“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.”