Elvis’ Crowning Glory

ELVIS’ CROWNING GLORY

“Elvis Presley is the greatest cultural force of the twentieth century,” proclaimed the renowned conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein.  “He introduced the beat to everything, and he changed everything, music, language, clothes, it’s a whole new social revolution-the sixties comes from it.  Because of him, a man like me barely knows his musical grammar any more.”

Author, music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus in his brilliant and provocative book Mystery Train writes, “If any individual of our time can be said to have changed the world, Elvis Presley is the one. In his wake more than music is different. Nothing and no one looks or sounds the same.”

Elvis was unmistakably a musical genius, an original who burst upon the stage of history like a powerful comet, disrupting and transforming the course of music, style, and our lives forever.  Even his hair was shocking, innovative and rebellious, radiating a powerful magnetic sexual force. He was new, revolutionary, a troublemaker.  His picture perfect smile and stunning good looks have become a powerful symbol, universally and instantly recognizable. Charisma never had it so good.  His slick jet-black hair styled into its famed distinctive pompadour, his falling wet locks complete with sideburns; all reflect a full, healthy head of thick hair. The perfect image Elvis presented to his audiences was exactly what the millions of Elvis fans came to expect of their idol. Yet many people don’t realize that an image of perfection is simply that: an image, an illusion. Though Elvis was blessed with an exceptional, full head of hair, it lacked strength and required constant attention. As an example, when Elvis was shooting movies I sometimes “shpritzed” his hair as many as a dozen times in one day. Elvis always did his own fight scenes and was very active; under the hot lights and with perspiration his fine, flyaway hair needed to be controlled.  It was also essential that I make sure his hair matched in every scene.

In her lively and entertaining book The Girls Guide to Elvis, filmmaker and author Kim Adelman writes, “Before filming began on “Roustabout,” (my first of ten movies with Elvis) producer Hal Wallis wrote a memo to Presley’s management complaining that Elvis’ hair looked like a wig in his previous film, “Viva Las Vegas,” which Wallis did not produce.  This “could have a very detrimental effect on his entire career,” Wallis warned.

From the very beginning of my entering into Elvis’ life I explained my philosophy, the concept of bringing internal health and vitality to the external beauty of the hair, as well as my ideas about style.  Elvis said emphatically, “Larry, you’re in charge of my hair, do whatever you think is necessary, only one thing…just make sure I keep it.” Being responsible for the health and style of Elvis’ hair, and the image that was to be seen on film, personal appearances, album covers and photos, was something I didn’t take lightly.   With all that in mind, I created and employed only the most beneficial, superior shampoos, conditioners, hair sprays and thickening agents to meet Elvis’ specific hair needs.  Because I dyed his hair black, I had to take extra precautions to ensure optimum health and longevity.  I probably looked like a mad scientist, or at the very least an alchemist, pouring and mixing various bottles of organic ingredients in Elvis’ bathroom, creating special formulas…potions that worked wonders.  I remember one afternoon at Graceland, Elvis was watching me pour some Aloe Vera gel into one of my homemade shampoo concoctions. I caught a curious expression on his face, and then Elvis smiled humorously, “Larry, I don’t know exactly what you’re mixing there, but, if you’re goin’ to put that stuff on my hair it better not do anything weird to my hair.” Of course he was kidding, as he already knew my eccentric homemade brews always did the trick.  Combining liquid Biotin and a new remarkable substance I used before it hit the cosmetic scene, pure Jojoba oil, puncturing vitamin E capsules then squeezing in its curative properties, as well as other choice ingredients, allowed me to care for and maintain the health of Elvis’ hair.

According to International bestselling author Pamela Keogh, “The first superstar, Elvis was almost pure style…His clothes, his hair, the way he sang, the way he moved on stage, his half-kidding sneer.”

Elvis always captivated audiences; he was the living legend performing before their eyes, shooting out bolts of electricity, reaching into and touching every soul, and breaking their hearts, then filling it with joy.  Towards the end of his life, Elvis consistently worked harder and harder to satisfy the hunger of his ever-growing multitude of adoring fans, exhausting and draining himself, all at the expense of his health. Along with an array of prescribed medications, a steady diet of junk food and a lack of physical exercise, his exhausted body bore the full brunt of his exertions. Elvis lived to please his fans. If he had looked after himself with as much care as he lavished on his fans, he might very well still be with us today.

Towards the end of his life, Elvis was plagued by a variety of illnesses, which affected his body and thus his hair. Although I encouraged him to eat more nutritious food and to take vitamins and minerals, his crown area eventually started to show slight signs of thinning. After his daily shampoo and blow-drying, I would always take time to perform a deep scalp massage, followed by a thorough brushing. Elvis depended on my knowledge of hair care, and despite the array of forces working against the health of his hair, it always appeared full and thick, and always looked great!  I’m absolutely convinced that, if it weren’t for the many years of continuous and prudent care, the downward spiral of Elvis’ hair degeneration and loss would have accelerated much earlier.

