Elvis Presley: Upstairs of Graceland ‘like he just left’ says expert
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The King’s Memphis mansion was illuminated so brightly throughout the holidays that his father Vernon would joke that local airline pilots would mistake the main drive for a runway. Elvis loved Christmas so much that he would keep all the decorations up for longer than was traditional, so that the endless party ran on into his birthday on January 8. New Year’s Eve fell slap bang in the middle of all that and the star and his loved ones could be found playing in the snow or (accidentally or not) trying to burn down Vernon’s office and cosuin Billy’s car with fireworks.
Billy was part of the extended family that lived at Graceland, in the grounds and nearby. First as a child and then as a central part of the Memphis Mafia with his wife Jo, he was at the heart of The King’s life – with him almost every single day.
He described Elvis’ child-like delight in snow and his strict orders that nobody was allowed to step off the paths and spoil the glittering pristine whiteness. One particular evening, they walked down to the main gates and Billy described the joy on his famous cousin’s face. No matter how rich or famous he got, Elvis still loved the simple wonders as much as any jewellery or private jet.
On the way back up to the house, Elvis started “clowning around” and turned to them all and said: “See I told you all I could do it, make it snow at Christmas!”
Fireworks would sometimes be set off at Christmas, but the real pyrotechnics would happen at New Year.
Billy said: “We’d get into our fireworks battles. Several times he tried to burn the office down or blow up my car or something. More than once. I don’t know what it was with him and my car.”
It’s easy to imagine fun-loving Elvis and his Memphis Mafia mates roaring with laughter, setting off fireworks as dangerously as possible. His passion for high-octane play was well known, from racing around the grounds in golf carts and knocking down fences at home to jumping on motorbikes and then his private planes.
In the earliest years at Graceland, Elvis would still host (relatively) civilised parties at home, perhaps because his mother Gladys was still alive. When he returned from military service in 1960, The King began to celebrate New Year increasingly lavishly.
In 1961, Elvis had just wrapped filming Kid Galahad on December and elected to fly to Las Vegas for the holidays. Unusually, there is no record of what he got up to, but in Sin City it was unlikely to involve quiet nights and a good book.
From 1962 to 1970, he started to throw huge annual parties in Memphis. After the traditional fireworks at Graceland, everybody headed into Memphis to the Manhattan Club, which The King hired out for 200 friends, family and even some lucky fans. There was always a fully-catered dinner followed by a floor show.
It is suggested that the first one was inspired by Priscilla’s arrival in town for a visit from Germany. The only year he broke tradition was 1963, when she had just moved permanently to Memphis and Elvis hired out the Memphian movie theatre.
Then it was back to the Manhattan Club for three years in a row, followed by two at the Thunderbird Lounge. At the first, in 1967, Elvis requested the song Summertime from the band and danced with Priscilla to celebrate their wedding, which had taken place that May in Las Vegas.
The final two annual parties took place at local hotspot TJ’s. In 1970, Elvis was given a very special private tour of the FBI headquarters in Washington on December 31. It was something he would never have passed up, being obsessed with law and order, badges and federal agents. So he had to take a private jet back to Memphis that afternoon to be there in time for his party.
The 1970s saw a considerable upheaval in his life and this was clearly reflected in the contrasting ways he spent each New Year. There was only a small family gathering at home in 1971, but Elvis was battling health and weight issues and his marriage with Priscilla was over. She would move out the following February.
In 1972, he was locked at home on a strict and unhappy crash diet to lose 25 pounds before his satellite TV concert in Hawaii on January 14, which would be broadcast to the world. The diet worked, and the star looked and sounded great. The concert was a major success and would help revive his career and kick-start the touring that consumed most of his remaining years.
Elvis’ health started to collapse in 1973 and in October he was admitted to Memphis Baptist hospital after lapsing into a semi-coma. He had jaundice, severe respiratory distress, marked swelling of his face and a distended abdomen. Tests discovered he had been treated by his doctor with excessive cortisone and found he had a gastric, bleeding ulcer and hepatitis. He was also addicted to many of the drugs he had been overprescribed.
New Year 1973 was understandably a quiet one and 1974 followed suit. The last two of The King’s life were spent, perhaps fittingly, on stage. In 1975, he performed at Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, and in 1976 at the Civic Center Arena in Pittsburgh. Elvis would always sing the traditional Auld Lang Syne at midnight.
For acquaintances ‘auld’ and new, and millions of fans across the world in the decades that followed, from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, one thing is sure, the King will never be forgot.
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