It was sometime during our hiatus in June of 1965, at Graceland. The Memphis days were long and humid. In a few weeks we’d be off to Hawaii to make another movie, “Paradise Hawaiian Style.” Graceland from the beginning had been Elvis’ center of gravity. His refuge and sanctuary, the quintessential oasis in the midst of his fishbowl life. He thrived on being there.
On most lazy, skyblue afternoons our pattern was for the two of us to retreat upstairs where I would take care of Elvis’ hair. The ideal setting to relax and talk before our midnight run to the Memphian Theater with everyone to watch movies til the wee hours of the morning. Our days were filled with laughter, excitement and exuberance. Life was radically amazing – could anything be any better than this?
Elvis was always Elvis. A man of many sides and endless depth, always radiating a magnetic force, a soft smoldering sulkiness, raw, vulnerable – a troublemaker.
One afternoon Elvis decided to stop by the office outside in the back of Graceland to visit for a few minutes and say hello. When we left he grabbed a stack of the fan mail that poured in every day, just before we headed upstairs to his special dressing room down the hall from his bedroom.
I began brushing Elvis’ hair as he read a few letters. As he was reading one particular note from a fan, he shook his head from side to side, “No, this girl has it all wrong.” A self-deprecating look stole across his face. “I’ve heard all this before, but I wasn’t the one who invented Rock ‘n Roll. No way, no way!”
“Larry,” Elvis began passionately, “let me tell you the real truth that most people have no idea about; how the whole thing really happened.”
Elvis was silent for a moment, as his mind wandered back over the years. He stared into the distance and began to point with his index finger, indicating the stretch of time.
“It all began not too far from where we are right now, in the heart of the deep ol’ South. Man, back in those days the poor ol’ colored slaves were forced to work their asses off. They had to, or they’d be whipped, tortured or even killed by the sons of bitches in charge. Those slaves really knew what pain and suffering was, more than most people can ever imagine. From the time the sun came up til it went down, they worked in the fields picking cotton, or whatever else they had to do. It broke their damn backs and bodies, bending down and working all day long in the hot blistering sun. But it didn’t break their spirit.”
I was soaking in every word Elvis spoke, his entire body reflecting the deep, overwhelming emotions he was experiencing. His focus momentarily fell to the ground – then his eyes carefully looked into mine.
“And do you know how they survived, Larry, how they got through it? They sang. It was their music and their faith, that’s how. Slavin’ their lives away they did what came natural to them, they sang. They sang their hearts out, from deep down in their very souls. All day long working in the fields they would all sing out together, makin’ up the words as they went along. And some of those songs from back then are still with us today.
What blows me away is that during all that, they never lost their faith in God. Their faith was something else, and that’s what got them through it all. Man, a lesson for all of us, that’s for sure. What a message! They brought their music right into their churches, and then white people started copying what they did. As time went by their music spread outside the churches to become honky-tonk and ragtime in places like New Orleans, and Beale Street right here in Memphis. Later it became the birth of the blues in St. Louis, Chicago and New York; then it eventually evolved down to our times in the form of rhythm and blues.”
I pretended not to notice as Elvis brushed his hand across his eyes.
“Look, real truth is that I wasn’t the one who invented Rock ‘n Roll. I was just lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time. All I did was to introduce their music to a white audience. And right there is why I love this country so much. I mean, no matter who you are, or where you came from, or even if all the odds are all against you to making it, you can dream the impossible dream and get the chance to achieve it. That’s what America is all about. Believe me, I know; I’m so damn grateful – because I’m living that dream.”