Is Scottsdale's John Smith the Secret Love Child of Elvis Presley?
John Smith is the secret love child of Elvis Presley. And he has, he swears, the DNA evidence to prove it.
No, really. Smith, a sometime country singer and songwriter who lives in Scottsdale, says he's coming clean this month in a new book detailing his hush-hush life as the unheralded Prince of Rock 'n' Roll. Let the Boy Sing: Elvis Is My Daddy, from a tiny, pay-to-print publisher in Oklahoma, reveals everything the world wants to know about the perks of being Elvis' tug-of-love: The trust fund, set up by Elvis for Smith when he was born. The music gigs, playing with John Denver and Lawrence Welk, and the recording contract with Elvis' label, RCA Records. The chance to write songs for country superstars like Kenny Rogers and to record an album with music legends who also recorded with Elvis. All these cushy thrills, according to Smith's new book, were arranged by Elvis himself, who kept tabs on his boy via a network of people who did the King's bidding.
And that's because John Smith is, he says, the son of the King. "I've known that Elvis is my daddy since I was 27 years old," says Smith, 51. "And there's no one word that describes how it feels to finally tell the world the truth about me."
"The correct word is scary," according to Presley historian Cory Cooper, who's known in pop culture circles as "The Elvis Expert" and who recently served as technical adviser on director John Scheinfeld's Fame and Fortune, an adaptation of Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, a 2008 bestseller by Presley's former bodyguard. "These people show up every few years, claiming to be Elvis' son or daughter. The sad thing is that some of them actually believe it. Maybe they've been fed a story all their lives about a one-night stand their mom had with Elvis, and they think it's true. Whatever the story, they always have two things in common: They all swear they have birth certificates or DNA evidence to prove their claim, and they all have a story about why they can't show you those things. And, of course, the real reason they can't is because they don't have them. Their story isn't true."
True or not, Smith's book provides a fascinating read — perhaps not for Presley fanatics or anyone who actually cares whether Smith is the out-of-wedlock son of the world's most famous dead rock 'n' roller, but most definitely for fans of unadulterated gall, tall tales, and lousy fact-checking. Because Smith's story — in which he makes bogus claims about his life and career that three minutes' worth of Googling can refute — proves to be, with very little digging, a hunk-a hunk-a burning crapola. Almost everything in the book is a story either wildly exaggerated or completely made up. The album deal with RCA Records turns out to be a pair of 45s released on a tiny indie label. The songs Smith says he wrote for famous artists clearly were penned by others. His claims about performing on recordings by John Denver appear also to be untrue, as Smith's name appears in none of the liner notes for any Denver recording. Nor does Smith cough up any proof of an Elvis-sponsored trust fund. Filled with inaccuracies, extrapolations, and flat-out lies, Let the Boy Sing is to literature what Harum Scarum is to the fine art of cinema.
And the DNA evidence? Elvis Presley Enterprises Inc. failed to respond to questions about Elvis' lineage, and phone calls and e-mails regarding Smith's claim sent to Graceland, Lisa Marie Presley, and the Presley family's genealogist went unanswered. So, too, did repeated requests made to Smith's publisher requesting proof of his DNA evidence — requests that were likewise ignored by Smith himself. (Smith's ghostwriter, Rich Carlburg, explains Smith's failure to answer e-mails and phone messages with various excuses: His computer crashed; he's snowed in at a Smith gig in North Dakota; he has no cell phone reception. Mostly, though, Carlburg just joins Smith in refusing to answer questions about recordings, DNA evidence, and the like.)
After repeated requests, Smith does finally provide a PDF of a copy of a birth certificate that shows his birth name as John Dennis Roach and his birth parents as Elvis A. Presley and Zona Marie Roach. The document, which could easily have been doctored in a graphic design program, shows Smith's birthdate in July 1961, but it was issued in 1985. The Texas Department of Health didn't return phone calls regarding the veracity of the document.
"A phone call wouldn't have done any good," says private investigator and former journalist Rich Robertson, who's investigated hundreds of complex criminal and civil cases. "Smith would have to have sent a signed, notarized waiver to the Bureau of Vital Statistics and have them send you a copy of his birth certificate. Which, if he's who he claims to be, is in his best interest to do."
