Elvis Presley, rock’n’roll legend, actor, archetypical prodigal son, and disciple of Jesus Christ.
Evangelist Rick Stanley is the stepbrother of rock’n’roll legend Elvis Presley. He lived with Elvis at his incredible Graceland home, and if anybody knew the spiritual condition of the great rocker, then Rick is the man. Stanley says,
“I moved into Graceland when I was six years old. Elvis was about 20 years older than me. He acted kind of like a real cool dad, and he had a great influence on my life.”
As a teenager, Rick began to join Elvis on tour. He served as a personal aide to the man who was probably the world’s most famous singer and actor of his day. He spent a lot of time talking to Presley and found that the rock star was happy to share his strengths, his weaknesses and his faith.
“Elvis was very complex… he had the ability to turn it on in concert, but then he would come off the stage and act like a little kid. He would be insecure and wonder if the show went okay. Actually, he was a very shy person. He had a great love of the Lord. His aunt was a preacher, and he paid for her church. He gave cars to strangers, and he visited St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital during the holidays. He was the one constant person who would always ask me, ‘Rick, are you staying close to the Lord?’”
Rick Stanley was one of the last people to speak to Elvis before he died in 1977.
“During that conversation, he was concerned about a book coming out that was going to reveal his private life to the public. He asked me, ‘What’s my little girl, Lisa Marie, going to think?’ I said, ‘She’s your daughter. I’m sure she’ll still love you.’”
Rick says that Elvis was a great man and a good father, even though he used drugs and had some very visible failings.
“When you come to the Lord, that doesn’t mean everything is great,” Stanley said. “You are still going to have issues, and he struggled with addiction. I got into the whole party scene, and I was in there with him struggling, too.”
Elvis Presley was raised in a poor home, but he had a sound Christian upbringing. Along with his family, Elvis attended a conservative Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, but would often sneak off in the middle of the service to listen to the preaching and singing at a black church less than a mile away. The young Elvis loved gospel music and dreamed of singing gospel professionally. One of his early girlfriends, Dottie Harmony, remembers his very real faith,
“We used to read the Bible every night, if you can believe that. He used to read aloud to me and then talk about it. He was very religious, there was nothing phoney about that at all.”
During his early success in 1957 Elvis spoke of his faith in an interview with Photoplay magazine,
“I never expected to be anybody important. Maybe I’m not now, but whatever I am, whatever I will become will be what God has chosen for me.”
But Elvis struggled with the trappings of fame and wealth from early on in his career. He knew what was right and wrong, and he wanted to please God with his life. After the Easter service at First Assembly of God church, Memphis, in 1958, the Rev. James Hamill says that Elvis told him,
“Pastor, I’m the most miserable young man you’ve ever seen. I’ve got all the money I’ll ever need to spend. I’ve got millions of fans. I’ve got friends. But I’m doing what you taught me not to do, and I’m not doing the things you taught me to do.”
Elvis was only reflecting the heart of the Apostle Paul who also knew the reality of wanting to live a life that was pleasing to God but was well aware of his faults. St Paul wrote to the church in Rome, ”For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep doing.” (Romans 7:19).
Spiritual experimentation in the 1960s
Along with many other young people during the 1960s, Elvis explored exotic Eastern religions and experimented with psychedelic drugs.
Elvis’s young hairdresser Larry Geller was obsessed with ‘spiritual enlightenment’ and gave him books on Hinduism, Judaism, numerology, Theosophy, positive thinking, the new-age, meditation, and Christianity. This sent Elvis off into a very different spiritual direction from his conservative Christian roots and concerned those in his inner circle.
But although Elvis explored and researched many different religions and practices, he never abandoned or rejected his faith in Jesus Christ. Those closest to him say he was a true believer, but he also went off at a tangent at times and had the appetite of a ‘spiritually-starved seeker’. In one conversation with Geller, Elvis said,
“All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.”
