Elvis Presley died 40 years ago this week — but as, over the decades, so many fans have continued to insist he is still alive, it’s become a commonplace joke that he’s been spotted on a ranch in Arizona, or on the check-out at Lidl in Nottingham, or even, as Kirsty MacColl sang, working in a local chip shop.
But what if he really hadn’t died, if his heart attack hadn’t been fatal? What would his past 40 years have looked like?
RAY CONNOLLY thinks the singer’s story might have gone something like this…
Had he been dreaming or had he been dying? He didn’t know. One minute he’d been at home in his Graceland bathroom reading a book about the imprint of Jesus’s face on the Shroud of Turin, which he’d then followed by a few pages of pornography.
The next thing he was aware of was coming round in a bed in the Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis and watching a TV headline news item about how the day before, August 16, 1977, he’d suffered a massive heart attack.
His life, the TV presenter was saying, had been saved when his 20-year-old girlfriend, asleep in his adjacent bedroom, had been woken by the sound of his unconscious body hitting the bathroom floor.
Long live the King: Elvis as he might look performing on stage with Adele
He’d been in this hospital before — drying out. This time, however, it was different. ‘Elvis,’ the cardiac surgeon told him, ‘with the way you’ve been abusing your body you shouldn’t be here today. The paramedics who brought you in had all but given you up for dead.’
Elvis didn’t reply. What he wanted to talk about was something that had happened to him in the hours while he’d been unconscious.
Because he’d met his mother, Gladys. Looking young and slim, she talked to him in the way she had when he was 12 years old, and she encouraged him to get a guitar for his birthday instead of the bicycle or hunting rifle he really wanted.
‘You could play it when you sing, and you know people like to hear your singing,’ she reminded him. Then she left, and he found himself unable to follow.
The doctor smiled as the singer told him of the encounter. ‘Your mother passed on many years ago, Elvis,’ he said. ‘The stuff we had to give you when you came in can cause hallucinations for a little while. It was just a dream. It’ll pass.’
Yet it hadn’t been a dream to Elvis. From the day his mother had died when he was 23, he’d never doubted that they would meet again. Seeing her had been a near-death experience. But she’d sent him back. Why?
He puzzled over the mystery for several weeks as the doctors went through their tasks of helping his heart repair itself while beginning a detoxification programme on his other badly damaged organs. Naturally, his father and cousins, current and past girlfriends and some of the guys who worked for him, came to visit.
And it was good to see his ex-wife Priscilla and nine-year-old daughter Lisa Marie, who flew in from Los Angeles. Priscilla, he couldn’t help but realise, had grown into a very bright, sophisticated woman in the five years since their divorce.
Elvis Presley died 40 years ago this week — but as, over the decades, so many fans have continued to insist he is still alive, it’s become a commonplace joke that he’s been spotted on a ranch in Arizona
His manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, came, too — wearing a Hawaiian shirt and pulling some papers out of a plastic document holder and stretching out a hand with a pen in it.
Feigning tiredness, Elvis didn’t read or sign the contracts. His mother had never trusted the man, and it was she who was now dominating his thoughts. Besides, he needed time to think.
Every day the nurses were bringing him ‘get well’ telegrams and newspaper reports of how his near-death had been received with dismay and then relief among his musical peers around the world.
The only press reports he’d seen in recent years had been jokes about his weight as comedians called him the ‘Singing Cheeseburger’, or insults as critics had blasted his drug-addled concerts. Locked inside the cage of fame, he’d come to assume that all the newer guys, such as the Eagles and Led Zeppelin and David Bowie, had been laughing at him, too, as a sad middle-aged relic of another time. He was 42, after all.
But the cards and letters from people such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Neil Young and Elton John told a different story. Apparently they still revered him. He was astonished.
Then, one day, he had a surprise visitor. It was guitarist Scotty Moore, alongside whom he’d started his career. His mother had always liked Scotty, so he asked him what the meaning of her appearance might have been?
‘It seems to me she came to tell you that it wasn’t your time yet,’ Scotty hazarded. ‘That you still had work to do, and were being given a second chance.’
‘A second chance?’ Elvis repeated. That was it. He would start again following Gladys’s code of conduct. But it wouldn’t be like before when, as a singing cash- cow for the Colonel, he’d sleep-walked through a couple of dozen beach boy movies he’d hated and sung songs in them that he’d loathed.
There would be no rhinestone white suits either — Priscilla had never liked those. Nor would there be the Memphis Mafia entourage. If he wasn’t touring or in Vegas, he wouldn’t need them. That night he instructed a nurse to dump all the contracts the Colonel had left with him in the hospital incinerator.
When he was finally fit to return home to Graceland, he asked lawyers to begin to unravel his deal with a very angry Colonel. Owing millions in gambling debts, the manager needed Elvis as a working client. But Gladys had finally won that battle.