The last time I did Elvis’ hair came quite unexpectedly.  I was given the unbelievable task of preparing his hair for his funeral in August of 1977.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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VOICES

“Ya know, I can remember when I was just a little guy, couldn’t’ have been more’n four or five years old, I heard a voice talkin’ to me, like it was in my head.  I just figured it was my twin brother Jesse Garon. But I never told anyone – not even my mom.  It was like a special secret between Jesse and me.”

Elvis and I were relaxing in his dressing room during filming of “Roustabout” at Paramount Studios, a few days after I began working for him in April of 1964.  In those few days the pile of books I had brought him had already begun to grow.

Elvis was innately inquisitive; he wondered about everything, especially where he fit into the scheme of things, what his ultimate purpose might be, and what special meaning lay behind the improbable and extraordinary events in his life.

Interesting…of the hundreds of books in the library I assembled for him over the years, it was the first one, The Impersonal Life by Joseph Benner, that struck the deepest chord in him, articulating things he had long felt but could barely conceive of, let alone express.

In the years to come, Elvis always kept a copy of The Impersonal Life with him wherever he went and gave away hundreds of copies to others.  He wanted to share something that meant so much to him.

That afternoon Elvis thumbed through its pages curiously, and then stopped.  He was struck by a paragraph which he immediately underlined.   This was to become his lifelong habit.

Elvis read the passage aloud, very slowly, as if he were trying in this way to impress it on his consciousness. “I speak with many voices-with the voice of all human emotions, passions and desires.  I speak with Nature’s voice, with the voice of experience, even with the voice of human knowledge.”

He paused, “Larry, I’m tellin’ ya, if I spoke about hearing voices around here they’d have me locked up for being crazy.”

‘Not me” I said.  “I know just what you’re talking about.  When I was a little boy in kindergarten, I remember hearing an inner voice talking to me. I thought it was my father, and I used to think, ‘oh wow, he’s telling me things.  So this is how dads teach their kids.’ How else could I hear a voice that told me the truth about myself and what I should do and how I should behave; what was right and what was wrong.  Conscience, I guess you’d call it.  All I could think back then was that it had to be my daddy.”

Elvis replied, “Now I realize that the voice I heard was that still small inner voice of God.”

What touched off Elvis’ all-consuming search was his life.  From the few hours I had spent with him that first day in April, it was apparent that he felt stranded by both this disenchantment with his religious education and the vacuousness of the lifestyle that fame had thrust upon him.  Neither offered anything of value that he could use to offset the emptiness of the other.  Elvis realized that he needed something more substantial and nourishing in his life. As a deeply spiritual person, that’s where he naturally turned.  He lived in constant pursuit of that elusive “something else” that gives life real, true meaning.

The seeming inequity of his past, and its paradoxical nature, never lost their power to confound him.  The years of degrading poverty suddenly ending in a grand flush of fame and wealth; Gladys’ dying and leaving her son at the most frightening, vulnerable moment in his life.  Elvis’ inability to reconcile the contradictory nature of a personal God who blessed his parents with only two children, yet took one away at birth; one who bestowed on Elvis riches beyond his wildest dreams but stole away his mother.  To someone with a fundamentalist turn of mind, Elvis’ life could be seen as a series of blessings and punishments in which one hand gave while the other took away.  Elvis yearned to know why, and if the why was unknowable, he wanted to know what wise people had thought, written and said through the ages.  He hungered for understanding.  He needed to know that in his quest for understanding he was not alone, that seeking these answers didn’t set him further apart from other people but instead brought him into an ages-old community that includes some of the greatest minds who have ever lived.

One night when Elvis was taking his bows at the conclusion of a concert in South Bend Indiana, he spontaneously removed a diamond ring from his finger and flung it into a wildly cheering audience.  I was on stage standing next to him acting as security.  For a moment everything seemed to move in slow motion, as the ring arced in the air, landing unseen in the crowd.  Elvis didn’t wait to see who the lucky person was who caught such a valuable gift; he quickly spun around the moment he tossed the ring, exiting the stage.

When we got back to his hotel room, someone blurted out, “I can’t believe you did that!  That ring was worth about thirty thousand dollars, it was one of your favorites.”

Elvis was still aglow with what he had done. “Well, I tell you, I didn’t plan it, that’s for sure.  It was what I felt at the moment.  Something in me told me that someone was in big trouble out there; that they needed that ring much more than I do. I just knew the right person got it. Hey, I can buy all the rings I want.  But when that voice within tells me what to do, I follow it, it’s as simple as that.”

That voice within also told him to make the gospel album How Great Thou Art.