The Power of Gospel Music
Throughout his life though, gospel music was the one consistent comfort to the man who was constantly burning the candle at both ends and keeping his body going by a dangerous cocktail of prescription and non-prescription drugs. Amazingly, the only Grammy Awards that Elvis earned were with his gospel records, not his secular ones. To many of his fans, he is as well known for ‘How Great Thou Art’ as he is for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’!
Elvis was certainly different from other rock’n’roll stars in his determination to sing gospel alongside his secular songs. He insisted on singing ‘Peace in the Valley’ for his mother on the Ed Sullivan Show, the TV show which famously launched the Beatles in the US.
The Las Vegas Years.
Elvis also took gospel music into the International Hotel in Las Vegas, against the wishes of his manager Colonel Parker.
It was his final years in Las Vegas that seemed to drain Elvis’s of his creativity and zest for life. He led a reclusive lifestyle battling with womanising, drugs, and apparently uncontrollable weight gain. He was depressed and lonely despite being surrounded by sycophants. Fame was a cruel taskmaster, and Elvis knew it.
Elvis hired gospel groups the Imperials and Sweet Inspirations to sing back-up for him while he was in Las Vegas. Surrounded by all of the gambling and the trappings of materialism that Vegas had to offer, Elvis was making an attempt to provide something of the sacred, both for his audience, and for himself.
Gospel singer J.D. Sumner also joined Elvis there for a time. He recalls a woman approaching the stage in Vegas with a crown sitting on top of a pillow. Elvis asked her what it was. She answered, “It’s for you. You’re the King.” Elvis took her hand, smiled, and said, “No honey, I’m not the King. Christ is the King. I’m just a singer.”
The Final Months
In December 1976, Elvis asked television evangelist Rex Humbard and his wife Maude Aimee to meet him backstage in between sets. Elvis said, ”Jesus is coming back really soon, isn’t he, Rex?” Elvis quoted various Scripture about the Second Coming. Hubbard was surprised.
”It really shocked me that Elvis knew all of those Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about the Lord’s return,” he said later in an interview. The three of them spoke about spiritual things and prayed in a quiet room. “I could see he was reaching back to his childhood when he used to play his guitar and go to church and sing church songs,” Rex said. “And I could see he was reaching back to the past – that spirituality, that feeling that he had years and years before that had been planted in his heart.”
But when Maude Aimee told Elvis she was praying that he would become a “bell sheep” for God, it seemed to really shock Elvis. She explained to him: “In the Holy Land, they put a bell on one sheep and when it moves all the rest of the flock moves with him. I have been praying for years for you, Elvis, that you would become a bell sheep. If you fully dedicated your life to God you could lead millions of people into the kingdom of the Lord.” Rex says that Elvis ‘went all to pieces’. He began to weep. Maybe he realised that he was missing the real point of his stardom.
Rex added that as they held hands and prayed, “He [Elvis] rededicated his heart to the Lord. I asked God to bless him and to send His Spirit into his heart and meet his every need.” After their prayer time, Maude Aimee went to the hotel gift shop and bought Elvis a symbolic bell with a little diamond in it. During the evening’s second show, Elvis held up the little bell and smiled to as he dedicated ‘How Great Thou Art’ to the couple.
Elvis’s final days
Stepbrother Rick Stanley confirms Rex Humbard’s words,
“Elvis recommitted his life to Jesus Christ on that night. Elvis knew the Lord. He was a modern day King David.”
Rick was with Elvis on the night of his death just hours before the rock’n’roller died. He says that Elvis prayed, “Dear Lord, please show me a way. I’m tired and confused, and I need your help.” A few minutes later, Elvis looked at him and said, “Rick, we should all begin to live for Christ.” Just one day previously Rick heard Elvis praying, “God, forgive me for my sins. Let people have compassion and understanding of the things I have done.”
Elvis was not the archetypical saint, and no one knew that better than Presley himself. He was a one-off, an enigma who touched a nerve in western teenage culture. You have to ask who else on planet earth could attract a crowd of 70,000 to his gravesite on the 25th anniversary of his death! Many fans were Christians, others just respectful, but together they recited the Lord’s Prayer, prayed the 23rd Psalm, and joined together in singing Elvis’s favourite hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’
Story by Ralph Burden