KING OF ROCK’N’ROLL
THE LONELY BIRTHDAY BOY
Sixty-four years ago, January 8, 1946, Gladys Presley gave her beloved only son a guitar for his 11th birthday. The high-spirited boy had wanted a bicycle, but his ever-protective mother had feared he might hurt himself.
A decade later, Elvis rehearsed “Heartbreak Hotel” on his birthday and, two days later, recorded it at RCA Studios in Nashville. The tune became the biggest hit of 1956, turning the former Crown Electric truck driver into the King of Rock and Roll himself.
Thomas Durden, a Nashville steel-guitarist, had composed the historic song after reading a Miami Herald story about a man who had killed himself over a lost love. His suicide note simply read: “I walk lonely street.”
“Well, since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell,” sang Elvis. “It’s down at the end of lonely street at Heartbreak Hotel.”
After the release of his birthday song, the young King – every man’s envy and every girl’s dream – seemed the least lonely mortal in the world.
Then, in 1958, his lost his mother. “Please don’t take my baby away!” he had sobbed, throwing himself over her coffin and refusing to let go. “She’s not dead. She’s just sleeping.” Then as she was lowered to her resting place, “Goodbye, darling. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you.”
Later, Elvis said, “I lost the only person I ever loved.”
At last his grief subsided when he met Priscilla Beaulieus. His family and friends marveled at how the beautiful 14-year-old ingénue resembled Gladys in her own youth.
Priscilla became what she called Elvis’s “Pygmalion.” “He relished the role of recreating me,” she later wrote. “Like a sculptor, he could shape my image and design my demeanor in ways that would bring him delight.”
After an eight-year courtship, the King at last tied the knot with his completed creation. “I’ll give you Elvis’s relationship with her in a nutshell,” later wrote his Man Friday, Lamar Fike. “You create a statue. And then you get tired of looking at it.”
But that wasn’t all. Elvis had confided to other friends that he could not consummate with a mother. Within a year of the marriage, Priscilla had given birth to their daughter, Lisa Marie. By this time Elvis was calling her “Satnin,” his nickname for his satin-skinned mother.
On his 37th birthday, the King announced that Priscilla was leaving Graceland and taking Lisa Marie with her. On his 39th birthday, he signed the final divorce papers.
Perhaps then he recalled “I Was the One,” the flipside of “Heartbreak Hotel.” Though he taught her how to kiss and how to cry, he sang, “I’ll never know who taught her to lie. Now that it’s over and done, who learned the lesson when she broke my heart? I was the one.”
Elvis had been repeatedly unfaithful to Priscilla, driving her at last into the arms of her karate instructor.
The King burned with jealousy. Though almost any other woman could still be his, he now walked lonely street. He moved his fans to tears with his other laments – Just Call Me Mr. Lonesome, Are You Lonesome Tonight? Lonely Man, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.
In signing the divorce on his birthday, surely he hoped for a new beginning. But on his birthday the next year, Walter Cronkite, flashing a recent photo, announced on the Six o’Clock News: “Elvis – fat and 40!”
The King collapsed and had to be carried to his bedroom. Weeks later he was checked into Baptist Memorial as “Aaron Silvie.” Here he underwent a second narcotic detox.
When once asked his secret for looking so young, Elvis had replied, “Vitamin E!”
In the last twenty months of his life, he was written 12,000 prescriptions for pills & injectibles – mostly narcotics. Eleven different kinds were found in his system by the coroner. The King died of a massive overdose.
Shortly before the tragedy, he’d phoned his long-lost friend and bodyguard, Red West. By this time he had lost not only his mother and his wife, but many of his old friends. “I feel terribly alone, like that Number 8,” he told Red.
A long time student of Cheiro’s numerology, Elvis, due to his birthday, identified himself as a Number 8 person. “These people… feel intensely lonely at heart,” wrote Cheiro. “… They are either great successes or great failures, and often face the very greatest sorrows and losses.”
Weeks after Elvis’s last birthday, he gave a $70,000 engagement ring to the stunning young Ginger Alden. “She didn’t give a rat’s ass about him,” said Lamar Fike. Soon Elvis seemed to realize this, even suspecting that she was having an affair with his step-brother, David.
The King’s fiancée was the one who found his body on the bathroom floor. Before she alerted his father and the Graceland staff, she placed a call to the Enquirer.
“THERE GOES MY EVERYTHING”
ELVIS & GLADYS: RIP
In 1934, Vernon Presley, age 18, recalled blacking out at the instant of his son’s conception; then, regaining consciousness, he had seen the night sky thronged with brilliant blue stars. Elvis Aron’s twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. The future King’s God-fearing mother, Gladys –- who herself almost died in the delivery — believed he had inherited Jesse’s soul, and was “the One.”
Years later, Gladys would suffer a miscarriage, making her all the more protective of her only surviving child.
“My mama never let me out of her sight,” said Elvis.
