Interview with Vernon Presley (1978)

By: Nancy Anderson
Source: Good Housekeeping
September 2, 2022

Interview with Vernon Presley | Good Housekeeping, January 1978

First of all, I want to say that telling this story is going to be difficult now that Elvis is gone. Those of you who have lost loved ones, who have suffered what I am suffering now will understand what I mean.

Elvis' death was so sudden that it will be years before I'll be able to accept the fact that it really happened.

Yet, even while grieving I've been greatly comforted by the thousands of fans who loved Elvis and who have expressed their sympathy. They know they'll never see him perform again, but they'll cherish always the memory of the pleasure he gave them - as will I. My love for my son began even before he was born on January 8, 1935. At that time there was almost nobody poorer than my wife Gladys and me. But we were thrilled and excited when we learned that we were going to be parents. I was only 18 years old, but throughout Gladys' pregnancy, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to take care of her and the baby. Elvis' birth was long and difficult for my wife, and as her labor pains went on and on, I grew frantic.

My parents were at our house with us, along with two, women, one a midwife, who told us when it was time to call the doctor. After what seemed to me an eternity, a baby boy was born - - dead. I was desolate at the loss of our child. But then my father put his hand on my wife's stomach and announced, 'Vernon, there's another baby here?' At the time Elvis was born, medicine hadn't advanced far enough for a doctor to predict twins, so his arrival took us completely by surprise. Our little boys looked something alike, but I don't think they were identical twins. Even though the elder one was dead, we named him Jesse for my father; the younger one we called Elvis, for me, since Elvis is my middle name. We chose the middle names of Garon for Jesse and Aron for Elvis because we knew a couple whose twin sons had those names.

Of course, Elvis and I both wondered, over the years, whether his life would have been drastically different had his brother lived. I've concluded that it wouldn't have been, because I believe Elvis' career and contribution to the world were fated from the first. For during his early life, certain things happened which convinced me that God had given my wife and me a very special child for whom He had some very special plans.

Gladys and I were so proud of Elvis and enjoyed him so much that we immediately wanted more children. But, for reasons no doctor could understand, we had none. While Elvis grew from infant to toddler to lively little boy, we consulted doctors about our failure to have another child. We prayed about it, too. There was no medical reason why my wife didn't conceive again, but she didn't.

Elvis Presley 1945.
Elvis Presley 1945.
When Elvis was about ten years old, the reason was revealed very clearly to me in a way that I can't explain - l can only say that God spoke to my heart and told me that Elvis was the only child we'd ever have and the only child we'd ever need. Elvis was a special gift who would fill our lives completely. Without little Jesse who was born dead, without the other children we'd hoped to have, we understood that we were an extraordinarily complete family circle. As soon as I realized that Elvis was meant to be an only child, I felt as though a burden was lifted. I never again wondered why we didn't have additional sons and daughters. It's hard to describe the feelings Elvis, his mother and I had for each other. Though we had friends and relatives, including my parents, the three of us formed our own private world. Elvis was a good child who seldom gave us trouble. I did spank him a few times, but now that I think back, I believe it was for nothing.

I was a deacon in the Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo and used to take Elvis to church with me every Sunday. Later, after we moved to Memphis, he was baptized into my church, yet neither the Assembly of God nor any denomination ever owned him completely.

Elvis grew up very close to his mother. He used to call her by a pet name, 'Baby'. He was also close to me so that we had a wonderful, balanced family relationship. I didn't choose a goal for him and then shove him in that direction. Some fathers want their sons to be football players or lawyers or whatever. I only wanted Elvis to do what made him happy.

When he was a boy, I asked him to go hunting with me, but when he answered, 'Daddy, I don't want to kill birds', I didn't try to persuade him to go against his feelings.

There was a terrible day when Elvis was about six years old. He had developed acute tonsilitis with such high fever, he was on the verge of convulsions. Gladys and I were afraid that we were going to lose him. Even our doctor admitted that it was hopeless. 'I can't do anything else', he told us. 'Maybe you should call another doctor'. That, in effect, is what we did, because my wife and I turned in prayer to the greatest healer of all, God. I do believe in prayer. I do believe in miracles, so that day I prayed to God that He would miraculously heal our child. My wife and‘ I prayed together and separately, and by that night, I could see that Elvis was better. God had worked the miracle we'd asked for, again reassuring me that our son's life was special.

