10 YEARS LATER AND STILL BACKING UP ELVIS

What would Elvis Presley have thought about all the attention being paid to him 10 years after his death?

Would he have been surprised by the parade of magazine covers? By the news that 50,000 fans have made a pilgrimage to his hometown of Memphis to celebrate International Tribute Week?

"I think he would have been shocked," said Kathy Westmoreland, who toured as a backup singer with Elvis for seven years and has now written a book about her relationship with him.

"During one of the final conversations I had with Elvis, he asked me out of the blue, 'How are people going to remember me?'," the petite singer said this week. "He was worried that they weren't going to remember him much at all. He said, 'I haven't done anything classic.'

"Elvis wasn't in some deep depression when he said this. He was just pensive and looking ahead. He was talking about finally writing a book about himself--he was going to call it 'Through My Eyes'--and he also wanted very badly to find a good film role so he could establish himself as a credible actor."

But what about the cheering crowds each night on stage? Didn't that suggest that he meant a lot to his audience? What about the hundreds of millions of records he had sold?

"He kept saying that his happiest moments were out on stage, but I think you also become kind of immune to the applause," Westmoreland continued. "When you do it night after night, you want something more, and Elvis wanted to show people that there was more to him than the silly little wiggly-hipped image.

Westmoreland had hoped to be in Memphis this weekend to sing in a Graceland-sponsored program honoring rock's greatest star, who died 10 years ago Sunday.

But the Riverside County resident--who has participated in previous Memphis salutes to Presley--was forced to cancel her plans when Graceland, the company that operates tours in Elvis' old mansion, suddenly withdrew the invitation.

A letter from a Graceland executive to Westmoreland suggested that her appearance would be "inappropriate" because of press reports that she discusses her "private and personal relationship" with the late singer in her new book, "Elvis and Kathy" (available through mail order, Glendale House Publishing, 249 N. Brand Blvd., Suite 440, Glendale, 91203, $22.95 postpaid).

So Westmoreland, 42, will spend the weekend in Las Vegas, where she first met Elvis in 1970 and where her sister is a backup singer for Wayne Newton.

Sitting on the porch of the Glendale home of Glendale House publisher B. J. Baker this week, Westmoreland said she has mixed feelings about the resurgence of Elvis mania.

"I don't even know how to react to it all," she said, fingering a large, gold, cat-shaped ring Elvis gave her. "I feel up about it one day, then down the next. I feel good that he's remembered and that he is so loved, but I also feel sad that a lot of people don't really understand him. There is this whole negative image that has grown up over the years--and that's not the Elvis I knew."

In the undertow of interviews by former Elvis associates, there have been many conflicting tales about life with Elvis. Westmoreland has kept a relatively low profile since the singer's death and, despite promoting her book, she now speaks in reasoned and persuasive tones rather than sensational ones.

Westmoreland admits, however, that she's not neutral when it comes to Presley. Described on the book jacket as Presley's "vocalist, confidente (sic), lover and friend," the 5-foot-1 1/2-inch singer tells a relatively sweet story about their relationship--both as lovers (briefly) and as friends, pulled together by loneliness on the road, and mutual interests in spiritual and musical matters.

To many readers accustomed to more dramatic Presley tales about eccentric sex and drugs, the book could appear to be a whitewash. But she denies she set out to write a tribute.

"That's the last thing he would have wanted," said Westmoreland, who toured briefly with the Metropolitan Opera National Company and did some studio work before joining the Presley troupe. "He wanted people to know he was a human being . . . that he had faults like all of us. He would have been the first to say, 'Look, I'm not God. I'm a person.'

"But I just didn't know the Elvis that I have read about and heard about in the last few years," she continued. "Take the drugs, for instance. I was--and this is putting it bluntly--in Elvis' bedroom and there was very little drug abuse. He would overmedicate himself. His idea was that if one pill was good, two were better. He was very ill (in the '70s). . . . "

In the book, she describes the illnesses as ranging from bone cancer and hypertension to diabetes, glaucoma, pernicious anemia and insomnia. "I am convinced that without prescription drugs, Elvis would have died much earlier," she writes.

Westmoreland was on a private plane with other Presley musicians and tour workers, headed for a concert in Portland, Me., when the plane made an unscheduled landing in Pueblo, Colo. It was on the ground there that she heard the words, "Elvis died this morning. We are to head back to . . . Los Angeles right away."

About the months afterward, she said, "It was worse than having a member of my family die, in a sense, because anytime a member of your family dies, they were buried and we had a mourning process and then it was over and you got over it.

"In Elvis' case, there was no end to the mourning process. Every time I appeared anywhere, the fans were still in mourning. I went into supermarkets and there was Elvis, Elvis, Elvis and more negative stories. It was all very depressing."

Westmoreland, who has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, said she does 40 to 50 club dates a year and is hoping to land a recording deal. She said she resisted doing a book for years because she thought it would appear "tacky," but felt she wanted to tell people about the man she knew.

"I'm not saying I am right and the people who saw another Elvis are wrong. All of us have a side we reveal to certain people and another side to other people. All I know is what I saw.

"I don't know if Elvis will ever be understood. He has become larger than life. Seeing all the confusion about him makes me wonder how much we know about anybody in history, anyone who was significant at all--how much was truth and how much was just fabricated . . . how much was exaggerated."

CD DIGEST: RCA Records' four new Elvis Presley commemorative albums are the best ways to enjoy Presley's music on compact disc. "The Sun Sessions" documents his landmark pre-"Heartbreak Hotel" recordings, while "The Memphis Record" chronicles Presley's extraordinary 1969 return to form. The other two--"The Number One Hits" and the two-disc "The Top 10 Hits"--are greatest hits packages.

Beyond these, there are 12 other Elvis albums available on CD. Aside from additional greatest hits compilations, they include "Elvis" (his 1956 RCA debut LP), "Elvis Presley" (also from 1956), two Christmas albums and five concept collections. The latter range from the ballads spotlighted in "Always on My Mind" to the blues emphasis of "Reconsider Baby."

U2/COLISEUM: U2's Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum concert will be Nov. 17, according to a tour announcement released Friday by the Irish band. A spokesman for the local promoter, Avalon Attractions, said Friday that Avalon was still waiting for confirmation of the date, and that tickets will probably go on sale in late September. If a second show at the 92,000-seat Coliseum is added, it would would be after the Nov. 17 date.

Other stadium concerts on the 37-show tour include the tour opener at Nassau Coliseum in New York on Sept. 10, JFK Stadium in Philadelphia and the Orange Bowl in Miami. The only other California show scheduled so far is Oakland Stadium on Nov. 15.

LIVE ACTION: Motley Crue will be at the Forum on Oct. 6 with Whitesnake; tickets go on sale Monday. . . . Donna Summer will be at Universal Amphitheatre on Sept. 12 and 13; tickets on sale Sunday. . . . Tickets also go on sale Sunday for Lynyrd Skynyrd's shows Sept. 27 at Irvine Meadows and Sept. 28 at Universal Amphitheatre. . . . Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald share the bill Oct. 11 at Pacific Amphitheatre; tickets available Monday.

Review of documentary "Crazy About the Movies: Elvis '56 ." Page 6.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°