What Was Elvis Searching For?

The question the HBO documentary 'The Searcher' avoided..

EIN Spotlight by Paul Simpson

What was Elvis searching for?

The question is raised – but never answered – in the title of HBO’s recent absorbing, imperfect documentary.




In this EIN Spotlight respected author Paul Simpson takes a close look at this all important question which, for some reason, was basically ignored in the recent HBO documentary..

What was Elvis searching for? The question is raised – but never answered – in the title of HBO’s recent absorbing, imperfect documentary.

It seems clear what the teenage Elvis was searching for – an escape from the oblivion of poverty in the American South. Yet his quest was cultural as well as financial. As Stax songwriter David Porter says in the documentary: “Elvis was a student. Elvis would hang out at the Flamingo Room. When you realise Elvis knew where Beale Street was and what all that meant, you could sense he was different.” That was why, in the early 1950s, he kept driving past Sun Studios, willing Sam Phillips to discover him. When that didn’t do the trick, he paid to cut his own records at Sun’s Memphis Recording Service.

By the time he was 21, Elvis was the most famous man in the world – and remained so until the time of his death. (When Ginger Baker, the legendary British rock drummer, began studying the rhythms of Nigerian music in West Africa, he recalled: “You’d be surprised how many of the locals asked me if I’d met Elvis Presley.”) Yet in March 1965, after nine years of unprecedented stardom, stuck in what he later called “that big rut off Hollywood Boulevard”, the increasingly reclusive star was telling James Kingsley, of the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “I withdraw not from my fans, but from myself.”

Within a few days of this interview, driving to Los Angeles, Elvis confided to Larry Geller, his hairdresser and spiritual guru, that he was disappointed that, despite all his study and meditation, he had had “no experience of God”. Soon after this conversation, Elvis stopped the motorhome in the middle of the desert. He had spotted a cloud formation resembling the face of Joseph Stalin, which metamorphosed into the face of Jesus. Running after the clouds, Elvis told Geller: “He smiled at me and every fibre of my being felt it. For the first time in my life God, and Christ, are a living reality.” He then added: “Can you imagine what the fans would think if they could see me like this?”

While it is tempting to seek a pharmaceutical explanation for this vision, Red West relates in Elvis: What Happened? how he and Presley saw a cloud formation resembling the faces of Stalin and Elvis. Insisting he hadn’t taken any amphetamines that day, he swore to God that this definitely happened. Presumably, this is West’s memory of the Geller incident – it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that Elvis and his entourage repeatedly saw Stalin’s face in a cloud.

Though they may differ on details, Geller and West put the vision in the same context – a conversation in which Elvis expressed the belief that he was put on earth to do something beyond making music and movies. In The Searcher, Priscilla addresses this conviction, saying that he didn’t realise that the music was his message and mission. She may have a point although, given that Elvis had kicked off 1965, and his thirties, recording 38 takes of ‘Shake That Tambourine’, you can understand why he might have been yearning for something more.

Elvis discussed his spiritual quest with co-star Deborah Walley

In March 1965, Elvis visited the Self-Realization Fellowship, an ecumenical movement in which believers of any denomination can seek spiritual solace. He spent a lot of time at the group’s Lake Shrine retreat in Pacific Palisades, west Los Angeles, a kind of Shangri La landscape originally constructed for a silent movie. He sometimes took Deborah Walley, his co-star in Spinout, to Lake Shrine, and spent $21,000 to create his own Meditation Garden at Graceland.


Elvis met spiritual leader Sri Daya Mata at the Fellowship’s Pasadena headquarters, beginning a relationship that would last the rest of his life. He kept her book Only Love and used to refer to her as “ma”. Daya was an interesting woman – born Rachel Faye Wright, a descendant of the Mormons who settled the state of Utah in the 1840s – she had been chosen to lead the fellowship by Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian holy man who had founded the movement in 1920.

(EIN Note - Please visit the Self-Realization Fellowship Sri Daya Mata website if you want to know more about her)

Presley read Autobiography Of A Yogi, Yogananda’s spiritual memoir. In this respect, he was slightly ahead of the curve – George Harrison wouldn’t start reading it until 1966 when Indian music legend Ravi Shankar gave him a copy.

