As the years go by, our memories become like a dense forest through which we make our way along familiar, well-trodden paths. Unnoticed smaller paths branch out, often leading to half-forgotten memories. I recently came upon such a path and began thinking about incidents with Elvis about which I’ve rarely spoken, incidents with a common thread: Elvis’ generosity even in small matters.
Of course Elvis’ generosity is legendary. During his lifetime he gave away houses, cars, motorcycles, jewelry, furs, clothing and money as if it were going out of style. His generosity knew no bounds. He gave to the poor and the needy, but he didn’t discriminate against the wealthy. He once took a thirty-thousand dollar ring off his finger, and gave it to singer-comedian Sammy Davis, Jr.
“Nobody thinks of giving a rich man anything,” he explained. “They’re people too. They like to think somebody thinks enough to give them something.”
Once he got the impulse to give there was no stopping Elvis. One afternoon on the Paramount lot during filming of “Easy Come, Easy Go,” we were walking towards the soundstage. A salesman rolling a large suitcase filled with an assortment of jewelry yelled out as he ran up to us, “Elvis wait up; I got something you can’t pass up. You gotta see this.”
Out of breath he exclaimed, “Just check this beauty out,” while he opened a drawer pulling out a diamond ring which he handed to Elvis. Elvis admired it, putting it on his finger, and almost immediately told Joe Esposito to give him a check. On the set Elvis proudly showed off his newest acquisition. After lunch, he was standing around, waiting for the cameras to be set up, occasionally looking at the ring and smiling.
David Winters, Elvis’ choreographer, walked over and Elvis showed him his new ring. David’s eyes lit up. “Elvis, man, that’s beautiful; I love your ring.”
Elvis pulled the ring off his finger and handed it to him.
“Try it on,” he said, “and see how it fits.”
David slipped it on his finger. “It fits great.”
Elvis took one look at his radiant face. “It’s yours,” he said, smiling as he turned and walked away from the stunned choreographer.
The example of Elvis’ generosity that most recently came to mind was an event that occurred one late afternoon in 1965. We were in the Dodge motor home, driving through the Arizona desert on Route 66, approaching the sacred Hopi mountains.
Elvis had been at the wheel as usual, until he had a profound vision, an experience that shook him to his core. It was a spiritual jolt and a turning point in his life. After that he was too exhilarated and distracted to drive, so he asked Red West to take the wheel.
Elvis motioned for me to follow him to the bedroom in the back of the vehicle, where we sat for awhile in silence. Then as night began to fall we began talking about what had just occurred as we continued on the road towards Flagstaff.
Eventually, we both nodded off – when we were abruptly awakened several hours later by shouts of “We’re on fire! We’re on fire!”
We snapped to, and Red quickly pulled over to the shoulder of the road and stopped. Jerry Schilling, Red West, Billy Smith, Elvis and I jumped out to see what was happening. The back axles and the undercarriage were aflame. All of us immediately scooped up sand and gravel from the desert with our bare hands and managed to extinguish the fire. The vehicle was a total wreck and wouldn’t start. Luckily, we were only a few miles outside of Needles, California, in the Mohave Desert. The five of us pushed the RV into town, where we checked into a motel.
“Let’s just get some vehicles, Larry, and go home,” Elvis said wearily. “Go hire some cars. Here’s my wallet.”
His wallet was crammed with an assortment of credit cards, but no cash; Elvis never carried cash. I started walking in search of a car-rental agency. It was eight or so in the morning, I hadn’t slept, and I needed a shower and shave. I must have looked pretty disreputable, an assessment confirmed by the wary look on the face of the man behind the counter.
“Yes sir, I’d like to rent two cars. I’m with Elvis Presley. He’s down the road at a motel.”
Thinking it would help, I handed him the wallet. Flipping through the cards, he asked, “What are you telling me? Elvis Presley?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
Flinging the wallet at me, he screamed, “Get the hell outta here!”
As I retreated and headed back to the motel, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get from Needles to Los Angeles would be by cab. When I got back to the room I phoned a local taxi service, and the people there were only too happy to help. Within minutes, two cabs were at the motel, and we were ready to go.
We loaded all the luggage into one cab, then Jerry, Red, Billy, Elvis and I crawled wearily into the second. As we rode down the highway, our young driver couldn’t stop turning his head around every few minutes to stare at Elvis, or look at him in the rear view mirror. That was understandable, but when he hit a cruising speed of ninety miles an hour and still couldn’t keep his eyes off Elvis, I yelled, “Hey, man, slow down! You’re going to kill us. Yes, this is Elvis Presley. Just calm down or I’ll have to take the wheel.”
All the way back our driver was visibly nervous. When we arrived in Bel Air about four hours later, the other guys who’d lost us on the road during the drive were lined up in front of the house, waiting.
While everyone was dealing with the luggage Elvis asked me how much the fare was. I told him a hundred and sixty dollars for both cabs. He then asked how much cash I had on me. I checked my wallet. “Little over five hundred bucks.”
Elvis said, “Hey, these guys probably never even leave Needles, and they sure don’t get customers like us every day. They work hard, and could probably use a break. Just give ’em what you have there, I’ll pay you back later.”
I may not have told this story much over the years – but I bet those two cab drivers have told it over and over to anyone who would listen.