Memphis Mafia

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Elvis Presley in 1970

The "Memphis Mafia" was the nickname for a group of friends, associates, employees and "yes-men" whose main function was to be around Elvis Presley from 1954 until he died. Several filled practical roles in the singer's life. For instance, they were employed to work for him as bodyguards or on tour logistics and scheduling. In these cases Elvis paid salaries, but most lived off fringe benefits such as gifts, cars, houses and bonuses. Over the years, the number of members grew and changed, but for the most part there was a core group who spent a lot of time with the singer.

Early members[edit]

Elvis preferred men around him who were loyal, trustworthy and deferential. Thus family members and friends of his youth were very important to him. "For the first time in his life, he had a group of male friends to pal around with, and he relished being the leader of the pack."[1] The group began with Elvis' first cousins Junior and Gene Smith (Gladys Presley's sister Levalle's children) who accompanied Elvis everywhere, along with Elvis' high school friend Red West and rockabilly singer Cliff Gleaves.[2] At that time Judy Spreckels seems to have been the only woman. She describes herself as having been like a sister to Elvis, a companion, confidante and keeper of secrets in the exciting days of his early career. "Elvis was surrounded by the first wave of what would become known as the Memphis Mafia." She says that she "was with him and the guys all the time." They drove bumper cars in Las Vegas Valley, rode horses in California and hung out at Graceland. "There wasn't a crowd then, just a few guys," and she emphasizes that she "had nothing to do with being a yes man for him and obviously he trusted me."[3] Among "the first to live, travel and play with Elvis" were Sonny West, Billy Smith, who was with Elvis from the start to the end and the only original member still with Elvis after 1976, Charlie Hodge, Lamar Fike and Joe Esposito. "Over the years they were joined on the payroll by the Stanley brothers – Ricky, Billy and David, Jerry Schilling, Larry Geller, Marty Lacker, Dave Hebler, and numerous others."[4]

Origin of the nickname[edit]

Around 1960, the media dubbed these people "The Memphis Mafia." This first referred to their image, as they usually cruised the city in black mohair suits and dark sunglasses. According to one account,[5] a crowd of people in front of the Riviera Hotel watched as two big black limousines arrived. Elvis and his friends got out of the two cars and someone in the crowd yelled, "Who are they, the Mafia?" and a newspaper reporter picked up the story. The Memphis Mafia members themselves say on their website that Elvis liked the name and it stuck. However, Presley's former wife Priscilla wrote that Presley didn't like the name because of a frightening Mafia connotation which the general public was then unaware of, and that members of organized crime had attempted to take over Presley's career, something reported as having happened earlier to Frank Sinatra.[6]

The acronym TCB[edit]

Presley and his friends and employees also adopted the acronym TCB which meant "Taking Care of Business". Presley had the tail of his private jet painted with the initials "TCB" and a lightning bolt and gave away TCB & TLC on gold chain necklaces as gifts.[7]

Opinions by different people[edit]

William Otterburn-Hall describes the men as close around the star "like a football scrum after a loose ball." He relates that they were a "friendly bunch" who, when Elvis began to sing just for fun during his interview, followed "suit, singing, clowning, all on their feet".[8] But there was more. According to Patrick Humphries, they "acted as Elvis' bodyguards, babysitters, drug procurers, girl-getters, mates and car buyers." The author also mentions other functions of the guys: "various members of the Memphis Mafia had ... played vital roles in keeping Elvis' numerous dirty secrets out of the public eye. A couple of them had been arrested with false prescriptions attempting to collect drugs for Elvis, quite a few had taken physical hits in the service of protecting Elvis and none were paid more than $500 a week. For that they were often shouted at, abused and belittled by the King when he felt like it."[9] Buzz Cason saw these "combination bodyguards-hangers-on good ol Southern boys ... constantly coming in and out of the various rooms, making phone calls and promptly responding to any need that Elvis might have."[10] Greenwood calls the men Elvis collected as buddies, "men who lacked any real ambition or abilities. The one trait they did share was a willingness to do Elvis's bidding and contentment to take whatever handouts Elvis was offering. Typically, he doled out the presents regularly and basked in his sense of largesse. But for as well as he treated his army buddies, Elvis showed flashes of unaccountable meanness, bordering on cruelty, with a lot of people..."[11] In similar terms, Jerry Eden states that it really made him "sick to see Elvis' two-faced cousins, members of the so-called Memphis Mafia, who hung around him for the money, clothes, cars, and leftover girls." He adds that these leeches "were mostly his second and third cousins from Mississippi. With the exception of a couple of the guys, like Charlie Hodge and Red West, most of his friends were simply ignorant hillbillies out to get everything they could from him. ... They had a real sweet thing going that's for sure. They called themselves bodyguards, but in reality they were only flunkies falling over each other to kiss El's ass."[12] Larry Geller is often regarded in the poor light due to his spiritual influences on Presley when he had just been employed as a hair dresser.