The Beatles’ pilgrimage to northern India in 1968, to study transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a global media event. Yet they were, unwittingly, pursuing a trail that Elvis had quietly embarked upon three years before. As the most spiritual Beatle, Harrison would later be a welcome guest backstage at Presley’s concerts. In 2001, the Self-Realization Fellowship held a memorial concert for Harrison at Lake Shrine.

In his search for meaning, Elvis tried everything. With Geller, he studied all the major religions from Judaism to Buddhism and theosophy to numerology (Cheiro’s Book of Numbers was a particular favourite). Inspired by Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors Of Perception (the latter gave Jim Morrison, a fervent admirer of Elvis, the name for his band), he once experimented with LSD.

He read obsessively, seeking out such books as The Impersonal Life, Joseph Brenner’s guide to self-discovery, The Initiation Of the World, Vera Stanley Alder’s exploration of secret wisdom and Kahil Gibran’s book of fables, The Prophet. In his copy of Gibran’s tome, Elvis jotted down the line: “A singer can sing his songs but he must have an ear to receive the song”.

What exactly was Elvis searching for? As Elaine Dundy notes in Elvis And Gladys, he took up Kriya Yoga in the 1960s because, “as he explained to his teacher: ‘I read that one who practises this technique is gradually no longer subject to the conditions of cause and effect and I wish to be free of them.’ Which is rather like saying: ‘I would like to be free of the laws that govern human nature.’”

The first time he met Geller, on 30 April 1964, when the conversation turned to spiritual matters, Elvis said: “What you’re talking about is what I secretly think about all the time. I’ve always known that there had to be a purpose for my life, I mean, there’s got to be a reason why I was chosen to be Elvis Presley.”

To millions, including Priscilla, he was chosen to be Elvis Presley because his music – and especially his voice – liberated, soothed, inspired and helped people. Yet fame and fortune had not, as he had intended, brought his mother happiness nor had it assuaged the intense loneliness that gnawed at him and his father.

This loneliness was so profound that others were aware of it. His first mentor Sam Phillips certainly was and film director Sidney Lumet was struck by it, telling Dundy that a speech in The Fugitive Kind, his movie of Tennessee Williams’ play Orpheus Descending, about a phoenix that can never rest “evoked such a memory of what I felt of Presley when I watched him work, something other worldly, unhuman (not inhuman), a kind of restless spirit that could never find rest anywhere.”

As the novelist John Updike said, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”. If anything, fame exacerbated Elvis’s loneliness. Parker isolated him from ‘unhealthy’ influences – inspiring figures such as Leiber and Stoller and Chips Moman who might upset the applecart. As Jon Landau, the producer of The Searcher, says: “The Colonel was not interested in Elvis becoming too independent a thinker. He needed Elvis to think that everything good came from the Colonel and anything bad came from imagined enemies. He kept that con job going for much too long.”

Elvis’s unprecedented celebrity left the star questioning whether people liked him for himself, his image or his fame. As he said at the Madison Square Garden press conference in 1972, “The image is one thing and the human being is another. It’s very hard to live up to an image, put it that way.”

It is hard to know how Elvis reconciled his spiritual exploration with his upbringing in the First Assembly of God, the strict Pentecostal church in which he was baptized as a child. His quest didn’t seem to alter his passionate, lifelong devotion to Jesus but may have shaken his faith. Several preachers have said that he told them he had trusted Jesus as his saviour when he was younger but was no longer certain. Yet in December 1976, in an emotional backstage meeting with televangelist Rex Humbard, he rededicated himself to God. The televangelist recalled: “I could see he was reaching back to the past – that spirituality that had been planted years and years before tin his heart.”

Though Elvis could deny reality when it suited – especially when it came to polypharmacy – he was self-aware enough to know that, no matter how many hours he spent devouring his Bible, or standing around the piano singing gospel songs with JD Sumner and the Stamps, he was not living a godly life. As he told First Assembly of God pastor James Hamill in 1958: “I’m the most miserable man you’ve ever seen. I’ve just got all the money I’ll ever need to spend. I’ve got millions of fans. I’ve got friends. But I’m doing what you taught me not to do and not doing the things you taught me to do.”

