By Steve Beard
Long live the King! Fully twenty-five years after his tragic death, Elvis Presley still enjoys remarkable world-wide popularity. He has been immortalized to the next generation of kiddies in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch movie, locks of his hair were auctioned off for mega-bucks by a former hair stylist, and notable authors such as Bobbie Ann Mason and Alanna Nash continue to write books about him. Not surprisingly, Elvis tops the Forbes Magazine “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” list at the $40 million mark. The Sun Studios session that created Elvis’ debut single was recently named as the key world-changing moment in music history by the readers of Mojo, the hipper-than-thou British magazine.
There have been two major reissues of his hits with Elvis: 30 #1 Hits and Elvis: Second to None. The #1 Hits album debuted at the top of the charts all over the world–including the United Arab Emirates. The album sold more than a million copies in its first three weeks–staving off competition from the Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, Beck, and India.Arie. Elvis may have left the building, but apparently his fans have not.
In order to celebrate the #1 Hits debut, NBC ran an hour special called “Elvis Lives,” which included performances from artists such as No Doubt and Dave Matthews and running commentary that ranged from the bizarre (Britney Spears) to the brilliant (Bono). The show featured Elvis as a sex symbol, racial renegade, and the prime mover of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it. The one thing they clumsily left out was Elvis’s zealous quest for God.
This kind of awkward omission would have baffled anyone with a deep knowledge of Elvis. Despite the fact that he is most well known for swiveling his hips, Presley was most obsessed with seeking God.
When Elvis rolled into Jacksonville, Florida, on August 10, 1956, Judge Marion Gooding had prepared an arrest warrant for Presley charging him with impairing the morals of minors in the event that Elvis swiveled his hips.
Young people at the Murray Hill Methodist Church heard Elvis denounced in a sermon entitled, “Hotrods, Reefers, and Rock and Roll.” Elsewhere in town, the Rev. Robert Gray, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, offered up prayers for Presley’s salvation after declaring that the singer had “achieved a new low in spiritual degeneracy.”
The Rev. Gray gained national notoriety after being featured in Life magazine. Elvis later confessed frustration at the Baptist preacher’s actions. “I think that hurt me more than anything else at first. This man was supposed to be a religious leader, yet he acted that way without ever knowing who I was or what I was like,” said Presley. “I believe in the Bible. I believe that all good things come from God.…I don’t believe I’d sing the way I do if God hadn’t wanted me to. My voice is God’s will, not mine.”
Elvis’s spiritual journey is a key ingredient to understanding the triumphs and struggles of one of the most pivotal figures in American pop culture. As a young man, Presley was raised in poverty and southern Pentecostalism. He attended a conservative Assemblies of God church, but would often sneak off in the middle of the service to listen to the preaching and singing at a black church less than a mile away. Elvis loved gospel music and dreamed of singing it professionally before his own career took off in the mid 1950s.
Elvis’s devoutness extended far beyond his love of gospel music. “We used to read the Bible every night, if you can believe that-he used to read aloud to me and then talk about it,” testifies Dottie Harmony, who dated Elvis in 1956. “He was very religious-there was nothing phony about that at all.”
In those early days, Elvis was not shy about speaking forthrightly about his religious beliefs and his hopes that God would lead his path. “I never expected to be anybody important. Maybe I’m not now, but whatever I am, whatever I will become will be what God has chosen for me,” he told Photoplay magazine in 1957.
Despite the fame and fortune that he had acquired, he struggled to find his way through the fast-lane living afforded him at such a young age.
After the Easter service at First Assembly of God in Memphis in 1958, the Rev. James Hamill says that Elvis told him, “Pastor, I’m the most miserable young man you’ve ever seen. I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need to spend. I’ve got millions of fans. I’ve got friends. But I’m doing what you taught me not to do, and I’m not doing the things you taught me to do.”
This struggle hounded Elvis throughout his life. No less than the Apostle Paul spoke of it this way: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep doing” (Romans 7:19).
Elvis told his friend Pat Boone, “I wish I could go to church like you.” After Boone told him he could, Elvis replied, “No, they wouldn’t leave me alone. I would distract the minister.” Acknowledged that potential difficulty, Boone assured Elvis that “if they see that you are coming for the same reason that they are, all of that would ease away and you could actually worship freely like everybody else. And it would do you a world of good, Elvis.” According to Boone, Elvis “felt like he couldn’t go anywhere in public. So he was sort of inprisoned. I felt like he lived like Public Enemy #1 instead of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It stunted his social and spiritual growth.”