I don't mean that I knew that Elvis was going to be famous, because at that time the idea never crossed my mind. A person doesn't have to be a singer or a movie star or a president to fill an important role in the world. He can be a truck driver or a farmer or anything else and make his contribution. I only knew that Elvis had a contribution to make one way or another, that the Lord seemed to have His hand on him.

The writer of an ugly, untruthful book about Elvis said on TV that we Presleys were nothing but poor white trash. Well, I want to answer that right here, because his comment riled the whole state of Mississippi.

Poor we were, I'll never deny that. But trash we weren't. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure what 'trash' is. There were times we had nothing to eat but cornbread and water. But we always had compassion for people. When I was growing up, we never had any prejudice. We never put anybody down. Neither did Elvis.

About the time Elvis reached his teens, we all moved to Memphis. Elvis may have hated to go off and leave his Mississippi friends but, if he did, he didn't say anything to me about it. He was a good son.

Gladys and I trusted him so completely that we'd go to a movie and let him have friends over for a party while we were gone. I expect there was some beer drinking that went on, but that's about as wild as it got.

To tell you the truth, Elvis never did drink a lot. Although, once he about killed himself drinking peach brandy. He got a bottle and it tasted so good that he drank a little more and a little more until he'd drunk too much.

But he was never a heavy drinker.

Even after Elvis was in high school, we continued to be such a close family that he didn't spend a night away from home until he was 17 years old. Then my wife and I phoned all night to be sure he was all right.

Good Housekeeping, January 1978
Good Housekeeping, January 1978.

In high school, Elvis met a girl named Dixie Locke and decided he was in love.

Gladys and I thought maybe they would get married because Dixie was a mighty likable girl, and Elvis thought a lot of her. It didn't work out, but I still hear from Dixie to this day.

Until he was nearly grown, I had no idea what Elvis was planning to do with his future. It turned out that he wasn't too sure, either. I remember right after he graduated from high school I went into his room and found him lying on his bed. 'Son', I asked him, 'what do you Want to do now? Do you want to go to college? Because, if you do, we'll manage to send you. Do you want to go to work? What do you want to do next?'

Well, Elvis told me later those questions like to have scared him to death because they brought him to the realization that he had to make a decision. Then he told me, 'Daddy, I want to be an entertainer. I want to sing with a gospel quartet'. 'You do whatever you want to do', I said, 'and we'll help you all we can'.

It was in 1954 that, Elvis decided to give his mother a record as a gift. He went to Sun Records and recorded his first two songs: 'My Happiness' and 'That's When Your Heartaches Begin'.

There was a gospel quartet starting out about this time called the 'Song Fellows' and Elvis auditioned for them. They turned him down because they said he couldn't sing. Later, after he'd made a couple of records professionally for Sun and they were going pretty well, Elvis came to me and said, 'Daddy, you know the Song Fellows? They want me to join them now'. My answer to that was, 'To hell with the Song Fellows! You're doing okay with what you've got going, and I don't believe I would change'.

Elvis' records had turned into regional hits. He had gotten a manager, Bob Neal, who'd arranged some tours for him around the South. He came home from one of these tours talking about a great man he'd met, how smart he was and all of that. He was talking about Colonel Tom Parker, who was packaging shows then.

Elvis seemed to be leaning toward the Colonel as a manager. Gladys and I warned him that we really didn't know anything about this man and, anyway, he had an agreement With Bob Neal.

Nevertheless, the next time Elvis came home from a tour, he told us that he wanted Colonel Parker to manage him. Since Elvis was underage, his mother and I had to sign his contracts, so we went to Little Rock, where Elvis was doing a show, to meet the Colonel. This was in 1955. He seemed like a smart man, but we still didn't know too much about him so we didn't sign. A little later, we met the Colonel again in Memphis and this time he had a character witness with him - country singer Hank Snow, I believe. Elvis was so determined to go with the Colonel, that we bought out his contract with Bob Neal and changed managers.