Yet singing gospel songs on stage and in the studio he often conveyed a sense of personal kinship with Christ – as evidenced in the intensity with which he sang “so help me Jesus, my soul’s in your hands”, on stage in Memphis in March 1974. Presley’s tin-eared anti-biographer Albert Goldman suggested that his gospel singing sounded “histrionic or insincere” which, as music criticism goes, must be up there with the same writer’s dismissal of James Brown as “an African witch doctor”.

Elvis’s search for meaning was not likely to impress Parker, whose concept of divinity began and ended with the mighty dollar. In March 1967, after the star fell over in his bathroom, the Colonel banned Geller from being alone with Elvis, outlawed many of Presley’s religious and philosophical books and lectured the Memphis Mafia: “Some of you think maybe [Elvis] is Jesus Christ, who should wear robes and walk down the street helping people but that’s not he is.” Presley reluctantly acquiesced to Parker’s ultimatum that he end his religious ‘kick’ but not without complaining: “This isn’t a kick, this is my life.”

Two months later, at Priscilla’s request, he burned a pile of the banned books at Graceland to “kiss the past goodbye”. This act of renunciation appeared decisive but how could it be? Elvis was still haunted by the same questions, subjects which, tragically, he felt unable to discuss with either his wife or such old friends as Red West.

The inclusion of Yoga Is As Yoga Does in Easy Come As Easy Go – in which Elvis is professionally obliged to mock his own pursuits – cannot have given him confidence that his quest would be understood by those around him. Although his claim that the song was inserted into the movie at Parker’s behest sounds paranoid, it is hard to figure out why else it might have been written, filmed or recorded.

The intensity of Presley’s spiritual yearning inspired one of the highlights of his career, his performance of If I Can Dream for the 1968 TV special. Earl Brown’s lyrics echo Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech, which Elvis often quoted in private, but also reflected his reaction to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination on 6 June 1968. When the news broke, writer Chris Bearde recalled: “Elvis picked up a guitar and started talking and playing a mile a minute. He said ‘I want you to understand me, because this is a moment in time when we all have to understand each other.’”

Elvis with Larry Geller in 1977, still searching

Though thrilled by the resurrection of his career, Elvis kept searching for spiritual answers. On 12 May 1971, his chauffeur Gerald Peters drove him to the Self-Realization Fellowship where he renewed contact with Sri Daya Mata. He kept up his reading – notably Herman Hesse’s mystic novel of self-discovery Siddhartha, not a book that Parker would have approved of. (In 1967, it had inspired Harrison to write Within You Without You for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) As pressing as Elvis’s commitments to studio and stage became, he never forgot Paramahansa Yogananda’s dictum: “Everything else can wait, but our search for God can’t wait”, a favourite saying, coincidentally, of Harrison’s.


That search would inspire two Grammy-award-winning performances in the 1970s: He Touched Me (which, like the eponymous album, remains seriously underrated) and How Great Thou Art, one of the highlights of the Elvis Recorded Live On Stage in Memphis album.

Elvis never found what he was searching for. It may be that, given his remark about being freed from the laws of cause and effect, he was never likely to. Near the end of his tragically short life, he cut a poignant figure, watching the TV cameras monitoring fans outside Graceland as a substitute for human contact.

Ignoring his spiritual quest in The Searcher undermines the documentary – the relevance of the title is never really clear – and gives us an incomplete view of Elvis. The absence inadvertently helps perpetuate the Goldmanesque cliché that Elvis was dumb Southern white trash. He wasn’t. He may have spent too much of the turbulent 1960s making a series of increasingly interchangeable musical comedies but he was, as Priscilla says, “far deeper than that”. He was reading the same books, groping for the same answers and asking the same questions as the younger generation whose heroes he had inspired.

Elvis knew money couldn’t buy love long before the Beatles’ chart-topping single. He had experimented with LSD before John Lennon wrote most of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. And, three years before Beatles flew to India, Elvis had asked Sri Daya Mata whether he should give up his career and dedicate himself to the spiritual life. She told him he could do more for the world through his genius as an entertainer.

