Television specials, fan-club conventions and even free birthday cake to Graceland visitors will be among the public celebrations that will herald what would have been Elvis Presley’s 50th birthday Jan. 8. Ex-wife Priscilla Beaulieu Presley will host the Showtime special’ Elvis Presley’s Graceland, but for the most part, those who were closest to the singer—who died Aug. 16, 1977 at 42—will mark the event more privately.
A few members of the once-mighty Memphis Mafia settled into conventional lives as actors or businessmen; others dropped out of sight or refused to exploit their Elvis connection for profit. Some ended up writing gushy books about the singer, perhaps to offset the best-selling exposés that appeared after he died—also written by Presley insiders. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ longtime manager, is 75 now and no longer in charge of the Presley estate. (He reportedly sold all of his royalty rights to RCA for $2 million in 1983.) Yet his projects still revolve around Elvis. He is a paid consultant to RCA and is writing a Presley book. “Nobody really has told the true story of Elvis, and he hasn’t got the kind of credit he deserves,” Parker told PEOPLE.
One thing is for certain: “Once Elvis touched your life you never forgot it,” as a longtime friend says. We asked members of Presley’s family and entourage how they were coping with life after Elvis. These are their remembrances of their friend.
For nearly two decades Joe Esposito controlled access to Elvis Presley. As road manager he was overseer of the 60-member entourage. Today, in his late 40s and once divorced, he lives in Los Angeles with his fiancée, Martha Gallub, where he reigns over a humbler dominion: managing the careers of Gallub and singer Karen Kamon (wife of record producer Phil Ramone). He also runs Sterling Coach Co., a five-car limo service in Hollywood:
“A lot of the guys were bitter that they weren’t left anything in his will. Hey, Elvis took care of us well when he was alive; he didn’t have to take care of us after he was dead. They were all grown boys. They could get jobs. Several of them ended up writing books and that surprised me, because they were just cashing in on Elvis’ death.
“All the guys thought the same thing after it was over: If only we could have grabbed Elvis and said, ‘What are you doing? You’ve got so much to look forward to!’ But you couldn’t tell a guy like that what to do. He’d say, ‘Hey, there’s no strings attached to your job.’ No way was I going to desert him. He was just too good to me.
“During one year we were on the road 220 days. We did everything with Elvis. We went on vacation together—sometimes we got to take our wives—but we were always all together. In retrospect, it wasn’t good or healthy.
“Elvis’ 40th birthday was definitely a crisis for him. He didn’t like the idea [of being 40] and it was after that his serious problems began. He saw himself getting older and it scared him. He didn’t talk about it much—that’s how we knew it bugged him tremendously.
“I remember when we used to go to Las Vegas that anything in that town I wanted was mine. Recently my girlfriend and I were going to Vegas, and I called an old friend at the Hilton [where Presley performed] to get a room. He says to me, ‘We’re booked solid.’ I’ve been around Vegas enough to know there is no such thing if you know the right people. He just didn’t want to pick up my room the way he did when I was there with Elvis.
“If I lived to be 120, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did during those years. Elvis would do things like buy a jet in Memphis to be able to fly down to Fort Worth to inspect another jet. That was the way it was. That was the kind of life we led.”
Ginger Alden was a 20-year-old Memphis beauty queen when she became engaged to Elvis in January 1977. Now 28 and still single, she lives in New York, where she models, appears in TV commercials (English Leather, Canada Dry) and studies singing and acting:
“It took two years to cope with the fact that Elvis died. At first I didn’t understand why I was able to share somebody’s life who was such a wonderful person and then—poof—have it taken away. But I was very lucky and honored that I shared his life. And I’ll never forget him. It’s impossible.
“We were planning to be married Christmas Day in 1977. So each Christmas Day since Elvis’ death has always been a little sad to me, because it would have been our wedding anniversary. Elvis wanted a son and that would have been nice if he had one. He loved Lisa a great deal.
“In New York I’m not linked with Elvis as I was back home. Unless somebody remembers my name from an article, they don’t mention Elvis.
“I haven’t gone out of my way to do anything special on his birthdays other than to think about him, which I do quite a bit anyway. Going to Graceland and the grave site would probably bother me. Graceland has changed very much. It’s not the way it was when he was there.”
D.J. Fontana joined Presley’s band in 1954 as drummer and stayed with the singer until 1968. Now 49, he lives in Nashville where he still does recording sessions and occasionally gives talks on Elvis:
“He was awfully good with an audience. A lot of times he’d go into a little town and at first would be bombing out. But he’d feel the audience out. If he was doing ballads and they didn’t like it, he’d do something else until he got them on his side. He would finally get them standing up and screaming. It was magic. For me, that magic is gone. You don’t see anybody that has come along who’s got it.”
Red West, now 48, was one of the notorious trio of bodyguard-aides unceremoniously fired by Elvis in 1976. Together they wrote Elvis: What Happened?—a stinging, gossipy exposé that sold five million copies in 1977. Now a part-time actor, he divides his time between Memphis (his wife Pat is a caterer there) and Hollywood, where he plays tough guys on shows like The Fall Guy and The A-Team:
“Sometimes I wish we hadn’t done the book and other times I’m glad we did. We just showed that Elvis was not invincible. But I loved Elvis like a brother. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him.
“I could protect Elvis from the outside world, but I could not protect him from himself. I tried one too many times and that’s why I got fired. I’ve never read the other books about him. Most of those guys weren’t there when the going got tough. But we were there and we tried to help him. Anybody who doesn’t believe that, well, screw ’em.”