We were in Nashville staying at the Albert Pike motel, getting ready to go to RCA recording studios to begin the first sessions.  Elvis told the others to wait in the cars downstairs; said we’d be down in a few minutes.

Elvis grew solemn.

“Millions of people around the world are going to hear this album.” He said. “It’s going to touch people in ways we can’t imagine.  Listen, this isn’t rock n’ roll music or some of those songs they have me sing for my movies.  This is God’s music.  I just want to be his channel, but I can’t if my ego is in the way.  I have to empty myself so the channel is totally pure and the message is heard loud and clear. So Lawrence, turn down the lights and let’s meditate.  Because I’m not going to move out of this chair and use the voice He gave me until I’m guided by that still, small voice within.”

We meditated in our chairs for about fifteen minutes, facing each other.  At the same moment, as if on signal, we both opened our eyes.

“So be it, Elvis said softly.  “I’m ready.”

Reflecting back on his life Elvis once told me, “Man, the very first thing I could remember in my life was sittin’ on my mom’s lap in church. What did I know when I was that young?  But all I wanted was to run down the aisle and go sing with the choir.  This voice in me kept saying, ‘sing, go up there and sing. I knew it then; I had to sing.”

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Priscilla or Ann-Margaret?

A few days into production on “Girl Happy,” Ann-Margret came to visit Elvis on the set.  We were filming all night on the back lot of MGM, famous for many classic movies going back to the golden era of Hollywood.  They’d met a year before when she costarred with him in “Viva Las Vegas,” and the attraction between these two sex symbols was instantaneous; Elvis became deeply infatuated with her.  Gossip had it that things between them were serious; Elvis dismissed the stories as studio publicity, but they were true.  Priscilla made her displeasure known to Elvis, and though he pleaded his innocence, she really didn’t buy it.  Neither did anyone else who knew him.

When Ann-Margret walked onto the back lot around eleven o’clock one evening, all eyes were instantly glued to her, including Elvis’ – he lit up like an incandescent light. When Elvis finished shooting his scene, he eagerly walked over to her. They hugged, and then he took her by the hand and motioned me to follow them.  We entered Elvis’ tiny, cramped dressing room trailer with barely enough space for two people, let alone three.   Elvis seated himself at a small table in front of a mirror surrounded by light bulbs so I could do his hair.

Taking care of Elvis’ hair was certainly a different experience for me that night.  As always, my first obligation was to make certain Elvis’ hair looked perfect, camera-ready for his next scene.   But this time I was engrossed in the interchange between Elvis and Ann-Margaret, the room buzzing with electricity and their emotions flying in all directions.  Each time they looked at one another their self-consciousness and magnetic attraction were obvious and transparent.  My main dilemma was to do the task at hand despite the distractions. There I was, standing between them in very tight quarters, brushing Elvis’ hair; with Ann-Margret’s body so close to mine that I could actually feel her breasts on my back.  Talk about a blessing and curse! It was a tough job…but somebody had to do it.

Elvis and Ann-Margret were beautiful together; they shared an energy and enthusiasm for life that made you feel happy for them. Elvis was very fond of her and loved to make her laugh.

They seemed to have all the elements for an enduring relationship, but Elvis confided that she intimidated him.  She had her own very successful career, which she wasn’t about to throw over for anyone, and – more importantly – she was independent and wouldn’t take a submissive role.  Few woman Elvis became involved with had that kind of resolve and sense of self.

Elvis recognized that he’d never exert the control over her that he had then over a young, inexperienced Priscilla.  It inevitably came down to a choice between Priscilla, someone Elvis believed he could sequester a couple of thousand miles away whenever he wanted to enjoy his “freedom,” and Ann-Margret, who challenged him, if only because her life didn’t revolve around his.  It was a challenge he never rose to with any woman.

Several hours after Ann-Margret left the lot, Elvis and I retreated back to his dressing room between scenes. Elvis didn’t waste a minute, plunging right into what was foremost on his mind.  “Lawrence, it’s between Ann and Priscilla.  And what’s really strange is that they look so much alike, almost like sisters.  But to tell you the truth I don’t think things would work out with Ann and me. Two egos like ours, two careers.  There’s bound to be conflicts. I really care for her. But to tell ya the truth, I really don’t think it would be a lasting thing.”

Elvis then explained what he believed was the main obstacle to continuing with Ann. “Women should stay at home and raise a family.  That’s how I was raised.” A small smile crept over Elvis’ face. “I’ll tell you something I learned a long time ago.  There’s more to life than lust.”

In the wilds of Hollywood, Elvis’ attitudes towards women were almost quaint.  He eschewed promiscuity, although he had certainly gone through some wild periods.  “Man, when I learned that I was going into the army I went hog wild. Larry, I had sex with every girl I could find.  I went as far as I could, until I got so exhausted I ended up in the hospital. I guess I needed that experience; it made me realize then that sex without love or affection is a waste.”

