SELMA, N.C. (AP) - 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 CHAP-ter. 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, Tenn. 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’s 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.”
After Elvis’ funeral, Stanley drifted to California, then eventually made his way to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where Robyn’s family had moved.
It was there, in a little storefront church on Oct. 16, 1977, two months to the day after Elvis’ death, that he says he had his “Damascus road experience.” His hands were shaking when he stood up to give his first public testimony, but the core of his life’s message was already firmly in place.
Louisiana evangelist Moody Adams heard about Stanley’s conversion and asked him to speak at a revival he was holding in Pearl, Miss. Moody says he tapped Stanley “because he was a drawing card, of course, at the time.”
The July 2, 1978, revival was in a high school football stadium where Stanley says Elvis had once played. When he arrived, police were directing traffic, and people were waving signs _ only this time, it was for him.
“And I realized at that minute why I went through everything I did as a child and a teenager,” he wrote in his 1986 book, “The Touch of Two Kings.” “Why was I Elvis Presley’s brother? Why had I been saved? It was for this!”
Stanley and Moye married in September 1978. (He says he agreed to a magazine interview to pay for the wedding rings.)
Two years later, the Rev. W.A. Criswell, founder of Dallas’ Criswell College and a former two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention, offered to put the young evangelist through school. Stanley got his GED certificate and, in 1986, emerged from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with an associate’s degree in divinity.
Stanley and his wife (they have two daughters) live in Niceville, Fla. In the years of his ministry, he says he has visited more than 4,000 churches, and held revivals here and in Europe. He gives a secular stay-off-drugs version of his presentation at about 200 high schools a year.
But there are those who don’t buy his of his spiritual rebirth.
“The Stanleys, including Ricky, would lie to you with two Bibles in his hand,” Marty Lacker, Elvis’ friend, former bookkeeper and one of the best men at his wedding, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Schilling, Elvis’ former manager, would say only that he doesn’t “find him consistent.”
“I don’t really have much energy to put on Rick Stanley, you know?” he says from his home in Los Angeles. “I try and spend my life not thinking of the negativities of the past.”
There are discrepancies _ some subtle, some not so _ between the stories Stanley tells in church and those contained in the three Elvis books he’s co-authored. If he has gotten some things mixed up over the years, Stanley attributes it to faulty memory, the fog of addiction or “adult ADD.”
David Stanley _ who has co-written a book and made a film about his life with Elvis _ says much of the criticism is born of envy.
“The one thing that no one can take away from Ricky Stanley is the fact of the fact that he was Presley’s brother,” he told the AP in a phone interview. “And God bless Ricky for what he does. Because the only king is Christ.”
Rick Stanley says he’s willing to accept his portion of the blame for Elvis’s death _ but not all of it.
“People don’t know the guilt I’ve carried,” he says softly. “I’m the guy that was supposed to be there to keep him alive, you know? And I’ve never run from that.”
On a crisp October evening, “Brother Rick” arrives in Selma, an old railroad town 30 miles southeast of Raleigh, in the passenger seat of a loaned Cadillac SUV _ blue, not pink. About 300 people have come to hear him, triple the usual attendance for a Wednesday evening service.
As Stanley shakes hands in the vestibule, Sue Bunn, 62, stops to snap a few photos of the celebrity speaker.
“Can’t wait to hear what his message is going to be,” she says, beaming. “Being that he’s lived in that fast life, he’s a witness.”
Stanley does not disappoint.
Dressed in a suede vest, dark jeans and tooled orange-and-brown cowboy boots, the lean, 6-foot-3 preacher stalks the altar, snapping his fingers like a hypnotist attempting to awaken a subject from a trance. His sentences are punctuated with words like “buddy,” “man” and “friend,” and his Tennessee-tinted baritone occasionally sounds a bit like an Elvis impersonation.
Stanley covers a lot of ground, from the reconciliation with his dying father to allusions to his younger daughter’s own drug and alcohol arrests. But the spotlight is on Elvis.
The Elvis of Stanley’s sermon is not the bloated, drug-addled one, blue and cold on a Graceland bathroom floor at the age of 42. He’s the kind, generous Elvis who gave cars to strangers and welcomed three young boys into his home; the deeply spiritual Elvis who longed for salvation and was terribly wounded by the things the church said about him.
When Elvis died, Stanley says, “I was lost. I was undone. I was unforgiven.”
“What do you do when your dream dies before you?” he asks the people staring up at him from the pews. “When everything you’ve looked to and longed for, your dream dies?”
But somehow, through the haze of drugs and booze and women, he says, God found him.
“And He gave me a heart transplant,” he says. “And He put his new spirit within me.”
“AMEN!” a man somewhere in the sanctuary shouts.
He tells the audience that Elvis was saved, and that he knows he’s in heaven. As for those who accuse him of using Elvis, he asks: So what?
“I’m ashamed of a lot, but I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of God,” he says, pounding on the pulpit rail with each syllable. “Hey, friend. I’ve been Elvis Presley’s stepbrother 51 years. And for 18 months, I was Michael Jackson’s UNCLE.”
Stanley ends the service with an altar call, to which about two dozen respond. Before dismissing the crowd, Pastor Terry Dennis asks the ushers to take up an offering for Stanley.
They take in about $700.
Stanley says he has never felt “worthy” of the attention. But this is the story God gave him to work with, and he’s going to run with it as long as he can.
“I didn’t ask for this,” he says. “I didn’t ask for ministry.”
Allen G. Breed is a national writer for The Associated Press, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.
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