BY MICHAEL FREEDLAND
The London Guardian
Sam Bell used to go to the movies with Elvis Presley. It was the 1950s, Elvis was about 12 years old, and he and Sam were very close – which is more unusual than you might think. This was in Tupelo in Mississippi, at a time when segregation was part of life in the deep south. Sam is black; the two of them used to sneak into the Lyric Theatre and ignore the brass rail that was supposed to divide black and white audiences.
Now Sam is back in the Lyric with me, sitting in the same seats where he and Elvis watched westerns flickering in the dark. “He’d crawl over to my bit,” says Sam. “We’d sit in the aisle. There were black and white signs. If we needed water, he’d go to a white bathroom, I’d go to the black one.”
Elvis would have been 75 next month, on 8 January. To mark this anniversary, I travelled America this year to make a radio programme showing a different side to the king of rock’n'roll. I interviewed only people who really knew Elvis – not celebrities, but those who remembered the singer when he was at school and before (as a boy, he entered a talent show and came fifth). I spoke to people who knew him mid-career and at its end, right up to his death at the age of 42. It was a journey that took me to Tupelo, Memphis, Nashville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
Sam says he remembers Elvis getting the bug to entertain: he sang gospel music for the congregation in his own church, but there was something that was more important to him. “It was black music. He wanted to be a gospel singer the way the black people sang. Long back, he’d sing to a broom, pretending it was a guitar. We thought he was crazy.”
Elvis was born in a two-room shack and grew up among Tupelo’s black population – “on the hill”, as Sam puts it (others describe it as the wrong side of the tracks). What did the black community think of this white boy singing their music? “No worries,” says Sam, “because Elvis was a home boy. The blacks played guitar with him, taught him things. The real difference was when we went to school. He went to a white school and I went to a black one. But after school, we were always together.” The boys used to go out shooting with a type of air rifle called a BB gun. “We all wanted a BB – and a bike.”
This drew them to the Tupelo Hardware store, a veritable Aladdin’s Cave that sells everything from nuts and bolts to sophisticated security systems. In those days, it sold guitars; one day just before Christmas, it sold one to Elvis’s mother. “Music history started here,” says Howard Hite, who runs the store today. “It was 1945 and Elvis was 10 when he and his mother came through that door to buy a bike. He spotted a rifle, but Gladys wouldn’t buy this, so he started crying. Forest Bobo, who worked here, pulled out the guitar, handed it to Elvis. Elvis played it. He said, ‘Yes, Mam, I’ll take it.’”
Four bucks that made history
The young boy, it seems, had very good manners, and was unusually generous, giving new toys away to children he thought were worse off than he was. He wasn’t a member of a gang, and didn’t play football with other kids much. Was he, I ask his old schoolfriend Azalia Smith Moore, a bit of a cissy? “He was sweet, kind, bashful, a shy, gentle soul – which is strange when you see him on stage. When you see him in the talent-show photos, you see the real Elvis Presley – with glasses and homemade clothes.”
I ask if she ever saw an inkling of his talent. “No, he sang a lot, but that was natural. We were all immersed in gospel music. On Sundays, we would go from house to house and sing. But he was not a cissy. He did boy-type things, slipping off to the swimming pool, hunting.”
When their financial situation improved, the Presleys moved to Memphis, taking a flat at Lauderdale Courts. Here, one of their neighbours was Fred Frederick, a former policeman who became an investment banker. We talk in the hall of Humes Middle School, where a picture of Elvis is permanently displayed on a screen on the stage. “Elvis was a damned good guy to know,” says Fred. “He’d play a song and he’d turn his collar up. He’d laugh and enjoy it. I’ve never seen anyone that talented.” After he was famous, Elvis would still call Fred from his mansion. “He’d say, ‘Come out to the movies, the fairgrounds.’ He paid for everything. The only problem was, if you got on the rollercoaster with him, he’d never stop all night long.”
That mansion was, of course, Graceland, where Elvis used to ride his horses, record albums, and furnish his rooms with somewhat tasteless furniture. It is now a shrine to the King, taking pride of place on Elvis Presley Boulevard. No street I walked down in Memphis was without some sort of Presley memorabilia: one liquor store even had Elvis labels on its bottles. It was in this city, at the Sun Studio, that the big event in Elvis’s life occurred: he paid $4 to make a record, My Happiness, for his mother. A little later, he was brought in somewhat reluctantly by the studio’s owner to make a single called That’s All Right. A local DJ heard it, played it seven times in a single show, and one of the most extraordinary careers in rock history took off.
In Memphis, I spoke to Nancy Rooks, who was Elvis’s maid at Graceland. Like many other people, she was once presented with a car from her boss (in fact, he bought 150 cars for friends, who came to be called the Memphis Mafia). “One of the bodyguards told me to come to the front door,” she recalls, “and Elvis said, ‘Do you like that car?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘It’s yours.’”
It was Nancy who made “Mister Elvis” his peanut butter and banana sandwiches, often said to be the cause of his death. “He’d eat breakfast at 5pm: eggs, a pound of bacon, fresh orange juice, biscuits, half a grapefruit. At midnight, he’d have meatloaf, baked potatoes, beef, cut up in bites.” Nancy saw things others did not, like the girls who were paraded before him, so he could choose one for the night. Nancy would sometimes sing gospel songs with Elvis. She gave me a demonstration and said that, as far as her own relationship was concerned, “he was my big brother”.
Then came the night she saw Elvis carried down the stairs “all blue”; he didn’t come back to Graceland alive. Elvis’s doctor, George Nichopoulos, was there that night. It was no more than would have been expected – he was always on hand. In the only interview he has given, Nichopoulos told me: “He’d call and say, ‘Can you get away for a few days?’ I’d go to California and all he wanted to do was talk.”
Nichopoulos denies he gave Elvis too many drugs, as people have suggested; he thinks other doctors did, though, “when he was on the road and I wasn’t with him. I controlled the pills. I never left him with pills.” As for food, Nichopoulos says: “It wasn’t that much of a problem. He didn’t eat all the food he was brought. But he could eat five banana splits at one time.”
Elvis loved the deep south; he wasn’t so happy in the north or out west. All the time he was storming Las Vegas, he was getting fatter, sweating in those atrociously heavy rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits. It was there I met a woman he once gave a scarf to on stage; even now, she described the event like it was the second coming. In Vegas, I also met a jeweller who had been asked to show Elvis a couple of diamond rings, so he could look them over and maybe lock them away as presents. “I took him two boxes of rings and he bought the lot for $400,000.”
Perhaps the most startling story I heard, though, was in California’s Palm Springs; it seemed to contrast sharply with all those tales of that polite, well-dressed little 12-year-old. Linda Thompson, Miss Tennessee 1972 and a former girlfriend, told me of the time Elvis didn’t approve of a TV singer, so fired his favourite pistol at the screen. The bullet pierced the wall of the toilet where she was sitting at the time. All those days of BB practice had clearly paid off.
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