When Elvis Presley died 12 years ago this week, few lives were affected more profoundly than Rick Stanley’s. After he became Elvis’s stepbrother, he joined the Presley entourage at 17 to become one of the singer’s aides and an insider privy to his personal life. In the years that followed, Stanley’s own difficulties often mirrored those of his famous relative; the younger man’s early drug use, which had started with alcohol and hallucinogens in high school, escalated to heroin, morphine and other narcotics as his days and nights came to revolve around the man he knew as King and kin.
On the night of Elvis’s death on Aug. 16, 1977, Stanley was one of the last to see the singer alive. After a near-suicidal bout with depression, Stanley underwent a religious conversion two months later and now, at 35, is a licensed Baptist minister living in Mary Esther, Fla., with his wife, Robyn, 33, and their two children. His years with Elvis remain pivotal in his life, and in an interview with correspondent Kent Demaret, he talked of the experiences that began with their strange, first meeting. Then 6, he and his two brothers were living at a Virginia boarding school and unaware that their mother, Dee, and Elvis’s widowed father, Vernon, had met in Germany during Elvis’s tour of duty.
One afternoon my mom pulls up in a beautiful Continental with a guy who’s a perfect stranger to me. I come out of the boarding school, and my mom’s sitting in the front seat with the guy whom she introduces as our new daddy, Vernon, and the three of us are ushered into the backseat. Well, we leave from the school and drive to the mansion, to Grace-land. All of a sudden here’s this big, beautiful house. The very first thing that I notice is all these bodyguards—these guys walking around with big guns under their arms.
Inside, I walked down a mirrored hallway, down these steps, and I found it amazing that these big gold records were everywhere. Elvis was standing over by the record player, listening to records. He walks across the room, and I know the first time I meet this guy, he’s different. He really rattled me by picking me up and saying, “These are my little brothers. That’s just the way I’m going to treat them.” Here’s this guy, bigger than life, 19 years older than me, and he takes us into his family.
The next morning I went outside and there he was. But there were cats, dogs, ponies, scooters, bicycles, tricycles, swing sets, Three of everything. He had his employees go to the store and buy all these toys and bring them back. And he broke a habit of sleeping all day to watch my face light up when I saw everything.
I felt very much at home when I was at Graceland. We lived with Vernon in a house next door, and when Elvis was home I would go over and see him. Elvis loved to throw the football. I’d go out on pass patterns, and we’d do that for hours and hours in the backyard. One evening he decided he wanted to mend fences. We went out with a hammer and nails, and he put about 10 nails in one board, just like a kid.
When I was 17, I was getting into drugs, and Elvis figured he could help straighten me up. He wanted me to go to work with him as his personal aide, but he knew I would have a difficult time convincing my mother to let me go on the road. So he told her that I would have a private tutor, I would be in church every morning, all these different things.
My first trip was Washington, D.C. We were sitting on the plane, he’s on the aisle, and I’m right beside him. Elvis just looked at me and goes, “I’m the teacher,” with that big grin on his face. “I’m going to teach you every thing you need to know, and by the way, what you see and hear on the road, you don’t say nothing about at home, okay?”
We got to the hotel, and we were there five minutes, and all these girls were there. All these guys have got these girls waiting! None of the wives were ever allowed to go on the road with us, and that was one of the reasons why. Elvis looks at me and says, “There are two girls that I’ve dated that are going to be here, Joyce and Janice.” He’s a married man, and he’s got not only one girl, he’s got two girls!
That was the night that Elvis initiated me into what was called the Memphis Mafia by calling me at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and asking me to find a cheeseburger in downtown Washington. It was December of’70, freezing weather. When he said he wanted cheeseburgers, I said, “Where do I get them?” and he said, “That’s your responsibility. Find out.” I called the bellman; the bellman didn’t know. So I literally get out in the streets of D.C. and find a place. And I put the cheeseburgers inside my coat and run all the way back to the hotel, get upstairs, go in the room and one of the girls was in there. I pulled the hamburgers out, handed them to Elvis, and he said, “I don’t want them. I was just checking you out, to see if you could do it.”
Eventually I took care of him when we were traveling. I did everything. I made sure all the meals were taken care of. I took care of his wardrobe and jewelry, taped up the windows so the sun couldn’t get in, set up the room and carried the kit that contained all his medication. When he would come offstage, it was my responsibility to get a towel around his neck, a glass of water in his hand, a coat on his back. Then to get him in a car and make sure those vents weren’t blowing on him. Usually in the car it was mostly just him and me in the backseat, with someone driving us.
Girls were always available, Always. It was just a matter of picking which ones he wanted. And he wanted one every night. He had to have somebody in bed with him. I don’t think sex was even involved lots of the time. He hated to be alone. If there wasn’t a girl there, I’d sometimes sleep at the foot of the bed.
