The Seeker King: A Spiritual Biography of Elvis Presley

The Seeker King: A Spiritual Biography of Elvis Presley

by Gary Tillery

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A woman in the audience once handed Elvis a crown saying, "You're the King." "No, honey," Elvis replied. "There is only one king -- Jesus Christ. I'm just a singer." Gary Tillery presents a coherent view of Elvis's thoughts through such anecdotes and other recorded facts. We learn, for instance, that Elvis read thousands of books on religion; that his crisis over


A woman in the audience once handed Elvis a crown saying, "You're the King." "No, honey," Elvis replied. "There is only one king -- Jesus Christ. I'm just a singer." Gary Tillery presents a coherent view of Elvis's thoughts through such anecdotes and other recorded facts. We learn, for instance, that Elvis read thousands of books on religion; that his crisis over making bimbo movies like Girl Happy led him to writers such as Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, and Helena Blavatsky; and that, while driving in Arizona, an epiphany he had inspired him to learn Hindu practice. Elvis came to believe that the Christ shines in everyone and that God wanted him to use his light to uplift people. And so he did. Elvis's excesses were as legendary as his generosity, yet, despite his lethal reliance on drugs, he remained ever spiritually curious. When he died, he was reading A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus. This intimate, objective portrait inspires new admiration for the flawed but exceptional man who said, "All I want is to know and experience God. I'm a searcher, that's what I'm all about."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Much as he did for George Harrison in Working Class Mystic, Tillery ploddingly traces the spiritual dimensions of Elvis Presley's life. Retelling the already well-told tale (see Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis) of this young Mississippian's somewhat unlikely ascent to the heights of popular music, Tillery focuses on Elvis's 1964 meeting with Larry Geller, his hairdresser. Geller became Elvis's spiritual director, introducing him to a book that revealed to the musician his purpose in life—to serve others—and set him on a short-lived journey through a variety of spiritual traditions, from his own Pentecostal Christianity to Hinduism, Gnosticism, and New Age teachings. Yet Presley's manager, the domineering Colonel Parker, feeling threatened by Geller and the changes he witnessed in Elvis's personality under Geller's tutelage, eventually made it difficult for the hairdresser to remain in Elvis' entourage. Once Geller left, Elvis descended into the self-destructive behavior and excess that characterized his last seven years and from which he never recovered. Tillery illustrates Presley's deep insecurities and constant need for love, but his portrait of Elvis as a saint and seeker is ultimately unconvincing. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"Over fifty years ago, a talented young singer named Elvis Presley made one of his first appearances on my TV show in New York. Even then, I could see he had a very special presence. Here in this great new book, I feel like I got to know this complex and remarkable man even more than I did before. The Seeker King is a real gift for Elvis fans everywhere!" --Joe Franklin, legendary broadcaster

"While chronicling the full arc of the life and career of Elvis Presley, Gary Tillery zeros in on Presley's constant search for inner peace and spiritual growth. The Seeker King probes beyond Elvis' meteoric rise, worldwide impact, and ultimate demise, casting light on many of the man's personal quests that played out behind the scenes This book will be treasured by Elvis fans everywhere." --Dave Zimmer, author of Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography

"Elvis Presley was an icon of sex, stardom, and rock and roll, but beneath the glitz and Las Vegas glamour brooded a sensitive soul, deeply troubled by life's mysteries. Gary Tillery's highly readable biography shows us another side of the King, as a seeker eager to grasp life's secret meanings, and to explore a whole range of spiritual paths. Elvis may have left the building, but as this book shows, his spirit carries on."
--Gary Lachman, former Blondie bassist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and popular religion writer

"As a big Elvis fan, I thought I had read everything there was to read about him. But this book explores new areas and goes further into old ones. It's a must for Elvis fans and is now definitely a new addition to my library."
--Fred Willard, actor

"This is one fantastic book. The spiritual search that Elvis took to the very moment of his death is eye opening. His goodness is everywhere. He was generous and kind to those he loved and those he didn't. He was sure in his love of God and wanted to be closer to him. A wonderful and spiritual book for every fan and every seeker."
--Mary Willard, playwright, "Elvis and Juliet"

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The Seeker King

A Spiritual Biography of Elvis Presley

By Gary Tillery

Theosophical Publishing House

Copyright © 2013 G.G. Tillery, LLC
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8356-3086-3



Elvis Aaron Presley was born in one of the poorest parts of America at the very bottom of the Great Depression—at 4:35 a.m. on January 8, 1935. Gladys Love Smith Presley, unable to afford a hospital visit, gave birth to him in a little two-room house at 386 Old Saltillo Road in East Tupelo, Mississippi. Three women, including Vernon Presley's mother, Minnie, and a midwife named Edna Robinson, helped Gladys until the delivery neared. Then Vernon brought Doctor William Hunt to take over.