However, according to Memphis Mafia member Marty Lacker, "Most of the guys had responsibilities and they were far from leeches, hangers on or whatever else they were called."[13] "They all had jobs to do so that Elvis could do his and as far as being there for the money, that's laughable because there really wasn't much in that area to be there for."[13] Marty went on to say, "Most of us were not there for the money, we were there because we all cared about Elvis and each other like brothers."[13]

Additionally, according to Elvis Presley Expert and Historian Jeff Schrembs of www.ElvisCollector.info, the Members of the Memphis Mafia had specific jobs. Joe Espositio handled money and cross referenced the extensive travel arrangements. Charlie Hodge harmonized with Elvis and specked out each stage before the concert. Lamar Fike handled Elvis' stage lighting. Red and Sonny West were Elvis' bodyguards (although Red West also had a talent for writing songs, including some recorded by Elvis such as "If Everyday Was Like Christmas" and then "Separate Ways"). Marty Lacker was a brutally honest sounding board, Jerry Schilling gave advice about what other groups were using for audio equipment etc., and Elvis' Cousin Billy Smith was a man of all trades.

Party life[edit]

Peter Guralnick writes that Elvis spent all day and night with the members from the Memphis Mafia: "For Elvis and the guys [...] Hollywood was just an open invitation to party all night long. Sometimes they would hang out with Sammy Davis, Jr., or check out Bobby Darin at the Cloister. Nick Adams and his gang came by the suite all the time, not to mention the eccentric actor Billy Murphy, longtime friend of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum ..."[14] Guralnick adds "The Colonel joked that they looked like a bunch of old men, but the Memphis Mafia had become almost as well known around town as Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack" and that Elvis and his guys were all "living on speed and tranqs."[15] For Joe Esposito, "it was a party like you wouldn't believe. Go to a different show every night, then pick up a bunch of women afterwards, go party the next night. Go to the lounges, see Fats Domino, Della Reese, Jackie Wilson, The Four Aces, the Dominoes – all the old acts. We'd stay there and never sleep, we were all taking pills just so we could keep up with each other."[16]

Bodyguards, road managers and other employees[edit]

When Presley emerged as a major celebrity in 1956, he was constantly besieged by adoring fans and the press, making a normal lifestyle impossible. However, Presley's enormous wealth allowed him an ability to separate himself from the general public, especially in his home city of Memphis. For example, he would rent an entire movie theater to watch a film. Among Memphis natives, he was most known for renting out the entire Memphis amusement park Libertyland in order to ride his favorite roller coaster the Zippin Pippin. Professional handlers and celebrity security experts had not yet evolved. Presley faced repeated threats of physical violence from outraged moral extremists and death threats from fanatics, as would later happen when he performed in Las Vegas.[17] These threats were kept out of the press for fear of triggering even more.[18]

For both his security needs and touring support, Presley hired people chosen from among those he could trust and depend on to manage his public appearances. This entourage included first cousins and several of Presley's friends from his boyhood in a poor Memphis housing project plus junior and senior high school friends and early employees from Memphis such as Alan Fortas, nephew of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Many people were employed with the group through the years but some of the more prominent members were Joe Esposito, Lamar Fike, Alan Fortas, Marty Lacker, Billy Smith, Richard Davis, Red West, Sonny West, Dave Hebler, Al Strada, Dr. Nick, Rick, David and Billy Stanley (Elvis's step brothers), Larry Geller, Charlie Hodge, Jerry Schilling and Gene Smith.

