In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, we talk about the Memphis Mafia. And while you might think this episode is going to be crime-ridden with lots of shoot-em-up drama, we regret to inform you that it isn’t. But it IS full of Elvis’ shenanigans with his best friends and such things. So don your black mohair suit, slap on some stylish sunglasses, and fire up this episode on your limousine’s sound system.
Elvis Presley’s real-life entourage earned the nickname “the Memphis Mafia” in 1960, when they pulled up to the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas in two black limousines dressed in their usual black mohair suits and sunglasses. The crowd exclaimed over whether they were the mafia or not, which a reporter quoted in a story. Elvis reportedly liked the name, so it there you have it.
From 1954 to 1977, Elvis’ crew was made of a group of friends, family, and some employees like bodyguards and logistics guys. Some of the guys were employees, all were a mix of family and friends, and only a few were paid (and usually not a lot). They often acted as fixers for Elvis, earning benefits like free cars and bonuses at the King’s whim… but through the years, this group that would come and go were Elvis’ only friends, as he got so famous he wasn’t able to make friends in the usual way. I share some stories and quotes in this episode that illustrate how close he was with the Mafia.
“At times, very difficult, but most of the time, he was a lot of fun. You know, you’re around somebody like him 24 hours a day, and you have to watch what you’re doing because you become a little too familiar and you say things you shouldn’t and sometimes you get in arguments. And it was a constant amount of pressure. It never really stopped. It kept you on your toes.” –Lamar Fike
One very famous symbol associated with the entourage was the logo and phrase TCB (Taking Care of Business). There are various stories about the symbol’s origin… One is that the couple was in an airplane during a storm and saw a bolt of lightning in the sky and Priscilla designed a TCB logo based on the lightning bolt, sketching several iterations on the plane. Another story holds that Elvis got it from the real West Coast Mafia. Yet another is that he took it from Marvel comics… and another that the lightning bolt just means “in a flash.” Whatever its origins, the logo was painted on his private jet and given out to his people in the form of diamond and gold chains. He also had his own famous versions of TCB jewelry. I also saw that the acronym could also jokingly stand for “Taking Care of Broads” or “Taking Care of Booze” within the inner circle.
Next, I tell Rebecca about the original crew and the ones who joined later on. Here are the photos I promised you in the show! First up, that photo of Judy Spreckels… the inspiration for Elvis’ love of Cadillacs and his little sister forever.
“One day we drove my car out into the desert and his cousin came with us. Elvis drove that car as fast as it could go and I was in the front seat whooping and screaming and laughing. His cousin was on the floor in the back he was so scared. But I’d been a stunt player in the movies and Elvis couldn’t go fast enough to scare me.” –Judy Spreckels
The original entourage group began with Junior and Gene Smith, Gladys Presley’s nieces and Elvis’ first cousins, and rockabilly singer Cliff Gleaves. There was also Elvis’ high school friend Robert Gene “Red” West. In addition to being a driver and bodyguard for Elvis, Red was also an actor, stuntman, and songwriter. He had a hand in writing several songs with and for Elvis (and others). Elvis’ father, Vernon, fired Red from the Mafia in 1976 after he was involved in a fan-related bodyguarding incident in Vegas that got picked up by the media, and for his growing outspokenness about Elvis’ drug addiction. The tell-all bestseller he co-wrote with Sonny West and David Hebler, Elvis: What Happened?, was published two weeks before Elvis’ untimely death.
Patti Parry became the only woman who did the whole Mafia thing and stayed alongside Elvis constantly and felt as though she filled the roles of Elvis’ sister and mother.
There was also Delbert B. “Sonny” West, who was Red’s cousin. His entourage nickname was “The Great Explainer.” After meeting Elvis at a skating ring in 1958, he came to be in charge of Elvis’ cars and also served as a bodyguard. When Sonny got married in 1970, Elvis was the best man and Priscilla was the Matron of Honor. He was fired alongside his cousin Red in 1976 – the official reason being for cost-cutting measures, but rumor was it was because he was also outspoken about Elvis’ addiction and had injured fans, triggering lawsuits against Elvis.
Elvis’ cousin, Billy Smith, was the only entourage member to be there from beginning to end… no joke. Elvis and Billy grew up together and were very close their whole lives. Billy even lived behind Graceland with his family. Billy’s wife said that Elvis “wanted Billy to be out of the trailer the minute he woke. He’d call and say, ‘Is Marble Eyes’ up?” That nickname, Marble Eyes, was bestowed upon Billy by Elvis because he apparently had very big eyes. Billy and his wife went on vacations with Elvis and were with him on the 15th before he died, having played racquetball together and listened to Elvis sing his last song, “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” Billy served as Elvis valet while at Graceland and in the ‘70s he was in charge of his costumes when on the road. Billy was an early tour guide at Graceland when it opened in 1982.
Charlie Hodge was a singer who was also an early entourage member. He met Elvis in 1955 when the singer came backstage to praise The Foggy River Boys, a really famous quartet at the time. They became friends in 1958 while stationed together at Fort Hood. In the Mafia, his role was to take care of the many details as stage manager, like handing Elvis scarves and laying out his set list. He was also the “gatekeeper” for new songs, as he was in charge of presenting new ones that Elvis might want to record. Hodge and Red West were nicknamed “The Imperial Council” by music companies trying to get songs in front of Elvis. He was also the guy who chose the band for many live shows. This guy also had the distinction of being the only man to record a duet with Elvis, the 1960 tune “I Will Be Home Again.” Hodge lived at Graceland and had his own rooms at Elvis’ other homes, and he stayed on at Graceland for a year after Elvis’ death helping his father settle the estate.
Lamar Fike joined Elvis’ entourage around 1957 and went to Germany with him. He had a lot of Memphis Mafia nicknames… seemed like Elvis never settled on just one. There was Mr. Bull, Lardass, The Wrestler, “Buddha, and The Great Speckled Bird. Like old Marble Eyes, Elvis must’ve thought Fike had big eyes like an owl because he also sometimes called him Birdy. There’s not a clear account of how they met – Fike says he just hung out in front of Elvis’ Audubon Drive house until noticed, but others say it’s likely they met at Sun Studios where Fike was learning how to be a DJ. His substantial girth earned him a “larger-than-life” reputation, and made possible humorous piggyback rides for Elvis on stage. Fike also played a big part in Elvis’ love life. He introduced Elvis to Anita Wood, who the King dated for five years. Fike also introduced Elvis to Priscilla when she was fourteen.
Joe Esposito is up next in our Memphis Mafia profiles. The two met on an army base in West Germany in 1958, and two years later Esposito became Elvis’ road manager and basically right-hand man. He was also co-best man at Elvis’ wedding, and his wife was matron of honor. His nickname was Diamond Joe and he was the only non-Southerner in the Mafia. After Elvis’ death, he wrote several books about the singer and worked as the road manager for other artists like Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees, Karen Carpenter, John Denver.
I talk about a few more Memphis Mafia members and spill the beans on their silly nicknames… so go take a listen now!
In Early Days, She Was Like a Sister to Elvis – Judy Spreckels!
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