My son's success came all of a sudden. His record of 'Baby Let's Play House' zoomed to number 10 on the national country charts. Then, later in 1955, RCA purchased Elvis' recording contract from Sun and gave Elvis a bonus. He began making appearances with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Milton Berle and so on. But it was his TV appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show that attracted the most attention. Next thing you know, he was on his way to Hollywood. Like most folks in Mississippi and Tennessee, my wife and I had heard pretty wild stories about Hollywood. But when Elvis was asked to go out there to make his first picture, we weren't alarmed, only proud and happy, because he was getting to do what he wanted to do.

Soon after, when a genuine star, Natalie Wood, came to Memphis to visit us, my wife treated her just as naturally as if she'd been one of Elvis' school friends. Natalie was just a young girl at the time, only 16 years old, and a real nice kid, not snobbish or affected in the least.

Elvis hardly ever watched the movies he made because he didn't like most of them. He'd been given $1 million a picture, plus 50 percent of the net, so he'd been well paid for his work. But he had never had script approval or control over the songs in his pictures, or over anything else. A couple of years ago, he'd been asked to do A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand but he didn't do it- - I don't know why.

Good Housekeeping, January 1978
Good Housekeeping, January 1978.

Recently, Elvis had thought about getting into production so that he could star in a picture he'd really like. He'd gone so far as to start work on a script. Elvis learned not to pay much attention to criticism or to the lies which were circulated about him. He Wasn't even worried about the book that three of his ex-bodyguards wrote recently. It did hurt him but only because he was surprised that old friends would turn on him that way.

Early on, the brutal attacks leveled against him by some critics kind of upset him. But during his 22 years in the limelight, he learned to shrug them off. Elvis always said, 'truth will prevail'.

He never forgot the philosophy expressed in 'The Penalty of Leadership' by Theodore McManus.

It said in part:

'In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are exactly the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment is fierce denial and detraction ...

'There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as the human passions: envy, fear, greed, ambition and the desire to surpass.

'And it all avails nothing. ...

'That which is good or great makes itself known no matter how loud the clamor of denial'.

He was even able to shrug it off when, during the final years of his life, he heard rumors that he was on cocaine. Elvis did take medication of several kinds, but it was all prescribed. For a while, he took diet pills, but he gave them up three years ago because he was afraid of them. After that, when he wanted to lose weight, he did it by cutting down on his food or by giving it up entirely. In fact, he'd fasted for the final 24 hours of his life. He did take sleeping pills because he felt that he needed eight to 10 hours of sleep to perform well. Not too long before he died, he had a very complete physical examination. The doctors discovered that he had some liver damage, a colon problem and high blood pressure. That worried me more than the rest. Elvis took prescribed medicine for his blood pressure and may have taken an occasional painkiller.

Because he was basically a night person, he didn't get out of doors as often as I thought he should, so I used to talk to him about that, and urge him to get more sun. Then he'd make it a point to sit by the pool some. But he preferred to stay awake until late at night and get his sleep by day. l'm sure he didn't take illegal, hard drugs for several reasons. In the first place, he'd seen what drugs had done to people he'd known and he didn't want to wind up like that. Further, for his daughter Lisa's sake, he wouldn't have taken such drugs.

On the other hand, the story that Elvis shot at the TV set is true. But he was in his own home and shot out his own TV set and when he'd done it he could afford to buy a new one.

I'll bet there's not one person reading this story who hasn't sometimes felt so frustrated looking at some TV show that he wouldn't have liked to have thrown his shoe at the set or shot at it or something.

Elvis had a permit to carry a gun. I've seen him pretend he was going to draw it at times to scare somebody, but he wasn't gun-crazy by any means. The subject of Elvis wearing a gun brings up the danger he was often in. The most frightened I ever was for his safety was early in his career in Jacksonville, Florida. He'd been performing on a flatbed truck and, when he tried to get to his dressing-room trailer, the crowd simply swept over him. Fans rocked his trailer so hard that he tried to get back to the stage. But, again, the crowd swept over him, tearing at him until he was left with nothing on except his pants. He had bleeding scratches under his arms where his shirt had been pulled off. I'd never seen anything like that before. I thought Elvis was going to be killed right then. The crowd was as out of hand as a lynch mob.