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this document, and about Smith's book, is what it doesn't tell us: That if Elvis really is his father, then that would mean that his birth parents were, to borrow the title from an old Elvis movie, Kissin' Cousins.
It's a story as old as rock 'n' roll itself: Rock star has sex with groupie and blows town the next day, leaving her pregnant. It's very likely the world is bursting with the offspring of Chuck Berry and Leif Garrett and especially — given his status as the King of Rock 'n' Roll and his reputation for having been nothin' but a horn-dog — Elvis Presley.
"Elvis was the most famous entertainer in the world, he loved women, and he wasn't faithful in his marriage or to his girlfriends," says Cooper, who points out that people have been claiming to be Elvis' kid since before the King died. "But I don't think Elvis has three dozen offspring scattered around the world."
Yet the parade of would-be Presley bastards just keeps on coming. There's 53-year-old Desirée Presley, a former Los Angeles model whose mom wrote the infamous Elvis tome Are You Lonesome Tonight? about her supposed 24-year-long secret romance with Presley. And Lisa Johansen, the 43-year-old Swedish woman who filed a $130 million lawsuit against the Presley estate for defamation and emotional distress, claiming she is "the real Lisa Marie Presley" who was forcibly exiled to Sweden after her father's death and replaced by an imposter — a fake Lisa Marie who went on to marry Michael Jackson, among other things. Johansen's own memoir, I, Lisa Marie, was scrapped after her publisher sued her for refusing to take an agreed-upon DNA test.
More famously, there is Philip Stanic, a former circus performer from Gary, Indiana, who changed his name to Elvis Presley Jr., in 1990, opened an Elvis museum, and began a career as an Elvis impersonator. His birth mother, he claims, is actress Dolores Hart, now a cloistered nun in Connecticut, who admits to an affair with Presley on the set of the Elvis flick Loving You in 1957.
And then there's Deborah Presley Brando, a onetime Hollywood movie extra and unemployed law clerk who once was married to Marlon Brando's late son, Christian. Brando was told by an appeals court in 1988 that there was insufficient evidence to rule that she couldn't possibly be Elvis' daughter, which she took to mean that she is "legally illegitimate" and, therefore, entitled to half of the Presley estate.
"My father's company made $33 billion last year, and I'm two minutes from having to live in my car because the house I'm renting is going into foreclosure," Brando tells New Times by phone last month. She talks nonstop, her non sequiturs tumbling together, posing questions but never pausing to hear any answers. "I know he's my daddy, but Colonel Tom Parker was never going to let my parents be together; he wanted Elvis to marry Priscilla, and she is like the pit bull of the estate, you know what I mean? Did you know that the company that bought Elvis Presley Enterprises also owns American Idol? So what does that tell you? They own the rights to Muhammad Ali and my father, and I'm looking for a job and a place to live, but I have a lot of faith and a lot of support, so I'm doing fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm going to be fine. I'm going to just walk into the Supreme Court and demand half of Elvis' estate, because I can, you know."
Actually, she can't — and neither can any of the other would-be Elvis offspring. Because Presley's will provides only for "my daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, and any other lawful issue I might have." In other words, any children born to a woman to whom Elvis was legally married — and he was only ever married once, to Lisa Marie's mom, Priscilla Presley.
Alice Tiffin found out that the road to riches doesn't necessarily start as one of Elvis' bastard babies. Tiffin, who changed her name to Eliza Presley in 1999, started out claiming to be Elvis' daughter. When that got her nowhere, she announced she was actually his sister. "Her birth mother had lived in Memphis and played pool with Elvis a few times," Cooper explains with a sigh. "The birth mother is in her 70s and is so disgusted by her biological daughter's Elvis claims, she told me she wishes she'd just had an abortion, instead of giving the kid up for adoption."
"Why is everyone in such a rush to be Elvis' kid?" laughs music writer Serene Dominic, who has written for everything from Creem to New Times. "It's not like millions of Elvis impersonators don't have that area well-covered. And it's not like it's helped Lisa Marie's career any — and she's a legitimate heir!"