Spiritual exploration in the 1960s
Like so many other young Americans during the 1960s, Elvis explored exotic Eastern religions and experimented with drugs while reading Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience. He was, by all accounts, an eccentric religious seeker on turbodrive. He seemed to have every earthly pleasure at his disposal, yet he had an insatiable intellectual and spiritual hunger for the mystical and supernatural.
One man who seemed to tap into that spiritual desire was a 24-year-old hairdresser named Larry Geller who told Elvis that he was most interested in discovering “where we come from, why we are here, and where we are going.” Geller told Elvis: “If there is purpose…then my purpose is to discover my purpose. It doesn’t matter to me if that takes years or a lifetime. That’s what we are born to do.”
This was the key to unlocking Elvis’s attention. “Whoa, whoa, man. Larry, I don’t believe it. I mean, what you’re talking about is what I secretly think about all the time,” said Presley.
Geller was asking the kind of transcendent questions that Elvis was not getting with the Memphis Mafia–his team of security and advance people. Elvis saw through the shallowness of stardom but was a prisoner to his own success. He hungered for more out of life and became obsessed with his destiny and purpose.
Under the tutelage of Geller, Elvis began to devour books on Hinduism, Judaism, numerology, Theosophy, positive thinking, the new-age, meditation, and Christianity. This sent Elvis off into a whole different spiritual direction and it did not sit well with those in his inner circle.
Although Elvis explored and researched many different religions and practices, he never abandoned or rejected his beliefs about Christianity. He was a true believer, but he also had the appetite of a spiritually-starved seeker. In one conversation with Geller, Elvis stated, “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.”
Throughout Presley’s life, gospel music was the constant element of solace to man who was burning the candle at both ends in the fast lane of international celebrity. The only Grammy Awards that Elvis earned were with his gospel records. To many fans, he is as well known for “How Great Thou Art” as he is for “Blue Suede Shoes.”
Elvis owed a lot to gospel music and was stubbornly adamant about showing his gratitude. He was one of the only rock and roll stars who recorded religious music-crossing back and forth over the divide between the secular and the sacred. He insisted on singing “Peace in the Valley” on the Ed Sullivan Show for his mother and even took gospel music into the International Hotel in Las Vegas, despite protests from the management.
Glimpses of the sacred in Vegas
It was the Vegas years in the 1970s, however, that seemed to drain so much of Elvis’s vibrancy. Presley struggled with womanizing, pill-popping, reclusivity, and uncontrollable weight gain. He turned to uppers, downers and pain killers to dull the ache of depression and loneliness. Fame was a harsh taskmaster and Elvis and his entire entourage knew it.
As if to reconnect with his childhood faith, Elvis hired gospel groups such as the Imperials, the Sweet Inspirations, and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps to sing back-up for him while he was in Las Vegas. Surrounded by all of the glittery temptations that Vegas had to offer, Elvis seemed to be seeking to provide a glimpse of the sacred–for his audience, as well as for himself.
It would be a mistake to describe what went on in the Vegas shows as a revival meeting under neon lights. Nevertheless, Presley appeared to be hungering for the security and peace that he found in the faith of his childhood and was persistent to use his stature to ensure that he was able to play by his own rules.
Gospel singer J.D. Sumner recalls a woman approaching the stage in Vegas with a crown sitting atop a pillow and Elvis asking her what it was. She answered, “It’s for you. You’re the King.” Elvis took her hand, smiled, and told her, “No honey, I’m not the King. Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.”
In December 1976, Elvis requested that television evangelist Rex Humbard and his wife Maude Aimee meet with him backstage in Las Vegas in between sets. “Jesus is coming back really soon, isn’t he, Rex?” Elvis said as he began quoting all kinds of Scriptures about the Second Coming. “It really shocked me that Elvis knew all of those Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about the Lord’s return,” Humbard told me in an interview.
Elvis, Maude Aimee, Rex and J.D. Sumner were sequestered into a large closet in order to have some privacy and speak about spiritual matters. “I could see he was reaching back to his childhood when he used to play his guitar and go to church and sing church songs,” recalled Humbard. “And I could see he was reaching back to the past–that spirituality, that feeling that he had years and years before that had been planted in his heart.”