“Besides, I’m committed to Priscilla,” he said, “and someday I’ll live up to my promise to her and to her dad.  Priscilla reminds me of my mom. She wants to be a mother and raise children.  She doesn’t want a showbiz career; she just wants to be my wife.”

Elvis seemed very satisfied and content that he had made such an important decision, and a few years later he kept his promise and married Priscilla.  He remained very fond of Ann-Margaret, and their friendship lasted the rest of his life.

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The Mystery of Jesse Garon

What is my role, my duty, my goal, amidst this bewildering breathtaking

drama in which I find myself involved?

The life and death of his stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon, was a precious mystery to Elvis, an indelible part of his life. But then, Elvis was always intrigued by the mystery that lay at the heart of all existence.

When it came to Jesse Garon, he told me that as a child he would talk about him to anyone who would listen. “I have a brother!” he announced proudly, telling everyone how close they were, and how they talked together all the time.  At night as he lay in his bed, in the dark and silence of his room, he would have special conversations with Jesse, and later tell people what his brother had said to him.

I knew Elvis had a stillborn twin brother; my own younger twin sisters had told me after they read a story about him in a movie magazine.  It was only after we met in April of 1964, that I came to realize how deeply Elvis had been affected by this unfulfilled relationship.

“I’ll tell ya Larry, being a twin has always been a mystery for me. I mean, we were in our mother’s womb together, so why was he born dead and not me? He never even got his chance to live. Think about it, why me? Why was I the one that was chosen? An’ I’ve always wondered what would’ve been if he had lived, I really have. These kinds of questions tear my head up. There’s got to be reasons for all this.”

This was our very first conversation. I was a virtual stranger, yet for some reason Elvis felt that he wanted to bare his soul about Jesse Garon.  I learned over the years that this was one aspect of his life he rarely if ever spoke about.  But on this particular afternoon he opened the floodgates freely, revealing something so intimate that it was obvious that he was deeply burdened by the notion that he might have survived at the expense of his twin.

Elvis sat in silence for a moment with his eyes fixed on the ground, then looked up at me. “Larry, listen, I’m going to tell you something, and it might even sound strange, but it’s something I’ve secretly thought about before. Maybe, maybe it was me. Maybe it was something I did, ya know?  Who knows, maybe when we were in the womb together we were fighting like Jacob and his twin like it says in the Bible. Man that story always stuck with me.  Maybe I was like Jacob who tried to stop his brother from being born first.  Hey, I’m just saying…anything’s possible.”

I learned so much about Elvis that first afternoon; his freedom of expression, his willingness to explore, and most of all his vulnerability.   And I’ve always felt that all during his life he reached out for the brother he never had the chance to know; the seed was always there. He called us his “family.” Yet at all times, even when he felt betrayed, he felt a deep concern for the very ones who hurt him most. And in a curious way the guys were a composite of his twin – but never really a replacement.

It wasn’t until 1977, just a few months before Elvis’ death that I heard him bring up Jesse after all those years.   Elvis was so open; he loved to talk about anything under the sun.  From sex, politics or religion, to intimate details about family, friends, wives, girl friends, co-workers and private thoughts and feelings about his career and his own life, nothing was out of bounds.  But I can’t remember his ever really talking about Jesse Garon…not until one day in the spring while we were on tour.  I entered his room while he was still in bed.

“Lawrence”, Elvis declared excitedly, “You won’t believe the dream I just had. Man, it was so real.  An’ I can’t remember dreaming about my brother Jesse Garon since I was a little kid.  But there we were together – on stage.  Seemed like thousands of people in the audience, and they were screaming at us. It was wild!  We were dressed alike, wearing identical white jumpsuits, and we were both playing matching guitars slung around our shoulders. . There were two blue spotlights, one shining on him, one on me.  An’ I kept looking at him, and man, he was the spitting image of me.

I’ll tell you something else Lawrence…” Elvis grinned.  “Jesse had a way better voice than me.”

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Elvis’ Last Birthday

January 8, 1977.  We were in Palm Springs at Elvis’ house, having a wonderful, carefree time, looking forward to the year ahead.  After I finished doing his hair in the bedroom he put on his black suit – he looked fantastic.  He turned to me and said, “This is my day, Lawrence, my birthday, and I get to do whatever I want.  C’mon man, watch this!”  He had a big smile on his face as he picked up the book The Prophet and a stack of money, motioning for me to follow him to the living room, where everyone was waiting.