So, too, is John Smith — he swears it. He also promises that John Smith is his real name. "It's not the name on my original birth certificate," he writes in his gonzo memoir, "but my new birth certificate has John Smith on it." In the interim, he's gone by numerous other names, both on and off stage, including John D. Smith, John D. Smith Presley, John Smith Presley, John Dennis Smith, Jon Dennis Smith, Dennis Smith, and John Starr. In recent years, he's become better known — at least to people who will believe anything you tell them — as "the son of Elvis."
Smith says he was born in 1961 to Zona Marie Anderson Roach and claims he was adopted by Ira Dee Smith, the brother of Elvis' mother, Gladys Smith Presley, when he was 16 months old. Ira Dee and his wife, Etta, also adopted John's two sisters from one of Zona Marie's previous marriages — a fact that doesn't seem at all unusual to Smith.
"We were a pretty close-knit family," is all he'll say when asked why Elvis' middle-aged aunt and uncle would adopt two little girls who weren't related to the King. "I guess they just wanted to keep us together."
Smith began singing as a toddler and performed in local hoot nights and a talent show called The Louisiana Hayride in his hometown of Shreveport. Later, he joined the live touring version of The Lawrence Welk Show. ("It was quite an honor to be in Lawrence Welk's company," says Smith, who also claims to have been a regular on Welk's TV show, although he appears in none of the published cast credits for any of the show's episodes. "He said I was the greatest singer he ever heard in all time.") After his stint with Welk, Smith recorded a couple of singles and tried his hand at songwriting in Nashville.
Although he was interested in a career in music from an early age and was an adopted relation of a world-famous rock star, he says it never occurred to him to ask if he might one day meet Elvis Presley and maybe chew the rag about getting ahead in the music biz.
"I was a busy little boy, and I was used to being a local child star in my own right," Smith explains, somewhat unconvincingly. "I didn't stop to think about who I was related to or what that connection could do for me."
And yet his singing voice and physical appearance were, he says, constantly being compared to Presley's. "All my life I heard, 'Oh, you look like him! You sound like him!'" In fact, Smith looks more like actor Randy Quaid than he does Elvis Presley, and guys who sing like the King can be found in casino lounges (and white polyester jumpsuits) in most any town.
"There was an effort to keep John and Elvis apart," explains Carlburg, the co-author of Smith's memoir. "If they were seen together, people might start to notice how they looked alike or sounded alike, and there might be questions."
Smith isn't keen on questions. He dodges requests for in-person interviews, consenting only to speak to New Times by phone. During a 45-minute telephone conversation that takes place during a sound check at a bar gig in North Dakota, Smith sets the phone down often to go check his mic and his song list.
"I have always been compared, as a performer, to my daddy," he says, returning to the phone. "Now, if I'd been compared to Tiny Tim, I would have had a problem with that."
Yet Smith has no problem with bending — or at least ignoring — the truth. In Let the Boy Sing, he writes about the thrill of recording and releasing an album in 1980 with top Nashville session musicians and vocals by the Jordanaires, Elvis' renowned background singers. But Smith never tells us the title of the album, and an exhaustive search of ASCAP, BMI, and RIAA catalogs shows only two albums by Smith, recording as John Starr, both released in 2010 on the teeny independent Adonda Records label owned by Smith's longtime manager, Harrison Tyner. Despite his claims that he also once had a recording deal with RCA Records, Smith's only other vinyl output appears to be a pair of Adonda singles, released in 1979 under the name Dennis Smith.
In his book, Smith refers to Adonda as "a subsidiary of Capitol Records." Asked about this, he replies, "Well, I know at one time they were a subsidiary of RCA." Neither is true. Nor is it true that Adonda owner Tyner also managed Elvis, another of Smith's claims. (He also tells readers he's been inducted into the Cowboy Music Hall of Fame, although no such organization appears to exist. There is a National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Texas, but its only inductees are Gene Autry, Dale Evans, Hugh Farr, and Tex Ritter. And there is, of course, a Country Music Hall of Fame, but Smith is not among its many esteemed honorees.)
