It's been 32 years since a cocky Elvis Presley first stepped into the recording studios in Memphis and paid $3 to record an old Inkspots tune called "My Happiness," a birthday gift for his mother. And it's been eight years since he was found dead--gray-haired and weighing 255 pounds--crumpled in front of the commode, clutching a copy of "The Face of Jesus" in his hand.
During his lifetime, and particularly since his death, just about everything that could have been said about him seems to have been said. But precious little is known about Elvis the man. His essence continues to remain a mystery.
He would have been 50 Tuesday. No doubt the current Presley media blitz will include more "inside-dope" accounts.
But where we can learn about Elvis is in the lives of the people he's affected, among them the people on these pages. They come from varying socioeconomic backgrounds--but all were deeply affected by Elvis.
Gay McRae: The fanatic Gay McRae, 51, is a self-described Elvis fanatic. Born in Smithville, Miss., she has been a resident of Memphis since age 7. McRae has housed countless fans who've made the pilgrimage to Graceland, located only a few miles from her home. Her husband Stanley, an elevator company employee, recently put the finishing touches on Gay's "Elvis House," a building that houses her collection of memorabilia.
"The first time I saw Elvis was in 1955. I was 21 an' he was 19. I was with my husband and my 13-month-old daughter Glenda Gay at the grand opening of this new shopping center in Memphis. There was this big commotion going on and we went over to see what it was. Well, there was Elvis and this little band on the back of a flatbed truck. He was doin' "That's Allright Mama," as we walked up. I didn't much care for the song, but I just thought he was the most gorgeous thing I'd ever seen. I just stood there staring at him. He had the prettiest eyes--they were a deep, dark blue. An' I recall thinkin', gosh, there must be something wrong with him, so I walked all around that truck tryin' t'find something, but I couldn't. He was just beautiful. From that time on I was smitten. I mean he totally wiped me out.
"Another time I'll never forget is July 8, 1960. Me an' my two cousins were outside the gates at Graceland, an' all of a sudden Elvis came drivin' in. Then as Uncle Travis (Presley's uncle) was closing the gates this little girl about 14 or so--she had on one a them little leg braces, y'know?--an' it got caught in the gate an' she got knocked flat down. We all started screamin' an Uncle Travis came runnin' over and picked her up--I'm sure he could see lawsuit written 'bout 10 feet high--then he called up to the house. An' I told my cousins, 'She's gonna get to meet Elvis now. You'll see.' An' sure enough, Uncle Travis put her on the golf cart and drove her up to the house. And when she got there Elvis came out. . . . He had a yachting cap on. An' he gave that little girl a 45 record and an album and autographed them both! An' she was cryin' she was so happy, an' I'll never forget it. . . . This other girl standin' next to us says, 'Oh Lordy, I wish I was crippled.'
"In 1961 I saw Elvis do a benefit show at the Ellis Auditorium. It was the first time he'd performed in Memphis since 1957. There was two shows--one at 2 in the afternoon an' one at 8. I went with my girlfriend Charlotte Roberts an' we bought the tickets for $3. Can you imagine?! Oh yeah, it was somethin'--Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer an' Brother Dave Gardner was all on the bill. An' I remember Charlotte, who had this very jealous husband, said, 'If Melvin finds out I came here he'll kill me.' She's dead now, bless her heart. Anyway, we was sittin' there an' sayin' how we hoped these dumb teen-agers didn't start screamin' an' actin' like a buncha idiots so we could hear Elvis. An' then he came out. . . . He was wearin' a plain black suit . . . an' all of a sudden we were both yellin' our fool heads off!
"Yeah, I've got a lot of great memories. My little brother was a Baptist preacher and every Sunday morning before he went to preach he used to play Elvis' 'How Great Thou Art' album. My daddy loved him too. After Elvis died whenever they'd show one of his movies on TV daddy'd get tears in his eyes. See, we didn't just like Elvis . . . we loved him. My whole family did. An' when he died we felt like we'd lost a member of our own family. There'll always be a hole there. I could just start thinkin' about Elvis bein' gone right now and get real shook up all over again."