“Will all you guys please leave me and the ladies alone; I want to talk to them for a while.”  We all left, leaving our wives or girlfriends with Elvis.  For the next forty-five minutes he read to them several passages from The Prophet. Then he said, “This is my birthday, and what I want most is to give you all a gift.”  As he handed each one a new hundred-dollar bill, he admonished, “Now you have to promise to spend this on yourselves, and I’m havin’ Robinson’s keep their store open late tonight just for you.  No one’s gonna bother you; I’m sending security with you.  So you all go and have fun for me on my birthday.”

So what does the man who has everything want for his birthday?  If he’s Elvis…just the joy of giving to others.

Happy Birthday, Elvis!

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Gone…But Not Forgotten

As the years go by, our memories become like a dense forest through which we make our way along familiar, well-trodden paths.  Unnoticed smaller paths branch out, often leading to half-forgotten memories.  I recently came upon such a path and began thinking about incidents with Elvis about which I’ve rarely spoken, incidents with a common thread: Elvis’ generosity even in small matters.

Of course Elvis’ generosity is legendary.  During his lifetime he gave away houses, cars, motorcycles, jewelry, furs, clothing and money as if it were going out of style. His generosity knew no bounds. He gave to the poor and the needy, but he didn’t discriminate against the wealthy. He once took a thirty-thousand dollar ring off his finger, and gave it to singer-comedian Sammy Davis, Jr.

“Nobody thinks of giving a rich man anything,” he explained. “They’re people too.  They like to think somebody thinks enough to give them something.”

Once he got the impulse to give there was no stopping Elvis.  One afternoon on the Paramount lot during filming of “Easy Come, Easy Go,” we were walking towards the soundstage. A salesman rolling a large suitcase filled with an assortment of jewelry yelled out as he ran up to us, “Elvis wait up; I got something you can’t pass up. You gotta see this.”

Out of breath he exclaimed, “Just check this beauty out,” while he opened a drawer pulling out a diamond ring which he handed to Elvis.  Elvis admired it, putting it on his finger, and almost immediately told Joe Esposito to give him a check. On the set Elvis proudly showed off his newest acquisition.  After lunch, he was standing around, waiting for the cameras to be set up, occasionally looking at the ring and smiling.

David Winters, Elvis’ choreographer, walked over and Elvis showed him his new ring. David’s eyes lit up. “Elvis, man, that’s beautiful; I love your ring.”

Elvis pulled the ring off his finger and handed it to him.

“Try it on,” he said, “and see how it fits.”

David slipped it on his finger.  “It fits great.”

Elvis took one look at his radiant face. “It’s yours,” he said, smiling as he turned and walked away from the stunned choreographer.

The example of Elvis’ generosity that most recently came to mind was an event that occurred one late afternoon in 1965.  We were in the Dodge motor home, driving through the Arizona desert on Route 66, approaching the sacred Hopi mountains.

Elvis had been at the wheel as usual, until he had a profound vision, an experience that shook him to his core.  It was a spiritual jolt and a turning point in his life.  After that he was too exhilarated and distracted to drive, so he asked Red West to take the wheel.

Elvis motioned for me to follow him to the bedroom in the back of the vehicle, where we sat for awhile in silence. Then as night began to fall we began talking about what had just occurred as we continued on the road towards Flagstaff.

Eventually, we both nodded off – when we were abruptly awakened several hours later by shouts of “We’re on fire! We’re on fire!”

We snapped to, and Red quickly pulled over to the shoulder of the road and stopped.  Jerry Schilling, Red West, Billy Smith, Elvis and I jumped out to see what was happening. The back axles and the undercarriage were aflame.  All of us immediately scooped up sand and gravel from the desert with our bare hands and managed to extinguish the fire. The vehicle was a total wreck and wouldn’t start.  Luckily, we were only a few miles outside of Needles, California, in the Mohave Desert.  The five of us pushed the RV into town, where we checked into a motel.

“Let’s just get some vehicles, Larry, and go home,” Elvis said wearily.  “Go hire some cars.  Here’s my wallet.”

His wallet was crammed with an assortment of credit cards, but no cash; Elvis never carried cash.  I started walking in search of a car-rental agency.  It was eight or so in the morning, I hadn’t slept, and I needed a shower and shave. I must have looked pretty disreputable, an assessment confirmed by the wary look on the face of the man behind the counter.

“Yes sir, I’d like to rent two cars.  I’m with Elvis Presley.  He’s down the road at a motel.”

Thinking it would help, I handed him the wallet.  Flipping through the cards, he asked, “What are you telling me? Elvis Presley?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

Flinging the wallet at me, he screamed, “Get the hell outta here!”

As I retreated and headed back to the motel, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get from Needles to Los Angeles would be by cab.  When I got back to the room I phoned a local taxi service, and the people there were only too happy to help.  Within minutes, two cabs were at the motel, and we were ready to go.

