Gary James' Interview With
Elvis' Hairstylist / Friend / Confidante
It's always a wild ride when you talk about Elvis Presley...and interviewing Larry Geller was no exception.
Larry was Elvis' hairstylist, friend and confidante.
Q - Larry, are you still a hairstylist these days?
A - Oh, no. August 17th (1977), the day after Elvis died, I was asked by his father to go to the mortuary to work on his hair for the funeral, to make him look the way he's supposed to look. And when I did that, I decided then and there when I was preparing his hair that I'll never do this again, as a vocation. I cut my hair. I cut my wife's hair, but that's about it. I don't do hair anymore what-so-ever. I gave it up then. Now, I write books. I just finished my latest book which is probably the last book I'll ever do on Elvis because it's the end result of a lot of years, of a lot of maturation in my own evolution. The name of the book is called Leaves Of Elvis' Garden. I wrote the book entirely myself. I know a lot of the people who work for Elvis and they go to other writers, but I had to do this myself because I write anyway. I've written another book which I'm finishing up now called Healthy Life, Great Looks, Healthy Hair. This book goes into my background. After I graduated high school, I did a little stint in college and my major was theatre arts. A very good friend of mine said to me "You know, you're very artistic. If you want to get into the acting field, it's so difficult. Most people don't make it. You need to have something to fall back on. Why don't you become a hairdresser?" Now this was back in 1958. I thought about it and it kind of sounded right to me. My friend said "Look, you'll meet a lot of people. We live in Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Maybe you'll meet some directors, agents and actors. You'll be in your element and you can make some money." I thought it was a great idea, so I entered school, got my license and instead of becoming a hairdresser that I was trained for, I met someone who was opening up a salon right here in Hollywood and it was the very first men's salon of hairstyling. In those days, men just went to barber shops. It was the only thing available. We opened the salon called Sebring International and we shampooed the hair first, styled the hair, blew it dry and it was revolutionary. From the moment we opened our doors, Hollywood came to us like magnets. We eventually did the hair of every motion picture, television, recording artist, director, producer, agent in the business. People like Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Steve McQueen, Henry Fonda. I was doing Peter Sellers hair. I was doing Steve McQueen's hair. Everybody came to us. I was doing Roy Orbison's hair, Sam Cooke. Every major person in television. James Garner, Robert Wagner.
Q - Don't forget Dean Martin.
A - Dean Martin. Everyone came to us because we were the only show in town.
Q - Jay Sebring used to cut Dean Martin's hair and Dean Martin would fly him to wherever he was on set.
A - Oh, for sure.
Q - He used to give him the razor cuts, which I was impressed with because it meant your hair never looked different. It never looked like you had a haircut.
A - That's right.
Q - Jay Sebring charged Dean Martin $50 for one of those razor cuts in the mid 1960s.
A - That's correct. And in those days that was a lot of money. When I see movies of the 60s, any of the motion pictures, I see our work. When I see the old TV shows, that is us. We created what was called "the look". We were written about in all the magazines and newspaper columns from coast to coast. Everything was going along very beautifully in my life. I was a young guy when I started. I was twenty years old. Every day I was working with celebrities and making money. By 1964, we were so well established. One afternoon I got a phone call from one of Elvis' aides to please come up to Elvis' house. He heard about me and would like to meet me and would like me to style his hair. So I did. I went up to Elvis' house. At this point, cutting the hair of Henry Fonda and certainly everyone was terrific. But the thought of meeting Elvis to me, at that time, was very exciting. I wasn't star-struck with all these people, but the thought of meeting Elvis was over the top. So, I drove up to his house. I walked in. We shook hands. We went into his bathroom and I proceeded to style his hair. Elvis was a talker. He love to engage in conversation. I didn't know him at this point. As I was styling his hair, he didn't say a word. He just followed every move I made. When I was through, I sprayed his hair and said "What do you think Elvis?" He swiveled around in his chair and said "That's great. Great." He didn't really care. He looked at me and pointed at me. He said "I want to know something about you Larry. Who are you? What are you really all about? What are you into?" I thought to myself Whoaa. This is interesting. Elvis doesn't know me. That is so straight forward. I said "Alright Elvis, look, obviously you know I work on celebrities every day, but more important to me is my search. I search for the truth. I search for God, for the purpose of living." I said "Elvis, I know you're the biggest star in the world. This probably sounds corny to you." He said "Whoaa. Wait a minute Larry. You have no idea what this means to me. Please man, just keep on talking." And I did. This conversation lasted about two to three hours. I explained to him all the spiritual books that I read, my interest in all the religions of the world and meditation and prayer and eating healthy foods and doing yoga and meditating and prayer. Well, something was struck in Elvis during the conversation. Elvis was raised in the church in Tupelo, Mississippi. It triggered something in him and all those memories started to fill him. He started to speak about his early childhood, growing up in the church. He always believed in God, but the church and the way it was preached turned him off. The way they did it, the preachers would preach fear. They would instill feelings in him that didn't feel right to him. When he grew up he said "I always felt an unseen hand guiding my life. There's gotta be reason why I'm Elvis Presley. Why was I given this life? We were born in such poverty, my parents and I. What we went through was unbelievable. And all of a sudden I attain all this success and all this money. There's gotta be a reason for it."