After his indie singles flopped, Smith, then 19, apparently decided to try his hand at songwriting. A chance encounter with Kenny Rogers in a Nashville diner, he claims, led to a long series of hit records for which other people took writing credit.
"You see, that song that I wrote, it was called 'The Old Man in Our Town,'" Smith writes, "and it was the B-side of the record 'You Decorated My Life,' which was one of Kenny's earliest big hits in country music."
The only part of this story that Smith got right was the spelling of Kenny Rogers' name. The song he lays claim to is actually titled "There's an Old Man in Our Town," and while it's true that Kenny Rogers recorded it, the song was not the flip side of "You Decorated My Life," which was hardly one of Rogers' early hits. In fact, that song was Rogers' 20th consecutive Top 40 single and was released in 1979 — 20 years after the singer launched his successful recording career. "There's an Old Man in Our Town" was first recorded by Rogers in 1972, while he was still a member of the folk-rock group The First Edition.
Smith claims he wrote the song when he was a young man toiling away as a songwriter for Capitol Records' Nashville division. But the song was published when Smith was only 10 years old, and was released not on Capitol or any of its subsidiaries, but on Jolly Roger Records, a label distributed by MGM Records. What's more, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) gives sole songwriting credit to Rogers.
Smith also claims to have co-authored songs with the Gatlin Brothers and country band Restless Heart ("I was privileged to be a part of writing one of their biggest hits, 'The Bluest Eyes in Texas,'" he writes in his book), among others. But his name doesn't appear on any recording by these artists, neither of whom responded to e-mails and phone calls about their working relationship with John Smith.
Asked about this, Smith just chuckles. "Well, back then, the songwriter did all the work, and the artists took the credit and rode around in the limousines."
Not true, according to pop music archivist Lisa Kurtz Sutton, who has produced hundreds of pop music anthologies and dozens of TV shows about the history of rock. "There have always been stories about singers and producers and label owners giving shared songwriting credit to someone who didn't write the song," she says. "But not the other way. And that's because the recording industry is a union industry. It doesn't seem likely that a big, powerful union is going to look the other way while singers are putting their names on songs that some kid wrote."
But if Let the Boy Sing is any indication, Smith can't be bothered with unions or copyright dates or published song credits. In his book, Smith writes at length about the song that proves conclusively that Elvis is really his daddy.
"One of the biggest indicators of how Elvis felt about his time with my mom was shown when Elvis commissioned the writing of a song that just missed becoming his 17th number-one hit," Smith writes. "The song became popular in the later part of 1961 — the year that I was born. The song was '(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame.'"
Rock historian Richie Unterberger doesn't think so. Unterberger, author of bestselling books about the Beatles, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix, says the song, penned by legendary songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, originally was intended for singer Bobby Vee. "Producer Snuff Garrett realized the songs weren't appropriate for Vee," Unterberger says, "and Pomus and Shuman then approached Bobby Darin, who tried to record the songs with unsatisfactory results. It seems doubtful to me that Pomus and Shuman were commissioned to write the song by Elvis or his representatives."
The song eventually was recorded by singer Del Shannon, who'd recently had a hit with the now-classic "Runaway." The story goes that Elvis heard Shannon's version and decided to cover it.
"If Elvis ever commissioned a song with a particular girl's name," says Serene Dominic, "which he never did from Doc Pomus or anybody else, he would have had an exclusive on the song. No one else would've given a song to Del Shannon to sing if Elvis had commissioned it."
Asked whether he's sure his famous father commissioned the song about his mom, Smith is adamant. "Yes, sir. To the best of my knowledge, he did. I think Bo Diddley wrote that song for my daddy."
When he's told that the song was written by Pomus and Shuman, he backpedals. "Well, I wasn't born then," he mutters. "So I wouldn't know."
Some of Smith's prevarications provide unintentional humor. "I am still not sure how it happened, but we got the call to audition at Juilliard," he writes. "Looking back now, this was a big deal. At the time for me, it was a school. School and I did not see eye to eye. . . . I was thinking, school? In New York? They talk funny, and there is too much concrete. You can educate me all you want. I like being a hick."
