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- August 17, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 7
The King of Rock Keeps on Rollin'
On the 10th Anniversary of Elvis' Death, Those Who Knew Him Recall Some of the Moments That Created His Mystique
For his fans, other images would follow: Elvis in Gl fatigues during his two-year Army hitch; Elvis in the pastel wash of B-movie film stock playing lunkheaded loverboys in travelogue settings; finally, Elvis in Vegas sequins and fatman jumpsuits, wearing the effects of the too, too many excesses that would eventually kill him.
Before his death, however, Elvis would cut 107 Top 40 hits (more than twice the total of the Beatles) and 41 gold LPs, and become the most successful recording artist ever. Even now, his records continue to sell at a $7 million-per-year clip, his 33 movies still spin off the racks of video stores, and some 150 licensed products bearing his name or image account for $50 million in retail sales annually.
This week more than 50,000 fans are expected in Memphis to commemorate the 10th anniversary (Aug. 16) of Elvis' death. It is a milestone that has inspired four Elvis LPs (digitally mastered reissues from the vaults of RCA), two TV specials and even a six-day tribute to the King at the Las Vegas Hilton where he once performed. The Vegas marathon stars singer Wayne Newton, and Col. Tom Parker, Elvis' manager for 22 years, will also be on hand to greet fans.
Parker, now 78, relinquished his royalty rights and his ties to the Presley estate for $2 million in 1983. The sole heir to Presley's millions is the singer's only child, Lisa Marie, who will assume control on her 25th birthday in 1993. She lives in Beverly Hills with her mother, Priscilla, 42, now a regular on TV's Dallas. Four months ago Priscilla gave birth to a son, Navarone, fathered by writer-director Marco Garibaldi, 32.
Like his family, those whose lives were touched by Elvis are left now with memories. A lucky few, of course, have more than just music, or movies, or a long-ago concert to recall. They were the witnesses to special scenes and private moments, moments they shared with PEOPLE correspondents around the country. On the following pages these friends and followers reminisce about times with the King that brought laughter and sadness, anger and wonderment. Together, their stories of Elvis and his life offstage add up to an album of verbal snapshots. For those who knew him—and for the rest of us—the man who once made motion his métier now is locked forever in freeze-frame.
Sam Phillips was the owner of Sun Records in Memphis when Elvis cut his first single there (That's All Right, Mama) on July 6,1954. It "excited the dickens out of me," says Phillips, now 64, "because here was a white man singing a black man's song. At 18, he knew an awful lot of black and Southern country blues." The flip side of Elvis' first single was Blue Moon of Kentucky, a waltz-time bluegrass tune that he changed to a rockabilly beat. The following night Memphis deejay Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam) played the record on the air, and phone lines to the station suddenly lit up. "It got attention because it was different," says Sam Phillips. "Then, I knew we had a chance."
Veteran TV game show host Wink Martindale was working at WHBQ radio the night Sam Phillips brought Elvis' record in: "First Dewey played That's All Right, Mama, and then he played the other side. Then he started flipping it over, playing one side and then the other all night. The calls started pouring in, wanting to know more about the singer and requesting the records again and again. We tried to reach Elvis, but his mother said he had gone to see a double feature. So we sent for him, and he and Dewey got on the phone and talked to listeners the last two hours of the show."
Country singer Hank Snow took Elvis on tour with him in 1955. "I went to Steve Sholes of RCA," recalls Snow, 74, "and told him, 'Steve, I just come off a tour with this boy, and he is headed for stardom. And right now you can buy his contract from Sam Phillips in Memphis for $10,000." RCA declined, but Snow kept at them. "We did more tours together, and Elvis was getting hotter as the days went by," he says. "I called Steve at home one night, and I told him he was missing the boat, that somebody was going to grab this boy. So they signed him, and I heard later that Colonel Parker had negotiated for $35,000."
Memphis photographer William Speer had never heard Elvis sing when the two met at Speer's studio in June 1956. The photographer asked the performer to remove his shirt for a couple of shots, and Elvis looked embarrassedly at Speer's wife standing nearby. "I don't know if I want to do that or not," he said but eventually complied. Speer, now 70, encountered another kind of reluctance as well. "He told me he never liked to have smiling pictures taken," says Speer. "I think that's because he was trying to copy the old movie actors, the ones that were sullen-looking like Humphrey Bogart. But I told him, 'Let's break it up and shoot a smiling one,' and it was then that he gave off that crooked Elvis smile. He just electrified the camera."
Elvis' first No. 1 song was Heartbreak Hotel. It was co-written by Mae Boren Axton, 70, the mother of singer Hoyt Axton and aunt of Oklahoma Sen. David Boren. Axton was present the night Elvis showed up at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., wearing "a lace shirt, pink and open to the waist. I told him, 'That looks absolutely vulgar on you, and it would make me such a pretty blouse.' He gave me that bashful little smile and nodded, but he wore it anyway."
Elvis performed for an audience of 14,000 that night, and afterward Axton heard someone calling frantically from a dressing room backstage. "Elvis was atop the shower stalls, and he was standing there in just his pants because the girls had torn off his clothes. They'd grabbed his socks and boots when he scrambled up. I just put my hands on my hips and said, 'I told you so.' Someone had torn up the pink shirt, and I said, 'Oh, well, brown's my color.' Later on, he sent me a brown lace shirt."
