A card-carrying ‘mafia’ member: Esposito met Presley in army, then became trusted friend
“I don’t know if I was Elvis’ best friend,” says “Diamond” Joe Esposito, “but he was definitely my best friend.”
The Chicago-born Esposito first met Presley in 1958, during their respective stints in the Army in West Germany. Esposito went to work for Elvis in 1960, and he rode shotgun for the next 17 years, during the second half of Presley’s roller-coaster career. Esposito served as foreman of the “Memphis Mafia,” Elvis’ road manager, one of the best men at his wedding, and was with him up to the singer’s final moments.
After Elvis’ passing, Esposito went on to serve as road manager to several big-name acts before leaving the music industry to start his own limousine business. These days he works for hotelier Steve Wynn at Wynn Resort in Las Vegas.
In 1994, Esposito wrote a book about his experiences with Presley, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and later released a coffee-table collection of photos called “Elvis: Intimate and Rare.” The 69-year-old has just authored a new memoir about Presley, “Elvis: Straight Up” (available at elvisstraightup.com) He says the book may be the first in a series of volumes recounting his life with the King. Here, he talks about Elvis’ battles with drugs, his own response to the entertainer’s death, and the power of Presley’s enduring appeal.
Q: Why write a second book?
A: I’ve gotten so many questions on my Web site (tcbjoe.com) about Elvis, it’s hard to respond to each one individually.
Q: With the 30th anniversary of his death, there’s naturally some focus on why Elvis died so young and what could have been done to save him from his problems with drugs. What’s your view on that?
A: You cannot make somebody do something at the age of 42 that doesn’t want to do it. Everybody talked to him about the personal problems he had during his life. They blame it on all the guys around Elvis. But we all talked to him at one time or another as a group, individually, about his problems and he considered it not being a problem.
Q: In your new book, you’re critical of [fired Elvis confidantes and bodyguards] Sonny and Red West and Dave Hebler, and the book they wrote in 1977 to confront or challenge Elvis about his drug problem, “Elvis: What Happened?”
A: It really hurt him tremendously. They claimed they wanted to do it to try and help him out. But they should have known Elvis better than that — it was going to make him more depressed. For the last year of his life, that’s all we talked about: why did they do this to him? That made him really depressed and got him more into the medication to escape from it. That bothered him more than anything. Especially the two guys, Red and Sonny West — who I had no problems with — he couldn’t believe, especially Red, would do this to him.
Q: People offer a lot of reasons for Elvis’ problems, but much of that seemed to be hereditary.
A: People don’t realize on the Smith side, his mother’s side, they were all addictive people. His mother was an alcoholic. A lot of his cousins died very young from overdose of drugs or alcohol. That’s why Elvis never drank. He had a thing against alcohol. We weren’t allowed to have alcohol in the house for many, many, many years.
But prescription drugs — he got injured quite a few times and they’d give him pain medication. Anybody who takes pain medication, boy, it makes you feel great. At that time, he was on Percodan, a very addictive drug. He got hooked on it. What happens is you take one, it works, and then you need to take two because it’s not working as good — then you take more and more drugs and you become completely addicted to it. What happens is the drug wears off and you’re depressed — so you take another one. That’s the problem with Elvis; he did everything like that. He was very… compulsive. Everything he did, he bought three airplanes, he’d buy 10 cars. And that’s the same thing he did in his personal life, too. And he took things he shouldn’t be taking.
Q: Sam Phillips once said that Elvis was among the most insecure people and performers he ever met. Do you think that vulnerability is what, in part, made him so beloved?
A: When you’re a big star of that magnitude most of them are like that — they’re very insecure. Because they don’t know how long this is going to go on. What happens when I turn 50? What happens when I turn 60? Are they going to still love me? That bothers them quite a bit and that’s a depressing thing at times. And that’s why (Elvis) was not too much of a happy guy in the last two years of his life. He was getting older and other things were happening around him.
Q: Elvis was searching for something spiritually for much of his life. Why?
A: The whole time I was with him from 1960 until he passed away, he talked about that quite a bit at different times. He couldn’t understand why this kid from Mississippi was picked to have all this talent and aura that people wanted to look at him and see and listen to him. He could not understand why (it was) him. He always researched all religions. He was trying to solve the unknown.
Q: How did his death affect you?
A: There was a major adjustment period. Right after he passed away I didn’t want to believe that he was gone. In my mind I thought we were between tours. It took me so long, then about three months later I realized he’s gone. And I got very depressed and I was taking Valium every day — and getting worse depressed taking those damn things. So I just stopped. …
I worked with the estate for about 10 months after he passed on, with Vernon, helping him itemize and inventory everything. I left the estate, then I worked with the Bee Gees in 1979, I worked with John Denver in 1980, I worked with the Carpenters in 1981. I traveled the world and worked a little bit with Michael Jackson in ‘85. But I just got tired of being on the road and got away from the (music) business.
Q: So many years after his death, are you surprised the extent Elvis’ popularity has endured?
A: I am amazed. When you’re on the inside of a group you don’t see it the way outside people see it. When he passed away a lot of us could not believe how many people came from around to the world to say goodbye to him. We figured, this’ll probably go five years, six years. But here we are 30 years later and the guy’s more popular than ever, he’s making more money now than he ever did. That’s something nobody will ever be able to explain: that attraction. There’s something special about him that I don’t think anybody will have in our lifetime — definitely not in my lifetime.
Q: For most people getting drafted into the Army is an obligation, but for you it was a lucky turn.
A: I tell people I won the lottery when I got drafted, ’cause I met Elvis Presley. To meet Elvis and to go to work for him, my whole life changed. Very few people can say they had the life I led with Elvis. I’m very honored.
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