Many years later, Vernon would recall strolling around outside that night as he nervously awaited the birth of his first child. He remembered the January chill and being buffeted by a wind. After a while the wind died down to silence, and he noticed a strange blue glow surrounding the house. That was when he heard sounds from inside and went in to check.

Gladys had suspected she was carrying twins, and Doctor Hunt was delivering the first. Tragically, the boy was stillborn. A half hour passed before the second child emerged. Vernon recalled that he and Gladys were so worried the second boy might die too that they placed him in the warmest place in the house—the oven—wrapped snugly and nestled in a shoebox.

They named the stillborn boy Jesse—for Vernon's father—and buried him in an unmarked grave in Priceville Cemetery. The younger twin was given Vernon's middle name, Elvis. The Presleys intended the middle names of the two—Garon and Aaron—to rhyme, pronounced with a long a, and Doctor Hunt reflected the pronunciation when he filled out the birth certificate two days later, registering the boy as Elvis Aron Presley. Because it appeared that way on his birth certificate, the unusual spelling of Elvis's middle name would be used on his Social Security card and his US Army records, but he later clarified that he preferred the traditional spelling, and his tombstone reads Elvis Aaron Presley.

The Presley family lived in a neighborhood with unpaved streets, situated literally across the tracks from Tupelo proper. Their simple house consisted of two small rooms enclosed by whitewashed wood walls. Having no foundation, it was propped up on cinder blocks, and the surrounding yard was barren dirt. Coal oil lamps provided all light, and there was no heating. Water came from a hand-cranked pump outside, and the only toilet was an outhouse. Vernon built the house himself, with the help of his brother, Vester, and his father, Jessie. He paid for the land and materials by borrowing $180 from a dairy farmer named Orville Bean, agreeing to repay the amount in monthly payments.

Gladys had met Vernon at a service in the First Assembly of God Church, where her uncle was one of the pastors. Both children of sharecroppers, they were so poor that when they eloped in June 1933 they had to borrow three dollars from friends to pay for the marriage license. When Gladys gave up her job after the birth of their son to stay home with him, the family struggled to get by on Vernon's earnings. He was only nineteen, and unskilled. He did whatever work came his way, from milkman to day laborer to carpenter, but times were brutally hard. He would later recall, "There were times we had nothing to eat but corn bread and water."

Then things took a turn for the worse. Just after Elvis turned three, Vernon found himself in trouble with the law. He sold Orville Bean a hog, and after they haggled Bean wrote Vernon a check to cover the purchase. Perhaps believing that he had been taken on the deal, or perhaps that he was the victim of a misunderstanding—the circumstances are unclear—Vernon or one of two friends with him at the time altered the check, assuming Bean wouldn't notice. Bean did notice and took the three men to court. In May 1938 all three received three-year sentences and were sent to Mississippi State Penitentiary. Those who knew Vernon understood it as an indiscretion, an error from weakness. They never thought ill of him and recognized that Bean was simply making an example. In fact, Vernon's neighbors soon submitted a petition, to which Bean attached a letter asking for the sentence to be suspended, and all three men were released in February 1939.

Even though Vernon's absence lasted only nine months, it took a harsh toll. Gladys was unable to keep up the payments on the house and had to move in first with her in-laws, then with her cousins. She took a job at a laundry in Tupelo. As her meager pay allowed, she and little Elvis made the five-hour bus ride to see Vernon on weekends.

Buffeted by fate, the Presleys never lost their faith in God. They were regulars at the First Assembly of God Church, which had begun in a tent on an empty lot in their neighborhood. By 1937 it was a wooden building on Adams Street, built by the preacher—a man who happened to be Elvis's great-uncle, the husband of Gladys's aunt. Elvis's earliest memory was of sitting in his mother's lap during the church service there, becoming so enraptured by the singing that he did his best to sing along. No more than two or three, he recalled slipping out of his mother's grip and racing to the front of the church to join the chorus. He couldn't sing the lyrics, but he mimicked the chorus and followed the melody.

As part of a fundamentalist denomination, the First Assembly of God Church in Tupelo accepted the writings in the Bible as the literal word of God and took a rock-ribbed view of proper human behavior. After all, God had not sent Moses down from Mount Horeb with the Ten Suggestions. When Jesus said, in Mark 16:16, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned," he was giving voice to God's will. There was no wiggle room.

