The man has had many names: Big E, Mr. Pretzel, Crazy Cat, Memphis Flash, Fire Eyes, Wiggle Hips, The King, or just simply, Elvis Presley. Whatever it is that you call him doesn’t change the fact that he was, and to this day remains, one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century.
Despite his legendary musical career and fascinating public life, the shadows cast over the dark parts of Elvis are still hotly debated today. What was it that took The King from the world so early? What was really the cause of his isolation at the end? Finally, after years of mystery, the person who knew him best is speaking out…
When we think of The King, it’s all dazzlingly bejeweled getups, paralysis-inducing hip-thrusts, and a voice so smooth it sends quivers right through your sacral chakra. But the real truth behind this legend is anything but glamorous.
Born in 1935 to a blue-collar family in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis’s childhood was like that of any other poor white boy at the time— church, chores, and chicken. That he would turn into the ultimate icon just a few years later was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
The Presleys made a fateful move to Memphis, Tennessee, when Elvis was just 13 years old. While the family settled into project housing downtown, Elvis spent his days roaming down Beale street and soaking up all the Gospel music he could.
It wasn’t until after high school that Elvis built up enough courage to book himself a recording session at Sun Records. He later claimed the record was just meant as a gift for his mom, but there were far cheaper studios in town…clearly, The King wanted to be discovered.
The studio was piqued by the young boy’s talent from the start, but it wasn’t until almost a year later when producer Sam Phillips heard him sing a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” that he really knew he struck gold.
The song was recorded and aired on the radio where it was an overnight sensation. You see, during the time in the segregated south, there was a demand for the African-American music sound… but without the African. This was precisely what Elvis offered.
It wasn’t long at all before girls were fainting, boys were moshing, and the young Mr. Pelvis became a household name. But as the laws of physics have taught us, what goes up must come down, and as gifted as he was, Elvis was no exception to the rule.
Maybe a lesser known fact about Elvis is that he was born as a twin, but his brother, Jesse Garon Presley, was stillborn. Jesse was buried in a cardboard box in an unmarked grave, as that was all the family could afford.
Perhaps the death of Jesse made Elvis’s mother Gladys extra protective. In fact, Gladys walked Elvis to and from school every single day until he was in high school and begged her to stop.
As his career took off, Elvis remained close with his mother, calling her every night. They were so close that they even had a cosmic connection of sorts, knowing what was going on with the other without even communicating.
One time he called his mother after his tour bus caught fire. She immediately picked up the phone asking what happened. When Elvis asked her what she meant she said, “the fire. I dreamed of you in a fire.”
In 1958, Elvis had risen to the height of stardom, but that still didn’t protect him from the draft. So he traded in his guitar for a set of army duds and was sent off to Germany. Certainly a dramatic change for the A-Lister.
Watching her boy being trampled by packs of starry-eyed girls was one thing, but picturing him an ocean away at war was more than Gladys could handle. She began drinking heavily and taking pills; later that same year she was admitted to a hospital.
At the hospital in Memphis, Gladys was hardly recognizable. During the course of her depression, she had put on significant weight and the pills had also taken their toll — an eerie foreshadowing for The King himself.
On the night of August 14th, 1958, Elvis suddenly became agitated and had a strong feeling that something was wrong. The next morning he was informed that his mother had died from a heart attack. She was only 46.
Both Elvis and his father were inconsolable after the news. From that day forward The King sent flowers to her grave every single week until his own death. But as duty called, Elvis returned to Germany after the funeral.
Back in service, Elvis tried to distract himself as best he could. One night at a party in Munich, he met a 14-year-old ex-pat named Priscilla Beaulieu. The King completely succumbed to her flirtations. Elvis was smitten.
Despite being railed from all sides—the press, Priscilla’s own family—the two had an undeniable connection. So after Elvis returned home in 1960, they kept in contact by phone and three years later, while still in high school, Priscilla moved to Graceland.
Priscilla later said that she was put in many “adult situations” at far too young an age. Aside from the overtly obvious implications of her statement, there were other things that Priscilla was put through that she has only recently come forward about.
In 1967 the couple wed at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas when Priscilla was just 22 years old. Though their marriage would only survive 6 years, Priscilla came to take up a place in Elvis’s life that was not only profound, but binding.
Elvis never really got over the death of his mother and his time in the service did nothing to ease that loss. Even as he returned and picked up his career where he’d left off, things had changed, and they were never going back.
In Germany, The King in camo had been given his first dose of amphetamines. He took to the pills almost instantly, claiming he’d never felt such a rush of energy. As he returned to his music career, he continued to use these stimulants to help him perform.
This early flirtation with pills was only the beginning of his downward spiral. His relationship with Priscilla and the birth of his daughter Lisa Marie kept him suspended for a time, but eventually, Elvis’s perpetual absence and affairs became too much.
Priscilla filed for divorce in 1973. The loss of his wife was the last lifeline The King had, and from that point on, he isolated himself to the point of becoming a hermit, only leaving Graceland with great coercion and many, many pills.
Elvis needed pills to leave the house, to get up the energy to perform, to calm him down at night to sleep; essentially he was completely dependent on drugs. He became bored and unmotivated with his music and began making irrational political agendas.
Once in 1970, Elvis penned an 8-page long letter to President Nixon requesting a meeting with him to discuss his political ideas and offer himself to be an undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
Elvis’s request to meet with the president was indeed granted. The two discussed the hippie movement, drug culture, Black Panthers, and Elvis’s love of guns. His spy proposition, however, was seemingly dismissed… at least as far as we can tell.
As the world for Elvis had once seemed infinite, in his final months it was no greater than the walls of Graceland. The King was so deep in depression, RCA Records built a recording studio at his home to try to release their album on time.
The last two albums Elvis ever made were recorded entirely from Graceland. With Moody Blue being released only a month before he was found dead in his bathroom in 1977. Presley was 42-years-old.
Only recently in an interview did Priscilla give some deeper insight into The King’s undoing. It was almost written, Priscilla explained, “I think that he would always have his demons. Elvis was a thinker. He was a searcher. His mother had demons, his father had demons.”
Elvis was a loner. Though Priscilla tried to be everything she could for him, it wasn’t enough. “He really was alone.” She told Good Morning Britain, “He really didn’t have a peer, not with a group and not really with anyone.”
It is shocking to hear that such a magnetic performer had those great shadows living within him, but pills were only superficially the fatal culprit: it was really depression and mental illness that lured Elvis into his final retirement.
Elvis’s rags-to-riches story has long represented, if not epitomized, the all-American dream. But so too has his downfall, which has been regarded as gluttonous and excessive with substance abuse and dramatic weight gain.
Really, Elvis’s legacy is the enduring all-American reality — constantly striving and yearning for more, over-indulging. As media and culture scholar Robert Thompson said, “He wasn’t only The King; he was one of us.”
And given that Mr. Elvis Presley is still among the highest-earning deceased celebrities in the world, it is safe to say that it was his life and not just his music that touched the world. He was a man so absolutely human that he’ll live on as long as we remember.