This exchange, if reported back, would have given Parker an aneurysm. Luckily for us, Elvis took Daya’s advice. Yet the road not taken still haunted him. In the 1970s, when he was upset, he would often head to the piano in Graceland’s racquetball court, to play gospel. As Bono wrote in Rolling Stone: “He was happiest when he was singing his way back to spiritual safety.”


Spotlight written by Paul Simpson
-Copyright EIN February 2019

EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

Click HERE to comment on this article

DON'T MISS these previous fascinating EIN Spotlights by Paul Simpson

'Money Honey' - EIN Spotlight: Released as the final track on Elvis' dynamic first album 'Money Honey' has always been noted as a classic Elvis recording.
“You know the landlord ring my front door bell” has to be one of the most memorable entrances Elvis ever made into a song.

All Shook Up - EIN Spotlight - Composer Otis Blackwell liked to boast that he could write a song about anything.

"Baby, Let's Play House" “You may have a pink Cadillac but don’t you be nobody’s fool.” 

'Suppose - Did It Inspire Imagine'

'Trains, Jet Planes and Morning Rain' EIN Spotlight:

'Big Boss Man: What Kind of Technical Advice Did Parker Provide for Elvis’s Movies?':

"If You're Going To Start A Rumble" -The Importance of Fights In Elvis Movies:

Interview with 'Elvis Films FAQ' author Paul Simpson: "Elvis Films FAQ"  was reviewed by EIN as one of the best Elvis books published in 2013... "Paul Simpson examines every angle of Elvis’ film career and writes about it in a very engaging and enjoyable style. The real triumph of this book is that it will make you want to watch all of Elvis’ films one more time! Highly recommended."

While Elvis' Hollywood years are full of mystery, and Elvis Films FAQ covers them all! Elvis Films FAQ explains everything you want to know about the whys and wherefores of the singer-actor's bizarre celluloid odyssey; or, as Elvis said, "I saw the movie and I was the hero of the movie."
"Elvis Films FAQ" was without doubt one of the best Elvis books published in 2013 and EIN wanted to know more from its author Paul Simpson.
(Interviews, Source;ElvisInfoNet)

'Elvis Films FAQ' Book Review: Elvis' Hollywood years are full of mystery, and supposedly 'Elvis Films FAQ' covers them all! Elvis Films FAQ by author Paul Simpson explores his best and worst moments as an actor, analyses the bizarre autobiographical detail that runs through so many of his films, and reflects on what it must be like to be idolized by millions around the world yet have to make a living singing about dogs, chambers of commerce, and fatally naive shrimps.
After all if Elvis Presley had not wanted to be a movie star, he would never have single-handedly revolutionized popular culture.
Yet this aspect of his phenomenal career has been much maligned and misunderstood – partly because the King himself once referred to his 33 movies as a rut he had got stuck in just off Hollywood Boulevard.

It is a mightly entertaining book - but go here as EIN's Piers Beagley investigates to see whether this new book by author Paul Simpson really answers all the questions you need to know ....

(Book Reviews, Source;ElvisInfoNet)


EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.
Elvis Presley, Elvis and Graceland are trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises.
The Elvis Information Network has been running since 1986 and is an EPE officially recognised Elvis fan club.