Q - I wish I had been there. I would've given Elvis the answer to his questions.
A - Oh, yeah?
Q - In show business, it's all about being in the right place at the right time with the right stuff and being seen by the right people.
A - Of course. Naturally.
Q - What we don't know is, who was around at the same time Elvis was starting his career. Someone might've been just as good or dare I say...better. But Elvis had the package deal going for him. Someone might've been a better singer or dancer or better looking, but Elvis was ambitious and he caught the eye of Colonel Parker and the rest as they say is history.
A - Well, he acknowledged it. In this conversation he said to me "I was in the right place at the right time." He was aware of this. He felt that God put him in the right place at the right time. At any rate, I've worked with and been around the most handsome men in the history of motion pictures, Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, a young Robert Wagner. I've been with these people. No one had the beauty of Elvis Presley. He was a notch up above the rest when it came to actual physical handsomeness. This man had something so unique it was unbelievable. He had it all. You're right. He was the perfect package.
Q - I wonder if you would've thought that had he not been the "famous" Elvis Presley before you.
A - I don't know. At any rate, this conversation lasted about three hours. I looked at my watch and said "Elvis, it's been great talking to you. If you'd like me to come back, I can do your hair again. We can talk, whatever you like." He said "I got a great idea. Go back to your shop and quit. Tell 'em you're gonna work for me full-time. What do you think?" And that's how it began. The next day I went to Paramount Studios and worked on many, many movies throughout the '60s. The list goes on and on. Roustabout, Girl Happy, all those movies Elvis made. I made ten movies with him. Both of our lives changed because when Elvis said to me "So what do you think? Do you think you can quit?" I said "yes." He said "Great, but when you meet me at Paramount Studios tomorrow, bring some of those books you've been telling me about." Over the years, I gave Elvis many, many books that he read and studied.
Q - Since you worked on Elvis' hair for his funeral, can you address the comments of fans that passed by his casket. Some people said his sideburns were pasted on. Were they?
A - Absolutely not. That was Elvis Presley. He died.
Q - And it wasn't a wax dummy?
A - Of course it wasn't a wax dummy. When people see a corpse, they're seeing a shell. The life force, the soul, everything is gone at that point. That was Elvis. It looked like Elvis. The family, all the people who worked for Elvis, no one has said that. We all know it was Elvis. It was obvious. I worked on his body. I prepared his hair. Even today, thirty years later, you can't simulate a head of hair that was Elvis' head of hair. Simple as that. In fact, when I was doing his hair at the mortuary, I was standing there looking at this man's face, I'm thinking look at that face. Look at those lips. I mean, that was Elvis Presley. I've seen him thousands of times. Of course it was him. If anyone should know, it's me! (laughs)
Q - I've interviewed people who said that the DNA of the person in the casket did not match Elvis' DNA.
A - That's total nonsense. How come if I'm the person who worked on Elvis' body, and I'm Elvis' intimate friend and I'm the last person to ever touch him before the lid of the coffin was closed and sealed shut, how come they never got in touch with me to find out what I know? Now, this is bologna. People like this are exploiters. They don't know what they're talking about, and I'll blow a hole in anything they say. Anyone who was close to Elvis knows the truth. Now, I not only know the truth, I know it from all these facts I'm telling you. I worked on his body at the mortuary. I was the last person to touch him. His father, his friends, everyone saw his body from James Brown to many other celebrities...Ann Margaret. We all were there. We looked at him. Don't you think if we thought it was a wax dummy, all of those people would've said something? Anybody can claim anything. People say things all the time. It was Elvis Presley that died. Of course it was Elvis. It's crazy not to think that. It's such nonsense. It's so disrespectful. You know who believes stuff like that? Fringe people. No one with intelligence thinks that Elvis is alive. Nobody that has any modicum of respect and intelligence would say yeah, of course he's alive. This is part of that conspiratorial hoax fringe element of people.