Each man had specific duties. Joe Esposito officiated as Chief Road Manager and Chief Personal Aide for almost 17 years. Marty Lacker served as Elvis' Chief Personal Aide for 3 of those years Esposito claims.[19][citation needed] Esposito and Lacker served as Presley's Co-Best Men at his wedding. Sonny West was responsible for security at Presley concerts. Red West was one of Presley's earliest friends from their school days, his first bodyguard which he would remain until the last year of Presley's life, and in 1954 had acted as a driver for Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black when they first toured the American South performing as the "Blue Moon Boys." Priscilla Presley said these employees were paid an average of $250 per week during the 1960s, which rose to $425 per week in the 1970s.[20] Each Christmas all Presley employees received bonus checks. Some members of this inner circle became close friends who served as replacements for a lack of normal everyday friendships Presley's fame would not allow. Marty Lacker and Elvis' cousin, Billy Smith, were probably the closest true friends of Elvis according to some in the group. Known for his generosity (attributed by Presley himself to an impoverished childhood), he bought some of these employees homes as wedding gifts and frequently bought new Cadillac automobiles for employees, relatives and friends.[13]

Unhealthy influence over the singer[edit]

"Parasitic presence"[edit]

Elvis's father Vernon increasingly distrusted and disliked many members of the Memphis Mafia as Elvis' financial condition deteriorated in 1972 and rapidly deteriorated in part as a result of his divorce from Priscilla Presley which was finalized on October 9, 1973.[21] Throughout the years, several members of the Memphis Mafia had left Elvis' employment, either due to fallouts with Vernon Presley or for personal reasons, only to return at later dates. This includes Marty Lacker, Jerry Schilling, and Lamar Fike.[21] The most publicized fallout came when Vernon Presley fired Elvis' longtime friends Red West and Sonny West on July 13, 1976. Vernon Presley gave the reasons for their firing to be: Elvis' expenses were increasing at an alarming rate and that there were complaints, and threats of lawsuits, about the manner in which Red West and Sonny West had interacted with fans. After being in Elvis' employment for two decades, both Red West and Sonny West were only paid a few weeks' severance pay and their requests to speak directly to Elvis about their employment termination and the nominal severance pay were not granted. Red West, Sonny West, and Elvis himself felt betrayed and all parties were upset with one another in the manner in which they were fired.[21] When Colonel Parker informed Elvis that Red West and Sonny West were writing a "tell-all book" about Elvis, which included the disclosure of Elvis' addiction to prescribed pain medications, Elvis was furious as well as "hurt". Elvis and the Colonel discussed offering Red West and Sonny West a monetary settlement in return for a written agreement that the book would not be published and their experiences with Elvis, on stage and off, would remain confidential. An agreement was not reached and when Elvis received a copy of the book entitled Elvis, What Happened? (which was first published on July 12, 1977), he worried that his reputation would be adversely affected and most of all that his beloved daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, would be adversely affected as well. The publication of this book bothered Elvis, on a personal and professional level, for the remainder of his two weeks of life.[21] In numerous press conferences concerning the book Elvis, What Happened?, both Red West and Sonny West stated that they wrote the book, in part, in order to make Elvis realize that his dependence on prescription medications was (literally) killing him. They stated that they hoped that this book would "shock" Elvis into seeking medical care away from the physicians who were complicit in prescribing Elvis large amounts of prescription medications and fully resting and becoming "clean" off of these prescribed drugs.[21] "Surrounded by the parasitic presence of the so-called Memphis Mafia, it was no wonder", says John Harris, that as the singer "slid into addiction and torpor, no-one raised the alarm: to them, Elvis was the bank, and it had to remain open."[22] Jerry Eden says that the guys didn't like Priscilla Beaulieu. "When Priscilla came on the scene, she made them move out of Graceland, keeping just a couple of them in the house to act as bodyguards."[23]

Substitute parents[edit]

Elvis Presley reportedly spent days and nights with his friends and employees from the Memphis Mafia. They were a big family and Elvis lived in a "milieu of a protective brotherhood."[24] Gerald Marzorati says that Elvis "couldn't go anywhere else without a phalanx of boyhood friends."[25] Even the girls he dated deplored, "Whenever you were with Elvis for the most part you were with his entourage. Those guys were always around..."[26] According to the singer's cousin Billy Smith, Elvis got into bed with Smith and his wife Jo "many times at Graceland when we would spend the night there in Lisa's room, or on tour in the hotel, and at the trailer on the property at Graceland. ... we were all three there talking for hours about everything in the world! Sometimes he would have a bad dream and come looking for me to talk to, and he would actually fall asleep in our bed with us. That happened a lot of times, and we thought nothing of it."[27]

Playing dangerous games[edit]

