While his fans worshipped him as a rock’n’roll deity, Elvis Presley would say a prayer before going on stage, reading the Bible and looking to God for guidance in everything he did, his stepbrother has recalled.
“When we saw him bow his head, then we knew,” Billy Stanley, who also worked for the singer, told the Observer, noting that Presley did not recite the prayer aloud. “It was probably about 15 seconds long. I asked him once, ‘Why do you say the prayer before?’ He said: ‘It kind of settles my nerves but also I want God to help bless this concert, so make it a good one.’ He always turned to God whenever he needed help.”
Presley once told him that a show was like a first date: “You never really know how the date will turn out but you always hope it will be a good one.”
Although Presley’s love of gospel music is well known, Stanley believes that the depth of his Christian faith is not realised. “He relied on God for everything,” he said. “It’s where he got his strength. Elvis was so appreciative of what the Lord had given him. He thanked God every day and constantly sought God’s guidance through prayer and reading the Bible.”
He added: “Everybody looked at the glitz and glamour [of Presley]. They didn’t look at the man and try to understand his faith. When you’ve spent 17 years with an individual, you get to know him pretty well.”
Stanley’s insights into life with his famous stepbrother will be outlined in a forthcoming book, The Faith of Elvis, to be published in October.
The king of rock’n’roll modernised blues, country and bluegrass, sparking a musical revolution and mass hysteria with his extraordinary voice, his stage presence, his matinee idol looks and his hip-shaking moves. He died suddenly in 1977, aged 42, but his popularity remains, inspiring Baz Luhrmann’s latest film, Elvis.
Stanley was seven when he and his two younger brothers, Ricky and David, moved to Presley’s Memphis mansion, Graceland, in 1960, the year their mother, Dee, married Presley’s father, Vernon.
Presley was 25 and had already found fame with hits such as Heartbreak Hotel and Love Me Tender. Stanley recalled: “He scooped me and my brothers up in his arms and exclaimed, ‘Daddy, I always wanted a little brother. Now I’ve got three!’ ”
As their big brother and mentor, he taught them “the value of laughing”, gave advice on relationships – “Be protective of women … make them laugh. If you can do that, they will love you for ever” – and boosted their self-confidence, telling them: “With God, all things are possible.”
He took them through bedtime prayers and read the Bible with them, sometimes acting out its characters. “It was quite an experience to have Elvis as your Sunday school teacher,” Stanley said.
When they first arrived at Graceland, he and his brothers were too young to know who Presley was. They were puzzled by fans who waited at the gates and in the trees outside Graceland. Presley told his stepbrothers: “I’m just an entertainer.”
In 1961, aged eight, Stanley attended his first Presley concert: “Suddenly the lights went down and people began to scream. That scared us, so we looked back at Mom and Vernon. They gave us a look that said everyone was OK.”
Afterwards, Stanley asked Presley why everyone had screamed: “He smiled. ‘That’s what some people do when they like something.’ ”
He remembers that Presley was such a perfectionist that he would never listen to his own recordings: “One time I asked him, ‘Elvis, how come you don’t listen to your own stuff?’ He said, ‘Billy, I know I can always do it better. When I hear my own music, all I want to do is go fix it. But I can’t, because it’s already been done.’ ”
Stanley would hear Presley singing around the house, usually gospel songs: “It was how he would unwind after a concert. He would sing gospel songs until the sun came up.”
He added that, while Presley enjoying performing rock’n’roll songs such as Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, his “heart and soul were always with gospel music”, which he likened to “singing the Bible”.
Presley struggled with addiction and his playboy image, and whenever he faced self-doubt or anything negative he would pray, Stanley said. But Presley never went to church with his brothers, telling Stanley: “I’m afraid if I go in, people will pay more attention to me than the preacher.”