As a Pentecostal group, the members accepted and even treasured the visits of the Holy Spirit into their lives. When God singles you out to infuse you with his awesome power, how can you possibly sit still? When you're on fire, don't you have to move? Sunday services were filled with uninhibited displays of swaying, shaking, rising up, clapping, shouting, and dancing around the room to vent enthusiasm. (One day Elvis would take their uninhibited physicality to the stage, showing the music he was feeling.) The Assembly of God Church also took to heart Mark 16:17–18: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." There are no tales of handling snakes or casting out demons, but Elvis believed in faith healing. As an adult he practiced the laying on of hands himself.

Gladys worshiped Elvis from the time he was born. Perhaps because she had lost his twin at birth, she was extremely protective. He recalled that she never let him out of her sight. After he started school, she fell into the habit of walking him there every day hand-in-hand—a custom that persisted through elementary school, in spite of the embarrassment it caused him.

Shy and lonely, he often visited the gravesite of his deceased twin. It is safe to assume that he spoke to his brother. At the age of four or five he began to hear a voice in his head, which he identified as Jesse. (As an adult, he referred often to his "psychic twin.") The voice told him to love and care for other people, to try to see their point of view. The voice, for him, became his conscience.

He grew into a gentle, caring boy. Vernon recalled asking him once to come along when he went out hunting. Elvis replied, "Daddy, I don't want to kill birds." Touched, Vernon decided not to press the issue. Why try to overcome such good-hearted convictions?

For Christmas of 1940, just prior to his sixth birthday, Vernon and Gladys managed to find enough money to give Elvis a red-and-gold tricycle for a gift. For days he rode it around the yard, thrilled. Then one day it could not be found. Gladys asked him if he had loaned it to someone. He answered that no, he had given it away. Both she and his father were confounded, thinking of the hard-earned money they had spent. Vernon retrieved the tricycle from the understanding parents of the other child. For a day Elvis rode the tricycle around again, and then it disappeared once more. This time they let it go. They missed the money, but wasn't an innate desire to share a quality most parents would welcome in their child?

Elvis started school in the fall of 1941. He attended East Tupelo Consolidated, which taught children from the first through the twelfth grades. He was unremarkable in his early years of school. "Sweet and average" was the way one teacher described him. The chaotic swirl of students of so many different ages intimidated him, and he developed an occasional stutter that aggravated his natural shyness.

The family had moved back to Tupelo after an extended stay in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1940. Willing to go anywhere for work, Vernon had learned of a federal project to expand the shipyards there. They spent several months on the Gulf Coast before returning to familiar ground. Three months after Elvis started school in East Tupelo the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and with that America entered the world war. Suddenly the military buildup created a boom in employment everywhere. In 1942 Vernon helped to construct a POW camp in Como, Mississippi. In 1943 he found steady work in a munitions plant in Memphis and moved there. He tried repeatedly to find a room so he could bring his family to Memphis, but landlords discouraged tenants with children. For two years he saw Gladys and Elvis only on those weekends he was able to travel home to Tupelo.

As soon as the war ended, in August 1945, Vernon returned home with his savings. He put a down payment on a house on Berry Street in East Tupelo, one owned by his old friend and nemesis Orville Bean, and became a deacon in the church. Perhaps prodded by his father in his new role, Elvis answered the call at about this time, offering himself up for baptism and committing his life to Jesus.

Vernon was a naturally taciturn man, and his shame over having served time in prison made him even more circumspect in public. To many people his tight-lipped demeanor came across as antisocial. Some recognized, however, that behind the facade there was often a dry wit and a hidden smile ("he laughed with his eyes"). Elvis, as an adult, would display the same wry sense of humor and reminded friends and relations of his father. Gladys balanced out Vernon's dour attitude with laughter and a gregarious spirit. She was always ready to mingle, although no one ever doubted that her shy and withdrawn son forever took priority in her life. Constantly embattled by life and tight finances, the Presleys clung together in a tight-knit trio, even in the midst of friends or relatives. Vernon recalled that they lived in their own little world.

According to Gladys's cousin Leona Richards, all three Presleys were subject to bouts of sleepwalking (she called them "action nightmares") while they lived in her house. But Elvis was particularly prone. He once walked out of the apartment where they were staying dressed only in his underwear. A female neighbor happened to see him and woke him. Mortified, Elvis dashed back into the house. His tendency carried with it an element of danger. During his stay in California to film Loving You, he came near to stepping out of an eleventh-story window in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. His cousin Gene Smith caught hold of him at the last moment. The fear of embarrassing himself or getting into a dangerous situation caused Elvis to sleep with his parents until well into his teens. He worried about sleepwalking all of his life and dreaded sleeping alone.

Music drew him. He heard it as a faint siren call and began to follow, unsure where it was leading him but feeling he was on the right path. One of his neighbors in East Tupelo was Carvel Lee Ausborn, a radio personality who worked under the stage name of Mississippi Slim. Slim had a show on the Tupelo radio station WELO called Singin' and Pickin' Hillbilly and took part in a weekend program called Saturday Jamboree, where amateurs could stand in line and wait for their turn at the microphone. A talented guitarist, Slim met and played with all the musicians who passed through Tupelo, and he had performed in groups a couple of times at the Opry in Nashville. From the age of eight, Elvis idolized him. He prevailed on Slim to play behind him when he sang on Jamboree. Slim obliged and thought Elvis did a good job for an eight-year-old, but he confided to a fellow musician, "The kid can't keep time."

Elvis's first taste of success as a performer came in October 1945. Not long after beginning the fifth grade, he was picked to lead the morning prayer session. After the prayer he unexpectedly segued into "Old Shep," with lyrics about a boy and his faithful dog. The teacher was so impressed by his mournful rendition that she brought him to the attention of the principal. He promptly entered Elvis in a talent contest sponsored by WELO, which was to take place on October 3 at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show at Tupelo's fairgrounds. Events at the show included such farm-country diversions as horse pulls, cattle auctions, and livestock shows, and the entertainment included a contingent from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville that featured Minnie Pearl. When it came time for the talent contest, Elvis couldn't reach the microphone and had to climb onto a chair. Without any instrument or vocal accompaniment—just a towheaded ten-year-old in glasses—he sang "Old Shep" with enough conviction to stir the crowd and take away a prize. Elvis recalled placing fifth; others maintain it was second place. Regardless, he had a huge boost to his self-esteem, and the satisfaction of knowing that he could sing in front of a large crowd and be appreciated.

After his success at the fair, Gladys and Vernon encouraged Elvis by buying him his first guitar for his eleventh birthday. It was a tiny, inexpensive "Gene Autry-type" model, and the strings stretched so high above the neck that he found it difficult to play. He began learning the chords he found in a book, and the pastor of the church taught him a few other chords and some flourishes. He began to accompany himself with guitar when he was called on to perform for the congregation during the musical portion of Sunday services.

In the summer of 1946, Vernon was back in financial trouble. No longer able to make payments on the house on Berry Street, he turned it over to a friend and moved across the tracks to Tupelo. He scrambled to find work and ended up with a food wholesaler, delivering groceries to small stores. He could afford only a very cheap house next to Shake Rag, the "colored" section of town. Some of the salesmen for the company pitied him and slipped him promotional samples of the company's canned foods.

That fall Elvis started sixth grade at Milam School. The Presleys moved yet again the following year, to a house on Green Street, but at least Elvis could attend the same school. The new house was part of an enclave surrounded by African-American houses, churches, and social clubs, and Elvis was exposed daily to black culture.

Gladys firmly believed, and impressed on Elvis, that when a twin died the surviving twin received all the strength of both. Perhaps having that perceived reservoir of strength played a role in his growing sense of self-identity. As time went on he started to chart his own course regardless of what others thought or said. His nonconformist streak began to manifest in the seventh grade, when he started carrying his guitar to school. He stored it in his locker every day until lunchtime. Then he and his friend Billy Welch would go down to the basement in Milam School and sing gospel songs until it was time to go back to class.


Excerpted from The Seeker King by Gary Tillery. Copyright © 2013 G.G. Tillery, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A native of the Southwest, Gary Tillery was born in Phoenix in 1947. In 1968-69 he served in Vietnam with the United States Air Force. His enlistment was over in 1970. After two decades in the business world, primarily as co-owner of an advertising agency in suburban Chicago, he turned his time and energy to his lifelong passion for literature and art. He published a collection of interrelated short stories set in Vietnam titled "Darkling Plain", and began a series of humorous novels featuring "soft-boiled" detective Jack Savage--the first two titled Death, Be Not Loud and To An Aesthete Dying Young. Tillery is also a professional sculptor. His most prominent work is the sculpture for the Vietnam Memorial in Chicago. He also created the bronze bust of Steve Allen for the Steve Allen Theater in Hollywood; and through his association with the Rotblatt-Amrany Studio he created, among other works, the life-size bronze of Luis Aparicio at U. S. Cellular Field.

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