Q - I'm going to interview Phil Aitcheson next. He's the Director of The Presley Commission that looked into Elvis death.
A - You ask this guy when you interview next, why didn't you contact Larry Geller?
Q - I'll ask him that.
A - Now, let me tell you something else. Gail (Brewer) Giorgio wrote her book in 1992, and there she mentions me many, many times and I'm covering up. So finally they put a TV show together with Bill Bixby. They called me up and they asked me to be on the show. I said "No way. That's impossible. I would never do that. I'm not going to. I'm not going to substantiate. I know the truth and you can't have my support at all." So, they did the show. It was a syndicated show. The ratings went through the roof. Now, it was such a huge success, a year later they decided to do a follow-up show. One of the reasons they wanted to do that was, Bill Bixby was a friend of mine, he was very upset that he allowed to be part of that show 'cause he knew Elvis died. They did the second show and they wanted me and Joe Esposito to be on to disprove the whole thing and say it's nonsense. I said "I'll be on your show only on one condition," because I knew it's gonna be live and they're not gonna edit it. "I have to go on last." So, I went on and before Bill said "Tell them the truth. Just tell them where it's at." I was on the second show and I just blew holes on the whole theory. I can't begin to tell you the people who have gotten in touch with me to thank me for that very fact. Nobody believes Gail Giorgio. Where is she now? What does she do? She made herself some money in an exploitive book and the whole thing is nonsense.
Q - You said that the Elvis: What Happened? book was "a lot of exaggeration and half truths." What are you referring to?
A - Who said this? What book are you referring to?
Q - I believe it was in an online interview.
A - You know what? My role, what I do, is speak about Elvis. In anything I write, I don't write about other people. I don't put them down. I don't make judgments. I don't do that. I felt very simply that, that book didn't portray the Elvis that I knew. And that's the important thing. That's the essential thing. That wasn't Elvis. Things were colored. I don't think it came from Sonny or Red. I think it came from Steve Dunleavy. I think Steve Dunleavy tainted and colored and put in his own brush strokes in that book. You ask Sonny if that isn't so. OK? How's that?
Q - Will do.
A - I was with Red two years ago. We gave a talk together. We hadn't seen each other since Elvis died and even way before then 'cause he was fired. When we saw each other, we walked up to each other and hugged. I told him how much I loved him and he said the same thing to me. There's a lot of stories about all of this stuff, but I hold nothing against anybody. These guys loved Elvis. We all loved Elvis. All these people loved Elvis. They cared for him deeply and still do.
Q - In one interview you mentioned that Elvis had a few friends who knew him apart from the onstage image. Who were you talking about? Guys in the Memphis Mafia?
A - People that were around him. People that were close to him.
A - That's right. I'm talking about the people that were with him, the group. There were certain people that were close. It was like circles within circles within circles. There was an outer circle. There was another one. Then there was a circle of very, very close knit people. People Elvis would open up to, that Elvis shared certain realities (with) that he didn't share with other people. That's true in any organization, in any group in the government. No, they weren't friends, they were all friends of course. But some, Elvis was closer to. That's all. Very simple.
Q - Did you like Colonel Parker or were critical of him?
A - Both. I am critical of him. Totally critical.
Q - If Colonel Parker was not as good of a manager as he should have been, who else would've been able to manage his career?
A - Well, I'll tell you the man Elvis was going to select to be his next manager.
Q - Was it Jerry Weintraub?
A - No. Absolutely not. His partner Tom Huelett. Do you know that name?
Q - I've heard of him.
A - Tom Huelett and Jerry Weintraub were partners and they owned Concerts West. They're the people who promoted Elvis' concerts. Tom always came on tour with Elvis. Jerry never did. Jerry was never there. Elvis liked Tom very much. At the end of his life he was going to fire Colonel Parker and he wanted Tom as his manager. But, this goes into a whole other reality of Elvis' life at the end because Elvis was going to quit touring and step away for a year or so. The last time he ever sang on stage was June 26th, 1977. We were in Indianapolis. That was the last time he ever sang. Do you know that was Colonel Parker's birthday?
Q - I didn't know that.
A - And you do know that two years to the day, Vernon died?
Q - That I knew.
A - Isn't that coincidental? Isn't that strange? Elvis was very much into numerology you know.
Q - To change subject matter for just a minute...you cut the hair of Same Cooke. What was he like?
A - Sam was such a good guy, who really suffered. People don't realize what he went through in his life, being a Black person at that time. And, his son died, his little baby. Did you know that?