He claims he deliberately blew the audition by singing a song he refers to in the book as "Pistol Packin' Annies," but which was probably the Al Dexter standard "Pistol Packin' Mama," since no search of the RIAA catalog turns up a song called "Pistol Packin' Annies."
"I guess that the good folks at Juilliard figured that I was already so good that they really couldn't do too much for me," he writes, "and so they had better induct some other singer that needed the help, or something like that."
Most of the rest of the book is less amusing. Scheduled for publication this month by Oklahoma-based Tate Publishing (which brought us A Busy Mom's Guide to Family Pleasing [sic] Meals and 'Til the Slipper Fits: Godly Encouragement for Single Women), Let the Boy Sing is riddled with the tense-shifting and narrative rambling found in most pay-to-publish books by would-be authors. Before it gets around to not delivering anything that might prove its premise, it makes a lot of promises it doesn't keep.
"I have barely scratched the surface of stories that I have," Smith writes, then lists several of them (including the night he met the owner of an adhesives company, and the time that rock star Lita Ford refused to pee in the bathroom of the sailboat he was navigating, and he had to run aground so she could go find a public restroom). But he never actually tells the tales he's teased us with.
"There are these stories and much, much more," Smith assures us at the end of Chapter 10. "But it is late. I am tired, and I am going to bed."
Among the tales Smith was too sleepy to tell is a bombshell that would almost have made his meandering, half-written memoir more interesting — a shocker he drops casually into a conversation but which is nowhere to be found among the yawn-inducing yarns in his book.
"Well, you know, my adopted parents were related to Elvis, and so was my mother," he mentions during a phone interview. "I think they're cousins by marriage, because my supposed birth father was related to the Smith side of Elvis' family."
In short, Smith's birth mother's husband's cousin was married to the brother of Elvis' mom, Smith claims — kind of a big deal, if it's true, and certainly worth mentioning in a memoir of one's unusual life among the Presley elite. Isn't it?
"Oh, not really," Smith chuckles over the phone. "Not if you're from the South. Pretty much everyone in the South is related by marriage."
They may well be — but Smith's adopted parents don't appear to have been related to Elvis Presley, at least if one believes the dozens of family trees and exhaustive genealogies of the Smith/Presley clan published in books and on the Internet. Not one of these documents makes mention of an Ira Dee Smith, or of Elvis' grandfather, Robert Smith, having been married and sired any other children before he was wed to Presley's grandmother, Doll Mansell. (Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., which owns and licenses Elvis' image, failed to respond to questions about Elvis' lineage, and the Smith-Presley's family's official genealogist sent a text message saying, "We do not respond to queries about relatives of Elvis Presley's who are not documented family members.")
"I.D. Smith was the half brother of Gladys [Smith Presley]," Carlburg insists, when pressed. "He was the high tenor singer in the Deep South Quartet, which later became J.D. Souther and the Stamps."
Yet not one biography of the little-known Deep South Quartet mentions an I.D. Smith among any of its several lineups. And the Deep South Quartet, which disbanded in the mid-1950s, didn't become J.D. Souther and the Stamps. No such band ever existed, according to a text message from J.D. Souther himself.
"If any such band ever existed," says Souther, the popular SoCal singer-songwriter who's currently a featured player in the ABC drama series Nashville, "they owe me money!"
One wonders whether Smith's original ghostwriters were dispatched once it became clear that much of his story was completely invented. Both writers admit that Smith was vague about precisely how his family was intermarried — a fact that apparently meant little to Smith's friend Carlburg. Carlburg owns a company that builds custom guitars, and considers writing "more of a hobby." He is the third co-author to work on the project."We had a couple of writers come along who wanted to tell John's story their way," Carlburg explains, "and we said, 'No, we want to tell a story that brings honor and dignity to John's life.' So we got rid of them and did it ourselves."
One of the writers dumped from the project was Rico Austin, another self-published author whose career began in Idaho, where as a boy he wrote for his 4H Club newsletter. Later, as a stringer for the local paper, he covered the happenings at local senior citizen homes.