When Elvis wanted a girl, someone would go find him one. We called it trolling. Elvis would look around and say, “It’s time to go trolling,” and we knew what that meant. Somebody had to go downstairs and select four or five girls for him to look over. I introduced him to a lot of girls, and members of the entourage introduced him to some. It was usually me, because I knew his taste—tall, clean girls.
In one of the Vegas hotels they’d gather together in a lounge area and sit around on sofas and wait. When Elvis wanted somebody to go trolling, I’d go down and look them over and pick out four or five. I just told them that Elvis wanted to meet them and asked if they’d like to come up to his suite. It was all pretty cool, but everybody knew what was up.
There was a whole routine. While I was gone, Elvis would get out stuff to talk to them about. He carried books on astrology and numerology and that kind of thing with him so he could make conversation with the girls. Anyway, I’d take them up, and there he’d be. All smiles and very gracious. Elvis would make women feel wonderful. They’d sit around in the suite for a while, and Elvis would look them over while he talked to them. Then he’d let me know which one he wanted to stay. When the visit wore down, I’d escort the others to the door, and the one that was chosen would stay behind.
Then I’d instruct her, tell her what Elvis liked and didn’t like. I’d tell her that if things worked out in a way she decided she wanted to stay the night—and I knew they’d already decided, or they wouldn’t be there—that there might be some things she would want to know. I told them Elvis always liked to eat in bed, so I’d set a sort of table on the bed. I’d tell them Elvis always ate and slept in pajamas and that I’d left some of his pajama tops in the bathroom, just for them. And I’d tell them Elvis insisted everybody around him be very clean, so they might want to take a shower before they put on the pajamas.
I told them they could order anything they wanted to eat, but Elvis hated the smell offish, so get whatever they wanted, but stay away from fish. I told them they should brush their teeth after they ate, that Elvis always did that, and that I put a new toothbrush in the bathroom for them. I’d always take a big batch of toothbrushes on the road with us, a big, double handful. I told them Elvis loved to have his back and shoulders rubbed. That was about it. I’d serve them, then I’d leave.
Priscilla would fly into Vegas on weekends. They would stay in the four-bedroom presidential suite on the 30th floor of their hotel. I’d have to take Priscilla’s dresses out of the suite when she was away and write down where each dress was hung and its color because she wanted them kept in a certain order. I’d move them back when she was about to come in. Priscilla knew what was going on, but she couldn’t prove it, and so she had to ignore it. But if she came back the next week and those dresses were messed up, ooh, wow! It was bad!
“The kit” went everywhere with Elvis, and I was the guy designated to take care of it. If he went out for a drive, that meant I brought the kit. It had all kinds of uppers—Dexedrine, Black Beauties. Then you’ve got the Class-A Percodan, Demerol, codeine. There were barbiturates—Tuinal, Seconal, Nembutal, Carbital. Toward the end there was liquid Demerol. Needles. Plus he had money inside the kit—10 grand in a wallet—makeup, a driver’s license and a lot of jewelry.
Elvis started taking prescribed drugs from his mother while he was a young man, Antidepressants and uppers. She was depressed, always overweight and taking diet pills, and he just got them from her pill cabinet. Later, he’d justify it by saying, “I need it.” See, for every bit of drugs or whatever he took, there was always a reason. “I need this because I sprained my back,” or “I need this because I’ve got to rest tonight.” His daddy confronted him about it. He’d always just say, “I know what I’m doing. Use and abuse are two different things.”
A lot of big-money performers think it’s sort of fun to have a lot of servants hanging around all the time. There was a guy that ended up working for Elvis, helping me, but he didn’t have much of a job. Mainly, he went for stuff like hamburgers. We all called him Hamburger James.
Well, I’m in Elvis’s suite one day, and he yells out to me from his bathroom that somebody had been in his kit. He said some things were missing, some money and some pictures. Well, we all ran all over the place, and the only person we couldn’t find was Hamburger James.
Elvis was more than mad. He was in a wild rage. And it spread to everybody. See, Elvis also had some pictures in the kit. I didn’t look at them. I think they were pictures of Priscilla. Hamburger James took some of them too. So Elvis was hot. Man, was he hot. And everybody’s running around looking for Hamburger James. And somebody says, ” ‘I’ll bet he’s at the airport.”
We were in Las Vegas at the time. Elvis screams, “Get the car,” and we race out of the hotel and pile into a couple of cars. There were six or seven of us, and we’re driving like crazy because somebody found out that a plane is supposed to leave for Memphis in a few minutes.
We come screeching up to the airport, and everybody piles out. Several people were wearing guns in shoulder holsters, and they hadn’t put their coats on. Elvis is right there with us. Everybody is running to all the different counters and jumping up and down to look over the heads of the crowd, trying to find Hamburger James. Everybody in the place is freaking out. Women are grabbing their kids and hugging them while all these guys with guns run all over the place. Remember, this was Las Vegas in 1974. Stars like Elvis are protected in places like Las Vegas. Anyway, it all happened pretty fast.
