Long Live The King 

Twenty-five years after his death, Elvis Presley is more famous than ever

Twenty-five years after his death, Elvis Presley is more famous than ever

By Bob Battle

Editor’s Note: When Bob Battle e-mailed us to say that he was interested in writing a story commemorating the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, we didn’t think twice. A legend in local journalism circles, Battle began his newspaper career at the now defunct Nashville Banner in 1943 as a police reporter. A decade later, he began writing a column, called “Movierama,” and in that role was invited to Hollywood in 1957 to appear in Teacher’s Pet with Clark Gable, Doris Day and Mamie van Doren. While in Hollywood, the intrepid Battle went to the offices of Col. Tom Parker, whom he had met earlier in Madison, Tenn., through Mae Boren Axton, a close friend of Battle’s who had written Presley’s first million-selling hit, “Heartbreak Hotel.” Battle told the Colonel he wanted to interview Presley, who was then hanging out at Paramount Pictures filming Jailhouse Rock. During a break in the shooting, Battle and Presley chatted.

Years later, in 1965, Battle—who was by then managing editor of the Banner—caught up with Presley outside the RCA Studios in Nashville, where Presley and his band were recording with producer Chet Atkins. That meeting was followed by a number of subsequent telephone interviews over the years. The Colonel came to like Battle so much that Battle was named a member of the “Snowmen’s League,” which was a private society of Presley intimates.

Battle ultimately churned out dozens of stories about Presley, to publications around the world. Part showman, part politico, part entrepreneur, part reporter, he came from a day and age when reporters were more than just newsmen. They were agents, friends, publicists and forces in the community in which they operated. Bob Battle, in fact, once thought about running for public office, with the slogan “Let Bob Fight Your Battles.” He never did.

We were interested in Bob providing this city his long-ago memories about the King.

Here’s what he gave us.

Elvis Presley lived a fantastic dream before he died on Aug. 16, 1977 at the age of 42. He spent a total of 23 years in show business, and he earned his place as one of the most—if not the most—important performers in the history of popular music. To many, it is amazing that a quarter of a century later, his star shines more brightly than ever. This time of year, we’re especially reminded of this fact as people from all over the country and even the world make the pilgrimage to Memphis to commemorate the anniversary of his death.

This year is especially momentous, as it marks the 25th anniversary of Presley’s passing. For those travelers passing through Nashville to pay tribute to the time he spent in Music City, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has temporarily reopened RCA’s historic Studio B through Aug. 18; it was here that Presley often recorded with such Nashville A-teamers as Hank Garland, Chet Atkins, Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer and the Jordanaires. Meanwhile, in Memphis, Elvis Week has been scheduled to run from Saturday, Aug. 10, through Sunday, Aug. 18, with a candlelight vigil set for Aug. 15. The event commemorates Presley’s staggering musical and cultural legacy; fans enjoy a full week of music, dance, social and charitable events—all in an atmosphere of international friendship and camaraderie. Most attendees say it’s like a huge family reunion.

So much has been written and said about Presley, it leaves one to wonder whether there’s anything left to say. We’ve all heard the stories about his fabled life, his humble beginnings in Tupelo, Miss., his inexorable but hardly inevitable rise to fame. But there is something about this man—his unique distillation of country and R&B, his undeniable charisma, the tragic arc of his life—that lends itself to endless discussion and contemplation. One need only hear his recordings of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” or “Mystery Train,” at once primal and ageless, to understand why.

In my work for the Nashville Banner, I had the great fortune to meet Presley twice in my lifetime, once early in his career and then again in the mid-1960s. Through those two encounters, through several phone interviews with the man, and through a lifetime of interviewing his friends and associates, I’ve managed to get a sense of who the man was, beyond all the fame and adulation that have been showered upon him. In some ways, he was very humble—steadfastly religious and earnest. But he was also larger than life too, someone who inevitably absorbed his status as an icon. No matter how famous he might have been when he died, no one would have guessed that his music and legend would become even greater than the fanfare that reached him during his lifetime. Today there are more than 550 active Elvis fan clubs worldwide, with a total of at least 1 million members. More than 700,000 people visit Graceland, his home, yearly.