"I don't know why John chose me to co-write his story," muses Austin, who, like Carlburg, met Smith in a bar. "When I met him, he said he had a $1.5 million book deal, and my share was going to be $600,000. I was planning to pay off my house. The next thing I know, it's 'We have to come up with $3,800 to pay Tate Publishing to get the book out.'"
Austin says he agreed to bankroll Smith's book, but when he objected to working with Carlburg, Austin says he was fired. But Austin is getting the last laugh by self-publishing his own rambling account of working for would-be rock royalty. In the Shadow of Elvis: Perils of a Ghostwriter dishes dirt on Smith and Carlburg's work ethic, and details the fun Austin had promoting My Bad Tequila, his previous pay-to-print novel.
Despite having been sacked from the project, both Austin and Karen Albright Lin, the first ghostwriter Smith worked with, report having seen convincing proof that Smith is Elvis' kid.
"I did see all three of John's birth certificates," Austin says, "and he showed me the paper with the DNA evidence printed on it, and it was 99.9 percent conclusive. I wanted to see those papers because, you know, if I was going to write a book about the guy, I didn't want to look like an idiot."
Smith swears he has conclusive DNA evidence that his dad is the man who sang "Blue Suede Shoes." "One last thing that you cannot explain away," he writes in his memoir, "is that Elvis and I, we share the same DNA." But asked to share that DNA documentation with New Times, Smith hems and haws and passes the buck. "We're still talking with my family about whether we can put the DNA stuff in the book," he says. "When we said we wanted to put it in the book, they said, 'We didn't mean for you to do that. We got that for you, for your own knowledge, and not for publication.'"
And so Smith continues to point instead to other things that, he says, prove conclusively that Elvis is his dad. There's an old black-and-white photograph of Elvis holding a little boy who could, frankly, be any towheaded kid. There's a snapshot of a woman Smith says is his mother, standing with Elvis and Priscilla and Glen Campbell at somebody's wedding in the '60s. There's a handwritten note from Tyner, postmarked 1991 and refusing to confirm Smith's paternity because "it is not the time to expose your father."
Smith has, he claims, the flag that was draped on the King's coffin at his funeral. He says he has Gladys Presley's change purse, and Elvis' father's pocketknife, and a set of crystal goblets from the Graceland collection. But mention to Smith that some of these items are things that anyone could buy on eBay, or that he might own them because, after all, Elvis is the nephew of Smith's adoptive parents, and he gets huffy. "These are things that are too intimate to be left with a cousin or a nephew," he drawls. "They're the kind of things that a man would only leave to his son."
Cooper just rolls his eyes. "I know a dozen different Elvis collectors who have stuff like that," he says. "Seriously, if you were the son of Elvis, and you had a piece of paper that proved this conclusively, you would start by showing that to everyone you met. And no one ever does. They'll say they have pocketknives or autographed scarves or special key-chains from Graceland that nobody else has. And this is why nobody in the Elvis world ever takes these claims seriously or even bothers to respond to them anymore. Because they're fakes, and they have no proof."
Smith insists he has no need to prove his lineage to anyone. "I have known in my heart that Elvis is my daddy for years," he writes. "It has been a part of my life for years. I know it. I feel it."
One wonders what Elvis himself might say — or which of his famous songs he might sing in response to all these would-be love children he supposedly sired. Maybe "Fools Rush In"? Or "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad"? Or perhaps "It's Your Baby, You Rock It." But presumably not "I've Got to Find My Baby." And definitely not "I Love Only One Girl."
Cooper finds the whole cult-of-Elvis thing kind of sad. "These people want to be part of something. So it's, 'I saw Elvis at Burger King in Kalamazoo! He's alive!' or 'My mom slept with Elvis, and he's my dad!' Some of them get a little media attention, or they self-publish a book that sells 800 copies, and they get to feel special for a little while."
In a twisted way, Cooper says, this sort of attention keeps Elvis' name in the spotlight. "But if you were really Elvis' son, is this the kind of attention you'd want to bring to him?" he asks. "Because if my dad were an internationally loved icon, the last thing I'd want to do is join a chorus of people who are saying he screwed around a lot, knocked up a bunch of teenagers, and then took off."
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