Return of the King

Mail on Sunday magazine, November 27 1988

January 1989.

It was a sleepy Sunday in Kalamazoo. Louise Welling and her grandson had been to church and had just popped into the grocery store to buy a few things for lunch, and they were standing at the checkout, minding their own business, when they saw Elvis Presley. The King of Rock and Roll. The supposedly late lamented long-departed King. Clear as day. Standing at the next checkout in a white satin jumpsuit.

Mrs Welling, aged 50, was shocked, as she later confided. “I couldn’t believe it. I was speechless. I mean, you’re not expecting to run into Elvis Presley in the grocery store. I was shocked.”

Mrs Welling, whose husband Ted works on the assembly line at General Motors, went straight to the local paper, the Commercial Express. They smiled knowingly and showed her the door. So she went to the Kalamazoo Gazette where they were very kind and understanding and also showed her the door.

She might have left it there, but one Friday afternoon, a few weeks later, she and her daughter, Linda, went out for a bite to eat and it happened again – The King himself sauntering out of the Burger King in Kalamazoo, slipping on his dark glasses and speeding off in a small blue car. This time, she persuaded a Florida tabloid, The Weekly World News, to listen to her.

The News went public with her story in June. In between “Cheeseburger kills space alien” and “Flakey fortune teller fouled up my love life”, the News announced Mrs Welling’s discovery that Elvis was alive and well in Kalamazoo. Back home, the story had a mixed reception.

Opposite the grocery store where Mrs Welling had first seen Elvis, a rival supermarket put a sign in the window. “Jimmy Hoffa Shops Here,” it said.  A restaurant started offering Don’t Be Cruel Gruel, and a local dentist advertised “The King gets regular check-ups here”. Mrs Welling may have felt a little lonely. But she was not alone.

All the world may have heard how Elvis was found slumped on the floor of his bathroom at his mansion, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee on August 16 1977. They may know about his obesity and his drug abuse and the death certificate which says his heart gave out on him even though he was only 42. They may have seen the pictures of him laid out in his open coffin and seen the heavy stone slab which marks his grave.

But right across the United States, there are fans and followers who say all the world is wrong if they think Elvis is dead and who say, along with Mrs Welling, that 1988 is The Year The King Came Back.

For the believers, it is all one big plot, a rock ‘n’ roll Watergate, in which powerful hidden hands conspire to hide the truth and in which their critics are all part of the cover-up. For unbelievers, the resurrection of Elvis is a psychic epidemic, in which frail minds have been overwhelmed by an infection of superstition and silliness. There is no shortage of evidence to fight over.

Elvis has been sighted in every corner of the country. From Kalamazoo, where other witnesses agree with Mrs Welling that the King has lost weight but still has the same black hair and sideboards, down to Texas where witnesses confirm that he is thinner but insist that he has dyed his hair blonde and given himself crystal blue eyes, to Hawaii where he is overweight again, bald and wearing a brightly-coloured woman’s robe known locally as a muumuu.

In Tennessee, he was in a trailer park. In Las Vegas, it was a car park. A Georgia woman says she and her husband were sitting in their car outside Graceland in the small hours of the morning when a black stretch-limousine pulled up and a familiar figure got out. “We were shocked,” she said.

Elvis fan clubs publish strange letters they say could have been written by only one person. A Detroit radio show is interupted with an announcement that “Elvis Presley has just called our station”. The Houston Oilers football team leave a complimentary ticket at the main gate for “The King”. An Atlanta bar-maid with a double chin says she romanced Elvis for three years after he died; according to a lie-detector test, she is telling the truth.

In Waco, Texas, part-time waitress Candy La Flaire says her life has not been the same since she bought a ten-dollar ceramic table lamp in the shape of Elvis’ head and shoulders. She says one night it started singing Viva Las Vegas. Now, she reports, Elvis sings through it every night. “He usually starts off the evening with a real rocker like Hound Dog or Burning Love, but then he moves into soft ballads like Love Me Tender as the night goes on.” In the Doonesbury comic strip, Elvis appears explaining that he never died, he was just kidnapped by aliens.

In Fort Worth, Texas, Major Bill Smith, formerly of the US Air Force and now a record producer, goes public in the Houston Chronicle with a message for the world: “Elvis wants me to tell the world the truth. I’m the closest man in the world to him…I talked to him by phone about six weeks ago and he said big things are gonna happen soon and I was gonna be part of it. I feel like he’s coming back.”

Like Mrs Welling, Major Smith, who has written a book about how Elvis faked his death, knows the loneliness of the believer. “My son, my brother, my wife – everybody thinks I’m a cuckoo, I’m a nut, I’m a bloodsucking leech. Well, I’m not out to prove anything. I don’t give a dang whether people believe me or not. I don’t have a job proving this. My job is to be a watchman on the tower.” None of which means that he believes Mrs Welling. “Elvis is a southerner and he wouldn’t be caught dead north of the Mason-Dixon Line, let alone in some Yankee supermarket,” he said.

