The Time a Fully Loaded Elvis Presley Showed up at the White House
Elvis Presley, the Legend
Depending on which stage of Elvis Presley’s life you most admire goes a long way to how you remember the king of rock and roll. Skinny Elvis, or fat Elvis? Hip shaking Elvis with a guitar, or crooning Elvis in a jumpsuit?
Of course, not everyone is a fan, but worldwide Presley is estimated to have sold one billion records. He was a rich, famous and incredibly odd individual who had some extremely bizarre infatuations. Presley the celebrity is impossible to forget but was there another Elvis we didn’t know?
Growing up Poor
Elvis Aron Presley (his middle name spelling was changed later to Aaron) was born in the middle of America’s heartland in East Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8. 1935. His arrival came 35 minutes after his identical twin brother, Jesse, was stillborn.
Life as a child was never easy for Elvis. His father spent a year behind bars in 1938 for forging a check, and the Presley family lived a relatively meager lifestyle while Vernon Presley hopped from low-paying job to low-paying job.
The Guitar Elvis Didn't Want
In the Presley household, money was always an issue. Young Elvis grew up loving Captain Marvel Jr, the World’s Mightiest Boy. Like many neighborhood kids his age, he was always on the hunt for adventure. For his 11th birthday, he wanted a bicycle. And a .22 rifle.
Instead, he got a guitar. Bought at the Tupelo Hardware Store, Gladys Presley paid $6.95 (about $98 today) for the present that would change her son’s life forever. Stories vary, but some report Elvis not being thrilled with the purchase.
Music Was Cool, but Something Else Was on His Mind
It’s not that Elvis didn’t love music; it was everywhere around him during his formative years. He’d stand in front of the gospel choir in church as a toddler mimicking their gestures and singing along. He listened to blues, country — even opera.
In 1948 the Presley family picked up anchor and moved from Tupelo to Memphis, Tennessee. It was in Memphis that, along with the fashion style he’d soon be famous for, Elvis really started to become infatuated with the men in blue.
Hints of Things to Come
While in high school, Presley worked odd jobs to keep fresh strings on his guitar. He had an infatuation with James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause. And he started to dye his blonde hair black.
The world knows Elvis as a superstar on stage, but the young Presley and his guitar actually failed high school music. Elvis wanted to do what his buddies were doing, and many of them were signing up to become police officers.
The Window of Fame Starts to Open
With high school over and his classmates off looking to earn a badge and a pistol, 18-year-old Elvis wandered down to the Memphis Recording Service (home of Sun Records) with $3.95 of his own money to put a song to tape in August of 1953. He did, and it went nowhere.
One year later, Elvis was called back to the studio to record “That’s Alright.” The year was 1954, Elvis was 19, and music was changed forever.
Source: Elvis Presley: The Early Years
The Money Starts Flying
In the span of just over a year, Elvis Presley would go from being a fresh-faced high school graduate who was driving a delivery truck for Crown Electric to being the bane of every parent and the dream of teenage girls across America.
Elvis and his two-piece backing band made their live radio debut on October 16, 1954, and shortly after that RCA came calling on Presley with a contract worth $40,000 (just over $377,000 today). That’s the kind of money that can buy a lot of bikes. And guns.
America Gets Introduced to the Kid From Memphis
With that radio momentum and the hefty backing of RCA, Presley and the band made their way to New York City to appear on The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show. It was his television debut and his new manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was watching from the wings.
The studio had some empty seats that night, but the audience that was there was primarily made up of screaming teenage girls. Elvis followed that up with spots on Milton Berle and Steve Allen before finally hitting the “bigs.”
Kids Loved Elvis. Parents? Not so Much
On September 9, 1956, Elvis made his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was part of a three-show deal engineered by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and it paid the young star the astronomical amount of $50,000 ($465,000 today).
The money was worth it for Sullivan, who had initially said he wanted nothing to do with Presley’s hip shaking, That first show brought in over 60 million viewers. Hyperventilating teenage girls were great, but there were other people Elvis really wanted to like him: police officers.
There Was Always a Connection to Home
Even as success and cross-country fame started to become part of everyday life for Elvis, he never hid the fact that he always admired anyone in uniform, especially the police.
In between stints in New York for television appearances he’d fly back to Memphis, always finding time to visit a precinct for some photo opportunities. Part of this was due to his buddies from school now being on the city’s force, so these stops also doubled as a reunion amongst friends.
