“This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” Elvis Presley told reporters on the set of his film “Raceway” in 1967. His wife Priscilla had told him that they were going to have a baby. As he handed out cigars to the cast and crew, he said, “I was so shocked I didn’t think I could move for a while.”
I recalled Elvis’ reaction while watching the livestreamed memorial service today for Lisa Marie Presley at Graceland. Although she knew of her dad’s undying love for her, she was not aware of his exact comments until decades later when she saw them highlighted at a Graceland exhibit. “I had never seen [the quote] before,” she said in a 2018 video interview, “last night was the first time I saw it, so that was really cool.”
“I knew there was a great love there,” she added. “There was a really strong connection there since the minute I can remember. It kind of reinstates what I felt was the truth, which is that I felt like I was the most important thing to him.”
When Elvis saw Lisa Marie for the first time at the hospital, “he was already in love with her,” Priscilla wrote in her memoir Elvis and Me. “He watched me holding her and his eyes misted with happiness.”
Growing up in the glare of the showbiz limelight was understandably dizzying, exciting, and torturous for Lisa Marie. There were self-destructive habits that had to be dealt with while she was under the relentless gaze of tabloid paparazzi. As the only child of a musical icon, there was both heartbreak and euphoria. Although she recorded three albums, Lisa Marie was circumspect about recording music because she knew the inevitable comparisons with her father would be difficult to maneuver. At the same time, she found both expression and comfort in music.
The sacred stirring of the Tennessee Mass Choir led by Jason Clark bookended the Sunday morning service to celebrate Lisa Marie’s life. Guest performers included both Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Alanis Morrissette. Additionally, it is hard to imagine another scenario where a legendary Southern gospel quartet like the Blackwood Brothers would be following Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose on stage, but it seemed to make sense with Graceland as a backdrop.
When she was young, Lisa Marie loved The Sweet Inspirations (Elvis’s back-up singers), as well as Heart, Linda Ronstadt, Pat Benatar, and Aretha Franklin. She adored the Jackson 5, the Partridge Family, Elton John, and Queen. “The Wall” from Pink Floyd, however, was the album that spoke most viscerally to her teenage angst. In a twist of fate, she was also there with Eddie Vedder, Steve Jones, and Rob Zombie when punk rock legend Johnny Ramone died in 2004 at his home from cancer.
Music was always in the air for Lisa Marie at Graceland. “He’d always wake me up to sing in the middle of the night, get on the table and sing,” Lisa Marie recalled of her time with her dad. Memphis held a special place in her heart. The rules were suspended and it was a huge playground for her. In the week after her untimely death, Sirius XM’s Elvis channel replayed a previous interview with Lisa Marie about her memories of Graceland. “There was lots of mischief. There were golf cart convoys, motorcycles, fireworks, firecracker wars, snowmobiling, sledding and horseback riding … and we all had a lot of fun doing that sort of stuff, getting into mischief and having fun. It was incredible.”
The memorial service was punctuated by musical performances and emotional moments from Priscilla, as well as Jerry Schilling – Elvis’s close friend – who was at the hospital in Memphis for her birth, as well as in Los Angeles at her death. “I will always love you,” he said.
Perhaps the most heart-melting moment occurred during the reading of a note written by Lisa Marie’s daughter Riley Keough: “I remember the way you would cuddle me … and the way you smelled. I remember you singing to me and my brother lullabies at night… I remember how it felt to be loved by the most loving mother I’ve known… Thank you for showing me that love is the only thing that matters in this life… Thank you for trying so hard for us. If I didn’t tell you every day, thank you.”
AC Wharton, the former mayor of Memphis, pointed out that they were memorializing a special hometown girl. “Lisa Marie was all Memphis. She belonged to us, and we belonged to her,” he said. “We saw her deal with the weight of fame and the weight of grief… Today we celebrate her love. We admire her artistry. We embrace her family. And we recognize the strength and … the sheer force of will it took for Lisa to keep on climbing.”
Wharton tenderly concluded, “As her body finds rest at Graceland, as her soul – by grace – takes flight, her spirit will live in the collective memory of a city that loved her tenderly, loved her sweetly, and loved her truly.”
Thankfully, Lisa Marie was able to see Austin Butler’s memorable portrayal of her dad in the new Elvis film. “Thank you for opening your hearts, your memories, your home to me,” Butler said to the Presley family after winning his Golden Globe award. “Lisa Marie, Priscilla, I love you forever.”
Sadly, that would be her final public appearance.
Lisa Marie was buried in the Meditation Garden at Graceland next to her son Benjamin and not far away from her father. “She was the most passionate strong and loving woman I have ever known,” said Priscilla. As a proud father, I know that Elvis would have echoed that praise.