What really shook Elvis up during their time together was when Maude Aimee told Elvis about her prayer that he would become a “bell sheep” for God. As Elvis asked her about what that meant, she explained: “In the Holy Land, they put a bell on one sheep and when it moves all the rest of the flock moves with him. I have been praying for years for you, Elvis, that you would become a bell sheep. If you fully dedicated your life to God you could lead millions of people into the kingdom of the Lord.” According to Humbard, “Elvis went all to pieces. He started crying. She shook him up by that statement.”
As the four of them held hands and prayed, “he rededicated his heart to the Lord,” recalled Humbard. “I asked God to bless him and to send His spirit into his heart and meet his every need.” Right after their prayer time, Maude Aimee went to the hotel gift shop and purchased a symbolic bell with a little diamond in it. During the evening’s second show, Elvis held up the small bell and smiled to Maude Aimee and then dedicated “How Great Thou Art” to the Humbards.
The prayers of Elvis’s final days
“Elvis recommitted his life to Jesus Christ on that night,” says Rick Stanley, Elvis’s stepbrother. “Elvis knew the Lord. He was a modern day King David,” he told me in an interview. Stanley believes that, like King David of the Bible, Presley was a man who pursued God, yet stumbled often into the sins of the flesh.
On the day before Presley died, Stanley told Elvis that a friend of his was telling him about Jesus and how she was praying for him. “Elvis Presley, at 42 years old, looked at me and said, ‘Ricky, she’s telling you the truth.’ Then he said, ‘People who talk to you about Jesus really care.’ I talked with Elvis for a while … then left to run an errand.” When he returned to Graceland, Elvis was dead.
On the night of his death, Elvis prayed, “Dear Lord, please show me a way. I’m tired and confused, and I need your help.” A few minutes later, he looked at Stanley and said, “Rick, we should all begin to live for Christ.” On the previous day, Stanley heard Elvis praying, “God, forgive me for my sins. Let…people…have compassion and understanding of the things I have done.”
Elvis was not a saint, and no one knew that better than Presley himself. He was an enigma who touched a nerve in American culture. There is, of course, no one on the planet that can attract 70,000 fans to his gravesite to recognize the 25th anniversary of his death. While there, fans recited the Lord’s Prayer, repeated the 23rd Psalm, and joined together in singing “How Great Thou Art.”
Can 70,000 fans be wrong? Sure, but these fans were not. Granted, there are small numbers of fanatics who decorate their houses with black velvet Elvis paintings and ceramic busts of The King. Nevertheless, the vast majority of fans are simply people who are grateful for the joy that Presley was able to bring into their lives through his movies and music.
Did he stumble and fall? Yes, quite often. Like so many other famous men of his era such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, Presley was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Unlike Jesus, they were not able to resist the lures of the flesh, but we should not dismiss their contributions. Admittedly, it is sometimes easier to judge someone according to an offending snapshot of their life than to view it as an entire movie, filled with triumphs and failures.
Each one of us, who are not afforded the smorgasbord of temptation that a man like Elvis faced, must endeavor with fear and trembling to be in the world and yet not of it–no small challenge.
Throughout his career, Elvis was a seeker after God. Sometimes that journey led him into more confusion, but he hungered to know God and experience his love. And he prayed with contrition. Not bad lessons of us.
When he died, Elvis had 14 different drugs active in his system. There are plenty of lessons to be gleaned from Elvis’s tragic life but they should be absorbed through the prism of sorrow and grace.
If one looks at Elvis as a prodigal son, there is good reason to believe that he died on his journey back to the Father’s House.
At the funeral for Elvis Presley, the main address was given by the Rev. C.W. Bradley, minister of the Wooddale Church of Christ in Memphis. He spoke of Elvis’s determination, decency, and his love of family. Bradley also acknowledged that Elvis was a “frail human being” and that “he would be the first to admit his weakness. Perhaps because of his rapid rise to fame and fortune he was thrown into temptations that some never experience. Elvis would not want anyone to think that he had no flaws or faults. But now that he’s gone, I find it more helpful to remember his good qualities, and I hope you do too.”
The way in which a person dies is not always the best way to remember the contribution he or she made while they lived. All of us have seasons of our lives that we would sooner forget–whether we were on drugs, in prison, or living the life of a prodigal. It is a worthwhile endeavor to work on extending mercy to others in the same way that we trust the good Lord will extend it to us. We could all use a little trip to “graceland,” even when we are remembering Elvis.
Steve Beard is the creator and curator of Thunderstruck.org. This article is adapted from “Defending Elvis,” published by Risen Magazine.