This month dear Readers I will conclude my series of articles covering the King of Rock’n’Roll, Elvis Presley. Whew ! Regular readers of this column will know that periodically I have done a piece on the history the King, with the main title in each one being “The King – The Whole Story”. Believe it or not, my first one, covering his early years, was back in June 2019. So it’s taken me over 4 years to complete the story ! So this month marks the conclusion of my Elvis story. I hope you have enjoyed it. The last column in which I focused on Elvis covered the Comeback Special in 1968 and Elvis’ failed marriage. The story now takes a sad turn in the tale, as we look at his final years. It’s a story of decline, both in the level of his talent and his physical condition.
I again organised a tribute concert to Elvis, to coincide with my articles on him in this column. I booked the group MosVegas to perform for us in Moscow. They are a relatively new band and play in the style of Elvis. The name itself “MosVegas” comprises “Mos” from Moscow and “Vegas” from the Elvis film “Viva Las Vegas”. They really are a brilliant band and truly capture the spirit of Elvis in their sound and performances. They put on a great show for us and you can see some of the photos taken at the event. And now – Elvis – the
Following the big success of Elvis’ TV “Comeback Special at the end of 1968, he performed extensively to huge audiences. But by 1971 his heavy use of amphetamines and other prescription drugs were beginning to take their toll. He was gaining weight and was in poor physical shape. His extensive womanising continued and to the end of his life his enormous sexual appetite did not let up. All these factors contributed to his decline. The way he was spending his money did not help. The writer Joel Williamson described it this way, “Elvis began spending money like water. He bought jewelry for everyone, expensive cars for several of his guys. He had come dangerously close to bankruptcy.”
And then, in 1971, a historic meeting took place. It was a meeting at the White House between Elvis and the then President of United States, Richard Nixon. Here’s how it came about. Despite his drug addictions, Elvis was hostile to the new Hippie drug culture and anti-Americanism of so many of the Youth in American and Western society generally at that time. He initiated a meeting with the President by writing him a letter. In it he wrote things like, “The Drug Culture, the Hippie elements, the SDS, Black Panthers, etc., do not consider me as their enemy or as they call it The Establishment. I call it America and I love it. Sir I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out.” His letter continued advising that he had done “an in depth study of Drug Abuse and Communist Brainwashing techniques” and he added “ I would love to meet you just to say hello if you’re not too busy.”
Nixon agreed to the meeting. In the very early 1970s he certainly had an image problem with many of the young people in America, especially with the Vietman War raging and thousands of young men being drafted into the army to serve there. He figured maybe Elvis could help him with this image problem, considering the following Elvis had amongst many of the Youth. And so the classic encounter between the two took place. It was later to become known as the meeting of the President and the King. During their discussion, Elvis launched into an attack on the Beatles. He accused the Beatles of being a centre of anti-Americanism, having come to America to make a lot of money, then going back to England and slandering America. Both agreed that Elvis could be helpful in getting the support of some young people for Nixon and Elvis agreed to do everything he could in this regard. He promised to fight hard against the drug culture prevalent in American amongst the young, which was rather ironic given his own addictions. But Elvis did not have commitment to go public on either this meeting with Nixon or on what he promised to do for the President during that meeting. He told the President it was best if he did not do this publicly. The details of this famous get together between the President and the King only came out after his death.
Given the chaos in Elvis’ life at that time, already outlined above, it is doubtful he achieved anything that he promised during that presidential meeting. And much later, when the details of their discussions came out, Paul McCartney said he felt betrayed by the things that Elvis had said about the Beatles, given his public statements of friendliness towards them.
As the 1970s rolled on, Elvis continued to work relentlessly, filling huge arenas with adoring fans. And some of that unique Elvis magic and charisma was still there. But the quality of his performances was declining. And his physical appearance was likewise deteriorating. In addition to his drug dependency and general life-style, his additional addiction to over-eating of junk food made his physical condition worse. Here’s one example of just how bad things were: Williamson described a tour Elvis did in early 1977, “Elvis was in such bad shape that Dr. Nick had to put him on an intra-veinus and one of his entourage had to load him onto a plane like some cumbersome bundle of cargo. His attire onstage during the tour was limited to the only two jumpsuits that he could squeeze into. His weight had swelled to well over two hundred pounds.”
Finally in 1977, at the age of 42, the inevitable happened. He was found one night in his bathroom at Gracelands, lying dead on the floor. The official cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia, primarily due to a combination of a poor diet and drug misuse. His ex-wife Priscilla kind of summed up the inevitability of it all, “It is better that he died now. If he continued at the pace he was going, I’m sure he would have ended up being nothing more than a vegetable.”
Although I’m not a huge fan of the Beatles, I liked John Lennon’s quote when he was asked what he felt when he heard the news of the death, “Elvis died when he joined the army.” Of course Elvis’s willingly joined his country’s army when called up and not trying to avoid the draft was admirable (unlike subsequent high profile draft dodgers). But Lennon’s point underlined that the King’s greatest period was in those early days in the mid-fifties. He was quite simply unique and incomparable at that time. No other performer will ever match that golden Elvis period. Although Lennon is too harsh, in the sense that some of the Elvis magic did continue right up to his death. Even near the end of his life, there were still sparks of his genius.
Why did it all end so tragically ? Over the years since his death, many people have tried to point the finger of guilt. One target has been Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The argument is that he pushed Elvis to perform at so many concerts, appear in so many films, etc., putting him under so much pressure, in order to make lots of money. I don’t buy it. The Colonel gave Elvis what he wanted, fame and fortune. And Elvis loved performing and appearing in films and he didn’t need pushing in that direction. Plus a few times in his career, Parker did speak strongly to Elvis when he saw him getting out of condition due to over-eating, etc.
One person who could have been his saviour was his wife for a few years, Priscilla. Her later life proved that she was a strong woman who could have exerted the right influence on Elvis, to curb his destructive life style. But she was never given the chance. Elvis’ serial adultery during their marriage made it impossible for their union to survive.
If the finger of guilt could be pointed at anyone in Elvis’s life, in my opinion it was the “Memphis Mafia”. This was the group of guys Elvis employed to look after his affairs and look after him. They hung out at Gracelands, giving Elvis whatever he asked for. Not one of them had the guts to go to Elvis and point out the uncomfortable truth that if he didn’t curb his life style, he was on a road to ruin. They were all worried that if any of them had, Elvis, with his “short fuse” temper, would have dismissed the person concerned and he’d have lost his lucrative job with the King.
But ultimately I believe the responsibility lies with Elvis himself. He was born and raised a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, who just couldn’t handle the fame and fortune which was thrust upon him. They were pressures which were to a degree that no other performer up to that time had experienced. The destructive life-style was a form of escapism from the pressures of being not just a super star but a unique mega star. Elvis was a good guy who just couldn’t handle it.
But we love you, Elvis. You gave us some of the greatest music in rock’n’roll history. And at your best you stood out in a league of your own. More than anyone else in rock’n’roll, you were truly the one and only, the King.
So here’s to the King. And join me next month Dear Readers, for another rock’n’roll story !