Billy Detroit: Jump suit nightmares Twenty-year-old Billy Detroit was raised in a poor, primarily black section of Michigan. At 12, he first heard Elvis and was hooked. In 1979, Detroit, who sounds uncannily like the young Elvis, began playing clubs throughout the states, exclusively doing Presley's material from the Sun Records era. For a time he lived in Memphis. Today Detroit lives in Warren, Mich., with his father and girlfriend and works as a draftsman.
"I didn't much like Elvis when I first heard him. I wondered what everybody was makin' such a big stink about. Then I saw him in 'Jailhouse Rock," an' he was great! After that I bought me a little amplifier an' started blastin' his songs all over the house. I useta sing for my mom an' my grandma an' they really encouraged me.
"I wanted to be him real bad . . . not to be him exactly--more like I wanted his spirit to come inside me or something. I prayed real hard for that. . . . I had a child's faith back then. I thought that if Elvis could look down an' see, maybe he'd help me out. That might sound dumb, but that's what I thought.
"I hate Elvis impersonators. You hardly ever see one that's real humble, an' none of 'em have the magic that Elvis had. With me it was never nothin' fake or phony, an' for sure I'd never wear onea them stupid jump suits. There was awhile there when I was really kickin' butt, playin' all these clubs, an' I was takin' a lotta these Elvis impersonators' jobs away from 'em. I remember this one guy who got fired--he said 'I'm gonna fix you boy,' an' I guess it musta sunk down into my subconscious or somethin' 'cause that night I had this dream.
"I dreamt I was walkin' down this alleyway, an' all of a sudden all these Elvis impersonators started comin' outta doorways, outta trash cans, from behind cars an' stuff. There was a coupla four footers, some seven footers, an' a few midgets. They were all kinda deformed--teeth missin', 5 o'clock shadows an' stuff. An' they all had jump suits on, except the jump suits were all torn an fulla grease stains an' mustard stains. They were carryin' chains an' crowbars an switch blades, an' they were all surrounding me. Then the leader--this guy who'd gotten fired--said, 'Get him boys!' and they started chasing me. I was running but not goin' anywhere, an' I looked behind me an' all I could see was sideburns for miles. Thank God I woke up before they got me.
"I wish I was born in the '50s, 'cause back then if you had talent you could make it. Nowadays that doesn't seem to be true. Music today, I dunno, a lot of it's OK, but a lot of it's garbage. Springsteen's all right, but I don't see what everybody's so excited about. He's uncoordinated when he moves an' he sure ain't a great singer like Elvis. Prince? I think he's sick. Hopefully, one day I'll be able to tell him to his face. There's a lot of em that's sick, an' you can't help but respect Elvis more an' more 'cause he didn't have to do crazy stuff like bite bats' heads off. If anything he was a goody two-shoes. Elvis'll always be remembered because of what he stood for, an' because his music was good. No matter what the punkers say, Elvis was the best. He'll never be forgotten.
"Who knows what would've happened if he'da lived. Maybe he'd have become President. It's kinda sad to say, but I think it's good he died when he did. I mean, he probably wanted to die, ya know?"
Judy Raphael: Looking for a bad boy Judy Raphael, 42, was born in Manhattan and moved to Los Angeles when her father was hired as head music publisher at the Disney Studios. While in high school, Raphael's older brother, a former William Morris agent, went to work for Elvis' manager, Col. Tom Parker. Later Raphael moved to Nashville where she spent time writing songs. Today she lives in West Hollywood and is a free-lance writer.
"I was a very quiet girl. I was very shy . . . I used to read romance comics and stuff. My dream was to go out with bad boys--you know--the guys with the greasy hair and the car club jackets and the pegged pants.
"The first time I saw Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show, and I remember Ed coming out and saying something about him being "such a nice boy" and we all expected some kind of novelty act . . . like Senor Wences or something. Then when I saw him I was just totally shocked. I remember giggling and being embarrassed and thinking, what is that strange creature. I couldn't believe they'd let him wiggle around like that. He represented a world that I totally didn't know about but was attracted to in a secret way. I remember the next day in school all the kids were going, 'Did you see that guy?! It was kinda like a big scandal. The whole school was just going crazy.