But what if he really hadn’t died, if his heart attack hadn’t been fatal? What would his past 40 years have looked like? Pictured at his wedding to Priscilla
Then in early summer 1978, his hair now no longer dyed black but returning to its natural brown, though flecked with much grey, he drove himself the 200 miles to Nashville to join Scotty in a small rented studio.
In his hand was a demo record of a song called Fire that he’d been sent by Bruce Springsteen just before his heart attack. For two decades all songwriters had been told by the Colonel’s publishing men they would have to give up some of their royalties if they wanted Elvis to record them.
But that side-deal wouldn’t operate any more. Elvis would sing exactly what he wanted to, and Fire was sexy rock ’n’ roll. When he’d finished, he turned to Dolly Parton’s country hit I Will Always Love You.
He’d wanted to record that three years earlier but had been talked out of it when Dolly refused to give up some of her royalties. He didn’t blame her. Then there was 500 Miles, which he and Priscilla used to sing when they had friends over for dinner, and You Are My Sunshine. That had been the first song he’d ever sung in public — as a duet with a little girl in junior school.
Ol’ Man River was there, too, with its line ‘he don’t plant taters, he don’t plant cotton . . .’, which always reminded him of his mother reminiscing about how when he’d been a baby she pulled him along the row on a blanket when she went picking cotton.
It was his most personal album ever and when it was released just a year after his heart attack it became his biggest seller since the Fifties.
For years he’d struggled to find good material, but now all the top writers wanted him to sing their songs, provided they weren’t being ripped off any more. So when Freddie Mercury sent him Crazy Little Thing Called Love, it meant that he, and not Queen, had the hit single.
The hits just kept coming as top musicians, including Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, queued up to play with him.
The hits just kept coming as top musicians, including Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, queued up to play with him, Roy Connolly imagines
He’d always felt he’d failed in Hollywood, with producers having dropped him in the late Sixties when the public had bored of the girls, sand and songs formula of Blue Hawaii.
But he now found that film folk soon developed amnesia when money was in the air, and a big break came when he was chosen over Harrison Ford to play the cop in Witness. Ford, it seemed, was considered too much of a Star Wars man.
Other movies followed. Naturally, there were disappointments. The decision to cast him alongside Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman might have flattered his ego in 1990, but the age difference between the two stars dampened the box office figures. He was 54 by then. She was 23. The rumours around Hollywood were that the producers should have gone for Richard Gere.
But his part in Shawshank Redemption alongside Morgan Freeman in 1994 was a wiser choice, and won him an Oscar nomination. Altogether the mid-Nineties were great Elvis years when he was asked to sing, not only at the Super Bowl, but also at the White House for fellow southerner and fan, President Bill Clinton.
This being Elvis, there were, of course, always girls, often beauty queens — decades too young for him. So, not everything changed. But, with Priscilla now an actress and having appeared on TV in Dallas and then in the Naked Gun movies, and Lisa Marie growing up in Los Angeles, he finally found himself spending more time in California.
It meant he could stay close to his daughter, too, which was just as well, when he had to use all his powers of persuasion to talk her out of marrying Michael Jackson — Elvis having been responsible for introducing the two when Lisa Marie had been just six years old.
As for Priscilla, she may have had other relationships after their divorce and had even remarried, but he’d always had the feeling that somehow she was still his, that marriage was for life.
Always generous to the point of carelessness, he decided soon after his heart attack to fund the Elvis Presley Clinic For Addiction in Memphis — a more useful place, he believed, to put the half of his earnings that Colonel Parker had been gambling away in Las Vegas.
Almost inevitably, his funding gave his detractors cause for wry amusement when, after a romantic upset with a swimwear model, he once found himself turning up there as a short-stay patient.
For years he’d wanted to come to Britain, but he was 45 before he finally arrived here, not singing, but just as a regular tourist.
These days, aged 82, it seems he’s hardly ever away, sitting among Wimbledon tennis-goers, and teasing Tom Jones on Later . . . With Jools Holland that his version of Prince’s song Kiss sold more than Tom’s. He even appeared on The Graham Norton Show, although he did look uncomfortable when the conversation lingered for too long on sex. He wasn’t brought up to talk about sex when ladies were present.
Back in 1975, he’d found turning 40 emotionally crippling and stayed in his bedroom at Graceland all day, but reaching 60 and then 70 and even 80, was no problem.
Scotty Moore’s death last year was a blow, but this winter Elvis will be on stage again with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, on tours in which Priscilla, now his best friend, is the executive producer.
What he still enjoys most of all, though, is a big crowd, and his appearance in the legends slot at the next Glastonbury festival is certain to give him that — when, we’re told, he’s already planning a duet of Islands In The Stream with Adele.
All of which isn’t bad for a man who really should have died 40 years ago.
Ray Connolly’s biography Being Elvis: A Lonely Life is out now in paperback from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.