Source: Elvis Presley and the Police
The Rebel Who Wanted to be Liked
When Elvis returned on January 6, 1957, for the last of the three performances he was booked for on The Ed Sullivan Show, he also brought with him a reputation for being a bad boy, ironic labeling considering his love of anything to do with the police and upholding the law.
Two years after James Dean’s culture-changing Rebel Without a Cause hit the big screens in 1955, Elvis and his belt line gyrations on Sullivan were famously censored by CBS, with the camera shooting Presley from the waist up only.
A Whole Lot of Swagger and Sweat
Elvis’ concert appearances did nothing to quell his image of being a charismatic hyper-sexualized hellion. During one live appearance in 1956, 100 National Guardsmen were required to help keep the crowd under control while Elvis and his constantly shimmying left leg and hips did their thing.
When a reporter asked Elvis about toning down his “wiggle,” Presley had this to say: “Well, sir, you take the wiggle out of it, and it’s finished.”
The Graceland Years
That wiggle helped Elvis purchase the home that would forever become synonymous with the Presley name and image. The Graceland estate in Memphis, acquired for $102,000 in 1957 ($950,000 in today’s dollars), would house the entire Presley clan: Elvis’ mother, father and grandmother.
It would act as a home base for Elvis as Colonel Tom Parker relentlessly worked to get Elvis back into show business full-time following his military service. For Presley, it eventually became a sanctuary from the prying eyes of the public.
Johnny Cash and Elvis?
Elvis wasn’t alone in the world of music outlaws. Johnny Cash was taking country music by storm during the ’50s, and he and Elvis recorded together for an afternoon along with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (later branded as the Million Dollar Quartet).
This unlikely duo shared a mutual respect for one another and would often do spot-on impersonations of the other during concerts. Cash was probably living the life everyone thought Elvis did — he was arrested seven times over a 10-year timespan starting in 1959.
Elvis Gets Drafted
So as Johnny Cash was heading towards a hellish battle with amphetamine addiction, Elvis Presley was the recipient of a draft notice from Uncle Sam. It was the end of December. 1957, and the 22-year-old, who registered for duty availability at 18 as required by American law at the time, was given a year reprieve to finish filming “King Creole.”
In March of 1958, Elvis began his Army career. How big was this? Even his new haircut made headlines across the country.
He's in the Army Now
For the next two years, Elvis served in the Company C scout platoon while stationed in Friedberg, Germany. It was during this time that Elvis’ mother, Gladys, passed away. The grieving recruit received 100,00 letters of support from his fans.
Despite this heartache, Elvis was about to find a new love in his life. In an odd twist that mirrored his ever-increasing appreciation for the police, Elvis found himself trying to impress a man in uniform in order to court the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Elvis, Meet Priscilla
Priscilla Beaulieu grew up with on-base life as the only one she really knew. The future Mrs. Presley’s stepfather, Paul Beaulieu, was a captain in the U.S. Air Force and a career military man. The future Mrs. Presley was only 14 at the time of their first meeting when they were introduced by mutual military friends.
There was one big problem: Captain Beaulieu was not keen on Elvis hanging out with his stepdaughter. Elvis needed some a big assist from his Army wardrobe to help make his case.
A Sex Symbol Becomes a Father
If you’re going to try and convince a father who lives a very regimented life surrounded by law and order that you’re the guy who should be dating his daughter, showing up at his house in your full dress Army uniform, complete with white hat and gloves to match, is a good move to make.
The strategy worked. The only thing Elvis’ wardrobe plan was missing was any kind of shiny badge, an item he would become strangely fixated on as time passed.
Showbiz Becomes Presley's Life Again
The young couple was rarely apart as Elvis, ten years Priscilla’s senior, wrapped up his tour of duty in Germany. It is said that the teenaged Priscilla was understandably infatuated with the new man in her life.
As odd as some people found the relationship and its substantial age difference, the press, for the most, part, left the lovebirds alone. However, Priscilla being a minor with a father stationed overseas meant that Elvis’ 1960 discharge was going to be a problem for the two.
Elvis Is Back, All Right
Elvis landed in Fort Dix, NewJersey, on March 3, 1960. His officially Army discharge came two days later. High schooler Priscilla was left alone, and it didn’t take long for rumors to start circulating about Elvis and the female stars of the time.
It was three weeks before Elvis contacted Priscilla, still insisting she was ‘the one.’ Newspapers claimed otherwise, with reports over the next two years linking her boyfriend to Nancy Sinatra, Juliet Prowse, Tuesday Weld and Anita Wood.
