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Elvis Presley's Friend Jerry Schilling Reveals Hopes for Graceland: 'The White House of Rock and Roll'

People 3/10/2023 Marissa Charles

Todd Williamson/NBC/Getty Jerry Schilling and Lisa Marie Presley © Provided by People Todd Williamson/NBC/Getty Jerry Schilling and Lisa Marie Presley

He met Elvis Presley in 1954, was at the hospital in February 1968 when Lisa Marie, was born and considers Priscilla to be one of his best friends.

Now Jerry Schilling, one of the legendary singer's closest friends, is telling PEOPLE how he hopes to see the rock and roll star's legacy unfold in the wake of his only child's death. For him, preserving Elvis's Memphis home, Graceland, is key.

"I would like for Graceland itself to stay as it has for the last 45 years, as a piece of history captured in time," Schilling, 81, says of the tourist attraction that has an estimated net worth of $500 million. "I'd like to see it as Elvis left it, as he decorated it, for the generations of the Presley children. It's the White House of rock and roll."

Since Lisa Marie's sudden death in January, a legal dispute has begun between her mother Priscilla, 77, and oldest daughter, Riley Keough, 33. Within days of Lisa Marie's memorial, the grandmother filed a petition querying the "authenticity and validity" of a 2016 amendment to the deceased's living trust that ousted her and Lisa Marie's former business manager as trustees. Instead, it gave control to her two eldest grandchildren – Riley and Benjamin (Lisa Marie's son who died in 2020 aged 27).

RELATED: Inside Priscilla Presley and Riley Keough's Fight Over Lisa Marie's Trust: 'They Don't See Eye to Eye'

Sidestepping this thorny issue, Schilling is focusing on the home, family, and memories that Elvis and his daughter left behind. Thinking of his legacy wasn't at the forefront of the rock and roll star's mind before his death at the age of 42 in August 1977, the talent manager says.  

PEOPLE's The Fight Over Graceland Cover © Provided by People PEOPLE's The Fight Over Graceland Cover

"Elvis wasn't that kind of person. He didn't think about longevity, old age," says Schilling, who was a member of the singer's close-knit group of friends, dubbed the "Memphis Mafia." "He used to always say, 'Look, I don't want to hoard up this money. I want to spend it while we're young.' And he was known to give a lot of gifts."

What was important to Elvis was Lisa Marie. Schilling says that the father and daughter had a unique bond. "I lived at Graceland while she was growing up," he says, recalling how at "6, 7 years old" the little girl "ruled Graceland" while her father slept during the day. Noting that Elvis spoiled Lisa Marie while Priscilla "had to be the disciplinarian," he adds, "They had a great chemistry. There was a real father/daughter love there."  

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Elvis Presley (right) next to Jerry Schilling during a visit with President Nixon (left) at the White House. © Provided by People Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Elvis Presley (right) next to Jerry Schilling during a visit with President Nixon (left) at the White House.

When Elvis died in 1977, his estate was only worth $5 million. He left his dad Vernon as his will's executor and Lisa Marie as his heir. But when Vernon died in 1979, Priscilla became the estate's co-executor. And it was she – who divorced Elvis in 1973 – who turned Graceland into the profitable tourist attraction that it is today.

Schilling says, "She had to make all the hard decisions when it wasn't popular. Elvis wasn't at the top of his career when he passed away. She wanted to fulfill his wishes of Lisa at 26 getting Graceland, and there wasn't enough to pay the taxes. So, Priscilla [said], 'You know how Elvis liked to show the home to people? What do you think if we opened it to the public?'"

Schilling says Priscilla did her research by visiting other tourist spots like Hearst Castle in California. "She went around looking for a partner," he remembers. "Word on the street in Memphis was, 'This won't last for six months.'"

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty © Provided by People Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Schilling adds, "She did it with a lot of care. And what can I say? Outside of the White House, it's the most visited home in America."

RELATED: Elvis Presley's Graceland: 10 Things You Didn't Know About the Legendary Home

For Lisa Marie, the house was more than just a tourist attraction. "Lisa loved Graceland,' Schilling says. "Always considered it her home, even after her father passed away and she was living [in Los Angeles]. As she got older, she loved taking her kids back to Graceland after it closed.

"Some of the housekeepers and cooks were still alive, and she would have dinners. I've been to a couple of them, with the family, her kids, Priscilla, some of the relatives in Memphis."

Steve Cohn/Shutterstock Riley Keough, Harper Lockwood, Lisa Marie Presley, Finley Lockwood, Priscilla Presley © Provided by People Steve Cohn/Shutterstock Riley Keough, Harper Lockwood, Lisa Marie Presley, Finley Lockwood, Priscilla Presley

Schilling was at Graceland at Lisa Marie's Jan. 22 memorial. It was weeks after she was last there to celebrate her dad's birthday on Jan. 8 and days after he accompanied her on the red carpet at the Golden Globes to support the Baz Luhrmann biopic, Elvis.

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Now Lisa Marie – who leaves behind daughters Riley, and twins Harper and Finley, 14 – is laid to rest at her Memphis home next to her son Benjamin and a stone's throw away from her father and paternal grandparents.

Schilling says, "She loved Graceland. It was very personal to her. She was like her father. She would have never given it up."

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