Finally somebody runs up and says he found out the plane for Memphis is leaving the gate, so we all run like mad to get up there. The guys are all pounding on the glass, and Elvis runs up to the girl at the gate desk and starts yelling, “Stop that plane! Stop that plane!” She ignores him for a second or two, and then she starts to get a little hysterical and screams, “I can’t, I can’t!” Then Elvis pulls out a police badge, one of the bunch that he had been given over the years, and flashes it at her and yells, “I’m a federal officer. I said stop that plane!” Then she sees it’s Elvis, and she goes all buttery and starts kind of whimpering something like, “Oh, oh, oh, it’s youuuuu. It’s youuuu. Can I have your autograph? Ohhhh, Elvis.” And he’s yelling, “Stop that plane! I’m a federal officer, I tell you, and I want that plane stopped right now!” And she’s looking at him sort of funny, and he’s looking at her both mad and confused and kind of flattered all at once.
I never did understand why, but the plane stopped and pulled back up to the gate. They opened the door, and Elvis’s bodyguards ran down the aisles and there, in the back, was old Hamburger James, all huddled down and hiding. They dragged him right up the aisle, off the plane and out of the airport. He was wailing and crying and trying to get away. Some of the guys are punching him once in a while to try to get him to be quiet. I’m sure he thought they were going to take him out in the desert somewhere and dig him a grave.
We race back to the hotel, and Elvis’s people drag Hamburger James into the elevator, up to Elvis’s suite and throw him down on the couch. Elvis walks up, and the crowd of people kind of parts. Hamburger James is sobbing like crazy and scared to death. Elvis walks up in front of him. And then leans down and picks up a big, heavy coffee table. He doesn’t say anything. He’s dead quiet. I’m thinking, oh, he’s going to murder him! He’s going to smash him in the head with that table. How are we ever going to talk our way out of this?
But Elvis puts the table down to one side. Then he walks up to Hamburger James, and he looks at him real cold and quiet. Then Elvis reaches over while Hamburger James is looking straight at him, scared to death, and slaps him twice. Like in the movies, A slap, and then a backhand. Pow! Then pow! again. Then the most amazing thing happened. Hamburger James got a funny look on his face and wilted like a baby. He cried and cried. Like his heart was broken. He said he was sorry he stole, and he would give it all back, and he knew that he had done something that he couldn’t ever be forgiven for.
Elvis looked at him for a minute. And then he broke down and started crying too. He just sobbed and sobbed. He went down on his knees in front of Hamburger James and said he was sorry. He kept saying to him, “Why didn’t you let me know if you needed money? Why didn’t you let me know if you wanted to go back to Memphis? I would have given you money. You didn’t have to steal from me.” They cried and cried like that for a long time, and Elvis kept telling Hamburger James that he didn’t have to leave, that he could keep his job and everything. But Hamburger James wanted to go, so Elvis gave him a few weeks’ salary and somebody took him back to the airport. Elvis wanted to be a tough guy, but he couldn’t, really.
He always seemed to care. He seemed to care about people, and his acts of generosity toward complete strangers were something else. I can remember children in wheelchairs coming backstage before a concert and Elvis being so visibly moved and shaken. We would really wonder if he was going to be able to sing.
What people don’t understand is that Elvis was suffering a lot toward the end. Some of the people closest to him had, he felt, let him down and hurt him terribly. He had the trouble between Priscilla and him, the trouble with other girlfriends, a book was written by some of his bodyguards, and some things were said about his drug use and other problems. That hurt him, And drugs. Drugs were everywhere. In the latter part of his life they started taking complete control. He couldn’t think or act straight anymore.
When he’d fall out of bed in the morning, there was a handful of uppers and he’d chase it down with coffee. I’d have to order three breakfasts because he’d get so out of it on those uppers, he’d be rattling and talking, and the food would get cold. About halfway into the meal I’d have to have another one sitting over there ready. He’d get wired like that, and they’d give him Valium or something like that later in the day to take the edge off. Then just before he went onstage, the doctors would give him uppers. Then when he came off the stage, they’d give him something to calm him down, and then they’d give him something else to go to sleep.
Sometimes Elvis would get so out of it that during a meal he would be sitting there and he’d be nodding off, and you’d always have to watch him because he’d get a piece of hamburger meat hung in his throat. On more than one occasion, I had to go in while he was choking in bed and reach down his throat and pull stuff out. Pound on his chest, And it was sad, you know. I mean, this guy’s 19 years older than me, and I’m holding him up, and I’d put my arms around him. “You okay, boss? You sure? Drink some water.” He was just like a little bitty kid.
