Blue Suede Yarmulke

by Dish Staff

J.J. Goldberg recalls something he learned about Elvis during a tour of Graceland back in the mid-’90s:

The very last display case, before you left the building to roam the grounds, featured the things Elvis was wearing the night he died. Included were his religious paraphernalia, which he “always wore,” the docent told me: a cross and a Chai pendant (visible [here]). Curiouser and curiouser.

When I got back to my hotel I called Memphis blues historian Robert Gordon, whom I knew vaguely, to find out what the heck this was all about. He said there were stories about Elvis having had some Jewish ancestry, but I would do well to call disc jockey George Klein, the elder statesman of Memphis rock ’n’ roll. It seems Klein had been lifelong friends with Elvis, starting in junior high. He was a member of the Memphis Mafia, the gang of childhood buddies who surrounded Elvis, traveled and partied with him and handled his affairs on the road.

I got Klein on the phone right away. He couldn’t have been nicer. He explained to me that Elvis’s great-great-grandmother had been Jewish and Elvis was very proud of it. Oh, I said, you mean his father’s father’s …

“No,” Klein said. “His mother’s mother’s mother’s mother.”

“So Elvis was —“

He cut me off. “You said it, bubba, not me.”

He told me that Elvis had put a Star of David on his mother’s gravestone. You can see it [here]. You won’t see it on her grave at Graceland, though. She was originally buried at Memphis’ Forest Park Cemetery, but after Elvis died in 1977 there was an attempt to rob his grave, and so he and his mother were reinterred at Graceland. The new gravestone, lacking Elvis’s active attention, didn’t get a star. According to Sid Shaw, the controversial British Elvisologist who runs the Elvisly Yours fansite, it was Elvis’s father Vernon who saw to it that there wouldn’t be a star on the new, elaborately Christian stone. One of Elvis’s closest lifelong friends, Marty Lacker, claimed in an interview years later that Vernon was “anti-Semitic.” …

Another Jewish member of the Memphis Mafia was Marty Lacker, sometimes described as his personal sounding board and, along with Elvis’s cousin Billy Smith, the closest Elvis had to “true friends.” Yet another member was Larry Geller, Elvis’s hairdresser and spiritual guru in the study of Zen Buddhism and Kabbalah.

Apparently Elvis’s manager and image-maker, Colonel Tom Parker, didn’t think much of Elvis surrounding himself with Jews, particularly with Larry Geller’s Kabbalah teachings. Unlike Vernon, Colonel Tom had nothing against Jews, I’ve been told. It was just that the colonel didn’t think it would help Elvis’s image as an American idol in the heartland if it were known that he identified himself in some fashion as Jewish.