He's the biggest kid, with the biggest toys, and he loved Christmas like he loved life — a little too much. Maybe Elvis will wander into a truck stop this Christmas Eve, toting his gun and demanding a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich.
But if not, we can celebrate the holiday sharing six legends of his rock and roll excess in December, as a poor boy from Tupelo grappled with three all-American holiday obsessions: stars, Christmas, and money.
1. Elvis Gone Wild
At 22, Elvis had struck it rich. For Christmas in 1957, he bought his mother one of every electrical appliance (according to one Elvis Christmas site) — plus, a cashmere coat. Unfortunately, five days before Christmas he also received an unwelcome card from the army — telling him he'd been drafted.
The next Christmas, Elvis's mother had died, and he was living in a German hotel and hitting on a 19-year-old German girl named Elisabeth. (He crashed her parent's house for Thanksgiving, then told them in December that he wanted to hire her as his secretary.) Yes, Elvis slept with her — and a bunch of other girls — and he was starting to live large, according to the biography Careless Love. Elvis rented a sporty BMW, bought a Cadillac from the company commander, showered money on the local orphanage for a Christmas party, and discovered amphetamines.
Elvis served for two years (after getting a three-month deferment to finish filming King Creole). But in December of 1958, after a hard day of working with his platoon, one of the soldiers picked up a guitar and starting singing Christmas songs. "One by one others joined in," according to the biography, "and then the soldier with the guitar asked Elvis if he would like to take part too. 'Yeah, all right' said a subdued Elvis...and he led the soldiers in song." Elvis went into a personal rapture when he got to "Silent Night," and one sergeant remembered all the other voices dropping out for the King.
"'Those going on pass didn't interrupt. They simply walked silently be Elvis, touched his shoulder, and walked out the door. Not another word was spoken after the song until Elvis broke the spell.
"Merry Christmas, everyone" he said.
"Merry Christmas, Elvis!" they replied in unison.
2. Head in the Clouds
Elvis's religious fervor got stronger, and for Christmas in 1964, he put a new headstone on his mother's grave — and experienced a miracle. He was searching for a spiritual solace, at one point announcing to his wife Priscilla that he'd now "withdraw myself from the temptations of sex." Within a few months, 29-year-old Elvis was driving his entourage across Arizona for the filming of Harum Scarum. ("Elvis brings the big beat to Baghdad.") And he suddenly spotted a mystical face in the clouds. Unfortunately, it was Joseph Stalin.
"That's Joseph Stalin's face up there..." Elvis whispered to his spiritual advisor Larry Geller. "[W]hat's he doing up there?" Geller himself remembers that the clouds did look like Joseph Stalin — and then that the miracle had happened.
Before I could answer, the cloud slowly turned in on itself, changing form and dimension until the image faded and gradually disappeared. I knew we had witnessed something extraordinary and turned to say so, but stopped when I saw Elvis staring into the cloud, his eyes open wide and his face reflecting wonder... Elvis' expression was the one that you read of in the Bible or other religious works: the look of the newly baptized or the converted.
Elvis violently screeched the bus to a halt, crying "It's God! It's God...! The face of Stalin turned right into the face of Jesus, and he smiled at me, and every fiber of my being felt it."
Elvis later decided that he wanted to become a monk, and according to the Careless Love, "the guys all fumed at this latest evidence of the boss's weirdness and almost perverse dedication to the bizarre."
And that night in the Mojave desert, their motor home caught on fire.
3. Elvis's last Christmas
Two days after Christmas in 1976, 41-year-old Elvis was heading to Wichita, Kansas after finishing his run at the Las Vegas Hilton. Elvis looked "very tired and quite sad," one fan reported, and according to biographer Peter Guralnick, Elvis had even asked minister Rex Humbard if he should abandon show business altogether to devote himself to god. (Then Elvis started talking excitedly about Armageddon...) Humbard remembers that he politely "took both his hands in mine, and said 'Elvis, right now I want to pray for you.' He said 'Please do,' and started weeping."
A bewildered reporter at the Memphis Press-Scimitar watched the last show in Vegas, and wrote that "one walks away wondering how much longer it can be before the end comes, perhaps suddenly, and why the King of Rock 'n' Roll would subject himself to possible ridicule by going onstage so ill-prepared.
"And yet they keep coming back, and they will pack his next road tour... Once a king, always a king. Maybe that's it."
"And just maybe they're still coming because they think it might be the last time around."