When they rented the Rainbow Rollerdrome in Memphis, Elvis and the "Memphis Mafia" usually played "a game called 'War', of which Elvis was the proud inventor. ... There were two teams, and the object of the game was to knock over as many members of the opposing team as possible by any means." Another game was called the 'Whip' game. "Elvis's idea of an exciting game was that it should be as dangerous as possible", such as the game that involved fireworks. "Some of the Memphis Mafia would buy up to $15,000 worth of fireworks in today's money, including skyrockets, baby giants, firecrackers, and ... chasers, which moved rapidly and unpredictably until they exploded. Since the emphasis was on large and potentially lethal fireworks, everyone had to wear air force jump-suits plus gloves, helmets, and goggles. When they were all dressed up, they divided themselves into Blue and Red teams, and started hurling fireworks at the other team ... Elvis was left with a big scar on his neck from one firework, and one of his friends nearly lost an eye."[28]

Handling of girls and claims of homosexuality[edit]

Byron Raphael, an assistant to Presley's manager Colonel Tom Parker, worked for Elvis in 1956–57 and procured several girls to climb into bed with the star, including some well-known movie stars.[29] This was also one of the tasks of the men from the Memphis Mafia, as many girls wanted to get in close touch with the star. In her memoir, model and actress Peggy Lipton writes that she felt trapped in Presley's bed as the star was impotent with her and she "couldn't just amble out into the next room to get a breath because all his guys were in the front of the suite gearing up for show time. I could hear their piercing laughter and loud voices against the background of the blaring TV."[30] Buzz Cason even saw a fascinating "guest-bedroom with two-way mirrors, where the highly mischievous Memphis Mafia clowns could eavesdrop on visitors who might slip away there for a little romantic action."[31] According to Raphael's eye-witness account, actress Natalie Wood was upset when Presley refused to have sexual intercourse with her. She made a snide remark to the members of the Memphis Mafia that she "was not the only one to think Elvis and the guys might be homosexual, especially since Elvis often wore pancake makeup and mascara offstage to accentuate his brooding intensity, à la Tony Curtis and Rudolph Valentino, his favorite movie actors."[32] Erika Lee Doss also emphasizes that Elvis "wore ruffled pink shirts and black pants with pink stripes, deliberately claiming 'girl' colors (pink being the female color of the 1950s) for himself."[33] Douglas Brode adds that his homosexual fans liked it.[34] Indeed, Alan Fortas writes, there was "the speculation among some of the show business community that Elvis was homosexual, latent or otherwise" and that this was one of manager Parker's reasons "for wanting to see Elvis settled down and married".[35] Even Marty Lacker confirms that in the early years in Hollywood, "a lot of people thought" that the Memphis Mafia members "were all gay.... Little did they know that the house was packed with women".[36] Byron Raphael and Alanna Nash add in their article that there "were also rumors that Nick Adams swung both ways, just as there had been about Adams’s good pal (and Elvis’s idol) James Dean. Tongues wagged that Elvis and Adams were getting it on. But Elvis was frightened of homosexuals; the Colonel had told him to be on the lookout for them in Hollywood. He was even scared of Lizabeth Scott, the icy blonde who played romantic scenes with him in 1957’s Loving You, since Confidential magazine had recently outed her as a lesbian with a busy little black book."[32] Goldman also says that Colonel Parker "used to warn the Guys: 'Watch what you say about Jews and homosexuals out here in Hollywood because you never know when you're talkin' to one of 'em.' "[37] Indeed, homophobia was "deeply embedded in American culture of the 1950s and 60s."[38] Marty Lacker says that Adams "was really [Elvis's] only actor friend. He liked him a lot". However, "Elvis having homosexual encounters with Nick doesn't sit right with me". He further claims that he didn't know "that Nick was homosexual" and that nobody in the group was gay. "Somebody got the rumor up after Elvis's death that he and I had been lovers and that I was writing a book about it. That's a sick lie..."[39] Douglas Brode writes that "in the 1970s, rumors abounded that Elvis was gay and that the real reason his marriage failed (...) wasn't his [or Priscilla's] infidelity, but his preference for the all-male company of his Memphis Mafia. Elvis was not homosexual in his activities, withdrawing from friendships if he felt a man might be interested in him 'that way'. Such extreme reactions might be viewed as homosexual panic. Clearly there's a hint of homo-eroticism in Elvis' preference for the male group over one woman."[40] According to Geoffrey C. Ward and Robert Atwan, Elvis's supposed fear of homosexuals "is interesting Freudian fodder."[41]

Books by former "Memphis Mafia" members[edit]