"I was gonna go to Hollywood High but we moved to Beverlywood, so I had to go to Hamilton. At Hamilton the caste system was real strong, so I didn't get rushed by any of the girls clubs from across the tracks where the girls were all blond and fast and sorta poor. Well, I did have this one girlfriend who lived over there. She was 15 and sort of cheap, and she already had a job as a waitress. Both of us had this terrible crush on Elvis.
"My favorite record at the time was 'Heartbreak Hotel.' I actually had a vivid picture of that place. It had a black door and Elvis actually lived there. For slow ones it was 'Love Me Tender.' I used to sing that one over and over and over. I remember when the movie came out a bunch of us went to the Oriental Theatre and sat through it about 15 times, and I couldn't stop crying in the part when Elvis gets killed.
"I was in this club, the Adorians, and I was really pretty miserable 'cause the only guys who'd date us were these real drips. But one time our club made the mistake of booking a social with this sort of bad boys' club from Marshall. I met this guy named Maurice, and he really reminded me of Elvis. He had this greasy pompadour with a duck tail and everything. He aroused all those same ambivalent feelings in me that Elvis did. . . . You know, I liked him but I knew I wasn't supposed to. He was sort of my boyfriend for awhile, that is, until some of the girls took me aside and told me I had to stop seeing him 'cause he wasn't Jewish and he wasn't nice.
"I remember this one time we were on a double date with this girl and her boyfriend. She was this horrible girl . . . the kind that lived with her grandmother and asked you if you ate kosher and acted like she was 50 years old. Anyway, she and her date were in the front seat and Maurice and I were in back. I don't know why, but I've got such a clear memory of that scene. 'Don't Be Cruel' was on the car radio. Maurice was sitting, you know, with his arm around me . . . real close. I could smell the Brylcreem on his hair. I remember thinking that his lips looked sorta like Elvis'. When he leaned over and kissed me I was real scared. Funny, I can still feel that kiss.
"When I hear Elvis' records today it all comes right back. It's strange--that's something that's never left me . . . that longing for something wilder than what I knew."
King Creole: The gospel on Elvis King Creole was born in a tiny shotgun shack in Coahoma, Miss. Raised on Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, he first heard Elvis at 13. For the past 25 years, Creole--who prefers to be referred to as an "Elvis extension" rather than an Elvis impersonator--has been performing his Elvis act in nightclubs. He is currently writing a theatrical revue entitled "The Birth of Rock and Roll." Creole, 44, lives in Beverly Hills, is married and has three children.
"I knew from the first time I heard Elvis that my life had changed. It was kind of a spiritual thing. I mean, when Elvis died, I actually thought for awhile that I was gonna die too.
"The thing that makes me mad is that people always want to bad-mouth Elvis. I can't stand it. The media was out to destroy him, you know. Like the whole thing about Elvis being fat. That's disgusting. Elvis was never fat! See, Elvis had cancer. . . . That's a fact. And he was taking these cancer drugs--he was not taking drugs to get high, 'cause Elvis had an honorary narcotics badge to fight drugs an' stuff. I'm telling you, Elvis was never fat--he was bloated. If you would've walked up to him and pinched his flesh you'd never feel any fat. He was as hard as a rock from all that karate. Matter of fact, before that last TV special--the one where he was all bloated--I saw Elvis and he was thin, real thin. Then, I don't know what happened--I guess the cancer flared up or something and he took that medicine and just blew up like a big old balloon. That's another thing--Elvis was thin when they buried him too. . . .. Otherwise how could he have fitted into that white jump suit they bought him when he was thin? I'm telling you--a friend of mine takes that cancer medicine, and it makes you puff right up, an' that's the truth.