Vernon told biographer, Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis): “He never spent a night away from home until he was seventeen. The three of us formed our own private world.”
The security of that world was shattered when Vernon was convicted of check fraud on a hog sale and was sent Parchman, the most medieval of the Mississippi penitentiaries. Her husband’s imprisonment galvanized Gladys’s obsessive fear that loved ones could without warning be taken from her or senselessly stricken down.
When she was 18, her father, Bob, died suddenly of pneumonia. Months after the birth of Elvis, her mother, Doll, was claimed by tuberculosis. Her parents had been first cousins. Many of her other siblings were stricken with mental and physical disabilities. Gladys, Vernon, and Elvis were sleepwalkers and all suffered from terrifying nightmares of impending doom.
Gladys Presley had once been a vivacious and fun-loving party girl and buck dancer. But, after all the family losses, protecting her only son became her life. She slept with Elvis until he was thirteen. For his eleventh birthday, Elvis had wanted a bicycle but, fearing that he might get run over on the way to school, Gladys gave him a guitar instead.
Elvis called his satin-skinned mother “Satnin” and the two communicated in a babytalk no one else could understand. “Elvis saw his parents as his ‘babies,’” recalled his friend and future manager, Lamar Fike (Elvis and the Memphis Mafia). “He called his mother his baby.”
In 1953, Elvis, now a truck driver for Crown Electric, gave Satnin a special birthday gift: his first recording, “My Happiness,” for which he paid the studio $2. The next year, “That’s Alright, Mama” put him on the charts and soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Long before, reported Elaine Dundy (Elvis and Gladys), he and Satnin had marveled at a Memphis mansion on one of their walks to school. “Mama,” he told her, “some day I’m gonna buy you a house just like that!”
In 1957, he gave her Graceland, plus a pink Cadillac though she couldn’t drive.
Gladys had never known anything but shotgun shacks, jalopies and public housing. When her father died, her family couldn’t afford a marker or a winding sheet. When Elvis was born, Welfare paid the doctor’s $15 delivery fee. Now, to be under the same magnificent roof at Graceland with her boy was like a dream come true. But, the dream soon became one of her nightmares.
“After Elvis became famous, Gladys was never happy another day,” remembered her best friend, Lillian. “She never had peace no more.”
When her son was touring, as he always seemed to be now, the fans mobbed and tore at him. She forbade him to fly airplanes after his chartered prop lost an engine over the Ozarks and crash-landed. So he drove to all his gigs, but she feared he’d have a fatal accident. “If you don’t slow down, you won’t live to 30!” she warned him.
One night Gladys suddenly bolted out of bed and cried to Vernon, “I see our boy – he’s in a blazing car!” The next day, Elvis called her from Texarcana and said his rented Cadillac had burst into flames and he’d narrowly escaped.
The overwrought, now alcoholic Gladys started popping pills to sleep, speed to wake up, and greater quantities of vodka to cope. When Elvis returned to Graceland, he would shower her with gifts but even the most extravagant now left her cold.
“Mama, what do you want?” pleaded Elvis.
“For you to say home, baby!” Gladys would cry.
During one of his absences, a friend of the family, Frank Richards, dropped by Graceland for the first time and said to Elvis’ mother: “I guess you must be about the happiest woman in the world!”
“You got it wrong,” she said. “I’m the most miserable woman in the world… I’m guarded. I can’t buy my own groceries. I can’t see my neighbor.”
Soon after moving to Graceland, her son received a draft notice from the Army. Remembering how her cousin, Junior, had lost his mind in Korea and massacred innocents, she begged Elvis not to go. But he felt it his duty.
After he left for Basic Training, Gladys suddenly died of cirrhosis of the liver. She was buried on August 16, 1958.
“Please don’t take my baby away!” Elvis sobbed, throwing himself over her coffin and refusing to let go, as detailed by biographer Charles L. Ponce de Leon. “She’s not dead. She’s just sleeping.” Then as she was lowered to her resting place, “Goodbye, darling. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you!”
Later, the King of Rock and Roll would say of his mother. “I lost the only person I ever loved.” Her death was the greatest tragedy in his life. From that day on, according to his friends, he became an utterly different person.
“Basically, Elvis’ personality was that of Gladys’,” Lamar wrote. “There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.”
In 1975, Vernon Presley suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. Elvis occupied the next bed, detoxing from another near fatal narcotic overdose. He and his father had grown apart since Gladys’ passing, largely due to Vernon’s brief mourning and hasty remarriage. For Vernon’s part, something had been burning in his chest all these years. That day in hospital, he suddenly spit it out. “You worried your mama right into the grave!”
“Elvis broke down and cried,” remembered his cousin, Billy Smith. “It about killed him.”
Two years later, The King of Rock and Roll fatally overdosed himself. The date was August 16 — the very same day he had buried his beloved mother nineteen years before and inconsolably wept, “Oh, God, everything I have is gone!”