In 1934, Vernon Presley, age 18, recalled blacking out at the instant of his son’s conception; then, regaining consciousness, he had seen the night sky thronged with brilliant blue stars. Elvis Aron’s twin brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn.
The future King’s God-fearing mother, Gladys — who herself almost died in the delivery — believed he had inherited Jesse’s soul, and was “the One.”
Years later, Gladys would suffer a miscarriage, making her all the more protective of her only surviving child.
“My mama never let me out of her sight,” said Elvis.
Vernon told biographer, Peter Guralnick ("Last Train to Memphis"): “He never spent a night away from home until he was 17. The three of us formed our own private world.”
The security of that world was shattered when Vernon was convicted of check fraud on a hog sale and was sent Parchman, the most medieval of the Mississippi penitentiaries. Her husband’s imprisonment galvanized Gladys’ obsessive fear that loved ones could without warning be taken from her or senselessly stricken down.
When she was 18, her father, Bob, died suddenly of pneumonia. Months after the birth of Elvis, her mother, Doll, was claimed by tuberculosis. Her parents had been first cousins. Many of her other siblings were stricken with mental and physical disabilities. Gladys, Vernon, and Elvis were sleepwalkers and all suffered from terrifying nightmares of impending doom.
Gladys had once been a vivacious and fun-loving party girl and buck dancer. But, after all the family losses, protecting her only son became her life. She slept with Elvis until he was 13. For his 11th birthday, Elvis had wanted a bicycle but, fearing that he might get run over on the way to school, Gladys gave him a guitar instead.
Elvis called his satin-skinned mother “Satnin” and the two communicated in a babytalk no one else could understand. “Elvis saw his parents as his ‘babies,’” recalled his friend and future manager, Lamar Fike ("Elvis and the Memphis Mafia"). “He called his mother his baby.”
In 1953, Elvis, now a truck driver for Crown Electric, gave Satnin a special birthday gift: his first recording, “My Happiness,” for which he paid the studio $2. The next year, “That’s Alright, Mama” put him on the charts and soon he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.
Long before, reported Elaine Dundy ("Elvis and Gladys"), he and Satnin had marveled at a Memphis mansion on one of their walks to school. “Mama,” he told her, “some day I’m gonna buy you a house just like that!”
In 1957, he gave her Graceland, plus a pink Cadillac though she couldn’t drive.
Gladys had never known anything but shotgun shacks, jalopies and public housing. When her father died, her family couldn’t afford a marker or a winding sheet. When Elvis was born, Welfare paid the doctor’s $15 delivery fee. Now, to be under the same magnificent roof at Graceland with her boy was like a dream come true. But the dream soon became one of her nightmares.
“After Elvis became famous, Gladys was never happy another day,” remembered her best friend, Lillian. “She never had peace no more.”
When her son was touring, as he always seemed to be now, the fans mobbed and tore at him. She forbade him to fly airplanes after his chartered prop lost an engine over the Ozarks and crash-landed. So he drove to all his gigs, but she feared he’d have a fatal accident. “If you don’t slow down, you won’t live to 30!” she warned him.
One night Gladys suddenly bolted out of bed and cried to Vernon, “I see our boy — he’s in a blazing car!” The next day, Elvis called her from Texarcana and said his rented Cadillac had burst into flames and he’d narrowly escaped.
The overwrought, now alcoholic Gladys started popping pills to sleep, speed to wake up, and greater quantities of vodka to cope. When Elvis returned to Graceland, he would shower her with gifts but even the most extravagant now left her cold.
“Mama, what do you want?” pleaded Elvis.
For you to say home, baby!” Gladys would cry.
During one of his absences, a friend of the family, Frank Richards, dropped by Graceland for the first time and said to Elvis’ mother: “I guess you must be about the happiest woman in the world!”
“You got it wrong,” she said. “I’m the most miserable woman in the world … I’m guarded. I can’t buy my own groceries. I can’t see my neighbor.”
Soon after moving to Graceland, her son received a draft notice from the Army. Remembering how her cousin, Junior, had lost his mind in Korea and massacred innocents, she begged Elvis not to go. But he felt it his duty.
After he left for Basic Training, Gladys suddenly died of cirrhosis of the liver. She was buried on Aug. 16, 1958.
“Please don’t take my baby away!” Elvis sobbed, throwing himself over her coffin and refusing to let go, as detailed by biographer Charles L. Ponce de Leon. “She’s not dead. She’s just sleeping.” Then as she was lowered to her resting place, “Goodbye, darling. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you!”
Later, the king of rock 'n' roll would say of his mother. “I lost the only person I ever loved.” Her death was the greatest tragedy in his life. From that day on, according to his friends, he became an utterly different person.
“Basically, Elvis’ personality was that of Gladys’,” Lamar wrote. “There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them.”
In 1975, Vernon Presley suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. Elvis occupied the next bed, detoxing from another near fatal narcotic overdose. He and his father had grown apart since Gladys’ passing, largely due to Vernon’s brief mourning and hasty remarriage. For Vernon’s part, something had been burning in his chest all these years. That day in hospital, he suddenly spit it out. “You worried your mama right into the grave!”
“Elvis broke down and cried,” remembered his cousin, Billy Smith. “It about killed him.”
Two years later, the king of rock 'n' roll fatally overdosed himself. The date was Aug. 16 — the very same day he had buried his beloved mother 19 years before and inconsolably wept, “Oh, God, everything I have is gone!”