SELMA, N.C. – His sermon complete, the visiting preacher offers a benediction, then steps out into the vestibule to shake hands and perhaps sell a few copies of his testimonial book.
From the mob that forms, a girl pushes to the front and thrusts out her hand to reveal a bejeweled Elvis Presley wristwatch. The preacher smiles graciously as a white-haired woman bends his ear about her pilgrimages to Graceland and confesses to keeping a cloth painting of “the King” on her bedroom wall. Others tell of watching Elvis on television or driving with friends to the next town over on Saturday afternoons to catch his latest movie.
The pastor beams. He knows most of the people who have turned out for evening service at Branch Chapel Freewill Baptist didn’t come to hear Rick Stanley, evangelist.
They came for Elvis’ stepbrother.
“Those little ladies, telling them stories. … They think I’m Elvis,” Stanley whispers, almost conspiratorially.
“Well, I’m the closest thing to it – to them.”
Elvis has been dead 33 years, but his stepbrother is still on the road. For about 10 months of the year, the silver-haired evangelist crisscrosses the country, speaking in school auditoriums and preaching for “love offerings” in churches big and small, his message equal parts Holy Spirit and Elvis’ ghost. Where he once worked behind the scenes as Presley’s personal aid, Stanley has since become something of a celebrity himself sharing the stage with the likes of Billy Graham and holding hands in prayer with former President Bill Clinton.
A former heroin addict, he uses the story of his own journey from Graceland to grace as an example of Christ’s redemptive love. But in his talks, Jesus and Elvis share top billing.
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is his calling card, Stanley’s ticket to “go in places and do stuff great men of God have prayed for.”
“I wouldn’t have anything without Elvis,” he says, simply. “I mean, I was trailer trash.”
Stanley makes no apologies about using Elvis’ name to minister. But there are those who feel he should. Some of those who were closest to Elvis question the sincerity of Stanley’s conversion. They say he has exaggerated his association with the singer, that the money he accepts for speaking is for his own personal gain.
Worst of all, they say, he has yet to come clean about the day “the King” died.
Says Jerry Schilling, Elvis’ boyhood friend and manager: “He doesn’t exist to me, OK?”
Sliding into a booth at a chain restaurant off Interstate 95, Stanley lays a cell phone, an Apple iPad and a leather-bound New King James Bible on the table. He is nearing the end of a swing through east North Carolina tobacco country five schools, a community college and three churches in eight days.
At 56, he’s 14 years older than Elvis was when he died. He’s been touring the country for almost as long as his famous step-sibling was on this Earth.
Before tucking into his meal of Mexican soup and cheese biscuits, he bows his head in prayer.
“I pray you use me tonight,” he says. “Give me favor with these people. They understand it’s not all about my brother. He’s a chapter. He’s not the book.”
But he doesn’t deny that Elvis was a big, important chapter.
The future preacher was 5 when he and his brothers – Billy and David – entered what he calls “E World.”
It was 1958, and the family was living in West Germany, where father Bill Stanley was stationed with the Army. That same year, a young draftee named Elvis Presley arrived, with his dad Vernon in tow.
Bill Stanley was an alcoholic, and his wife, Dee, was very unhappy. Then she met Vernon, and the petite blond mother of three soon headed home to start divorce proceedings.
Before they knew it, the boys were in the back seat of a shiny Lincoln Continental en route to Memphis. When the car finally stopped in front of 3764 Highway 51, now Elvis Presley Boulevard, “it was like the Magic Kingdom for me.”
Stanley says he made his way down to the music room. There, leaning against a stereo and singing along with a gospel record, was Elvis.
The singer, whose twin brother was stillborn, lavished gifts on his new stepbrothers. He would rent a movie theater or book an amusement park and keep the boys out all night. Elvis’ maid drove them to school in the singer’s pink Cadillac.
At 16, Stanley quit school and went on the road with Elvis as part of the “Memphis Mafia” – the singer’s inner circle. Soon, he says, he was strolling the hallways of the Playboy Mansion, and partying with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Led Zeppelin.
As his stepbrother’s aide, Stanley was often entrusted with the “black kit” – the small, leather-sided makeup bag containing Elvis’ cash, credit cards, jewelry and, as the years progressed, a growing array of prescription drugs.
Dispensing the pills became part of his routine, he says. Before a concert, it was a rubdown, coffee and Dexedrine to get Elvis going; between sets, towels to soak up the sweat and Valium to calm him down; back at the hotel, he would check the humidifier, fill the ice bucket with Mountain Valley Spring Water and “take him his nightly medications.”
Stanley was taking pills, too. When he was arrested in 1975 for trying to pass a forged prescription for Demerol, Elvis personally bailed him out of jail.
He went into rehab and was briefly exiled from the entourage. He became addicted to heroin and had to be hospitalized for hepatitis.
“Everybody in the Memphis Mafia knew one of those two guys are gonna die – Elvis or Ricky,” Stanley says.
Stanley says it was during this dark period that the seeds of his conversion were planted.
When he was about 17, he was asked to be a big brother at one of Memphis’ high school sororities. At a party, he met 15-year-old Robyn Moye, and they became friends. Robyn told him she was praying for him and invited him to church; Stanley declined her invitations.
As the Disco era dawned, the aging Elvis struggled to reinvent himself yet again.
By then, the singer had ballooned to 250 pounds and was taking handfuls of pills a day. Things were so bad that members of Presley’s entourage were taking 24-hour shifts, making sure nothing happened to him.
On Aug. 16, 1977, Stanley’s shift was supposed to begin at noon. Stanley says he was at Graceland late the night before when Robyn called, sobbing. She’d dreamed he had died and gone to hell. Shaken, Stanley says he went to see Elvis. He says he sat at the foot of Presley’s bed, and the two talked about prayer and faith.
Eight hours later, “the King” was gone. The official cause of death was listed as heart disease, but tests revealed a potent mixture of prescription drugs in Presley’s system.
The day he died, Elvis was supposed to be leaving on tour. Stanley says he had some errands to run before they left, and asked his brother David to take his shift.
He says he was at a Memphis restaurant with a woman when he had a sudden feeling that something was wrong back at the mansion. He claims to have arrived just as the ambulance was racing away.
But according to Dick Grob, Elvis’ chief of security, David Stanley admitted that he and his brother had been partying with women all night at a nearby motel, and were passed out when Elvis died. Elvis’ personal physician, George Nichopoulos, “Dr. Nick,” repeated the allegations in his own book, published earlier this year.
David Stanley, the youngest of the three brothers, insists the interview with Grob never happened.
Rick Stanley acknowledges having taken drugs the night before, but he says he was sober when he left Elvis and his fiancee, Ginger Alden, in bed at Graceland that morning. Even if he had been there, he doubts it would have made a difference.
In a way, he says, they were all complicit.
“Well, if everybody would have done what they should’ve, we’d have got in the guy’s face a long time ago, all of us, and done a – what do they call it now where you set them down? intervention? – and left,” he says. “But that didn’t happen. Everybody wanted their job.”
ALLEN G. BREED / The Associated Press