We loaded all the luggage into one cab, then Jerry, Red, Billy, Elvis and I crawled wearily into the second.   As we rode down the highway, our young driver couldn’t stop turning his head around every few minutes to stare at Elvis, or look at him in the rear view mirror.  That was understandable, but when he hit a cruising speed of ninety miles an hour and still couldn’t keep his eyes off Elvis, I yelled, “Hey, man, slow down!  You’re going to kill us.  Yes, this is Elvis Presley.  Just calm down or I’ll have to take the wheel.”

All the way back our driver was visibly nervous. When we arrived in Bel Air about four hours later, the other guys who’d lost us on the road during the drive were lined up in front of the house, waiting.

While everyone was dealing with the luggage Elvis asked me how much the fare was.  I told him a hundred and sixty dollars for both cabs.  He then asked how much cash I had on me.  I checked my wallet. “Little over five hundred bucks.”

Elvis said, “Hey, these guys probably never even leave Needles, and they sure don’t get customers like us every day.  They work hard, and could probably use a break.  Just give ‘em what you have there, I’ll pay you back later.”

I may not have told this story much over the years – but I bet those two cab drivers have told it over and over to anyone who would listen.

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The Sex Symbol

The Sex Symbol

Life in Elvis’ world was always interesting and often unpredictable.

I remember one afternoon in December of 1965; we were discussing the history and origin of the Christian church as I was blow drying Elvis’ hair upstairs at Graceland.  We had some of our best and most interesting conversations in bathrooms!  I told Elvis about a book I was reading that delved deeply into the subject, with extensive research from the early Christian fathers, legends, obscure historians and other esoteric literary sources of antiquity.

Sharing several of the more fascinating features of the book, I assured him that I would give him my copy as soon as we returned to Los Angeles to begin his next movie. “No, no,” Elvis said.  “Why don’t you just go and get the book for me tomorrow?”

“Elvis” I explained, “You can’t find that book anywhere in Memphis.”

Elvis didn’t bat an eye.  There was no question he would get what he wanted.

“Larry, that’s no problem; all you have to do is catch a late plane tonight for LA, get the book, and you’ll be back here tomorrow in time for dinner.”

When I arrived at Graceland the next day Elvis was in the dining room eating and looked up at me when I entered the room carrying two satchels filled with books.

He immediately stopped eating and his face lit up.  “I’ve been expecting you.”  Elvis jumped up and excitedly motioned me to follow him upstairs to open his gifts and for me to do his hair.

The first book I showed him was the one he sent me to LA for.  He then pulled several others out of the satchel and scanned them – but there was one that especially caught his eye.  It was a large colorful book about Hollywood’s first movie stars from the silent era, filled with great pictures and biographies.  Elvis was fascinated.

As I was brushing his hair Elvis began thumbing through the pages curiously, and then stopped.  He was struck by a picture of silent screen star Mary Pickford. “Man, look at this,”   Elvis said excitedly.  “The very first movie star in Hollywood was Mary Pickford.  She was the original movie star, and all the rest followed; you know, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton – all of them, but she was the very first one.  And do you know what her real name was?”  Elvis didn’t wait for my answer.  “Gladys Smith!  Man, I can’t believe it, that’s my mom’s name.  Only difference is my mom’s middle name is Love,” Elvis said proudly.

Elvis went back to the book, shaking his head, chuckling to himself every now and then as he read out loud unusual fascinating facts and anecdotes.

While I was spraying his hair, he suddenly exclaimed, “Whoa!  There he is.”  Elvis pointed to a full page picture of legendary Rudolph Valentino.

“Just look at his face, Larry.  This guy had pure sexual power; you can see it in his eyes.      I mean, he was the number one sex symbol back then.  And he died when he was only 32.  See this picture of his funeral, women went nuts – they actually threw themselves on his casket. Man, he was something else.”

“Elvis, that’s exactly who you are.  You’re the biggest sex symbol of our time.”

Elvis looked completely mystified – as if I told him that Martians just landed on the grounds of Graceland. “What the hell are you talking about?”

I was stunned.  Elvis honestly had no idea what I was talking about. Here I was standing next to the most extraordinarily handsome man of our time – a living masterpiece.  He had the face of a Greek god.  He was the king of rock and roll and a major movie star.  The most exciting and beloved star in history, bursting upon our culture like a powerful comet, disrupting and transforming the course of music, style and our lives forever. Yet he didn’t truly comprehend, nor accept his dynamic, unprecedented influence, and how he was ultimately perceived.

There was always the small boy in him, a shyness that was so deep-rooted going back to a childhood in Tupelo that never left him.  Naturally he was acutely aware that he was “Elvis Presley,” whose adoring fans spanned the globe.  What blew my mind at that moment were his innocence and his natural humility.  And those very qualities were part of his beauty and phenomenal appeal.