Elvis, though, had his worst scare only a few years ago at the Las Vegas Hilton. We got a call there from Los Angeles saying that a man was on his way to shoot him on stage. The caller said that for $50,000 he'd tell us who the man was and how to intercept him. The FBI took the threat pretty seriously, and so did I, so seriously that I told the agents to tell the caller we'd pay. But somehow the contact broke down, and on the night of Elvis' opening, we thought a killer might actually be in the audience.

The hotel asked Elvis not ‘to go on, and so did I. There's no denying that he was afraid, but he insisted on doing that show, and the rest of the engagement. And, as you know, nothing happened.

We got kidnap threats from time to time, but they didn't worry us much since we figured that a competent kidnapper wouldn't warn his intended victim of what he was planning to do.

A great deal has been written about Elvis' romances. Naturally, I don't know everything that went on between Elvis and the various girls in his life. I gave advice when he asked for it. I was there when he needed me. But I didn't pry. However, I do know that he was a man who liked women and who always needed a special one with whom he could share things. I guess he was like most people in that he needed to love and be loved. He dated lots of girls in Los Angeles, Memphis and other places and was serious about several of them. At one period, it looked like he and Anita Wood were going to marry because when two people date for six years, you suspect they've got something serious in mind. And he liked Barbara Hearn, a very lovely girl, awfully well.

His mother and I didn't try to influence Elvis' choice of a wife any more than we'd tried to influence his choice of a career. We didn't care whom he married just so long as she was the girl with whom he'd be happiest.

Gladys had died before the Army sent Elvis to Germany, where he met Priscilla Beaulieu. I'd remarried by the time Priscilla came to Memphis to finish high school, so she stayed with my second wife Dee and me.

Being an Air Force officer's daughter, Priscilla had been brought up to be disciplined and strong-minded, but she is also a tender and loving girl. I believe that Elvis' marriage to her failed simply because he realized after the wedding that he didn't really want to be married. When he was traveling, it wasn't practical for Priscilla to go along all the time, especially after Lisa was born. These separations put a strain on their relationship.

Elvis, Prescilla and Lisa Marie Presley.
Elvis, Prscilla and Lisa Marie Presley.

I want to emphasize that although he had to leave her often, Elvis was crazy about his little girl Lisa and she adored her daddy. When Lisa wasn't in school and he wasn't on the road, she'd come to Memphis and they'd play together in his home, Graceland, for hours.

A lot of people have asked about the girls who shared the final years of Elvis' life. Of them all, I think Linda Thompson was the best for him. She was always with him, caring about him. And, though I don't know why they broke up, that may have been one of the reasons. Possibly Elvis felt that her love was beginning to choke him. Sheila Ryan was another fine little girl. I don't know why she and Elvis quit seeing each other either, but I was surprised when she married someone else so soon after their breakup.

I never got to know Ginger Alden well. She's not much of a talker, but a while back Elvis told me he'd fallen in love with her. 'This is the love I've been searching for', he said. 'I want more children, a son. And I want Ginger to be my children's mother'. After that, Ginger and Elvis came over to show me her engagement ring. That was one of the few times I'd ever seen her smiling. I assumed they were going to get married, but nothing happenéd and Whenever I tried to talk to Elvis about Ginger, he'd seem upset.

Finally, just a day or so before he died, I told him, 'I keep hearing and reading that you're going to announce your engagement. Is that right? When are you going to get married?' 'Only God knows', Elvis said.

I got a feeling then that maybe he was changing his mind about marriage.

The papers have played up the fact that neither Priscilla nor Ginger was mentioned in Elvis' will. In answer to that, I want to point out that Ginger had already gotten her share of gifts from Elvis. As for Priscilla, she didn't expect to be mentioned, because Elvis had made his settlement with her when they were divorced.

Stories have misrepresented the details of Elvis' private life in every possible way.

Whatever his private life may have been, none of his employees, friends or associates ever went without anything they wanted or needed- - be it Cadillacs or diamond rings and furs for their wives. Elvis gave lavishly because it was his nature to be generous. He wanted to share his good fortune with everyone who was close to him. I remember a time not too long ago when I felt that he was carrying too big a crew, so I advised, 'You don't need all of them, especially some who just seem to be out for what they want'. Elvis stopped me cold, answering, 'You see their wants. I look beyond their wants and can see their needs.'