Elvis’ trophy room at Graceland is filled with gold and platinum records and awards of all kinds. And his posthumous career, now longer than the one he enjoyed in life, rivals that of most successful entertainers working today. It is estimated that the King has sold more than 1 billion records worldwide—more than anyone in history. In America alone, Elvis has had 131 different albums and singles certified gold, platinum or multiplatinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, with more certifications expected as research into his past record sales continues and as current sales go on. And it is estimated that 40 percent of Elvis’ total record sales have been outside the U.S. (It is interesting to note that, except for a handful of movie soundtracks, Elvis did not record in other languages, and, apart from five shows in Canada in 1957, he did not perform outside the U.S.)

Wednesday, June 26 marked the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ last concert, held at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Ind. This year, a group of Presley fans dedicated a historical marker at the site where the arena stood until it was demolished last year. The granite marker bears an inscription in bronze reading, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building,” taken from the now immortal declaration made at the end of each performance by Al Dvorin, Presley’s longtime show announcer.

Presley first recorded for Sun Records in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1956, the year RCA bought out his contract, that Elvis’ voice came crackling out of every radio and speaker in the land. And no matter how large his legacy looms now, make no mistake that he was truly electrifying even back then. “Elvis had a voice you would never expect to meet during your lifetime,” recalls country singer Ronnie Milsap, who sang backup on the Presley tunes “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry, Daddy.” “It was simply tremendous. That’s the best way I know how to describe it.... He was a most generous person. My memories of him were as a very positive human being.”

The first time I met Elvis was in 1957, at the office of his manager, Col. Tom Parker, at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. I remember that we talked about the way he moved onstage. “Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth,” he said. “I just sorta do ’em all together, I guess.”

Later in that same interview, he told me, “I ain’t no saint, but I’ve tried never to do anything that would hurt my family or offend God.... I figure all any kid needs is hope and the feeling he or she belongs. If I could do or say anything that would give some kid that feeling, I would believe I had contributed something to the world.”

The second time I interviewed Elvis was in Nashville, on a cold winter’s night in 1965, outside RCA Studios. He’d just stepped off his tour bus and was about to head inside, but he took a few minutes to chat. At this point, he was well into his movie career, and that’s what we talked about. “Bob,” he said, “I don’t use stunt men. I figure that’s a major part of my career. In fact, that’s as much my job as yours is pounding a typewriter. Why should I step aside and let someone assume part of my duties?”

He recalled that he had to get nine stitches to seal up a head wound he incurred during an all too realistic fight sequence for the 1964 film Roustabout, in which he played Charlie Rogers, a leather-clad biker trying to make it as a singer. Ironically, it was a stunt man who accidentally clipped Elvis as the pair crashed to the ground.

Elvis knew how to fall, and how to protect himself and others working in a scene with him. As has often been reported, he was expert at karate and took his first lessons while serving in the military in Germany. Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires, who backed Presley on many occasions, recalls, “He’d go to a lumberyard, get a hundred pieces of board and then pop ’em into pieces with his hand until he got tired.”

The very last time I talked to Elvis was on the phone, several months before he died. I remember it especially well because of what he told me: that he had never attained his biggest goal in life. “I wanted to have a son—someone I could play football with every day,” he said, echoing a sentiment he’d revealed to me in our meeting a decade before. “And that doesn’t mean that I don’t love [my daughter] Lisa Marie—I certainly do. But my dream was for a handsome boy too.

“That’s my one B-I-G wish. My one B-I-G desire,” he said. After a slight pause, he added, “If I should ever have a son, I’ll probably have him on the 50-yard line by the time he’s able to walk.”

For all his status as a pop icon, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Presley, the king of rock ’n’ roll, never abandoned his Southern religious roots. The first music he ever heard was at the First Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo, Miss., where he learned to sing. That voice went on to charm thousands of people at the religious and camp meetings he attended with his parents, Gladys and Vernon.