Before I began working with Elvis I met, as a hairstylist in Hollywood, the most glamorous, sensuous and handsome stars and celebrities in the history of motion pictures.  Great stars and movie idols in their prime such as Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, Warren Beatty, Robert Wagner and many more, all talented, all exceptional looking.   And as I’m writing this I can tell you for sure and there’s no doubt about it, Elvis Presley was a notch above the rest.

It wasn’t only his astonishing physical beauty, although that in itself was quite something to behold.  He had a truly loving soul and an absence of the arrogance that often accompanies such great looks and fame.  It was the inner Elvis that shone through, that captivated all who encountered him, whether in person or through the media.  Yet the greatest sex symbol of our time remained unaware of his power.

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Cruisin’ With Elvis

Cruisin’ With Elvis

What an experience!  Living for four days in an atmosphere of all Elvis, all the time; sharing a unique world with over two thousand people who love and deeply appreciate Elvis.  I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Surrounded by so many true Elvis fans in such an intimate setting, the vastness of the ocean a dramatic contrast, the atmosphere was saturated with love.  Because of the closeness of the ship and the isolation from the rest of the world, I felt that love even more so than in Memphis. Then it hit me: the fans don’t really know how much Elvis loved and appreciated them. Boy did he ever!  And that’s something they should know.

The first time I styled his hair at his Bel Air home back in early 1964, when we engaged in a three hour conversation, Elvis was openly passionate about his feelings for his fans. “Larry, if it weren’t for my fans I wouldn’t be where I am today; it’s as simple as that.  They go out and buy my records, and pay to see my movies, and most of them can’t even afford it.  I mean I owe them everything, and I appreciate what they’ve done for me and my family more than they’ll ever know.”

Elvis had a genuine love affair with his fans.  All during his life he reached out to them, one way or another, always ready to give of himself: artistically, even materially, whatever it took. But generosity was his second nature.  The underdogs of the world, the needy were quick to move him.  It was a throwback to his own impoverished childhood.

One evening while we were on tour in Oklahoma City I had just finished preparing Elvis’ hair in the dressing room before the concert. One of the assistants who worked for the concert promoters ran up to Elvis, excitedly exclaiming that he had good news!  “What is it?”  Elvis inquired.  “Well, starting on the next tour they’re going to raise the price of your concert tickets; more money for everybody! Isn’t that great?”

“Great? No way, no damn way!”  Elvis stared thoughtfully for a moment, and then shook his head.  “No, that’s not going to happen; I’ll make sure it doesn’t. Listen, no one knows better than I do just how hard it is out there for folks.  A lot of my fans have to struggle to save up just to come to one of my shows, and hear me sing.  And man, do I know all about struggling.  Where I came from we didn’t even have any electricity in our little house. Not only that, we didn’t have running water, or faucets or anything most other people have.  Man, we didn’t even have a bathroom in our place; we had to go outside to the outhouse, in the freezin’ dead of winter. Struggle? Can you even imagine growing up that way, livin’ like that? Seeing what your mom and daddy have to go through. Watching them slave their lives away? Man I’m telling ya, I know all about being poor, it’s branded on my soul, and I can’t ever forget, ever”

Elvis was bursting with emotion.

“Why do you think I go out there very night?  What the hell do ya think keeps me going?”  We all stood in silence.  ”Well, I’ll tell ya, and it’s very simple; it’s to make people happy, and bring some joy into their lives.  Hey, life can be so damn hard.  When my fans come to see me, all I want to do is lift them up, help them forget their problems for awhile, and send them some love.  And that’s it right there, that’s exactly what my life is all about…that’s why I’m here”

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Meditation Garden

Meditation Garden at Graceland

Elvis Presley’s creativity was certainly evident in his music: in his vocal presentation, his performance on stage, and in every aspect of his career.  But his creativity went beyond that arena; it was infused into every element of his life, whether it was his unique manner of dress or his very personal philosophy of life.

Elvis embarked on a lifelong quest for meaning and enlightenment, far from his world of the glittering lights of show business and the trappings of fame and fortune.  He drew upon diverse sources for inspiration and guidance, his inner being finding comfort and refuge in the world’s great Wisdom Teachings.  His growing need to be close to and understand the nature of God and his own place in God’s universe was paramount.

One of the sources Elvis turned to was the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.  These teachings spoke to him in a very personal way, and he asked me to bring him to the world famous Lake Shrine that Yogananda had founded, not far from Elvis’ home in Bel Air, California.

Perched in a small ravine near where Sunset Boulevard meets the Pacific Coast, the chapel grounds  meticulously cared for by the monks is a natural wonder to behold. Its lush gardens and natural spring-fed lake are home to a variety of flora and fauna including white swans, ducks, koi, and lotus flowers. It has rushing waterfalls, fountains, colorful flower beds, inspirational statues, lacy fern grottoes, lily ponds, and even a picturesque old Dutch windmill that serves as a chapel. The grounds include a Court of Religions honoring the five principal religions of the world; the Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial, where a portion of Gandhi’s ashes is enshrined; a small museum with exhibits on Paramahansa Yogananda’s work; and a gift shop with arts and crafts from India.

