THE MOST INSIGHTFUL HISTORY OF ELVIS PRESLEY EVER WRITTEN
Elvis’ religious background was in a fundamentalist, evangelical church, the Pentecostal First Assembly of God. His great uncle Gains Mansell, married to Gladys’ Aunt Ada, had built the small wooden church where Elvis learned his early faith. He was raised to believe in the infallibility of the Bible, with its dual promises of reward and punishment for one’s deeds and the ultimate return of Jesus.
“I’ll tell ya, Larry, I’ve always believed in God, but my church really turned me off,” Elvis said. “I always knew there was a truth to my religion, and somehow I never lost faith in God, despite those ol’ preachers tryin’ to make people feel guilty for things they never done. I always knew that deep inside me there were answers that went beyond their rigid old closed minds.”
“The first time I ever heard about the Almighty I Am was from my mom when I was a little kid. She believed in the supernatural and the Holy Spirit. She was mystical, man. She just naturally knew things. She raised me on it.”
When Elvis’ father, Vernon, not a religious man, took his son to his first movie, the innocent “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” it was their secret, not to be shared with Gladys. She would have disapproved very strongly of her son going against the strictures of the church, which forbade attendance at motion pictures. Considering Elvis’ later involvement with the movie industry, it’s interesting to note that it was the discovery of this forbidden medium that was the first fissure in his relationship with the church of his youth. He was at the naturally rebellious age of thirteen, but he was also realizing for the first time that the preachers were humans whose teachings were colored by their own personal values and opinions. What was so bad about a funny movie? Was it indeed evil—and was he evil for seeing it?
“They said movies were the work of the devil. But after I saw “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with my daddy, I knew somebody had to be wrong. And it for sure wasn’t Abbott and Costello.” Elvis’ eyes sparkled. “Man, I loved that movie. We laughed all the way through it.”
He turned serious again. “I’ll never forget that movie. You know, there’s got to be something wrong with a religion where everything you like is a sin. Man, that congregation would jump up and down, stomp their feet, and get themselves worked up to a frenzy. It really got wild. And there was the preacher threatening us with Satan. It used to scare me half –to death. He would march across the platform, screaming bloody murder, yelling about hellfire and damnation, fire and brimstone. I guess he was afraid God wouldn’t hear him if he didn’t yell.
“But something good did come out of it. All that dancin’ and the free movement, it taught me that God is natural, and to move my body was natural. I give credit to my church for that. You know, I took a lot of heat when my career first took off. They said I was ‘controversial.’ And there were some preachers who actually said that my music was dirty, and I was leading the kids to hell. They even had a bonfire and burned my records and albums. Can you imagine that? Hell, all I did was what came naturally—what I learned when I was a little kid in church, movin’ my body to the music.”
“Do you know what my mom’s middle name was?”
I shook my head.
“Love…Gladys Love Presley.” I could hear in his voice the depth of meaning that this had for him. He sighed. “Larry, my mom and dad suffered plenty, slavin’ their damn lives away. I’ll never forget that, never. That must be true spirituality, don’t you think?”
“No question about it, Elvis.”
“I can tell you this, my family had something far better than mere material possessions…no matter what came our way and what we had to go through…we had love…we had each other. I mean no one was poorer than us. My mom lived her whole life for me; she kept our family together, taking in washing, sewing, baking things, scrimping, and saving so I could look as good as the other kids when I went off to school. And just when I was doing well enough to ease her struggle and have her enjoy my success, she’s taken from me. But thank God she got to see some of it; thank God she was there for that amount of time.”
I pretended not to notice as Elvis brushed his hand across his eyes.
“But I don’t really have anybody, not since I lost my mom. I love my daddy, but he doesn’t understand what I need. And I’ll tell you something else, Larry. Things aren’t exactly what they appear to be; you’d be surprised how lonely it can be being in my position.”
I was looking at Elvis sympathetically as he unburdened himself. “You’re a good listener,” said Elvis.
I smiled. “You get that way cutting hair.”
Elvis continued. “My mom, bless her heart, she was a simple woman, but she was wise. She told me when my career first started to take off, ‘Elvis, when you’re on top everyone will love you, everyone will want something, but if you slip just a little, you watch your friends disappear. Never forget where you come from and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.’ Larry, her words are branded in my soul forever.”
He went on talking for some time, recalling his youth and how he had envisioned becoming a star someday. “I’ll tell, you man, every morning when I wake up I still can’t believe it, my life’s been a fairy tale; it’s like a dream. I’m so grateful for my life every day.
“Required reading for anyone who cares about the man behind the myth.”