His health was practically ruined by his life-style. Elvis had real bad eating habits. Everybody was always trying to get him to lose weight, but they had to be careful about making suggestions, or he’d get mad. So they’d do it sort of indirectly, like making sure he’d be within earshot when they’d say something to somebody else, like, “I had a friend who lost a lot of weight eating yogurt.” So maybe later Elvis would start eating yogurt. He’d get those little containers of yogurt with fruit, but it didn’t work because he’d eat maybe 20 of them at a time, and he kept on doing whatever else he was doing too.
The same thing happened with peaches. He got on a peach craze, and he’d eat peaches all day and all night. I’d find the pits everywhere. Sometimes he’d just throw them on the floor.
He got to be about 250 lbs. It had gotten to where we would have to take giant spools of Saran Wrap, giant ones, and wrap him to hold his stomach in Which made it almost impossible for him to breathe. In the latter part of his life, he was not really hitting many notes. He was just mouthing them, going through the motions.
On his last night alive I had just gotten off the phone with my girlfriend, Robyn. Throughout the years she would encourage me to give up drugs, and she said that, when she hung up the phone, she was going to pray that something would happen to turn my life around. Then I went upstairs and sat down on the bed with Elvis. He pulled the reading glasses down over his nose—he wore the kind that look like they are cut in half—and he flipped the side of his glasses in his mouth. He really looked kind of cool to me ’cause his sideburns hadn’t been dyed yet, and he had gray in them. He was pretty mellowed out. He did seem to be very, very tired, not physically but emotionally spent.
As we sat and talked for a while, he handed me a piece of paper, the outline of the book written by his ex-bodyguards. It talked about his drug use. He asked me two questions. He said, “What’s Lisa Marie going to think about this?” and I didn’t have much of an answer. I just said, “Well, she’s your daughter. I’m sure she’ll love you.” And then he asked me about the fans. “What’re the fans going to think about this?” and without even thinking, I was able to say, “Well, they love you no matter what.”
We talked for a little while, and I told him about the conversation with Robyn. How I was going to get off drugs, you know, get my life straightened up, that type of thing. I could tell he wanted his medication, his sleeping pills, pretty soon.
I use the word medication because if you say the word drugs, people think crack and heroin, which he never used. I’d brought up a package of medication, pills that were just to the right of the steps [to the bedroom] in a cabinet. There were packages in there that Elvis called the attack packs because that’s what he wanted them to do, “attack” him, knock him out.
We’re sitting there and talking, and I’m telling him about Robyn and the advice she’d been giving me over the years. Elvis had met her and he liked her, thought she was a nice kid. “I really think she’s giving you good advice, Rick,” he told me. “I think she’s somebody that really cares.”
He talked for a while longer. A tour was starting the next day, and he was not excited about it at all. When I was leaving, Elvis told me, “I don’t want to be bothered, I don’t want to be disturbed.” To anybody that worked with Elvis, you knew that meant one of two things. He may be wanting to spend time with his girlfriend, Ginger. Or he wanted to sleep. But he let me know he didn’t want to be disturbed, and with Elvis, that was a firm command.
Many times I have seen Elvis get so out of it that he’d go in the bathroom and be sitting on the head, and he’d fall forward. I have had to go pick him up when that would happen, Many times. And that’s my theory on the death of Elvis. See, that shag carpet’s thick. Big, thick stuff, That night when he fell forward, being so overweight and out of it, he couldn’t lift himself, And he smothered in the rug.
If I’d gone back up there, I may have found him. But I was abusing drugs too…I think it’d be safe to say I had enough Demerol going through me right then to sedate Whitehaven [a Memphis suburb]. So instead, I went back to my own room and shot up.
I just pretty much went numb from then on out. As for my stepfather, when Elvis died, that was pretty much the end of our relationship. I was quickly asked to leave the mansion—”We don’t need you anymore,” is what Vernon said. He said he’d give me two weeks’ notice.
I had been making about $300 a week but hadn’t saved anything. I tried to get a job, worked briefly as a waiter, but nobody seemed to relish looking at my resume. When Elvis died, it was over for me. I had a little car that he had given me, and I went over to a couple of my buddies’ house, slept on their floor and thought of ways of ending it.
With the encouragement of Robyn Moye, his long-suffering girlfriend—and now his wife—Stanley emerged from his depression in October 1977, after a visit to an interdenominational church in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. “Everything in my life changed, “he says. “It was like a tremendous weight was lifted off me. “Now a Baptist minister, he spends much of his time talking to youth groups about the dangers of drugs and dreams of one day establishing a youth drug-treatment center in Elvis’s name. “Someone once said that the three words that had been heard all over the civilized world were Jesus, Elvis and Coca-Cola,” he says. “When you stop and think about using that fame for something good, well, then there’s a good ending. I think he would have liked that.”