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Happy Birthday, Elvis

A conversation with Elvis Presley’s hairdresser and spiritual advisor, Larry Geller, on books, spirituality and the true essence of The King

Bodhi Celebrates
words: Terence Loose for Bodhi Tree

Say the name “Elvis” and you probably envision the tender-eyed, sequin-wearing King of Rock and Roll. But behind the well-coifed façade was a quite different Elvis: an avid reader and spiritual seeker of truth. And for a spiritual guide, he looked to a seemingly unusual place: his hairstylist, Larry Geller.

From the first day he styled his hair in 1964 for the movie Roustabout, to the tragic day of The King’s untimely death, Geller was one of Elvis’ closest confidants. Geller brought him hundreds of books on spirituality, meditated with him, and helped him find meaning in his chaotic life.

A longtime friend of and occasional lecturer at the original Bodhi Tree bookstore, Geller has written two books about his time with Elvis: Leaves of Elvis’ Garden and If I Can Dream. We sat down with Geller to ask about how he came to be responsible for the most iconic pompadour in history, as well as why, at his core, The King was really just a spiritual seeker like the rest of us. (See the inspiring spiritual books that Larry Geller purchased for Elvis at Bodhi Tree Bookstore here.)

When Elvis Put His Head in the Bathroom Sink

Bodhi Tree: How did you become a hairdresser?

Larry Geller: I ran across a very interesting shop. I went in and the owner, Jay Sebring, said he was opening the very first salon for men’s hairstyling in America. I told him that I had gone to beauty school. He said, “Join me. This is going to be a new industry for artists and we’re going to create hairstyles for men.” So I did. We didn’t charge $1.25 like other barber shops. We charged $10 to $12, which was a lot of money then. But our clientele right off the bat was Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Rock Hudson—you name the celebrity, they all came to us. I was 20 years old and thrust into this phenomenon.

BT: When did you first do Elvis’ hair?

LG: In 1964, I went to his home in Bel Air to do his hair. We washed his hair in the [bathroom] sink. But the sink was small. I was doing my best to not get him wet. Elvis lifted up his head and started shaking it back and forth, water splattering everywhere. He and I are now drenched, and he looks at me with that Elvis smile and says, “Hey, man, what the hell? At least it’s clean.” In an instant, I knew who he was. He was so down-to-earth. A lot of celebrities have all these ego filters. Not Elvis. He was just open and treated everyone the same.

Becoming Elvis’ Spiritual Advisor

BT: How did questions of spirituality come up?

LG: I worked on his hair for about 35 minutes. Then he turns around in the chair and points at me and says, “Who are you, Larry? What are you really all about? What are you really into?” I was stunned. I knew I had to speak the truth. I told him what was more important than my business and making money was my search for truth: Is there a God? Do we have a soul? Why am I here? I told him I read spiritual and metaphysical books every day. I meditate. I pray. I’m a vegetarian. And I said, “I know this probably sounds corny to you. You’re the biggest star in the world today.”

And he said, “Whoa, whoa, Larry. You have no idea how much I need to hear what you have to say. Just keep on talking, man.” And so I did. And he opened up and told me about his stillborn twin brother and growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi. He said, “Man, I came from the poorest of the poor. I was born at home in a two-room shack that my dad built. Maybe that’s why my twin brother didn’t make it.” He said, “Man, people take their lives for granted. I don’t. I’ve always wondered why me? Why did I become Elvis Presley out of the millions and millions of people?” We talked for a couple hours. Elvis had tears running down his cheeks at one time. Something just clicked between us.

Happy Birthday, Elvis
Geller acting as security on stage with Elvis at a Florida concert, 1976 (Courtesy of Larry Geller)

BT: Is that when he asked you to work exclusively for him?

