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ROBERT HILBURN

10 Years Later And Still Backing Up Elvis

August 15, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

What would Elvis Presley have thought about all the attention being paid to him 10 years after his death?

Would he have been surprised by the parade of magazine covers? By the news that 50,000 fans have made a pilgrimage to his hometown of Memphis to celebrate International Tribute Week?

"I think he would have been shocked," said Kathy Westmoreland, who toured as a backup singer with Elvis for seven years and has now written a book about her relationship with him.

"During one of the final conversations I had with Elvis, he asked me out of the blue, 'How are people going to remember me?'," the petite singer said this week. "He was worried that they weren't going to remember him much at all. He said, 'I haven't done anything classic.'

"Elvis wasn't in some deep depression when he said this. He was just pensive and looking ahead. He was talking about finally writing a book about himself--he was going to call it 'Through My Eyes'--and he also wanted very badly to find a good film role so he could establish himself as a credible actor."

But what about the cheering crowds each night on stage? Didn't that suggest that he meant a lot to his audience? What about the hundreds of millions of records he had sold?

"He kept saying that his happiest moments were out on stage, but I think you also become kind of immune to the applause," Westmoreland continued. "When you do it night after night, you want something more, and Elvis wanted to show people that there was more to him than the silly little wiggly-hipped image.

Westmoreland had hoped to be in Memphis this weekend to sing in a Graceland-sponsored program honoring rock's greatest star, who died 10 years ago Sunday.

But the Riverside County resident--who has participated in previous Memphis salutes to Presley--was forced to cancel her plans when Graceland, the company that operates tours in Elvis' old mansion, suddenly withdrew the invitation.

A letter from a Graceland executive to Westmoreland suggested that her appearance would be "inappropriate" because of press reports that she discusses her "private and personal relationship" with the late singer in her new book, "Elvis and Kathy" (available through mail order, Glendale House Publishing, 249 N. Brand Blvd., Suite 440, Glendale, 91203, $22.95 postpaid).

So Westmoreland, 42, will spend the weekend in Las Vegas, where she first met Elvis in 1970 and where her sister is a backup singer for Wayne Newton.

Sitting on the porch of the Glendale home of Glendale House publisher B. J. Baker this week, Westmoreland said she has mixed feelings about the resurgence of Elvis mania.

"I don't even know how to react to it all," she said, fingering a large, gold, cat-shaped ring Elvis gave her. "I feel up about it one day, then down the next. I feel good that he's remembered and that he is so loved, but I also feel sad that a lot of people don't really understand him. There is this whole negative image that has grown up over the years--and that's not the Elvis I knew."

In the undertow of interviews by former Elvis associates, there have been many conflicting tales about life with Elvis. Westmoreland has kept a relatively low profile since the singer's death and, despite promoting her book, she now speaks in reasoned and persuasive tones rather than sensational ones.

Westmoreland admits, however, that she's not neutral when it comes to Presley. Described on the book jacket as Presley's "vocalist, confidente (sic), lover and friend," the 5-foot-1 1/2-inch singer tells a relatively sweet story about their relationship--both as lovers (briefly) and as friends, pulled together by loneliness on the road, and mutual interests in spiritual and musical matters.

To many readers accustomed to more dramatic Presley tales about eccentric sex and drugs, the book could appear to be a whitewash. But she denies she set out to write a tribute.

"That's the last thing he would have wanted," said Westmoreland, who toured briefly with the Metropolitan Opera National Company and did some studio work before joining the Presley troupe. "He wanted people to know he was a human being . . . that he had faults like all of us. He would have been the first to say, 'Look, I'm not God. I'm a person.'

"But I just didn't know the Elvis that I have read about and heard about in the last few years," she continued. "Take the drugs, for instance. I was--and this is putting it bluntly--in Elvis' bedroom and there was very little drug abuse. He would overmedicate himself. His idea was that if one pill was good, two were better. He was very ill (in the '70s). . . . "

In the book, she describes the illnesses as ranging from bone cancer and hypertension to diabetes, glaucoma, pernicious anemia and insomnia. "I am convinced that without prescription drugs, Elvis would have died much earlier," she writes.

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