Q - I didn't know that.
A - Yeah. He was a great guy. I really liked Sam.
Q - Were you there when Elvis met The Beatles in 1965?
A - Absolutely. Let me tell you what happened. Elvis lived in Bel-air. All the Beatles wanted to do was meet Elvis. He was their hero. So, that night I'm in Elvis' bathroom and I'm doing his hair and he looked at me and said "man, I know what these guys are going through. I've been there and I've done it, and I gotta get it back. I gotta get back to a live audience because these teeny-bopper movies I'm making are embarrassing the hell out of me and I can do much better. But, The Beatles, they're on the stage. They have an audience. That's where the energy is. That's who I am. That's how I started. I'm gonna do it again. I gotta stop making those movies." So, he was flashed by The Beatles. He really was. So, I did his hair. He looked fantastic that night. We went into the other room and all the guys were there, and the girlfriends and a couple of the wives. The Beatles came in with their manager Brian Epstein. Outside there were thousands of people screaming. It was so wild. They walked up to Elvis and shook hands. Elvis sat down in a chair and The Beatles sat on the floor in front of Elvis, like in a semi-circle, cross-legged and all they did was just gape at him. Not a word was spoken. Their jaws dropped (laughs) 'cause Elvis was really something to look at and they couldn't believe it. There's Elvis in the flesh, right? All of a sudden there's a silence in the room and Elvis says "Well, if you guys aren't gonna talk to me, I'm gonna go to my bedroom." Everyone laughed. It broke the ice and the evening began. Colonel Parker and Brian Epstein played roulette in the other room and talked business. Ringo played pool with the guys. George wandered off. So, three of us sat with Elvis. John and Paul in the den. This is where all Elvis' guitars were on stands. Paul asked if he could pick a guitar up. Elvis said "Sure." Then John picked a guitar up. Then Elvis picked a guitar up and they started jamming. The three of 'em were playing together for about twenty minutes. I thought to myself, I don't believe this. Right now I'm in the center of the universe. This is so unbelievable. Elvis and The Beatles?
Q - Too bad you didn't have a tape recorder.
A - We didn't have tape recorders in those days. Reel to reel. No way did anyone record it. But, here's the thing, Colonel Parker didn't even allow anyone to take any pictures of that evening with Elvis and The Beatles. Can you imagine?
Q - Someone did get a picture.
A - Outside there was someone in a tree, because we walked outside and Elvis wanted to show them his Rolls Royce, his new one. We walked out and the fans were screaming. There were people in the trees. A few flash bulbs went off. But that wasn't us. I saw one or two of those pictures over the years. You couldn't make anyone. It was terrible. They were fuzzy and non-definitive and it's a shame. The point I'm making is, Colonel Parker being the control freak he was, wouldn't allow pictures to be taken. They would be sold and he wouldn't make the money and he wouldn't be in control It's a damn shame. Those pictures would be phenomenal today in books, posters. I remember when The Beatles first came in, the TV was on with no sound. Paul said "look, color telly!" He never saw color television before. That's when color just came out. When they left that night, Elvis said to me "man, those are good guys. I like 'em. But what the hell is with their teeth?" English people during the war there was no milk. They weren't receiving their calcium. That night Elvis said "Just remember man, there's four of them. There's just one of me." (laughs) Elvis really liked John by the way. He was his favorite guy.
Q - You actually met Elvis as a young teenager at the L.A. Pan Pacific Auditorium?
A - Yes. This is such a great story. In 1957, it was the first Rock show we ever heard about. I was in high school. My buddies and I thought we were the coolest guys. We had duck-tails on our hair and pompadours and tight-fitting jeans. So, we went to the Pan Pacific. Thousands of people were coming in. We thought someone would take us in with them. We sneak in and all of a sudden everyone is inside the auditorium and we're forlorn, standing there. We walked to the side to kind of pry open a window. Nothing doing. We walk to the side of the auditorium and there he was, standing there with three or four guys. He was wearing I remember like a gold jacket. I said to my friends "Look guys! There's Elvis! There he is! C'mon!" And they froze. They were petrified. (laughs) I said "Well, I'm going." So, I ran up to him and at that time I was shorter than him. I looked at that face and those sideburns. He looked like a person from another planet to me. But he glowed, man. He had this inner glow. He looked and he smiled and he put his hand out. He said "Hi." He saw that I was kind of like dumbfounded. He said "Hi. I'm Elvis Presley." I said "Hi Elvis. I'm Larry Geller." The minute I said it, one of the guys said "Elvis, they're calling for you. He said "Well, if they're calling for me, I gotta go. Talk to you another time. Take care kid." And he left.
