A fascinating phone call came through to the obituaries desk at the Telegraph last week. It was from an actress who had spent time with Elvis Presley in the 1960s, and after several in-depth conversations with him had gained a remarkable insight into how his strong Christian upbringing had left its mark.
Barbara Whatley, as she was when she met Elvis, was the widow of a top cricketer called Rupert Webb, who died aged 96 and whose obituary we had run, and she was ringing to pass on thanks to the obituarist.
Webb was an unusual figure, in that not only had he played first-class cricket as wicketkeeper for Sussex throughout the 1950s, he had also enjoyed a late-life career as an actor and model. He appeared, for example, as a customer in a Specsavers advert, as an angry farmer on a tractor in a Conservative Party political broadcast – and he turned up in Four Weddings and a Funeral as the father of Anna Chancellor’s character, the spurned bride “Duckface”.
Barbara Whatley was his second wife, his first wife having died, and it was after marrying Barbara in 1983 that Webb, in his 60s, had moved into the fringes of show business. In the obit we mentioned in passing that Barbara had known Elvis Presley, so when she rang I couldn’t resist asking her about this. With great generosity and charm she explained how she had met “the King” – and what they talked about.
It was 1966 and she was appearing on the London stage in the comedy Son of Oblomov with Spike Milligan. One night the veteran Hollywood director Norman Taurog (who won the Best Director Oscar for Skippy in 1931) was in the audience. By the 1960s he had become a highly efficient director of Elvis’s brightest and breeziest musical comedies – nine in all, starting with GI Blues in 1960 and including Blue Hawaii (1961) and Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962).
Taurog went backstage to see Milligan, and at the same time invited Barbara, who was 21, to Los Angeles for a screen test. She remembers seeing Elvis walking towards her in a Hollywood studio corridor and asking: “How ya doin’?” She replied cheerily: “Trying to survive.” Later a message arrived from Elvis, saying: “Let me try and help you.”
They ate in the studio restaurant and there was also a Malibu “beach hut”, where Barbara’s efforts to prepare an English-style breakfast with scrambled eggs and ham were scuppered by the mob of fans who swarmed around Elvis. But today Barbara recalls how during their conversations she discovered that she shared with Elvis an interest in Christianity, since they had both experienced upbringings steeped in faith, Elvis’s in the Pentecostal tradition and Barbara’s Cof E.
She sensed, however, that there was “an argument raging inside him”. In essence, he was wrestling with the contradiction between his childhood piety and the faith of his adored mother (who died in 1958) on the one hand, and what Barbara calls “the razzmatazz” on the other – the hype and nonsense that went with his stupendous success, the showbusiness lifestyle, the ever-present bodyguards and the controlling manager Colonel Parker. “What his mother wanted for him might have been something different,” she reflects. Elvis didn’t spell this out, she said, but “I could feel it in the timbre.”
Not that all the chat was serious. Elvis was also a great dog-lover and there was plenty of “dog talk”. Barbara had a cocker spaniel, Portia, and Elvis a collie named Baba who appears with him in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) playing havoc during a helicopter ride.
Barbara’s friendship with Elvis was brief – “two or three dinners” – and the gang of buddies she describes as the “Elvis brigade” were usually hanging around. But she is an acute and sympathetic observer, and the impression she leaves is an intriguing one: here is the best-known star in the world, who has experienced scarcely imaginable adulation, yet he feels “unease” that he has somehow “let the side down”, because he has struggled to reconcile the fervent Christianity of his desperately poor childhood with the life he was leading.
It was through his singing, of course, that Elvis succeeded in expressing his religious faith. You only have to listen to the power and transcendent intensity of his live performances of How Great Thou Art. He made numerous memorable gospel records, and of the 14 Grammy award nominations he received, the three he won were all in the “sacred music” category.
When Barbara returned to England she received flowers and a note from Elvis. Years later she sold it on eBay and the proceeds went towards the education of younger members of the family. Elvis would surely have approved.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph
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