Thirty years after his death, he is still always on our mind. Ed Ceaser pays homage to The King with 30 weird and wonderful facts from the life of the man who embodied rock ‘n’ roll
1. Elvis was a black belt in karate. He took up martial arts under the shotokan sensei Jürgen Seydal, while fulfilling his military duties in Germany in 1958. He was awarded his black belt before he returned to the United States, in 1960, by the chito-ryu instructor Hank Slemansky. Elvis’s love of martial arts continued throughout his life. His favourite form of fighting became American Kenpo.
2. On 21 December 1970, Presley met President Nixon at the White House. Presley had initiated the meeting with a six-page letter to the President, in which he had spelt out his desire to be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. During his meeting with Nixon, Presley denounced The Beatles as being ‘un-American’ for their open drug-taking and anti-Vietnam politics. For his part, Nixon reminded Presley of his need to “retain credibility”. Nevertheless, he is said to have given Presley a ‘Special Agent’ badge.
3. Elvis’s first radio play was on Memphis station WHBQ, on the Red, Hot and Blue Right”, Show, in 1954. DJ Dewey Phillips played “That’s All and, a week later Sun Records had received 6,000 advance orders for the single “That’s All Right”/ “Blue Moon of Kentucky”.
4. The King’s entourage were known collectively as the Memphis Mafia. All members of the Memphis Mafia sported diamond and gold rings, given to them by Elvis, on which a thunderbolt and the letters TCB had been imprinted. TCB stood for “Take Care of Business”.
5. In 1960, when Elvis was at his post-military trimmest, he weighed a little over 12 stone. When he died, in 1977, he weighed a just under 19 stone.
6. None of Elvis’s feature films or music documentaries were ever nominated for an Oscar in any category. He made 31 movies and two music documentaries.
7. Elvis’s first public performance was at the Mississippi-Alabama competition Fair and Dairy Show. The young Elvis entered the singing dressed as a cowboy, and had to stand on a chair to reach the microphone. His performance of “Old Shep” by Red Foley earned him second prize.
8. Elvis recorded more than 600 songs in his music career, but didn’t write a single one of them.
9. Until his late teens, Elvis was blond.
10. Elvis ate nothing but meatloaf, tomatoes, and mashed potato for two years.
11. Some of Elvis’s bejewelled jumpsuits weighed more than two stone.
12. When Elvis discovered that his wife, Priscilla, had been having an affair with Mike Stone – a karate instructor and mutual friend of the couple – he flew into a rage. The biographer Peter Guralnick claims that Elvis was so angry, he said: “there’s too much pain in me ¿ Mike Stone [must] die.” But when his body-guard, Red West, came back to his boss with a price for Stone’s contract killing, the King’s mood had softened. “Aw hell,” he said. “Let’s just leave it for now. Maybe it’s a bit heavy.”
13. Elvis won three Grammy Awards – for his gospel recordings.
14. He only performed five concerts outside the United States – all in Canada in 1957. At the time of his death, he was planning a European tour. He only set foot on British soil once, when the plane taking him back to the United States from Germany stopped to refuel at Glasgow Prestwick airport. The singer enjoyed a two-hour stop over before re-boarding the military plane.
15. The last film Elvis saw at the cinema was The Spy Who Loved Me. The day before he died, though, he had tried to obtain a print of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, to show his daughter, Lisa Marie.
16. Sometime in the early 1960s, Elvis adopted a chimpanzee called Scatter. Scatter had previously belonged to a Memphis children’s entertainer, and was trained to perform. He also had a penchant for looking up women’s skirts. Elvis found this trait amusing. A well-known wheeze was to gather his female friends together, and then let Scatter wreak havoc among them.
17. Even before the obese later years, Presley was a prodigious eater. In his 20s, he told Country Song Roundup Magazine that he could demolish eight deluxe cheese burgers, two bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches and three milkshakes in a single sitting.
18. Elvis first nourished his taste for outlandish clothes while a student at LC Humes High School in Memphis. He admired clothes at Lansky Brothers on Beale Street, but only had enough money to buy the occasional shirt. When he became famous, he began shopping there more regularly, and continued to use Lansky Brothers his whole life. Indeed, Bernard Lansky, the proprietor, is responsible for some of the more egregious fashion crimes perpetrated by the King. It was Lansky, for instance, who made Elvis’s gold lamé jacket.
19. In 1954, when Elvis was cutting some early records at Sun Studios, he auditioned for an amateur gospel quartet called the Songfellows. They turned him down.
20. On 30 July 1954, Elvis played one of his first shows, at the Overton Park Shell in Memphis. He was, apparently, so nervous, that his legs started to shake. The outlandish flares the singer had chosen to wear that evening only exacerbated the shaky movement. The girls in the audience went wild, and Elvis decided to incorporate his shaky-legs routine into future shows.
21. Elvis had a brief affair with the Swedish-American actress and singer, Ann-Margret, as they filmed the kitsch 1964 hit Viva Las Vegas. Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, demanded that the relationship end, but his charge continued to hold a special place in his heart for Ann-Margret. Every time Ann-Margret opened a show in Las Vegas, he would send her flowers arranged in the shape of a guitar.
22. Elvis was christened Elvis Aron Presley, but his gravestone reads Elvis Aaron Presley. Elvis was christened with only one ‘a’ in his middle name, so that he would share a characteristic with his still born twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley. Towards the end of his life, Elvis sought to add an ‘a’ to his middle name to make it a biblical name.
23. Not only was Elvis a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln’s great-great grandfather, Isaiah Harrison, he was a distant cousin of Jimmy Carter.
24. Led Zeppelin were big fans of Elvis and were desperate to meet him when they toured the US. In 1973, the longed-for meeting came to pass, when Robert Plant and John Paul Jones met the King in Los Angeles. The Zeppelins were rendered speechless by the meeting, but Elvis broke the ice by swapping his $5,000 gold and diamond watch for Jones’s watch – which featured a picture of Mickey Mouse. From that moment on, any member of Led Zeppelin was welcome in the front row of an Elvis concert.
25. Elvis collected marble statues of the Venus de Milo and Joan of Arc.
26. In 1973, Elvis gave Muhammad Ali a $10,000 white robe, with the words “People’s Champion” emblazoned across the back. Ali was touched, and wore the robe on 31 March, when he fought Ken Norton for the first time. Norton broke Ali’s jaw in the second round, before winning a 12-round decision. Ali vowed never to wear the robe again, although he maintained his friendship with Elvis.
27. Elvis’s favourite toothpaste was Colgate. His favourite aftershave was Brut. And his favourite soft drink was Pepsi.
28. This year, the American firearms company America Remembers released a special edition “Elvis Presley TCB Tribute Revolver”. The weapon, a .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum Revolver, is decorated with a picture of Elvis, as well as a lightning bolt, in 24-carat-gold. The weapon is designed, say its makers, to “honour the legend of Elvis Presley, and we are proud to offer it on one of the most powerful firearms ever used in American law-enforcement”. Elvis was himself a keen collector of guns. He had 40 weapons in his arsenal, including M-16s and a Thomson sub-machinegun.
29. The book Elvis was reading at the time of his death was Frank O Adams’s The Scientific Search for the face of Jesus.
30. Elvis wore a cross, the Hebrew letter chai, and a star of David around his neck. “I don’t want to miss out on heaven due to a technicality,” he said.