Boyhood chum Jerry Schilling was the singer’s bodyguard, aide and confidant for 11 years. Now 42, Schilling, who once managed Billy Joel, co-manages the Beach Boys. He and his second wife Myrna, a singer in Elvis’ Sweet Inspirations backup group, still live in the luxurious two-bedroom Hollywood Hills house with a spectacular view of Los Angeles that Elvis bought for Schilling in 1974:
“The truth is that Elvis could pretty much come and go as he pleased. He and Colonel Parker agreed about maintaining mystery and not giving it all away. Believe me, Elvis could sit and tell you the saddest story of how rough it was not being able to go out, and then he would laugh about it later to himself. What would have been truly tragic to him would have been to go outside and not have anybody notice him. I remember a couple of times he went out and had his feelings hurt. When Elvis went out, he wanted to be noticed.
“I guess I was the most outspoken guy of the group. I found that you couldn’t give Elvis any criticism in front of people. But if you sat there and talked to him in private, he would listen to you, and often take your advice. The only thing you could do with him was be honest, because you couldn’t manipulate him.
“The things he wanted to accomplish in life—like touring Europe—were not things he envisioned a person doing after 40. Elvis would say, ‘They have a certain image of me over there, and I don’t want to go over there looking 40 years old.’
“I think a lot of ‘yesses’ killed Elvis. Even the fans were guilty. He’d walk out onstage at 250 pounds and they’d scream, ‘Oh, God, you’re beautiful. We love you.’ We get our self-perception from how people react to us, and Elvis was no different in that respect.”
Janelle McComb, 60, befriended the Presley family in Tupelo, where she now chairs the Elvis Presley Commission, which oversees his birthplace (visited by 50,000 each year):
“Elvis admired the truth in anyone. I remember my niece, who was 13, went with me to visit him once at Graceland. Elvis was teasing her and asked, ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’ And with all the innocence of youth, she named somebody else. He looked at her and said, ‘You’re in my home and you’re naming somebody else? Shame on you.’ My niece said to him, ‘You wanted me to tell the truth and you’re too old for me.’ Elvis just laughed and told her, ‘Honey, stay as honest and precious as you are today and the world will be a better place.’ ”
Shelby County (Tenn.) Sheriff William N. Morris Jr. was a Graceland fixture. Now 52 and the mayor of Shelby County, he is touted as a possible gubernatorial candidate:
“At Christmas one year he might pass out new cars. The next year he might give out McDonald’s gift certificates for $1, $3 or $5. I concluded the message was, ‘Don’t expect something; be pleased when it comes.’ ”
He produced classics such as Casablanca; Sorry, Wrong Number and Becket, but Hal Wallis may be best remembered as the man who in the late ’50s and early ’60s produced 10 (King Creole, Blue Hawaii and Jailhouse Rock among them) of Elvis’ movies. Wallis is now 86 and lives in the Rancho Mirage section of Palm Springs with his wife of 18 years, actress Martha (The Carpetbaggers) Hyer:
“To this day I still get letters from his fans telling me how much they love me because of those movies. Elvis was an entertainer and we tailored the movies to his talents. The Presley movies were sheer entertainment for his fans, and I think we always delivered what we promised. What he was given to do, he did well. I don’t know how he would have been as Hamlet. But he was happy with our films because they all made money and he participated in the profits.”
Pat Perry was 17 when she met Elvis in Hollywood in 1960. She became one of the few women allowed inside Presley’s L.A. entourage and was treated like a kid sister. (“He realized at the time I was a nice Jewish girl and wasn’t going to fool around with him.”) Perry is a hairstylist at Valerie, which is in Beverly Hills:
“He would always do things impulsively. He was obsessed with the movie Patton and went so far as to memorize the opening soliloquy. One day he read that Omar Bradley [played by Karl Maiden in the 1970 film] lived in L.A. Well, we just drove over to Bradley’s house, knocked on the door and spent three hours in his study talking to this five-star general.
“He loved to see our reaction to things. That’s what he got pleasure from. He would hold his hands behind his back and say, ‘Choose a hand’ and then give you a diamond ring.
“He did everything to the hilt. For breakfast he would eat an entire pound of bacon with fried eggs and a bowl of Cream of Wheat. If he had a hamburger, he had a bunch. If he wanted pizza, he would eat an entire giant pizza.
“Elvis really wasn’t a man’s man, even though he was around these Southern macho guys. He was a woman’s man. Besides this incredible person onstage, there was also the little-boy Elvis who used to talk baby talk and the Elvis who needed somebody to pat him when he was hurt. He needed babying after his mom died.”
Gordon Stoker sings with the Jordanaires, Elvis’ backup group for 15 years. Now 49, he lives in Nashville:
“He was the most concerned person with his looks of anybody I ever knew. He dyed his hair and even wore mascara to make himself look good. He carried a makeup kit and even kept one at the recording studio. He’d open up the kit—it had a mirror on it—and he’d look at his eyes and his hair. That didn’t stop him from being a great guy and a super guy to work with.
“He went into a raving fit three days before he died. The guy who made those jumpsuits for him came in and Elvis tried them on and couldn’t fit into one of them. The guy said, ‘Elvis, I have to let all these out.’ Elvis threw them across the room, slammed the door and yelled, ‘Get out!’
“We always went to Graceland on his birthday. We’d go down and sing around the piano. That’s the reason I won’t go back to Graceland. That piano is still sitting there and it would bring it too close to home for me.”