Elvis Presley: The Avid Reader and Truth Seeker

alex atkins bookshelf booksAugust 16 marks the 44th anniversary of the death of music legend Elvis Presley (1935-1977). But Presley, known as the “King of Rock and Roll” (or simply, “Elvis” or “the King”), is really much more than a music legend — he is a multi-generational cultural phenomenon. Although Elvis has permanently left the building, he is very much alive today — in music, film, art, pop culture, and tourism. Each year, more than half a million of the King’s faithful fans make the pilgrimage to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, which opened to the public in 1982. In 2020, the Elvis Presley estate earned more than $23 million from album sales, movie and concert royalties, and Graceland. And every year, hundreds of babies are named either Elvis or Presley (for example, in 2020, 2,835 American babies were named Elvis; 458 babies were named Presley; not surprisingly, none were named Elvis Presley). But what captures our interest today is the fact that Presley was an avid reader and seeker of Truth. Who knew? But perhaps Elvis is only fulfilling his destiny found in his name, which was came from his father’s middle name: Elvis is derived from the Alvis from Norse mythology that means “all wise.” 

According to the stewards of Graceland Museum, Presley was a voracious reader and enjoyed reading books while on tour. He was fascinated in a variety of topics, including sports, history, and religious/spiritual books. Presley was baptized as a Christian and possessed a deep and abiding faith since childhood. He regularly wore a cross, prayed, meditated, and read the Bible. In fact, Presley never traveled without his Bible. Late in life, according to biographer Gary Tillery, Presley confessed to a friend that he was a seeker of truth: “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.” In his biography of the music legend, Inside Elvis, Ed Parker, a close friend, karate teacher, and occasional bodyguard, elaborated, “[Presley] used to frighten some of his Christian friends when he would talk about concepts like transcendental meditation, Zen Buddhism, reincarnation, numerology, and the occult… [Presley] was interested in all facets of life, death, resurrection, psychic healing, and other phenomena which, when put together, seemed to give many answers to the mysteries of the universe. He was keenly aware of his mortality, and felt impelled to learn how man and the universe interact.”

Like many dedicated readers, Presley liked to read when he was on the toilet. Nothing wrong with doing a little educatin’ while you are defecatin’ — you know what I mean? Of all the book-related trivia that I have serendipitously discovered over the years, perhaps one of the most fascinating factoids is that Presley was reading an interesting book when he was sitting on a toilet in the bathroom of Graceland just before he died on August 16, 1977 of cardiac arrest and drug overdose (and perhaps by Valsalva maneuver — straining so hard on the toilet that it leads to cardiac arrest — yup, there’s a word for that! While we are on this topic, if you are a boomer, you might recall the song “You’re Pushing Too Hard” by The Seeds released in 1966. Elvis should have heeded the warning). In her book, Elvis and Ginger, Ginger Alden, Presley’s fiancee at the time, was in the house that night and recalled, “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the toilet and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it… It was clear that, from the time whatever hit him to the moment he had landed on the floor, Elvis hadn’t moved.” Perhaps he was leaning toward to touch the face of Jesus that was beckoning him toward the light.

“OK enough with the morbid details — so what was the title of the book?” you ask. The book that Elvis was reading was A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams. Published in 1972, the 80-page book presents scientific evidence that the Shroud of Turin is authentic — that it is indeed the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ and the faded bloodstains correspond to his wounds following his crucifixion. As you can imagine, the book is extremely rare and valuable. As of this writing, there are two for sale on Ebay: one is priced at $15,000 and the other is being sold via auction with an initial price of $5,000. If you want to see the face of Jesus, as Elvis saw it in his final moments, you need to dig deep, brother. Although the Shroud of Turin is revered by the faithful, since its discovery in 1354, it has been a source of controversy among theologians, historians, archaeologists, and scientists. Nevertheless, one exhibit you definitely will not see on the Graceland tour is “Elvis Studies Shroud on the Shitter.”

In addition to the Bible, Presley’s favorite religious/spiritual books included The Prophet, The Tao Te Ching, The Autobiography of a Yogi, The Book of Mormon (which he was reading months before his death). In particular, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran was one of Presley’s favorite books. He would annotate each book and give it to his friends as a special gift. In July 2021, one of those rare copies (this edition, printed in 1966, was owned by Ed Parker) is for sale in Peter Harrington’s Summer 2021 catalog for $26,670. Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington, a leading dealer in rare books in the UK, commented: “The Prophet made a deep and lasting impression on Elvis, and he read it so often that he memorized it. [He] annotated a few copies of The Prophet over the course of his career which he presented to significant individuals in his life, so you do see copies come up for sale from time to time. It is a really wonderful association copy, extensively annotated and underlined by the King himself.”

By now you are probably wondering, “What sort of annotations did Elvis Presley make in The Prophet?” Fortunately, the catalog features some examples, including a photo of page 56 and 57 that reveals Presley’s ideas about teaching [italicized portion reflects sentences that Presley has underlined]: “Then said the teacher, speak to us of Teaching. And he said: No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind. The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding. The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that which echoes it. And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither. For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man. And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.” Underneath this passage, Presley printed his thoughts in all caps using a thick black ink marker: “A SINGER CAN SING HIS SONGS BUT THEY MUST HAVE A [sic] EAR TO RECEIVE THE SONG… YOU HAVE WITHIN YOURSELF ALL POSSIBILITIES TO UNLOCK ALL THE ANSWERS THAT PLAGUE ONES [sic] INNER HEART[.] GOD WILL GIVE YOU THE KNOWLEDGE IF YOU ONLY SEEK IT.”

There are two passages that, although not shown in the catalog, are described. On pages, 12 and 13 where Gibran is discussing love (“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself, Love possesses not nor would it be possessed: For love is sufficient unto love…”). Presley wrote, “WHEN YOU’RE NOT IN LOVE, YOUR [sic] NOT ALIVE… GOD IS LOVE. THESE PATHS ARE NOT ALWAYS CLEAR TO US… BUT LIKE GOD HIMSELF, THESE THINGS WILL REVEAL THEMSELVES.” Then on the last page of the book, Presley added this note: “LESS THAN 1% OF THE POP[ULATION] OF THE EARTH HAS ANY KNOWLEDGE OF TRUE SPIRITUAL WISDOM OF WHAT WE ARE DISCUSSING! E.P.”

Wow, just reading Elvis Presley’s deep parting words — I’m all shook up…

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For further reading: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/08/08/faith-america-elvis-presley-baptisms/548719001/
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/blog/sale-elvis-presleys-annotated-copy-prophet?utm_source=fbnotes&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210805
http://www.peterharrington.co.uk/about-us
http://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/a26721749/elvis-presley-death-true-story/
http://www.britannica.com/topic/Shroud-of-Turin
http://www.history.com/news/shroud-turin-facts
http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/decades-after-his-death-the-estate-of-elvis-presley-is-still-making-a-ton-of-money/
http://www.babycenter.com/top-baby-names
http://www.thinkbabynames.com/meaning/1/Elvis