As the years go by, our memories become like a dense forest through which we make our way on familiar and well-trodden paths. Smaller paths branch off unnoticed and often lead to half-forgotten memories. I recently got down that road and started thinking about incidents with Elvis that I’ve rarely talked about, incidents with a common thread: Elvis’s generosity even in small matters.
Of course, Elvis’ generosity is legendary. During his life he gave away houses, cars, motorcycles, jewelry, furs, clothes and money as if he were going out of style. His generosity knew no bounds. He gave to the poor and needy, but did not discriminate against the rich. He once took a thirty thousand dollar ring off his finger and gave it to singer and comedian Sammy Davis, Jr.
“Nobody thinks of giving anything to a rich man,” he explained. “They’re people, too. They like to think someone thinks enough to give them something.”
Once he had the urge to give, there was no stopping Elvis. One afternoon on the Paramount lot during the filming of “Easy Come, Easy Go,” we were walking to the soundstage. A vendor rolling a large suitcase filled with an assortment of jewelry yelled as he ran toward us, “Elvis, wait, I’ve got something you can’t pass up. You have to see this.”
Breathlessly, he exclaimed, “Look at this beauty,” as he opened a drawer and took out a diamond ring which he handed to Elvis. Elvis admired it, put it on his finger, and almost immediately told Joe Esposito to write him a check. On the set, Elvis proudly displayed his latest acquisition. After lunch, he was on his feet, waiting for the cameras to be set up, occasionally looking around the ring and smiling.
David Winters, Elvis’s choreographer, came over and Elvis showed him his new ring. David’s eyes read. “Elvis, man, that’s beautiful; I love your ring.”
Elvis took the ring off his finger and handed it to her.
“Try it on,” he said, “and see how it looks on you.”
David slipped it on her finger. “He fits very well.”
Elvis glanced at her beaming 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 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 behind the wheel as usual, until he had a profound insight, an experience that shook him to the core. It was a spiritual shock and a turning point in his life. After that, he was too excited and distracted to drive, so he asked Red West to take the wheel.
Elvis moved for me to follow him into the bedroom at the back of the vehicle, where we sat in silence for a while. Then, as night began to fall, we started talking about what had just happened as we continued on our way to Flagstaff.
Eventually, we both fell asleep, only to be rudely awakened several hours later by cries of “We’re on fire! We’re on fire!”
We started off, and Red quickly pulled to the side of the road and stopped. Jerry Schilling, Red West, Billy Smith, Elvis and I jumped in to see what was going on. The rear axles and landing gear were on fire. All of us immediately collected sand and gravel from the desert with our own hands and managed to extinguish the fire. The vehicle was wrecked and would not start. Fortunately, we were only a few miles from Needles, California, in the Mohave desert. The five of us pushed the RV into town, where we checked into a motel.
“Let’s get some vehicles, Larry, and go home,” Elvis said wearily. “Go rent some cars. Here’s my wallet.”
His wallet was crammed with a variety of credit cards, but no cash; Elvis never carried cash. I started walking around looking for a car rental agency. It was around eight in the morning, I hadn’t slept and I needed to shower and shave. I must have looked quite 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 street at a motel.”
Thinking it would help, I handed him the wallet. Flipping through the cards, she asked, “What are you telling me? elvis presley?”
“Yes,” I answered.
Throwing the wallet at me, he yelled, “Get out of here!”
As I checked out and headed back to the motel, it occurred to me that the easiest way to get from Needles to Los Angeles would be by taxi. When I got back to the room I called a local taxi service and the people there were 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 wearily squeezed into the second. As we traveled down the highway, our young driver couldn’t help but turn his head every few minutes to look at Elvis or look at him in the rear view mirror. That was understandable, but when it hit a cruising speed of ninety miles an hour and I still couldn’t take my eyes off Elvis, I yelled, “Hey man, slow down! You’re going to kill us. Yeah, 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 got to Bel Air about four hours later, the other guys who had lost us on the road during the drive were lined up outside the house, waiting.
While everyone was taking care of the luggage, Elvis asked me how much the ticket cost. I told him one hundred and sixty dollars for the two cabs. He then asked me how much cash he had with me. I checked my wallet. “A little over five hundred dollars.”
Elvis said, “Hey, these guys probably won’t even leave Needles, and they sure don’t get customers like us every day. I’ll get back to you later.”
I may not have told this story much over the years, but I bet those two cabbies have told it over and over again to anyone who would listen.