proof vest necessitated by assassination threats. The protective wall around Presley is the construction of his manager, Col. Tom Parker, the Suwannee Svengali who shrewdly took Elvis out of the spotlight before he could burn out his welcome (like, say, Johnny Cash). Parker did not bring him back big until 1969, when the first whiffs of '50s nostalgia wafted across the land. Of course, the colonel's theories of Maintained Mania fit nicely with Elvis' own reticent, hunkered-down personality.
Which is not to suggest that Presley is selfish. He is constantly rewarding retainers, not to mention random airline employees, with cars, jewelry and even houses. The largesse has totaled maybe half a million within recent months. Why? "Because Elvis has so much, he just wants to share it," Linda told reporter George Bernard. "He was raised in the Assembly of God, and he believes that his wealth and talent come from God." That, she says, is also the reason Elvis does not smoke or drink. "There have been heartless, cruel, vicious rumors that have persisted about Elvis using drugs. Why, Elvis is a federal narcotics officer! Three years ago former President Nixon issued Elvis a federal agent's badge."
Elvis' piety never extended to total chastity. What red-blooded male could resist all those frothing, clawing entreaties. Or the letters, like the one he recently received, saying, "You don't have to marry me, Elvis, just give me your baby." Yet Elvis finally settled down in 1967, marrying Priscilla Beaulieu, whom he had begun courting in 1959 while he was in the Army.
Enter Linda, who was introduced by a friend. "I had never dated a married man," she recalls, "and Mr. Presley was not going to be the exception. That is, until he said he was legally separated. I attacked him on the spot. I moved in immediately, and a week later Elvis filed for divorce." "As for morality," Linda explains, "Elvis is not John Doe. This situation cannot be compared to anything else, so morality is not applicable. It is certainly not a normal life, traveling and all that. But it is a nice abnormal life." Linda and Elvis, for example, amicably share his daughter, Lisa, now 7, with Priscilla, and Linda's parents are established right around the corner from Graceland.
Last year Elvis was plagued by bouts of pneumonia. But the number 40 does not make him feel particularly menopausal or shook up. At concerts Presley introduces his daddy, Vernon, now 59, and proudly announces, "He's more of a hound than I am."