Q - And eight years later you're cutting Elvis' hair.
A - But here's the thing: Eight years later when I'm called up to do his hair, I walked into his house. Elvis was about five feet, eleven and half inches. I'm six - two. So, I walk into the house eight years later. Elvis walks up to me, puts his hand out and says "Hi. I'm Elvis Presley." And I'm having this deja vu experience, right? This flashback I should say. I put my hand out and now I'm looking down at him. I said "Hi Elvis. I'm Larry Geller. Pleased to meet you." I didn't mention until a long time later that I met you before as a kid. But, then and there it was a strange experience, meeting him again. But, he still had that same inner, magnetic radiance. He had it, no question.
Q - You were down in Memphis in August, 2007, for the 30th anniversary ceremonies of Elvis' death. Why did you go?
A - First of all, I went to honor Elvis, to go to his gravesite, to see my old friends, to speak to the fans, to tell them stories, to share. Why wouldn't I go? Why would I hold back? The fans want to talk to me.
Q - Seems like it would be too sad for you.
A - It was sad. It was extremely sad and at the same time, I'm honoring and celebrating Elvis' fantastic life. He had a phenomenal life. He had a great life. I'm filled with anecdotes, stories of things that happened and I had a message that I wanted people to know, and that is this: there's a lot of stories about the end of Elvis' life and how he gave up and didn't care about the fans and didn't want to be Elvis anymore and was bored. Nonsense. Elvis woke up to some painful realities. He knew that he was in trouble. He knew his life was at stake. He knew that he was addicted to these various pills. He was acutely aware of it and he wanted to change his life from the inside out. I mentioned earlier that he wanted to walk away and retreat for a year and he did. He let go of Sonny and Red and Dave. He was gonna get rid of most of the other guys. I know exactly who they are, but I don't mention names. It doesn't matter. The point is Elvis. That's what this is all about. Elvis was gonna let go most of the people that worked for him. He was going to keep three or four people at most. We were going to go to Hawaii. We had the house picked out. He was going to get off the crazy, insane diet he was on. He was going to get off the pills. This is before Betty Ford Clinic. This is before it was hip to say that "I'm a substance abuser." Today you say that, people admire you. In those days it was hush-hush. In those days people didn't do this. Elvis was going to go to Hawaii. He was going to get off the pills. He said "It doesn't matter how long it takes, I know I'm entering into uncharted waters. I know it's going to be difficult. Whatever it takes, I'm going to do it. I'm gonna get my life together. I'm gonna get back into Hollywood. I'm getting rid of Colonel Parker and I want to be an actor. I owe it to my fans. I owe it to myself. I know who I am and I know what I have to do." Now, here's the tragedy of Elvis' life. His life was a fantasy so-to-speak. It was glorious. But it ended up tragic because Elvis woke up. He had plans...a vision for the future. He had an outline of what to do and what steps to take. He said "I'm going to do it in September (1977). I have these contracts. I have these concert dates. I don't want to disappoint my fans. If he would've picked up the phone then and there and called Colonel Parker and said "You're done", if he would've gotten rid of the people he would've gotten rid of, we would've gotten on a plane and gone to Hawaii. He would have been alive today. But he procrastinated. He didn't do what he was supposed to do. This is true for all of us. This is the moral. This is the lesson we learn for us from his death and that is if you're supposed to do something, do it now! You don't wait! The people around Elvis didn't even know he was going to do this because he was going to let them go! And there's more to this. You asked me why I went to Memphis. As God as my witness, we were on tour in Detroit. I remember it so well 'cause it was his mother's birthday, April 25th. We were walking from his bedroom into the living room suite and he stopped and pointed out where the fans were outside of his window. He said "Hey, they know Elvis Presley alright," and he poked his chest. "But they don't know me, man. They have no idea what I'm going through about my illness, about my spiritual quest in life. There's so much I want them to know. But I want to know that you're gonna tell them the truth. I would never ask another human being but you. You got me on the path and you know how to do it. I want to know you're gonna speak the truth and tell the world what you know." I said "Well, yeah." He said "Let's write a book." He knew the other book was coming out by Red and Sonny (Elvis: What Happened?) He wanted his version to come out. He wanted to call the book Through My Eyes. We were gonna write it together 'cause he knew that I had the ability to write. I was writing another book at that time. And that's what gives me the right, the strength and the courage to say what I say.