But the major’s message to the world is a feeble whisper compared to the gospel blast of Gail Brewer-Giorgio, a writer of bodice-ripping romances from Georgia, dismissed by Newsweek magazine as “an Elvis wacko” but now the most outspoken prophet of the return of the man she calls the Musical Messiah.

It is Gail who has published “the story that is sweeping the world”, “the most incredible story of our life time”, in an “incredible paperback” in which she has gathered together the clues which have persuaded her that Elvis faked his own death.

Clues like the fact that “Elvis” is an anagram of “lives”, or that his middle name, Aron, is spelled `Aaron’ on his gravestone, or that an anonymous man is said to have told an Elvis fan club that an unnamed friend had sold an airline ticket to a man who looked like Elvis. Clues like the fact that Elvis and Jesus both have the same number of letters in their name, the same astrological sign, and are both known as “King” – and wasn’t Jesus raised from the dead? Incredible.

Gail explains how she stumbled into the Elvis controversy when she wrote a novel about a singer who faked his own death to escape his life of fame and how, incredibly, the novel turned out to contain facts about Elvis’ life which she had never known. Her hero even enjoyed the same sandwiches as Elvis – peanut butter with banana and mayonnaise. Gail began to believe that her novel was a psychic message and that if she was right about the sandwiches, she could be right about the faked death, even though it all seemed incredible.

But the biggest clue of all was Gail’s tape. She could never say where it came from, she said: two women she did not know and who refused to give their names just brought it to her one day. She could not say for sure that it was Elvis’ voice, but a voice expert had told her it could be. She could not say for sure when it was made, but “it may have been recorded after 1977”.The voice tells of travelling around the world, meeting new people and adds a particularly titillating clue: “Uhh, I’m not completely hiding now you know. I mean, I’m seen by people all the time”.

The tape was such a big clue that Gail strapped a copy of it to the front of every book she sold – at $5.95 each – and wired it up to a phone number for all to hear – at $2 for a minute. Just dial 900 909 ELVIS from anywhere in the US and you can hear “the incredible Elvis phone call”. Unbelievers say that this is the biggest clue of all – not the tape, but the price tag.

For them, the King lives on not as a mortal man but as a marketable commodity. He is Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc of Memphis, Tennessee, a $50 million corporation run by the trustees of Presley’s estate, which last year alone earned $15 million by selling records, charging $7 a head to visit Graceland and taking 14% commissions for the use of the world’s most famous face on T-shirts, cutlery, cups, key chains, posters, lipsticks, whisky decanters and plastic statues.

Elvis lives on in 204 different biographies (eight of them called “Elvis”) and in 200,000 Elvis Mastercards, making him the only celebrity ever to have a credit card named after him and illustrated with his features. This year saw a new stage musical and a two-part TV film. Elvis beats all other dead artists with his annual turnover; Ian Fleming and John Lennon are distant runners-up. The resurrection rumour, the unbelievers say, is just a way of keeping the market alive.

The US Government hinted this summer that it might buy into the market by immortalising Elvis with a memorial postage stamp. The unbelievers went on the attack. A New York rabbi, Ben Kamin, complained that Elvis was a symbol of drug abuse. A state Department stamp expert suggested solemnly that “the ability to make teeny-boppers scream does not merit postal recognition”. Author James Mitchener said that if Elvis was still alive, he would not be allowed to appear on a stamp, anyway.

These sort of unbelievers just don’t like Elvis. They took smug delight in this summer’s disclosure that the drug-loving King had written an infantile letter full of spelling mistakes to President Nixon offering to lead an apparently hypocritical war against drugs. The believers were undaunted and flocked to the National Archives in Washington to see the photograph of the subsequent meeting between the king of rock ‘n’ roll and the leader of the western world. More than 8,000 of them asked to see it in two months, making it the most popular picture in the archives.

Other unbelievers have other slants. For left-wingers, Elvis may be dead but he remains a symbol of rebellion, and the popular yearning for his resurrection is really a comforting sign of the coming revolution. For right wingers, he is a symbol of the American Dream and his revival reflects a surge in patriotism. For those who never liked rock ‘n’ roll in the first place, it all goes to show that his fans are a bunch of brain-dead red necks.

For the people of Kalamazoo, the show runs and runs. Bowing to the inevitable this summer, they held an Elvis lookalike contest. It was won by a middle-aged man with a paunch and a white satin jump suit. The audience went wild with enthusiasm. Then, they say in Kalamazoo, he left without giving his name.