News Legit’s Jack Dennis was president of the Texas Chapter of the Elvis Presley Fan Club from 1974-1978 and had the opportunity to speak with Elvis Presley twice. Following is an unedited and revised account by Dennis, used for several articles he wrote for newspapers and magazines at the time.
A few years ago, I visited Graceland, the home and final resting location of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee with my oldest son and father. It was a nostalgic tour, different from others I had taken, because this time more of Graceland was open to the public for viewing.
In May 1976 serendipity and luck were on my side.
When I left San Antonio on my way to Memphis, I could only dream I would have the very rare opportunity to walk in the back kitchen door of Graceland, much less meet Elvis.
It was particularly meaningful hearing the Graceland kitchen was now part of the tour and after 30 years, it would be nice to revisit my memory to see if it was sync with reality.
My brief walk in the back door of Elvis Presley’s home at age 20 was very quick and somewhat surreal. I recalled it being very modern, brown and smelling like good home cooking.
The beginning of May 1976 was my target date to be in Memphis for several reasons. To increase my chances of seeing Elvis, I had to take advantage of several events simultaneously happening.
Spring Break for students of Texas State University (then, Southwest Texas State University) limited my travel time.
To increase the possibility of the superstar being home, I chose a special day. Elvis’ mother, Gladys Presley was born on April 25, 1912.
The love of his mother was legendary, so odds were favorable he may visit her grave site at the Forest Hill Cemetery. Although Mrs. Presley died in 1958 while he was in the Army, fan club contacts said Elvis would still take nighttime trips to visit the cemetery often. (She is now buried at Graceland with her son, husband Vernon and Elvis’ grandmother).
However there was a problem with this date.
Elvis was scheduled to start a concert tour in Kansas City on April 21 and ending April 27 in Spokane. So I chose Mother’s Day, Sunday May 9th.
My trip itinerary was already set in stone when sudden sequences of events occurred to boost my likelihood of seeing Elvis.I received a call from a producer at WHBQ radio, a top 40 Memphis station inviting me to visit and be interviewed while I was there.
“It’s going to be an exciting week,” he told me. “It was just announced that tickets will go on sale for a July 5th Elvis’ hometown concert and we want to be the station the fans listen to.”
Hardcore Memphis fans would be at the Mid-South Auditorium with cots, tents and lawn chairs waiting in line for days. For me this meant famous gates of Graceland would be sparse from the usual local crowds.
My best contact for news and information for the fan club was Harold Lloyd, Elvis’ cousin and a daytime guard at the Graceland gates. I had talked with him many times on the phone, but this was my first time to meet him in person.
Lloyd was a friendly man and it was easy to see why he was a favorite of fans.
I made sure to befriend Lloyd and night guard George Stolls by walking across the street to a restaurant called the Hickory Log. I would bring back burgers, sodas and sweet rolls.
During the day I met and made friends with Charlie Hodge, a “Memphis Mafia” buddy of Elvis known for giving his boss scarves and water on stage during concerts.
Hodge, who was tight lipped on any information, was friendly and we spent a few days occasionally playing games of pinball at the restaurant.
I also met a special man, who I had communicated with through his mother and caretakers over the years. Gary Pepper was president of the Elvis Tankers Fan Club since Elvis’s Army days.
Gary would share news and items with me for Texas fans. It was an honor to meet with Gary and he was happy to see me. Gary had cerebral palsy and Elvis provided financial and emotional support throughout his life. Through Pepper and Lloyd, I was able to meet Vester Presley, Elvis’ uncle.
I stayed up nights and slept part of the day to mock Elvis’s habits. After several nights I returned from a nap at the nearby Howard Johnson’s motel to find Lloyd grinning at the guard booth.
By this time they were letting me push the button (a thrill) to open and close the gates. I considered myself very fortunate to be able to even be inside the gates.
“We have a little surprise for you today, Jack,” Lloyd said. “You are gonna’ get to ride up to the back of the house with Vester when the mail comes. Is that alright with you?”
I can’t remember what I said, but I do recall Lloyd laughing at my response.
When the mail truck drove up, Vester was called down by phone. My heart started beating fast as I saw a yellow paneled vehicle coming down the drive. We loaded a bag of mail in the back of his jeep type car and drove it to the office in the back.
Elvis’ Uncle Vester was singing “One has my name, the other has my heart…” as we arrived in the backyard. I was on cloud nine. We were on the way to some offices in the back when a female called Vester from a back door of the Graceland house.
With the bag in my hand I followed him to the back door. He walked in and I stepped in right behind him. I don’t know who the lady was, but surmised it was a cook or housekeeper. I just stood there in awe trying to memorize what I was seeing, but the thought of being in the kitchen of Elvis Presley made that difficult.
From my vantage point I could see the backs of some security television screens on a counter. I am sure they were pointed at the gate and other strategic locations around the 14 acre Graceland grounds.
Too concerned not about not making waves and being respectful to go in any further, I must have stood just inside the back door for at least 15 seconds. But it was 15 cherished seconds.
Just knowing Elvis was home at Graceland while I was in the kitchen in May 1976 was exciting enough.
I had already met Elvis’s Uncle Vester Presley, his cousin Harold Lloyd (a security guard), and good friend Charlie Hodge.
I had visited and was interviewed on the colorful WHBQ radio station. Driving out to the Mid-South Auditorium, I saw thousands of Elvis fans, many who had been waiting in line for days sitting in lawn chairs, resting in tents and laying on cots for concert tickets for a rare hometown concert.
Lloyd told me Elvis had a new Harley Davidson motorcycle delivered earlier and thought he might be coming out that night.
While still daylight, I drove to the cemetery to locate Elvis’s mother, Gladys Presley’s burial site and returned with a bucket of chicken and drinks for Lloyd and his replacement security guard at the Graceland gates, George Stoll.
Stoll said it was a perfect night for Elvis to come out.
It was quiet, with “all the fans across town standing in line,” he told me. “You know I would like to go to that show, but don’t know if I can get off.”
Stoll told me about Elvis flying him to Las Vegas and how thrilled he was to experience “flying into the desert over the mountains to see Elvis’s concerts because I have never seen him perform.”
Sometime after midnight the guard house phone rang. Stoll answered and motioned me to push the button to open the gates. I was honored, but very nervous because he didn’t say who was coming down the drive. It was a motorcycle.
It passed us, exited the gates and turned right on the street.
“Nah. That’s not Elvis,” George told me. “That’s Billy Smith, another cousin.”
Occasionally we would see Smith drive by. We would keep the gate open as long as no fans were around.
Not long after 2 a.m. Stoll asked me to “watch the gate” and walked away from the small security house alongside the rock wall at the front of the property. I stood in the doorway and thought I heard Billy Smith returning.
No fans were around so the gate remained open. I walked out to the street to see which direction Smith was coming from. I could hear, but could not see him. Then it occurred to me the sound is not coming from the street, it’s behind me.
“Oh my goodness,” I thought as I looked back to the Graceland mansion. “Here comes Elvis.”
Elvis Presley, wearing a black leather jacket and black helmet, was
approaching down the Graceland driveway. He slowed down as he neared the guard house. There was someone riding on the powerful cycle with him.
“Elvis is stopping,” my mind went into a panic. “He is not going through the open gates!”
Looking puzzled he asked “Whar’s the guard?”
I was speechless.
I pointed around the back of the guard house. Elvis turned off his motorcycle and got off. I noticed it was Linda Thompson, his beautiful girlfriend sitting on the back.
Elvis walked behind the booth and yelled “George. Hey, man watcha’ doing back there?”
Then he laughed.
Stoll was obviously embarrassed. There was no restroom at the guard house and he wanted to save himself a long walk to the house. Stoll did not want to wait for a relief guard to come down, so he went to relieve himself behind the front gate.
“Peek-a-boo,” laughed Elvis.
Stoll apologized. Elvis just patted him on the back and asked Stoll if he had seen Billy Smith.
“Not in a while,” said George, zipping his pants and humiliated in front of Thompson. “He passes by every now and then.”
“Who is this,” Elvis Presley looked at me and put out his hand?
I shook it and said “Jack….Jack Dennis.”
“Darn that sounded so dumb…like Bond, James Bond,” my mind went in overload.
“Where you from Jack,” Elvis asked? I could not believe I was shaking Elvis’s hand and actually talking with him.
“San Antonio……..Texas,” I suppose I yelled.
He laughed again. “Oh how stupid, he knows where San Antonio is, Jack,” I was stuttering to myself now.
Then spontaneously, my mouth said, “My Dad’s a detective there. A homicide detective.”
Elvis lit up. He pulled out a wallet and showed me his badge. He was a deputy of Shelby County, Tennessee.
Stoll explained I was the president of his Texas fan club and then
Elvis showed me his new motorcycle. It was like a big kid showing a young kid his new bicycle. He was so proud of it.
Elvis started talking to George, so I asked Linda Thompson if it was okay if I took Elvis’s picture. She nodded yes and I turned around to snap a photo of Elvis and George together. Then they got back on the motorcycle and left Graceland.
George told me that was the first time he had a picture taken with Elvis. I sent him a copy after my return to Texas. George and I corresponded by mail for at least a year afterwards.
I was so keyed up by meeting Elvis that I wanted to capture the conversation as quick as I could. The only thing I could think of was running across the street to the Hickory Log for some toilet paper.
I wrote down everything I could think so I would not forget.
Thirty years later, when I returned to Graceland with my father and oldest son, I had the chance to see the kitchen (from the inside view of the house) and it looked exactly as I remembered it.
I was particularly thrilled to see a Texas shaped plaque I presented to Elvis in August 1976, backstage in the Hemisfair Arena in San Antonio.