"If you're an Elvis fan, no explanation is necessary; If you're not an Elvis fan, no explanation is possible."

(George Klein)






Elvis' "right hand" man remembers

Joe Esposito was driving to Indiana from Chicago, the city from which he first came into this life more than 70 years ago. All along the highway, it was raining.

He was on his way to the state where the Indianapolis Market Square Arena once stood; the place where Elvis Presley had given his final live performance in June 1977. Esposito attended that show, just as he had every other Presley performance dating back to 1960. Six weeks after The King of Rock 'n' Roll ruled Indiana, Esposito was summoned to Graceland where the 42-year-old singer was motionless in distress. The King was dying.

Esposito still shudders at the memory. 'I couldn't do any mouth to mouth because his mouth was closed,' Esposito said. 'Shut tight. I did the heart massage and called for an ambulance, but in my own mind, I already knew there was no bringing him back. Thirty minutes later he was gone.' Twenty-seven years later, as he drove along the lonely stretch of American highway, Esposito was thinking about that day. 'That was a tough one.'

The two met in Germany when they served in the U.S. Army together. It was 1959. Elvis was already a star. A friendship was born that endured long after they returned stateside. Esposito became Presley's road manager. He was a best man at Elvis and Priscilla's 1967 wedding, and was there nine months later when the couple's daughter, Lisa Marie, was born.

He traveled alongside Elvis during his movie days of the 1960s, observed The King's return to the throne during his 1968 comeback and accompanied him through the white jumpsuit and Las Vegas palace days of the 1970s. Elvis joined the service at the height of his popularity and in those days, out of the public eye.

'Elvis was very concerned when he was in the Army, because he didn't know if his fans would accept him when he returned. Show business was new to me. I didn't know anything about it, so I didn't think about whether he would be popular or not. We just became friends,' Esposito said.

In retrospect, he said, before Presley went into the service, he wasn't at the top of the parental approval rankings during the era defined by James Dean's 'rebels' and Marlon Brando's 'wild ones.' For his part, Elvis was the guy who sang things like 'Jailhouse Rock' and 'All Shook Up' and was seen gyrating into the middle of American living rooms with his frenzied howling that preached 'You ain't nothin' but a hound dog.'

'They would say who is this wild kid shaking his legs? But when he came back, after he did his full two years in the service and served with the rest of the GIs, he got a lot of respect from the adults. Luckily, he came back stronger than ever,' Esposito said. After the Beatles and the resulting British invasion threw the singer's popularity a curve in the mid-1960s, Presley returned time and again, topping the pop charts in 1969 with his 'Suspicious Minds' and through the '70s with popular tunes like 'Burning Love.'

There were plenty of turbulent times during their friendship in the days before the invention of the TV remote control. Presley had a fondness for guns and expressed his disapproval of what was playing on the TV screen by shooting the set. Automobiles weren't spared either. If a car didn't 'run right,' Elvis would load up the firearm and pump the dashboard full of bullets before collapsing in a fit of giggles.

He wasn't the kind of guy who you would expect to wait for an apology either, Esposito said. 'If he made a mistake, he wouldn't say he was wrong. He would just buy you something,' Esposito said. And the buying could be extravagant. 'He showed up in my apartment one day and knocked on the door,' Esposito recalled.

'He looked at my two girls, who were little at the time and me and my wife living in this apartment and he said, 'Hey, you need a house.' I couldn't believe this, but we went and looked at a few houses and Elvis would say 'Well, what you think about this one?'' They finally found one they liked. Presley wrote out a check for $10,000 for a down payment for the home for Esposito and his family. 'He never even negotiated a deal, he just said, 'OK, it's yours.' I said, 'Elvis, I like it very much, but I can't afford the payments on this house.' He told me not to worry about it, and then he gave me a pay raise so I would be able to afford it,' Esposito said.

Esposito handled many details of Presley's personal and professional life and has fond family memories of his two daughters growing up with Presley's daughter. Frequently consulted for historical information for a number of Presley-focused movies and documentaries, Esposito has documented the times in a pair of his own books, 'Good Rockin' Tonight,' and 'Intimate and Rare.'

Esposito is making the journey back across the country to the kick off this weekend's first-ever Lake George Elvis Festival. It will also mark Esposito's first trip to Lake George. 'I've never been there before. I hear it's beautiful though,' he said. 'Tell people to come on out. It's going to be a great time and we'll make a whole lot of new friends.'

Fifty years after Presley recorded his first song and more than a quarter century after the singer's death, Esposito said that no matter how Elvis' popularity would have turned out after their Army stint together, there is one thing he is sure of. 'I do know whatever would have happened, he would have been singing. That was what he wanted to do. He just loved to sing for people,' Esposito said.

In remembering the man they called The King, Esposito offers an educated guess as to Presley's continuing popularity. 'Twenty-seven years later, he still has new fans that love his music and love his looks. Why? Because people love his music and it makes them feel good. If they feel depressed, they put on an Elvis record and they feel better. That's it right there. Elvis had a real special gift,' Esposito said.

And that is the memory that Esposito will hold close for the rest of his days -- the one that will accompany him through the rainy nights and the one that will carry him along all the highways of last chances, as he travels across America and remembers the times he shared with the man he calls his best friend. (Spotlight/Article, Source: Scene & Heard, October 2004)




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Elvis Odd Spot (updated 22 Sep 2004)