LG: After a few hours, I had to go because Peter Sellers was waiting for me. So Elvis said, “You go back to the salon for Peter, but tell them you quit and you work for me full time.” I knew what he was saying. He was saying, “If you accept this offer, you are going to become responsible for the image of the biggest star on planet Earth.” But he was also asking me something more profound, more important, and that was that he wanted me to guide him, mentor him. Because he knew that even though he was the biggest star in the world, there was something missing. There was a hole. And that was profound in itself. So I said yes.

Amassing a Bodhi Tree Library

BT: What were some of the first books you brought him?

LG: I brought him a book called The Impersonal Life about esoteric Christianity. That became his Bible. In fact, when Bodhi Tree opened in 1970, I was buying all The Impersonal Life copies they had because Elvis liked to give them to people. I also brought him Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. But that was just the beginning. Elvis became a searcher for truth, and by 1965, Elvis was reading books every day. Everyone around him knew there was a big change in him and they didn’t understand it. They thought, “What is this guy Larry Geller doing to Elvis?” But Elvis himself was discovering realities of life that were closed to him. Over the years, we amassed a library that was incredible. In the ’70s, they all came from Bodhi Tree.

BT: In fact, you brought him books shortly before he died.

LG: Yes, a couple days before Elvis died, I stopped by Bodhi Tree and bought three books for Elvis. One of them was The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams. A couple hours before Elvis died, I gave him the books, and his body was found in the fetal position and he was reading that book when he died.

Happy Birthday, Elvis
Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis and Geller at Dodger Stadium while filming Spinout, 1966 (Courtesy of Larry Geller)

Ignoring the Need for Drastic Life Changes

BT: Were you surprised to hear Elvis died?

LG: I was shocked, but not surprised. About six months before Elvis died, we were on tour in Louisville, Kentucky. It was late afternoon and Elvis was in the bedroom with his doctor. Suddenly, there was a pounding on the front door. His manager, Colonel Parker, came in. He went into the bedroom. [When the door opened], I saw that Elvis was semiconscious and Elvis’ doctor was dunking his head into a bucket of ice water. Elvis was moaning. I thought to myself, “OK, this is good, because [his manager] finally saw the reality.” Elvis should be in a hospital; he should not be on tour. About a minute and a half later, Colonel Parker came out and walked up to me and stared coldly into my eyes and said, “The only thing that’s important now is that man is on the stage tonight.” And he walked out. And my heart dropped.

BT: What happened then?

LG: The doctor left and Elvis called me. We had a conversation and Elvis said, “Larry, my life’s on the line and I know it. I’ve been hiding from the truth for too long. There are too many people around me that I’ve outgrown….” He said we would go to Hawaii for at least a year and he was going to get off the pills, read, meditate and get healthy. He wanted a new life.

BT: But that never happened?

LG: No, and what’s sad is that the greatest phenomenon in history ended as a tragedy. But it’s not a tragedy because Elvis took pills and had an unhealthy lifestyle—who doesn’t have addictions of one form or another? The tragedy is Elvis knew that he had to make dramatic, drastic changes. So the tragedy is that he didn’t do it when he had that satori. When he had that flash, he should have fired everyone and gotten on the plane and flown to Oahu. If he did, he would be alive today.

Searching for the Truth

BT: Is there one book that you would recommend to everyone?

LG: Michael Bernard Beckwith’s Spiritual Liberation. A beautiful, wonderful book that offers various means to open and to learn the various techniques with affirmations and prayers. But there are so many books. Truth is everywhere. So wherever you are drawn, follow it.

I’ll never forget one afternoon about six months before he died, we were in Vegas in his suite. He said to his entourage, “You guys tell me you love me and want to make me happy. You want to know what would make me happy more than anything else? To start searching for the truth about why you were born.” And that’s his message.

Happy Birthday, Elvis
Elvis signing autographs for awaiting fans, 1964 (Courtesy of Larry Geller)

Terence Loose’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Movieline, L.A. Times Magazine, Riviera, Coast, The Orange County Register and other magazines and literary journals.