"Another thing that ticks me off is that Elvis supposedly said, 'All the niggers can do for me is to buy my records and shine my shoes.' And from then on blacks never liked him. But that was just a lie. Listen, lemme tell you something--take versatility, take talent, take looks, take record sales . . . take anything you want. Elvis is the king. He is the king ! I mean, it's ridiculous--Little Richard or James Brown calling themselves the king. Or Chuck Berry. That's a joke. Chuck Berry never progressed. In fact, he de gressed (sic) as far as I can see. Without Elvis there'd be no Chuck Berry. There'd be no Little Richard, no James Brown, no Otis Redding. There'd be nothing ! Oh yeah, I'd like to hear some black guy tell me that he stole from them. Heck, he opened the doors for the blacks . . . gave them a break. He made it all happen, and that's just the bottom line."
Lewis Grizzard: When life wasblack and white Lewis Grizzard was born in Ft. Benning, Ga., in 1946. He was the son of a career soldier. When Grizzard's parents separated, he and his mother moved in with her parents--staunch fundamentalist Baptists--in Moreland, Ga., population 300. ("It didn't have a red light then and it don't have one now.") Grizzard is a syndicated columnist and a staffer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is the author of six books, including his most recent. "Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself."
"When I was growing up, our pattern of living was based on two books--the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and the Bible. Back then everything came in black and white, including the little TV my grandmother bought. My grandmother was like the second person in Moreland to own a TV. She didn't watch nothin' but wrasslin' an' Billy Graham. 'Course, we always watched Ed Sullivan. The night that Elvis came on I remember my whole family gathered around to see him, an', well, I'd never seen' nothin' like that. It seemed a bit iconoclastic to me, but I was old enough to figure out that this guy ain't exactly right straight down the middle of the road. Know what I mean? My family all gave Elvis horrible reviews, which, I'll admit contained a few racial slurs. Hell, these were timid times, an' here's this white kid up there shakin' his ass. An' I remember my grandfather sayin' that this was the devil's music an' anybody who listened to it was surely gonna go straight t'hell, which, y'know, did concern me some. Still, I liked it an' I figured I'd just take my chances.
"After that I grew my hair long, an' I used to grease it down with Royal Pomade Jelly an' push my britches down real low 'cause that's what Elvis did. Then I started workin' on my lip . . . the ol' Elvis sneer, y'know? Elvis, he could sneer . . . him an' Jack Nicholson, man.
"I can remember my stepfather takin' me to see 'Jailhouse Rock' at the Alamo Theatre in Union, Ga. Cost a quarter. He was a conservative kinda guy and during the movie I knew he was thinking, 'What the hell is this?' and I liked it, see. An' all of a sudden I felt really sorry for him 'cause he couldn't understand it an' I knew he was old. An' hell, he's younger than I am now.
"See, every generation has one thing that breaks it from the previous one, and for the baby boomers, it was Elvis. We declared our independence through Elvis. He was the Pied Piper of our generation. He played the background music while we grew up. I mean, it's weird. Today I find myself 38 and I'm totally out of touch with modern trends. Like I dislike it when they put mushrooms on my hamburger. I don't understand the gay movement or the women's movement or Boy George. It's kinda awful. . . . I mean, how come I feel more in common with people 20 years older than with people five or 10 years younger?
"The other real clear memory I have is when Elvis died. Aug. 16, 1977. . . . That moment is indelibly etched in my mind. Me an' my buddies were sittin' on the beach in Hilton Head, S.C. We'd played a little tennis, an' it's late in the afternoon an', damn . . . it's nice, y'know? Then my buddy Pepper came back out from the house with some cold beers an' he had this kinda funny look on his face, an' he said, 'You ain't gonna believe what I just heard on the radio. Elvis is dead.'
"Right then I had this one real strong memory--I remembered I'd hugged my first wife at the Boy Scout hut in Moreland, Ga., when I was 13 an' Elvis was singing 'One Night With You' on the radio. An' now I was 31. I had two divorces hangin' over my head an' I was still trying to run in the fast lane an' I knew that if Elvis had gotten old enough an' fat enough to die, well, hell, then I musta lost the zip on my fastball too.
"It's funny. I was tellin' my date that I was bein' interviewed for this piece about Elvis turning 50 and she said, 'Gawdamighty, I'm glad he died.' An' I said, 'Whaddaya mean?' An' she said 'Imagine if Elvis would've been 50 how old the rest of us would've felt.' "