4. I Fought the Law
Even at the peak of his popularity, Elvis wistfully remembered his days of obscurity. In 1954, Elvis was a struggling 19-year-old superstar wannabe facing his first brush with the law (according to an interview he gave in 1966). Elvis had been the singer for a three-man combo, and one cold December night was driving back from Shreveport, Louisiana when a highway patrolman pulled him over for speeding. "It was cold," Elvis later told a reporter, "and I was sleepy. I woke up, and the officer asked, who are you?"
After hearing Elvis's name, "The officer looked puzzled. Of course he had never heard of me. Hardly anyone had. I thought, 'Here goes my Christmas money for a traffic ticket.'"
Instead, the officer waved them off with a warning, and relieved, the singer and his band performed a strange ritual. "After the officer left, the three of us got out of the car and counted our money by the car headlights. It was mostly in dollar bills. Man, that was the most money I'd ever had in my pockets at one time!
"I blew the whole bundle the next day for Christmas presents."
Elvis took a moment to remember the night 12 years later, just a few months before the filming of Paradise, Hawaiian Style. "There is a lot of difference in Christmases today and when we were growing up in East Tupelo," he told the reporter.
"[But] honestly, I can't say these are any better...."
5. Elvis's Revenge
Elvis had a dream on Christmas Eve just 19 months before his death — that no one who worked for him really cared about him; that they just wanted his money. According to biographer Guralnick, on Christmas morning Elvis spilled the details with a sympathetic nurse. "He had dreamed that he had gone broke, and when he needed them they walked out on him." Elvis and the nurse stayed up talking until 3 a.m., and by the time he came downstairs, nearly all of his friends had left.
So on Christmas day, Elvis tried treating his friends to a trip on his private jet, the Lisa Marie. As he was handing out jewelry to his posse, Elvis's drunken aunt Delta suddenly shouted at one of them " You ain't no damn friend of his! And I got a good mind to take this .38 I got in my purse and just shoot you dead!'" Looking at another hanger-on, she said "And you ain't worth a shit either, you wall-eyed son of a bitch... All you sons of bitches are here for the same thing. You just want his damn money!"
Elvis advised his friends she was drunk, but that night at 2 a.m., began beating on her trailer door with a cane. "His hair was messed up, and he was wild-eyed and red-faced..." remembered Elvis's cousin Billy, who had grabbed a gun before consoling the king about his Christmas day humiliation. ("He was out of his mind, he was so mad...")
But maybe Elvis had already gotten the ultimate revenge in 1971. Five years before his death, Elvis gathered his posse into his den, according to a gossip item Guralnick quotes in Careless Love. Each hanger-on remembered the previous year, when Elvis had given out several new Mercedes — and this year Elvis was promising them "maybe a little something special."
With a sly grin on his face, the singer turned to his father, Vernon Presley, and asked "Where are the envelopes, please?"
Vernon reached into his coat pockets and produced the envelopes. "Well, it's been a mighty lean year," said Elvis, whose income probably exceeded $4,000,000 in 1971. As the envelopes began to be opened, the room fell silent. His special gift for 1971 was a 50-cent gift certificate to McDonalds.
But Elvis was just kidding, and later gave them all thick envelopes loaded with cash. And a few days later, Elvis rented an entire movie theatre downtown just so he could watch Shaft.
That was also the year Elvis recorded his final Christmas album.
I've seen and I've done most everything
That a man can do or see.
But if I could only borrow one dream from yesterday
I'd be on that train tomorrow.
I'd be home on Christmas day
Did Elvis fake his death to escape a grueling show business life? For 30 years, the legend persisted, until one night the question was settled on an episode of American Idol. In August of last year Ryan Seacrest introduced "a duet you thought was impossible," resurrecting the ghost of Elvis from December of 1968 so he could sing with Celine Dion.
It was either a holographic monstrosity or a touching remembrance, as the legendary entertainer belted out the showstopper from his comeback special one last time. Though he would've been 73, somehow Elvis's image and voice transcended death itself — and kept on earning more money for other people. (Eight weeks ago, Sony records even used the same trick to release 12 new Elvis Christmas Duets.) From the great beyond, Elvis sends a final "Merry Christmas, Baby," and American Idol had probably identified the song you'd most expect to hear after re-animating the king of rock and roll.
We're lost in a cloud
with too much rain.
We're trapped in a world
That's troubled with pain.
But as long as a man
has the strength to dream
he can redeem his soul
The video may not constitute a Christmas miracle worthy of Andy Kaufman.
But it does suggest that maybe Elvis isn't really dead —as long as his fans remember him.
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