Since the late 1970s, some former members of the Memphis Mafia have written books on Elvis. The first exposé book, Elvis: What Happened? appeared in 1977 shortly before Elvis's death. This so-called Bodyguard book came from the West cousins and Dave Hebler. They wrote about Presley's years of prescription drug abuse which eventually led to his death. Elvis's youngest stepbrother says the singer "was devastated by the book. Here were his close friends who had written serious stuff that would affect his life. He felt betrayed. Red was honest with Elvis about his medication problems and I think this was one of the reasons he was fired. For the guys they were fired, but not by Elvis. That must have hurt."[42] Elvis had "even offered the publishers money not to go ahead with it. For Vernon the book was proof of his long-held distrust and dislike not just of those three but of the whole of the Memphis Mafia ..."[9] In 2007, Sonny West released Elvis: Still Takin' Care of Business, which was a softer look at his relationship with the King.

List of books[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Earl Greenwood, The Boy Who Would Be King, p.192.
  2. ^ Victor, Adam (2008). The Elvis Encyclopedia. Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd. p. 202. ISBN 978-0-7156-3816-3. 
  3. ^ CBS News: Linda Deutsch, "Elvis' Gal Pal Shares Memories", Los Angeles, August 12, 2002. © MMII The Associated Press.
  4. ^ Patrick Humphries, Elvis The #1 Hits: The Secret History of the Classics, p.79.
  5. ^ blacksheep.com/portfolio/memphismafia
  6. ^ Priscilla Presley, Elvis and Me (1985).
  7. ^ scheff.com/tcb/.
  8. ^ Rolling Stone, July 12, 1969.
  9. ^ a b Humphries, p.79.
  10. ^ Buzz Cason, Living the Rock 'N' Roll Dream: The Adventures of Buzz Cason, p.79.
  11. ^ Greenwood, p. 234.
  12. ^ Jerry Eden, Against the Wind (1999), p.93-4.
  13. ^ a b c d Victor, Adam (2008). The Elvis Encyclopedia. Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd. pp. 142–146. ISBN 978-0-7156-3816-3. 
  14. ^ Peter Guralnik, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, p.72.
  15. ^ Guralnick, p.116.
  16. ^ Cited in Guralnick, p.116.
  17. ^ Victor, Adam (2008). The Elvis Encyclopedia. Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd. p. 527. ISBN 978-0-7156-3816-3. 
  18. ^ The danger of crazed celebrity stalkers and the like entered public consciousness in 1980 when Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon.
  19. ^ some See: ELVIS AARON PRESLEY:REVELATIONS FROM THE MEMPHIS MAFIA footnote
  20. ^ Presley, Elvis and Me.
  21. ^ a b c d e "Jeff Schrembs"
  22. ^ John Harris, "Talking about Graceland". The Guardian, March 27, 2006.
  23. ^ Jerry Eden, p. 94.
  24. ^ Mary Lynn Kittelson, Soul of Popular Culture: Looking at Contemporary Heroes, Myths, and Monsters (1998), p.32.
  25. ^ Gerald Marzorati, "Heartbreak Hotel", The New York Times, January 3, 1999.
  26. ^ Tom Lisanti, Drive-In Dream Girls: A Galaxy of B-Movie Starlets of the Sixties (2003), p. 80.
  27. ^ Billy Smith interview Part Two." Elvis Information Network.
  28. ^ Michael W. Eysenck and Hans J. Eysenck, Happiness: Facts and Myths (1994), p.84. See also Alanna Nash, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia (1995).
  29. ^ Byron Raphael with Alanna Nash, "In Bed with Elvis," Playboy, November 2005, Vol. 52, Iss. 11, p.64-68, 76, 140.
  30. ^ Peggy Lipton, Breathing Out (2005), p.172.
  31. ^ Buzz Cason, p.79.
  32. ^ a b Raphael and Nash, "In Bed with Elvis," Playboy, November 2005.
  33. ^ Erika Lee Doss, Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, & Image (University Press of Kansas, 1999), p.127.
  34. ^ See Douglas Brode, Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture (2006), p.168.
  35. ^ Alan Fortas, Elvis, from Memphis to Hollywood: Memories from my Twelve Years with Elvis Presley (1992), p.270.
  36. ^ Alanna Nash, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia, p.195-196.
  37. ^ Goldman, Elvis, p.361.
  38. ^ See Mark H. Lytle, America's Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (2006), p.283-285.
  39. ^ Cited in Nash, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia, p.85.
  40. ^ Brode, Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture, p.168.
  41. ^ See Geoffrey C. Ward and Robert Atwan, The Best American Essays (1996), p.62.
  42. ^ David Stanley.

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