Did You Miss these Popular Interviews?
Go here to EIN's exclusive interview with Wayne Jackson - RIP.
UPDATED - Paul Dowling in-depth EIN Interview:
Interview with Caroline Cahoon-Hauser - her encounters with a Young Elvis:
"Dr. Nick" Exclusive EIN interview:
EIN Joyce Bova exclusive Interview:
Linda and Sam Thompson in Australia:
John Wilkinson Tribute & 1972 Interview:
(Interview) Anne E. Nixon answers your questions
Ginger Alden Interview:
Elaine Beckett -Easy Come Easy Go costar- Interview:
Shirley Dieu, author of Memphis Mafia Princess, talks to EIN:
Interview With Elvis author - : Gillian G. Gaar
Interview with Dick Grob, Elvis' Head Of Security:
Hollywood veteran Michael Hoey talks to EIN:
Interview with 'Elvis Films FAQ' author Paul Simpson:
"My Fast Life" Rare Elvis Presley 1964 Interview:
RIP - Bernard Lansky talks to EIN:
Allyson Adams 'The Rebel and The King' Interview: 
Joseph A. Tunzi
David Stanley (2012)
Author Chris Kennedy Interview about D.J. Tommy Edwards:
Vernon Presley Interview:
Jerry Leiber Interview for EIN
Elvis Paradise Hawaiian Interview - with Peter Noone
Sam Thompson, Elvis' bodyguard, 2011 Interview
James Burton Interview - Rick Nelson & Elvis:
Elvis Drummer Jerome "Stump" Monroe EIN Interview:
Donnie Sumner Remembers his friend Sherrill Nielsen: 
Lamar Fike EIN Exclusive Interview
Jamie Aaron Kelley - EIN Interview:
Ernst Jorgensen interview about 'The Complete Masters' and more:
D.J Fontana Interview - Elvis Week 2010 special: 
Red West Interview:- 2010 Elvis week special
Linda Thompson - Interview Special:
Elvis in 1969 - Ann Moses & Ray Connolly Interviews:
Ernst Jorgensen interview about 'On Stage' and Elvis' Legacy in 2010:
Paul Lichter
Dr. Nick talks to EIN
Alanna Nash
Ernst Jorgensen (2009)
Joseph Pirzada
Jeanne LeMay Dumas
Larry Geller
Mac Davis
Roger Semon
Ernst Jorgensen (Record Collector)
Did You Miss these Popular EIN articles
UPDATED - Elvis and the Coco Palms Resort:
- 'The Elusive Norman Taurog' EIN Spotlight:
"Baby, Let's Play House" - EIN Spotlight 
'If I Can Dream' new Elvis album - EIN Readers Respond:
"You Can Have Her" Elvis' One-Off Performance:
'Elvis Meets The Beatles':
Did Elvis Record 'Tiger Man' At Sun?
Forever Elvis - A 2015 commemorative Spotlight:
Elvis "Non Stop Erotic Cabaret":
EIN Spotlight on Aloha's director Marty Pasetta
'Elvis - The UK's 'Most Successful Chart Act':
FTD "What now, What next, What If? PART TWO ":
FTD "What now, What next, What If?":
Is 'From Elvis In Memphis' the only Elvis album you need to own?:
EIN's 'Elvis Star Track' Of The Week
'Trains, Jet Planes and Morning Rain' EIN Spotlight:
Wertheimer's Reaction To Finding The 'Mystery Kisser':
UPDATED - 'Elvis Madison 1977 - The Gas Station Incident' with Kathy Westmoreland:
"If You're Going To Start A Rumble" -The Importance of Fights In Elvis Movies:
'Big Boss Man: What Kind of Technical Advice Did Parker Provide for Elvis’s Movies?':
UPDATED - 'American Studios 1969 - A Turning Point In History':
'The Nation's Favourite Elvis Song' Spotlight
Linda and Sam Thompson in Australia:
Elvis Passwords - We’ve Hacked them all! 
Fourteen Key Elvis Singles:
Elvis And The Vocal Group Tradition:
Happy Birthday EIN EIN turns 100 – a retrospective!:
Aloha From Hawaii - The Concert 2013- EIN Exclusive
Elvis at Madison Square Garden 40 Years Ago
'The Wedding' Elvis & Priscilla EIN special Spotlight:
'Elvis: Live at the International' Book Review:
'Promised Land' FTD CD Review:
"Kissed By Elvis" Janet Fulton Interview:
'Elvis Memphis to Madison 1977' The Gas Station Incident:
'Elvis In Concert' 1977 TV special; Should it be released officially?
Ernst Jorgensen interview about 'The Complete Masters' and more:
Dark Side of the Colonel
Did you miss these Reviews
'Elvis Taking Care Of Business - In A Flash FTD Book Review:
'ELVIS - NBC TV Special' FTD CD Review:
'ELVIS Las Vegas 1975' FTD CD Review:
(Book Review) Elvis' Humor Girls, Guns & Guitars (Bo Keeley):
Book Review - Elvis Style: from zoot suits to jumpsuits (Zoey Goto):
'The Elvis Files Vol. 7 1974-1975'  Book Review:
NOW UPDATED - 'Elvis Presley - The Album Collection' EIN Review:
'The West Coast Tour '76' FTD CD Review:
MRS ELVIS Record Store Day Releases - SPECIAL PREVIEW:
'ELVIS LIVE in the 50's The Complete Concert Recordings' Review:
(Book Review) Elvis, The Numbers:
'Down At The End Of Lonely Street' - Book Review:
(Book Review) A Guide to the Australian Records of Elvis Presley The Vinyl Years 1956-1990):
'Live A Little, Love A Little' FTD Soundtrack Review:
'If I Can Dream' Elvis with the RPO - In-depth CD Review:
'A Touch Of Gold Lamé' Book Review
'Nashville Chrome' - (Maxine Brown & Elvis) Book Review:
'Rock Around The Bloch' FTD Book Review
'Elvis' Christmas Album' FTD Review:
'Flaming Star' FTD Review
Is 'From Elvis In Memphis' the only Elvis album you need to own?
'Ultimate Elvis' Book Review
(Book Review): Elvis Presley: A Southern Life
(Book Review): CHANNELING ELVIS How Television Saved the King of Rock 'n' Roll:
(Book Review) Elvis and Ginger:
'Elvis Files Magazine ISSUE 8' Review:
(Book Review) Memphis Mafia Princess:
'Final Countdown To Midnight' NYE 1976 - in-depth Review:
'ELVIS' FTD Classic Album Review:
(Book Review) 100 Things Elvis Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die:
'Elvis-The King Of The Jungle' In-Depth Book Review:
(Book Review): Elvis' Favorite Director:Norman Taurog:
'ELVIS AT 21' Exhibition Review:
'Elvis Music FAQ' - Book Review:
'Elvis Films FAQ' Book Review:
'The On Stage Season' FTD In-Depth Review:
'The Elvis Files Vol. 6 1971-1973'  Book Review:
‘Elvis At Stax’ [Deluxe] Reviews:
'Hot August Night' FTD CD Review:
'Elvis - Aloha Via Satellite: A 40th Anniv Release' Book Review:
'Aloha From Hawaii' 40th Anniv LEGACY CD Review:
Aloha From Hawaii - The Concert 2013- EIN Exclusive Review:
'A Boy From Tupelo' special In-depth Review:
Bootleg Elvis (Book Review)
Best of Elvis on YouTube
Graceland cam
EPE's Multimedia Elvis Gallery
Sirius Elvis Satellite Radio
Elvis Radio (ETA's)
Elvis Express Radio
Ultimate Elvis Radio
Elvis Only Radio
"Images in Concert" PhotoDatabase
Radio Interview: Vernon & Gladys Presley
Sanja's Elvis Week 2007 Photo Gallery
'EIN's Best of Elvis on YouTube'
The Music of Elvis Presley - Australian Radio Show
All about Elvis
All about Elvis Tribute Artists
All about Graceland
All about Lisa Marie Presley
Ancestors of Elvis
Art Archives
Book Releases 2009
Contact List
Elvis and Racism
Elvis as Religion
Elvis CDs in 2007
Elvis DVDs in 2006
Elvis Film Guide
'2007 New Releases'
Elvis Presley In Concert "downunder" 2006
Elvis Online Virtual Library
Elvis Research Forum
Elvis Rules on Television
Graceland - The National Historic Landmark
How & where do I sell my Elvis collection?
Is Elvis the best selling artist?
Links to Elvis' family & friends
Links to other Elvis sites
Marty's Musings
Online Elvis Symposium
Parkes Elvis Festival 2009 (Australia)
Presley Law legal archives (Preslaw)
Presleys In The Press
Sale of EPE (Archives)
6th Annual Elvis Website Survey
Spotlight on The King
"Wikipedia" Elvis biography