What Does Tricky Dick Have to Do With Any of This?
Yes, Elvis loved Priscilla. He also loved women in general. Despite the near-constant rumors of his infidelity the couple was married on May 1, 1967.
While all of this was going on, Richard Nixon was making a massive political comeback that would see him eventually becoming America’s 37th president in 1969. Little did Nixon know how his being elected would lead to one of the strangest meetings to ever take place in the history of the White House.
Source: Richard M. Nixon
The Couple Finally Ties the Knot
On the morning of May 1, 1967, Elvis and Priscilla were finally married. Colonel Tom took care of the arrangements, and during a ten-minute-long ceremony at the Aladdin Hotel in Los Vegas, the couple exchanged vows in front of Nevada Supreme Court Justice David Zenoff.
Always the showman, Parker ushered the couple into a press conference as soon as the small ceremony was over. This was followed by a breakfast reception for 100 guests and, of course, lots of press ‘guests’ armed with cameras.
Two Weddings, a Comeback Special and a Daughter
After a honeymoon in Palm Springs, the newlyweds returned to Graceland where they tossed another party in honor of their nuptials. Less than a year later the couple welcomed their only child, Lisa Marie.
This was a time when Elvis was also reclaiming his cool factor on the music front, something that had waned over the previous years. His televised 1968 Comeback Special re-introduced the world to the King of Rock and Roll and the legendary black leather suit he wore during it.
The King Begins Living a Different Kind of Dream
It has been reported that following the birth of Lisa Marie, Elvis essentially ignored Priscilla in the bedroom. She even wrote in her own memoir Elvis had told her “that he had never been able to make love to a woman who had a child.”
This would be the beginning of the end of things for Elvis and Priscilla. Elvis was an entertainer and films and music were always going to be his calling, but there was another dream he wanted to pursue. This one involved badges, guns and America’s men in blue.
Elvis, the Wannabe Cop
From the time he was a very young boy, Elvis Presley wanted to be involved in helping the public, either as a police officer or a firefighter. It would be a dream he carried with him through to adulthood.
Watching his friends he grew up with pursuing their policing careers always left the King a little jealous. As his life in showbiz started to ramp up, Elvis began collecting badges from the police departments of the cities he’d visit while on tour across America.
Source: Elvis Presley and the Police
Getting to Know the Men in Blue
As his wardrobe choices became more extravagant, Elvis started to spend more and more time focusing on the police. Recalls one officer who knew the young Elvis back in Memphis: “I don’t care where he was, whenever he saw the police, Elvis always stopped and talked to them.”
Unfortunately, as time wore on Elvis would become addicted to a very long list of prescription medications. It was what he needed to carry on with his public persona, but around police, he could just be a kid again who wanted to get the bad guys.
How Things Got Done in the Elvis World
These drug cocktails led to a more solitary lifestyle for Presley. He always did what he could to collect a badge from wherever he toured, and in some cases he’d be given the real deal, complete with his name on it and an honorary title.
His relationship with the Memphis police was especially close, but when he wanted a badge from them he took the extra step of getting his photo taken for an accompanying ID card — in the TV room at Graceland.
That's Captain Elvis to You, Thank You Very Much
The badge that started it all came from Shelby County of Tennessee sheriff Bill Morris. It wasn’t enough for Elvis to have a badge for himself, though. As time went on he acquired them for his inner circle, playfully nicknamed “the Memphis Mafia.”
There was still one badge Elvis had his eye on, and it wasn’t just any regular city police shield. This was a treasure that needed some serious effort to get hold of, and Elvis was probably the only civilian in America who could do it.
The King Heads to the White House
In December of 1971, just a few days before Christmas, Elvis had a bit of a falling out at Graceland with his wife and father. They were concerned that Elvis had dropped over $100,000 on 32 handguns and ten Mercedes Benz for presents.
Elvis stormed out and caught a flight to Washington, then Los Angeles. After stewing in his own juices for a spell, he rounded up some badges and guns from his collection and headed back to America’s capital. His intended destination? The White House.
Richard Nixon and the Holy Grail of Law Enforcement Badges
Under a haze of a dozen prescribed medications, Elvis scrawled out a note to U.S. president Richard Nixon while on a red-eye flight back to Washington.
“Sir, I can and will be of any service that I can to help the country out.” He then went on with a request for a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge, adding, “I will be here for as long as it takes to get the credentials of a federal agent.”
