Ed Bonja interview
- Elvis' friend & photographer talks with EIN
Bonja needs little introduction to most Elvis collectors
and his pictures are some of the most famous images
of Elvis ever produced. While his photographs can be
found in almost every Elvis book, he has also published
his own, "Elvis: Shot by Ed Bonja" and also the DVD
"Elvis, The Colonel & