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The Memphis Mafia was a group of friends and associates who were employed by Elvis Presley from 1956 until he died.
The group began with Elvis' first cousins Junior and Gene Smith (Gladys Presley's sister Levalle's children) who accompanied Elvis everywhere, along with Elvis' high school friend Red West and rockabilly singer Cliff Gleaves.
Around 1960, the media dubbed the employee entourage "The Memphis Mafia." This nickname originated as an ironic reference to their image.
According to one account, a crowd of people in front of the Riviera Hotel watched as two big black limousines arrived. Elvis and his friends got out of the two cars and someone in the crowd yelled, "Who are they, the Mafia?" and a newspaper reporter picked up the story.
The Memphis Mafia members themselves say on their website that Elvis liked the name and it stuck.
However, in her 1985 book Elvis and Me Presley's former wife Priscilla wrote that Presley didn't like the name because of a frightening Mafia connotation which the general public was then unaware of. Priscilla wrote that members of organized crime had attempted to take over Presley's career, something reported as having happened earlier to singer Frank Sinatra.
Presley and his employees adopted the acronym TCB which meant "Taking Care of Business", officially named his band the TCB Band, had the tail of his private jet painted with the initials "TCB" and a lightning bolt and gave away TCB gold chain necklaces as gifts.
When Presley emerged as a major celebrity in 1956 he was constantly besieged by adoring fans and the press, making a normal lifestyle impossible.
He would pay the cost of renting a movie theatre to watch a film or rent an entire Memphis amusement park to ride a roller coaster. At the time professional handlers and celebrity security experts hadn't yet evolved.
Presley faced repeated threats of physical violence from outraged moral extremists and death threats from fanatics (as would later happen when he performed in Las Vegas). These threats were kept out of the press for fear of triggering even more (the danger of crazed stalkers and the like later entered public consciousness in 1980 when Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon).
For both his security needs and touring support Presley hired people chosen from among those he could trust and depend on to manage his public appearances.
This entourage (the Memphis Mafia) included first cousins and several of Presley's friends from his boyhood in a poor Memphis housing project plus junior and senior high school friends and early employees from Memphis such as Alan Fortas, nephew of U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Abe Fortas.
Many people were employed with the group through the years but some of the more prominent members were Joe Esposito, Lamar Fike, Alan Fortas, Larry Geller, Charlie Hodge, George Klein, Marty Lacker, Bitsy Mott, Jerry Schilling, Billy Smith, Gene Smith, Red West, Sonny West and Patty Perry (the only female member).
Each employee had specific duties and reported to road manager Joe Esposito. Sonny West was responsible for security at Presley concerts. Red West was one of Presley's earliest friends from their school days and in 1954 had acted as a driver for Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black when they first toured the American South performing as the "Blue Moon Boys."
In her book, Priscilla Presley said these employees were paid an average of $250 per week during the 1960s, which rose to $425 per week in the 1970s. Each Christmas all Presley employees received bonus checks.
Some members of this inner circle became close friends who served as replacements for a lack of normal everyday friendships Presley's fame would not allow.
Known for his generosity (attributed by Presley himself to an impoverished childhood), he bought some of these employees homes as wedding gifts and frequently bought new Cadillac automobiles for employees, relatives and friends.
In his book, ''Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick writes that Elvis spent all day and night with the members from the Memphis Mafia. "For Elvis and the guys," the reputed Elvis biographer says, "Hollywood was just an open invitation to party all night long.
Sometimes they would hang out with Sammy Davis, Jr., or check out Bobby Darin at the Cloister. Nick Adams and his gang came by the suite all the time, not to mention the eccentric actor Billy Murphy, longtime friend of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum ..." Guralnick adds "The Colonel joked that they looked like a bunch of old men, but the Memphis Mafia had become almost as well known around town as Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack" and that Elvis and his guys were all "living on speed and tranqs."
For Joe Esposito, "it was a party like you wouldn't believe. Go to a different show every night, then pick up a bunch of women afterwards, go party the next night. Go to the lounges, see Fats Domino, Della Reese, Jackie Wilson, the Four Aces, the Dominoes — all the old acts. We'd stay there and never sleep, we were all taking pills just so we could keep up with each other."
Following Elvis Presley's death in 1977 some former members of the Memphis Mafia wrote books. The first exposй book came from the West brothers who wrote about Presley's years of prescription drug abuse which led to his death.
Books by former "Memphis Mafia" members:
Elvis: What Happened by author Steve Dunleavy (with input from Red West, Sonny West, Dave Hebler) (1977) Bantam Books (ISBN 0345272153)
Elvis: Portrait of a Friend by Marty Lacker, Patsy Lacker and Leslie S. Smith (1980) (ISBN 0553138243)
Me' n Elvis by Charlie Hodge (1988) Castle Books, (ISBN 0-91669300-7)
Elvis, From Memphis To Hollywood by Alan Fortas (1992) Popular Culture, Ink., (ISBN 1-56075-026-X)
Good Rockin' Tonight : Twenty Years On The Road And On The Town With Elvis by Joe Esposito (1994) Simon & Schuster (ISBN 0-671-79507-4)
Elvis' Man Friday by Gene Smith (1994) (ISBN 0-9642566-0-6)
Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia by Alanna Nash, Billy Smith (Contributor), Marty Lacker (Contributor), Lamar Fike (Contributor) — Harpercollins (1995) (ISBN 0060176199), including gossip describing Elvis' decline during the latter part of his life as viewed by Billy Smith, Marty Lacker and Lamar Fike along with other events.
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