Source: When Elvis Met Nixon
The Summit of the Century That No One Knew About
Arriving by limo to the White House, Presley dropped off his letter at 6:30 a.m. After a brief stop to check in at his hotel, Elvis went straight to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs offices. Understandably, they denied his request for a badge.
Thanks in large part to a Nixon aide being a huge Elvis fan, it was decided that a conference between Nixon and Presley would be a great PR move. At noon that day, decked out in a purple velvet jumpsuit, Elvis Presley arrived at the White House. With a gun.
Armed But Not Really Dangerous
Along with an impressive sampling of the badges he had collected from police departments across America, Elvis brought the president a thank you gift — a mounted WWII-era Colt .45 pistol.
It was a something Elvis decided upon at the last minute, having grabbed it off the wall of his Los Angeles mansion as he was leaving for Washington. Elvis was King, but not even he could get a gun past the Secret Service. They politely held onto the gun as Elvis was ushered in to meet the president.
What Did the Two Talk About?
With this meeting occurring before Nixon had infamously installed the recording devices which captured conversations that would help sink the president during the Watergate scandal, Egil Krogh stood close to the two men and took notes.
Elvis opened their chat by stating his opinion on the Beatles: “… a real force for anti-American spirit.” Nixon followed that with his thought on illegal drug users: “… the vanguard of anti-American protest.” From there, Elvis popped the big question. He wanted a badge.
"Can We Get Him a Badge?"
Not just any badge of course, but one from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (later known as the Drug Enforcement Agency) which had already been refused to him earlier in the day.
Presley explained to Nixon that he had been researching the effect of Communism on people and how Russia was brainwashing its citizens. He also went into detail on his findings with regards to the American drug culture. “Can we get him a badge?” Nixon asked.
Elvis Becomes an Agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs
Besides the bragging rights the badge would give him and it becoming the centerpiece of an already impressive collection, Elvis also thought it would allow him special privileges. In her 1986 memoir “Elvis and Me”, Priscilla Presley had this to say about her soon-to-be ex-husband’s infatuation:
“With the federal narcotics badge, he believed he could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.” Nixon presented Elvis with a badge, and Elvis gave Nixon a velvet jumpsuit hug in return.
Elvis Wasn't the Only Graceland Visitor That Day
When Elvis arrived at the White House he was escorted by his assistant Jerry Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West. While Presley and Nixon chatted, the two men were asked to wait outside. Elvis made sure they didn’t miss the opportunity to meet a sitting president.
The two were brought in for introductions, where Nixon presented them both with White House cuff links. After a good-natured barb at Nixon by Elvis for forgetting about Schilling and West’s wives, White House brooches were also given to them.
Letting the Badge do the Talking
Elvis’ new badge only fueled his desire to get in the trenches and help fight crime any way he could. Sometimes that meant hitting the streets with a police scanner, which he would use to listen for accident reports.
On one occasion, he beat the police to a collision and directed traffic until they arrived. He also had a flashing blue light he’d attach to the roof of his Cadillac to pull over speeders. They’d get a lecture on obeying the rules of the road, an autograph and then sent on their way.
Presley's Home Life Suffered
While all of this make-believe was going on, Elvis Presley’s home life was crumbling around him. While always a doting father to Lisa Marie, Elvis and Priscilla kept growing further apart. Both admitted to having affairs, and on the King’s 38th birthday, January 8, 1973, Priscilla filed for divorce.
It didn’t stop the two from being friends, and they actually held hands during their divorce hearing. Elvis would later go on to become engaged to 20-year-old Ginger Alden, who was with him the night he died.
Long Live the King
Presley asked the White House to keep his meeting with Nixon secret, which they did for a year. When it was finally made public, no one seemed to really care. Nixon had left office in disgrace, and Elvis was a bloated, drugged-out mess, on stage and off.
The King of Rock and Roll died while on a toilet in Graceland on August 16, 1977. When he was discovered by Alden, his body had fallen forward off the toilet, frozen in a seated position.
Elvis the Rock Star or Elvis the Lawman?
To the day he died, Elvis supported law enforcement any way he could. He financially helped officers injured in the line of duty. He built police forces gymnasiums to work out in. Some say he was generous to a fault.
The irony is hard to miss that the man seen as a fervent supporter of American law and order was also a prescription drug addict who dated a minor for several years. And the debate still lingers today: Was Elvis a musician who wanted to be a cop, or a cop who happened to be a musician?