Elvis loved to walk around the lake and meditate in this oasis in the midst of his fishbowl life. As he walked toward the chapel on that first visit to the Lake Shrine, some visitors passed him on the path and looked up in recognition. They nodded a silent hello, smiled, and kept on walking. Elvis was impressed by this respect for his privacy. “Perfect,” he told me. “This is exactly the way I thought it would be.”

Several weeks after that first visit to the Lake Shrine, we drove back to Memphis for a few months of relaxation after completing filming of Elvis’ latest movie.  One afternoon at Graceland while we were strolling around the grounds, Elvis pointed to an area and said softly, “Larry, I want to have a meditation garden, right here, just like the one at the Lake Shrine. We can come out here; you know, just kick back, relax or even meditate if we want to. I’ve always loved this part of Graceland, especially by that wishing well over there.  There’s just something special about it here, it feels right.”

Elvis always got what he wanted, and the Meditation Garden at Graceland came into being.  His spirit felt at home there, just as at the Lake Shrine – and now he rests in that special place that felt so right to him.

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Elvis and The Beatles

Elvis and The Beatles

Elvis Presley was emotionally never far from the two-room shotgun house in East Tupelo where he was born and raised.  Artistically, it served as the very cradle, crucible and inspiration for the most successful singer and most beloved star in history.  But it was the rich, vibrant gospel music he heard in church and the Black R&B he absorbed on historic Beale Street as a Memphis teenager which were the primary and diverse influences that shaped Elvis, who ushered in a whole new era of American music and popular culture.

After starring in a string of highly successful films as the highest paid actor in Hollywood, Elvis became increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated.  “I’ve got to do something more meaningful; there’s something else I’m cut out to do.  I owe it to my fans, I owe it to myself.  I’ve had it making teenybopper movies.  They’re all just the same damn ol’ flick; all they do is change my character’s name and throw in a few new sets.”

Ironically it was with the arrival of The Beatles that a seed was planted in the fertile soil of his frustration, later to germinate into another of Elvis’ accomplishments – one of the greatest in his music career.

It was the summer of 1965 when The Beatles arrived in Los Angeles to perform their historic Hollywood Bowl concerts.  After repeated requests, Colonel Parker finally agreed to speak with their manager Brian Epstein.  Together they arranged an historic meeting to take place on the evening of August 27, at Elvis’ Bel Air house on Perugia Way. We were all very excited.  Everyone in town wanted to meet The Beatles, but the only American they wanted to meet was Elvis.

That Friday night I drove up to Elvis’ house in my steel-gray Mercedes.  The word of the Fab Four’s visit had leaked out, spreading through Los Angeles like brushfire.  Elvis and The Beatles were stars to the stars, so I wasn’t surprised at all to find Elvis’ house under siege. Perugia Way was teeming with hundreds of people, carefully scrutinizing each car as it slowly passed, and craning their necks to get a glimpse of one of The Beatles.  There were policemen everywhere, and it was obvious that the security had taken a great deal of planning.  The cops apparently had a list containing the make, model, license-plate number and other information about who would be driving what and who should be admitted.  I was waved right through and went inside the house.

I found Elvis sitting in the den; he jumped up when he saw me and motioned me to follow him into his bathroom.  We had developed a comfortable routine of endless talks when I took care of his hair, but this night was different.  Elvis was stone quiet; his eyes took on a faraway look.  He seemed fidgety – his fingers snapping on the marble top, his right leg bouncing nervously.  Suddenly his demeanor changed and he turned to me.  “Man, I know exactly what those four guys are going through; I’ve been there and done it. That’s where it’s at, getting up there in front of live people, feeling the energy.  Maybe that’s what I need to do again. To tell you the truth, Larry, I’m embarrassed.  I mean, they’re out there doing what I used to do, and I’m here making these dumb-ass movies that don’t mean a thing, same as the music they make me sing.”

Several weeks later Elvis was at the wheel driving his Dodge motor home as we headed back to Memphis.  He turned to me and said with quiet certainty,”Something came to me Lawrence, an’ now I know what I’m going to do.  I’m going to record a gospel album.  I want everyone to know who I am, and where I came from.”

The gospel album he recorded was “How Great Thou Art,” for which he received his first Grammy Award.  Globally, Elvis has sold over one billion records, more than any other single artist or group who ever recorded.  Yet the King of Rock ‘n Roll never won a Grammy for rock, pop, country or any other genre for which he was famous – only for the music of his soul.

To this day The Beatles have no idea of the very special influence they had upon Elvis.

Posted in Elvis and The Beatles, Elvis' career | 8 Comments