"I met Elvis when he worked as an usher at Loews Theatre," says Bernard Lansky, owner of Lansky Brothers clothing store in Memphis. "We were the only clothing store on Beale Street, and he'd come down during his breaks. When he started recording at Sun, he'd come in to buy outfits. We had way-out clothes: balloon-sleeve shirts, peg pants, the draped look. He liked pinks and blacks in the '50s. They were tearing off his clothes, which was good business for us 'cause as soon as they tore 'em off, he had to go back and buy more. In the '60s we started putting suits on him, silks and wool and mohair. The '70s were the Super Fly period. I don't know what he spent here, but he bought about two dozen fur coats during the Super Fly days. He'd call me up and tell me to bring the clothes to him. What I took out I didn't bring back. He liked it all."
Loews Theatre poster artist Saul Brown, 77, was seated behind Elvis and his parents at a private screening of the singer's first movie, Love Me Tender, in 1956. "When the character that Elvis played was killed, Elvis' mother started crying," he says, "and Elvis put his arm around her and said it was okay, he was right there with her."
Sandy Ferra Martindale, now in her 40s and the wife of game showman Wink Martindale, was a Los Angeles teenager when she began dating Elvis during the filming of G.I. Blues in 1960. "He used to get all dressed up for me, and I always wore dresses for him. But pants had come in, and I got this one-piece jump-in and wore it one night. Elvis was so mad he wouldn't talk to me. After an hour he asked, 'How could you do that, wear pants? You always get dressed up for me.' And he had one of the guys take me home. Believe me, on our next date, I wore a dress."
Hollywood car customizer George Barris, 62, designed several vehicles for Elvis, including the gold Cadillac that now sits in Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. In the mid-'60s Elvis told Barris he wanted a big, elegant 40-foot bus. "It took us about five months to build," says Barris, "and we finished up about 6 one night. He was recording, so I called him and told him he could see it the next day. Well, I got a call about 4 in the morning: 'George, I'd sure like to drive my bus.' So I said, 'Why not?' I opened the plant, we got on the bus and Elvis started driving. It was like therapy to him. We hit the freeway, and we didn't come back for eight hours."
Before her marriage to actor James Caan, Sheila Ryan Caan dated Elvis. "Once," relates Sheila, now 34, "he was on tour in New York, and I was in Los Angeles. He called and wanted me to be there that evening. I had an ear infection, and I wasn't supposed to fly. He just didn't understand that; there had to be a way he could get me there. He wanted me to take a bus, but that wouldn't work, so finally he came up with the answer. He told his aide Joe Esposito to get me a low-flying plane. Can you imagine traveling over the Rockies in a low-flying plane? I thought the idea showed a side of him that was sweet and vulnerable, but needless to say, I didn't go. He just had a thing about getting what he wanted when he wanted it."
After hearing a rockabilly version of Hound Dog by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, Elvis turned the tune into a No. 1 hit for himself and then added its composers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, to his stable of songwriters. "I met him at a recording studio in Los Angeles," recalls Stoller, 54. "At our first meeting he had his entourage around him, and he was completely in control—very poised, very comfortable.
"I ended up playing the piano player in the film Jailhouse Rock, and there he was dealing with directors and designers and camera people, and he was not nearly as poised. Once a couple of extras were sitting around playing cards and talking, and I happened to overhear them. They were talking about the garden and mowing the lawn, one of those 'Ain't it the truth?' kind of things, and they started laughing. Elvis happened to be walking by at that moment, and he turned around and sharply said: 'And you think you're so hot, huh?' He assumed they were laughing at him, and they weren't even aware of him."
Gospel singer J.D. Sumner, 62, was a longtime friend of Elvis and sang at his mother's funeral. In 1973 Sumner was touring with Presley in Knoxville, Tenn., when Elvis summoned J.D. to his hotel suite. "I can't talk to Daddy about this," Sumner remembers Elvis saying, "because he don't get serious. I want to talk to you." Sumner continues: "Elvis had just learned that Priscilla was leaving him. He asked me where he went wrong. I told him the only thing a woman has got is her home, and Priscilla didn't even have that. Elvis had 20 so-called bodyguards in the house at all times. She couldn't walk out of the bedroom with any comfort on account of a bunch of men sitting around."
Ginger Alden was 20 when she began dating Elvis in 1976 and was engaged to marry him at the time of his death. It was she who discovered his body on the afternoon of Aug. 16,1977. Her sister, Rosemary Alden, often visited Graceland and recalls one occasion when Elvis and her sister were arguing about a trip to Palm Springs. "There was a doctor there that gave him medicine, and Ginger knew he'd get more than he needed if he went, so she said she didn't want to go with him. Next thing I knew, he took a gun and blew out Lisa Marie's television set. My heart was in my throat. He just did it, then called downstairs and asked the guy to bring up another TV. He had a lot of them. I guess that was someone's job, to throw away the shot-up TVs."
"The last time I saw him was at a concert in Huntsville, Ala.," says Joe Moscheo, 50, a longtime backup singer for Elvis. "I went to the hotel afterward to see him and talked to him for about a half hour. He was jaundiced-looking—yellow and overweight. He wasn't taking care of himself, and he was up to about 225 lbs. He was like a different guy. There was no fight left, no spark. He said a lot of things were happening, but he said, 'I'm going to get it worked out.' Then he gave me a little hug. Six months later I played piano for one of the quartets that sang at his funeral.
"Now with the age of videos, it would have been a new thing for him, and he would have been great at that. It always hurt him that his movies were so bad. They always gave him those musicals, but if he could have gotten a good, meaty role, he might have been an actor again, and he would have been big-name box office. If he had been happy, there's just no telling what he could have done."
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