Elvis and The Memphis Mafia!
Ever since Elvis Presley broke through, and until the day he died, he was always accompanied by the “Memphis Mafia”. This group consisted of “the King’s” best friends and associates, and they were infamous for their excess when it came to partying, women and drugs. Some claim that the decay of Elvis began with these people, while others say they were his very best friends, ready to take a bullet for him!
Elvis was a lonely teenager, living in a government housing project called Lauderdale Courts in Memphis. He was a shy boy, and except for a couple of neighbourhood kids and cousins, he had a hard time making friends. Elvis was also bullied, and other students would make fun of him when he brought his guitar to school. Because of this, he never forgot the few friends he did have, and they would stay important to him for the rest of his life. Elvis’s high school buddies Red and Sonny West, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike, Marty Lacker and his cousins Billy, Gene and Junior Smith made up the inner circle in the beginning, but the group would continue to grow and change throughout the years.
Nobody made the girls go crazy like Elvis Presley
After the remake of “That’s All Right” in 1954 and the number 1 hit “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1956, Elvis’s life changed completely. He had just turned 21, but he couldn’t go anywhere without being swarmed by screaming and fainting fans. If he wished to go to the cinema or an amusement park in peace, he would now have to rent the entire place. Presley wanted to surround himself with people he was comfortable with and could trust, and his old friends started working for him as bodyguards, drivers and other kinds of jobs. Some of them even served with him when “the King” was drafted to the Army and stationed in West Germany, and it was also here that he met Joe Esposito (who would later be his road manager) and his future wife, Priscilla. Elvis loved being the leader of the group and the centre of attention, and it soon became an “elite club” with a “us versus the world” mentality.
It was when Elvis returned from the army in 1960 and relocated to Hollywood and Las Vegas, to focus on his movie career, that media started to call them the Memphis Mafia or TCB (Taking Care of Business). They always stayed together, coming out of their limousines wearing black suits and sunglasses. Sometimes the group would play games that people thought of as immature and dangerous, for example buying fireworks for thousands of dollars and throwing them at each other. Elvis got a big scar on his neck this way, and it’s only a miracle that none of them lost an eye. Elvis had also invented a game called “War”, where the goal was to knock over the other team’s members in any way possible. Part of this brotherhood would live and sleep at Graceland, the large estate (and a refuge from the public) that the King had bought in Memphis.
Elvis and the gang playing cards on a movie set in 1962
Elvis and the Memphis Mafia started to become notorious for their wild partying, gambling and drug use. They would party with famous musicians and movie stars like Sammy Davis Jr, Nick Adams and Robert Mitchum, then bring a group of beautiful women back to their Las Vegas hotel suits. To keep up with each other and the frenetic lifestyle, Elvis and his friends started to take speed and other pills (a habit that would only get worse in the following years). The King of Rock and Roll was also known to hook up with many of the actresses in his movies, and Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret, Connie Stevens, Candice Bergen and Cybill Shepherd were just a few of his many Hollywood “conquests”. Members of the “Memphis Mafia” were responsible for bringing drugs and women to Elvis, and there are even stories of virgins waiting in the hotel hallway for their “audience” with the King. “The Mafia” were also there to cover up or take the blame for other dirty secrets that Elvis might have.
Elvis loved women, and they loved him, here with Ann-Margret
In the last years of his life, Elvis was not as successful as before, and he started to have financial problems. Drugs, stress and an unhealthy diet had also started to take its toll. A lot of criticism was directed at his inner circle for being yes-men that took advantage of Elvis’s hospitality. His manager , and degenerate gambler, “Colonel” Tom Parker was accused of pushing Elvis to the breaking point, making him do too many shows (from which he got 50 %) just so he could pay back what he owed the casinos. The Memphis Mafia were described as hangers-on, who followed after the King “like a football scrum after a loose ball”, lost in his cult and persona without any other ambition in life than to follow the leader. Priscilla wanted to throw them out of Graceland, only keeping a few of them as bodyguards. Elvis’s father, Vernon, was also highly critical of the “parasites” that were living off his son. Elvis had always been a very generous person, and he loved to surprise his friends and even total strangers with Cadillacs or jewelry. He also gave them bonuses after tours, first class vacations and introduced them to a world they would otherwise never have known.
It is important to remember that Elvis loved having the Memphis Mafia around. Even if there were heated arguments and altercations, especially at the end, this was a very close-knit group that had been through a lot together. Although there certainly were leeches who exploited his generosity, the inner circles were mostly made up of genuine friends who would do whatever he asked of them. Several of them had designated jobs like bodyguards, accountants and tour managers, and the ones who didn’t, were not paid regularly. When there was a shooting in Las Vegas, his friends and bodyguards proved there loyalty when they threw themselves in front of Elvis to avoid him getting hurt. Some also confronted him about the abuse of prescription drugs, but that is believed to have been the reason for why Red and Sonny West were fired in 1976, after having been employed by the King for two decades. The two decided to write a book about Elvis’s problems with drugs, in order for him to realize that he was going down the wrong path, but it only made him feel hurt and angry.
Sonny West, Red West, Elvis, Jerry Shilling, Lamar Fike, Joe Esposito, Vernon Presley (Elvis’s Father)
As I mentioned before, Elvis’s career was on the way down in the mid 1970s and he had now divorced his wife, Priscilla. He had become overweight, sometimes he slurred as a cause of the drugs, and it was not the good old Elvis Presley that was performing on stage. The charming and charismatic boy who was always smiling and enjoying life, would not be the first or last person to have his life ruined by the limelight, and on August 16, 1977, the legendary King of Rock and Roll had passed away. Some of his former entourage have shown that they were just the parasites people thought them to be, while others proved how much he really meant to them. A couple of them also gave out books about their lives with Elvis. Even if they will forever stay in the shadow of the King, they can always look back on the glory years when Elvis Presley and the Memphis Mafia ruled the world!