Welcome once again from Russia ! Dear Readers, regular viewers of this column will remember that periodically I write pieces on the story of the King himself, under the main title of “The King – the Whole Story”. No, not that new one we’ve just “coronated” or whatever you call it, but the King of Rock’n’Roll. Chronologically, the last time I did an article on this, we had got up to and including Elvis Presley’s Hollywood film career. So let’s continue the story from there, the true tale of the only man in rock’n’roll history to earn the undisputed and richly deserved title of “the King”. This month we’ll focus on two more very significant happenings in Elvis’ life; The Comeback Special in 1968 and the only woman he married, Priscilla.
I once again organised a tribute concert to Elvis, to coincide with my articles about him in this column. I booked the one and only Lowcosters to perform for us. The Lowcosters, as I have written in previous columns, are an iconic and legendary group in Russia. A Moscow based band, they put on a great show for us at the Duma Club in the capital. It was a wonderful concert, a great tribute to the King. Some of the pictures you can see were taken at the event.
Elvis’ activity in the 1960s was dominated by his film career. His manager “the Colonel” Tom Parker focused Elvis’ time and talents on his Hollywood movies. But it was clear towards the end of the 1960s this part of Elvis’ life was reaching a natural conclusion. His movies, although distinctly watchable, especially for Elvis fans, were no classics and it was clear Elvis was no Marlon Brando when it came to acting. That said, Elvis’ charisma and personality did shine through in his movies, which sort of enabled him to make a lasting impact on Hollywood. By 1968 it was time for the King to return full time to the thing he did best – singing and performing to live audiences.
It was Tom Parker who decided and Elvis agreed it was time to go back to singing full time. The TV network NBC planned for a huge Christmas TV “Comeback Special” show for the King in 1968. Once again the Colonel negotiated a hugely lucrative financial deal for Elvis. Now the Colonel wanted the image of Elvis in the show to be similar to that which he had portrayed in the vast majority of his movies, the movie image the writer Joel Williamson described as “simply breaking into hokey simpering songs amidst adoring young women as he had in the movies; no more wiggling around behind a microphone.” The musical director for the project, Billy Goldenberg, had other ideas. Here’s how Goldenberg later described it a few years later, while Elvis was still alive, “The one thing I always felt about Elvis is that there was something very raw and basically sexual and mean. There’s a cruelty involved, there’s a meanness, there’s a basic sadistic quality about what he does, which is attractive.” I think this is true. It what makes the character and story of Elvis even more epic i.e. the two sides of Elvis – the polite, well mannered man and the other side described by Goldenberg. In the Comeback Special, Goldenberg managed to capture a lot of this.
The actual name of the show was “Elvis”. It first aired in December 1968. It comprise Elvis performing alone on stage, plus also with friends and original band mates. It achieved one of the biggest TV ratings of the whole of that year and was the top rated Christmas show. In other words, it worked. The image of Elvis in his iconic black leather suit was a memorable one. Having not previously performed to a live audience for the seven years before 1968, the Comeback Special kick-started his singing career and was indeed a milestone for him. He returned full-time to performing live on stage.
Now let’s re-wind back to 1959 and Elvis’ first meeting with the woman who was to become his wife. Elvis was still stationed in Germany at this time, serving his time in the US Army. One of his buddies introduced him to a fourteen year old school girl named Priscilla Beaulieu. The King was immediately smitten and they dated from then on. That is not to say Elvis became monogamous: His numerous affairs with other beautiful women continued. After his discharge from the army and return to the States, Priscilla moved in with him to his Gracelands mansion in Memphis. His affair with this under-age girl was one of the best kept secrets in the celebrity world.
I’ve already mentioned in previous columns about Elvis’ voracious appetite when it came to beautiful women. This continued all through his courtship with Priscilla, after their return to America. Priscilla adored Elvis, but she also had a clever head on her shoulders. In addition to her love for him, she also saw the opportunities offered in fame and fortune, in being attached to the King. For a long time Elvis had promised her he would marry her, but the promise never seemed to get fulfilled. Shortly before the marriage did happen, in 1967, one of Elvis’s entourage at Gracelands described the situation this way, “If anything, Elvis wanted to get rid of her. But she complained to her parents, and then to Elvis. She told him she was going to make him fulfil his promise to her or tell her story to the world.”
Priscilla certainly was a very beautiful woman and Elvis did love her and tried at the beginning of the marriage to be a good husband. But the old ways of womanising and infidelity soon re-asserted themselves. Priscilla was aware of this despite Elvis attempts at concealment. She was very patient about this for some time. But inevitably, as it became more and more obvious he would never change, she made it clear she had had enough. They divorced in 1973. They had one child by the marriage, Lisa Marie Presley. Priscilla went on to have a fairly successful acting career, and became a very successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. Lisa Marie grew up financially secure, with the wealth behind her of her parents, especially Elvis. Lisa was involved in some high celebrity marriages herself, including one incredibly to Michael Jackson.
Of course Elvis’s marriage was destined to failure, due to his inability to curb his infidelity. In view of the nature of his subsequent death, this failure represents a tragedy in Elvis’ life. Priscilla dearly loved Elvis and could have been the rock to keep him on track and away from the excesses, such as the unhealthy life-style and prescription drugs, that ultimately killed him. His hangers on at Graceland, the so-called “Memphis Mafia”, the guys who hung out with him, certainly provided no such rock. Fearful of losing their roles in Elvis’ life, they did nothing to try to persuade him to curb the indulgences that were killing him. Maybe that was why Priscilla and the Memphis Mafia disliked each other so much. And regarding her relationship with Elvis, in the early 1980s a friend of Priscilla’s, Mike Edwards, asked her, “What really happened between you two ?” She replied, “I grew up.”
My next Elvis article will conclude this saga of the King, by covering his final years. It is the saddest part of the Elvis story, focusing on his decline physically and also performance-wise. Of course Elvis was still Elvis and still had that amazing unique charisma and talent. But it was a King in decline. Stay tuned !