Gladys stressed the value of faith, and Elvis grew up committed to the teachings of the Bible. From there, he kept his religious roots alive, his friends say. Now it has paid off—but only after his untimely death. On the night of Nov. 27, 2001, Elvis’ contributions to sacred music were recognized when he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in a concert and ceremony at the People’s Church (First Baptist) in Franklin, Tenn. “His estate has told us that had he been alive today, he would have regarded this as the highest honor he could have received,” says Frank Breeden, president of the Gospel Music Association.

In fact, as of that induction, Presley became the first performer ever to be enshrined in the Country, Gospel and Rock & Roll Halls of Fame.

Throughout his career, Elvis recorded more than 50 gospel songs, working with a number of gospel performers, most notably The Jordanaires, The Stamps, The Speers and The Imperials. All of his Grammy awards were related to his gospel work: “How Great Thou Art” won the Best Sacred Performance in 1967; “He Touched Me” took Best Inspirational Performance in 1972; and a live version of “How Great Thou Art” took Best Inspirational Performance in 1974.

“Elvis wanted to be a gospel singer in his own right,” Cecil Blackwood, the late baritone singer and manager of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, told me. “If he thought he could have successfully been a gospel singer—without jeopardizing his finances and all the people who depended upon him—Elvis would have done it.... He told The Stamps he would like to disguise himself and go on a gospel tour, singing with the group.

“His mother instilled in his mind things of God and gospel music. And, of course, the Blackwood Brothers was his mother’s favorite group. We sang for her funeral.”

Because he’d become so famous, Presley was forced to “hold court” behind the locked gates of Graceland, where he attempted to find a measure of insulation from the toll that fame had taken on him. He frequently conducted prayer services beside the rows of dogwoods and oaks in his meditation garden, and he was known to take the Bible with him wherever he traveled. “He went to church at different places—when he had a chance. That’s why he had the meditation garden,” recalled his friend the late Mae Boren Axton, who wrote his first million-seller “Heartbreak Hotel.”

Indeed, if the fabulously wealthy Elvis Presley had lived just another year, many followers are sure he would have performed religious work. “You could see it in his later work,” evangelist Rex Humbard said. “He got his biggest ovations from doing 'How Great Thou Art.’ ”

Humbard and Presley sat in the singer’s Las Vegas hotel room for nearly an hour on a December night in 1976. Elvis had sent for him—a friend, but not necessarily a close friend. “I took his hands, and Elvis began to weep and cry for about 20 minutes,” the evangelist recalled several years ago. “We had a prayer—and when it was over, Elvis said to me, 'Rex, this is the greatest Christmas present I ever had.’

“We didn’t say one single word about anything except God, religion and the Bible. That boy really knew the Bible.”

If he were still alive, Presley would have been 67 years old this past Jan. 8. “Deep inside, Elvis didn’t think he would live a long life,” Axton said. “In the last two years, he told me any number of times he would never live to be 50—and that he didn’t think he would live longer than his mother.”

Indeed, if the fabulously wealthy Elvis Presley had lived just another year, many followers are sure he would have performed religious work. “You could see it in his later work,” evangelist Rex Humbard said. “He got his biggest ovations from doing 'How Great Thou Art.’ ”

Humbard and Presley sat in the singer’s Las Vegas hotel room for nearly an hour on a December night in 1976. Elvis had sent for him—a friend, but not necessarily a close friend. “I took his hands, and Elvis began to weep and cry for about 20 minutes,” the evangelist recalled several years ago. “We had a prayer—and when it was over, Elvis said to me, 'Rex, this is the greatest Christmas present I ever had.’

“We didn’t say one single word about anything except God, religion and the Bible. That boy really knew the Bible.”

If he were still alive, Presley would have been 67 years old this past Jan. 8. “Deep inside, Elvis didn’t think he would live a long life,” Axton said. “In the last two years, he told me any number of times he would never live to be 50—and that he didn’t think he would live longer than his mother.”

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