Elvis Presley

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Elvis Presley : biography

8 January 1935 – 16 August 1977

Memphis Mafia

In the early 1960s, the circle of friends with whom Presley constantly surrounded himself until his death came to be known as the "Memphis Mafia". "Surrounded by the[ir] parasitic presence", as journalist John Harris puts it, "it was no wonder that as he slid into addiction and torpor, no-one raised the alarm: to them, Elvis was the bank, and it had to remain open." Tony Brown, who played piano for Presley regularly in the last two years of the singer’s life, observed his rapidly declining health and the urgent need to address it: "But we all knew it was hopeless because Elvis was surrounded by that little circle of people … all those so-called friends". In the Memphis Mafia’s defense, Marty Lacker has said, "[Presley] was his own man. … If we hadn’t been around, he would have been dead a lot earlier."

Larry Geller became Presley’s hairdresser in 1964. Unlike others in the Memphis Mafia, he was interested in spiritual questions and recalls how, from their first conversation, Presley revealed his secret thoughts and anxieties: "I mean there has to be a purpose … there’s got to be a reason … why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley. … I swear to God, no one knows how lonely I get. And how empty I really feel." Thereafter, Geller supplied him with books on religion and mysticism, which the singer read voraciously. Presley would be preoccupied by such matters for much of his life, taking trunkloads of books with him on tour.

Life and career

Early years (1935–53)

Childhood in Tupelo

Elvis Presley was born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, to 18-year-old Vernon Elvis and 22-year-old Gladys Love Presley, in the two-room shotgun house built by his father in readiness for the birth. Jesse Garon Presley, his identical twin brother, was delivered stillborn 35 minutes before him. As an only child, Presley became close to both parents and formed an unusually tight bond with his mother. The family attended an Assembly of God church, where he found his initial musical inspiration.

Presley’s ancestry was primarily a Western European mix: on his mother’s side, he was Scots-Irish, with some French Norman; one of Gladys’ great-great-grandmothers was Cherokee. His father’s forebears were of Scottish and German origin. Gladys was regarded by relatives and friends as the dominant member of the small family. Vernon moved from one odd job to the next, evidencing little ambition. The family often relied on help from neighbors and government food assistance. In 1938, they lost their home after Vernon was found guilty of altering a check written by the landowner. He was jailed for eight months, and Gladys and Elvis moved in with relatives.

In September 1941, Presley entered first grade at East Tupelo Consolidated, where his instructors regarded him as "average". He was encouraged to enter a singing contest after impressing his schoolteacher with a rendition of Red Foley’s country song "Old Shep" during morning prayers. The contest, held at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show on October 3, 1945, was his first public performance: dressed as a cowboy, the ten-year-old Presley stood on a chair to reach the microphone and sang "Old Shep". He recalled placing fifth. A few months later, Presley received his first guitar for his birthday; he had hoped for something else—by different accounts, either a bicycle or a rifle. Over the following year, he received basic guitar lessons from two of his uncles and the new pastor at the family’s church. Presley recalled, "I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it."

Entering a new school, Milam, for sixth grade in September 1946, Presley was regarded as a loner. The following year, he began bringing his guitar in on a daily basis. He played and sang during lunchtime, and was often teased as a "trashy" kid who played hillbilly music. The family was by then living in a largely African-American neighborhood. A devotee of Mississippi Slim’s show on the Tupelo radio station WELO, Presley was described as "crazy about music" by Slim’s younger brother, a classmate of Presley’s, who often took him into the station. Slim supplemented Presley’s guitar tuition by demonstrating chord techniques. When his protégé was 12 years old, Slim scheduled him for two on-air performances. Presley was overcome by stage fright the first time, but succeeded in performing the following week.