Though Elvis never went into hiding as erroneously reported, he did enjoy privacy, just like we all do-so he'd spend time in his room, reading or talking with one or two good friends.

Elvis Presley.
Elvis Presley.

I spent some of the happiest moments of my life sitting and talking with Elvis.

A few days before he died, Elvis and I talked at Graceland for five or six hours about all sorts of things until I finally said, 'Son, I have to go home now and get something to eat'.

'I know, Daddy', Elvis told me. 'But I want you to know that I've really enjoyed this'. So had I.

There are so many unanswered questions about Elvis' death for which I must find answers. How long had he been lying there on the floor before his body was discovered? Why hadn't somebody at Graceland wondered where he was and if he was all right? These are two of the questions I want answered.

I know he hadn't been able to sleep the night before he died and had played racquetball at about four or five o'clock in the morning. Then what happened?

I want to know.

Joe Esposito, one of Elvis' crew, was with me in the office when he got a call from the house and told me he had to go up there right away. I continued with some work until the phone rang again and Patsy, our secretary, answered. 'It's Joe', she said. 'He sounds funny' I took the phone and Joe told me, 'Mr. Presley, come up fast. Elvis isn't breathing'. I haven't been well for some time now, so Patsy had to help me to the house. As soon as I saw Elvis, I knew immediately that he was gone.

The things that happened after that are hard to put into perspective. Some were so unbelievable and I was so grieved I could scarcely grasp what was going on. For instance, I didn't pay any attention to security. I never dreamed that one of Elvis' own cousins would take a picture of him in his casket and sell it to a sensational newspaper. Nor, when I met Caroline Kennedy, did I guess that she'd come to the funeral to do a story. In fact, when we were introduced, I didn't know who she was.

I was with my mother and sister when Priscilla came in with someone she introduced as Caroline Kennedy. I still thought of President Kennedy's daughter as a cute little girl, so I didn't identify the young lady until after she'd left me. Then I heard somebody say, 'That was President Kennedy's daughter', and I thought, 'She's going to think I'm crazy as hell not knowing who she Was'. So I went out and found her and told her that we were honored to have her there and that we welcomed her to Graceland A little bit later, Priscilla told me that Caroline wanted to see Elvis' trophy room. I said that I couldn't show it to her then, but that if she'd stay over until the day after the funeral, I'd do it. As far as I know, Caroline didn't stay. Because I was dazed with shock and misery, I didn't see or recognize some of the people at the funeral. Ann-Margret and I hugged each other and cried together, but I didn't even see her husband, Roger Smith, who was close by.

Vernon Presley, Elvis Presley's father, places a rose on his son's grave Nov. 24, 1977, as newspeople were permitted inside the grounds at Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., for the first time since Elvis' funeral.
Vernon Presley places a rose on his son's grave November 24, 1977, as newspeople were permitted inside the grounds at Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., for the first time since Elvis' funeral: View more Photos from August 16-19, 1977.

During Elvis' 22-year career, Colonel Parker handled the show business side of his life, while I tried to handle‘ Elvis' personal affairs. Now that he's gone, I shall continue to look after his affairs until all unfinished business has been attended to'. I may move into Graceland now because my mother and sister have lived there for years and need someone with them. Also, it may be easier for me to handle Elvis' un- finished business from Graceland than from my present house. We received permission from the city of Memphis to move Elvis' body to Graceland, where security is easier to maintain. I also brought Elvis' mother back home to be buried. If possible, Elvis' baby brother, Jesse, will be moved from Mississippi to lie beside them. Elvis sometimes talked about bringing his twin's body to Memphis and I may go ahead with his plan. To go back to what I said at the beginning of this story, I am more heartbroken than I can express over Elvis' death, yet I'm comforted by the sure knowledge that my son was a gift from God and his life was always in God's hands. From one point of view, I would have wished him to live forever, yet I know that his early death, like all of his life, was a part of God's plan. I thank God that He blessed me with such a son.

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Elvis Presley Video Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD

Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.

This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.

The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.

Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.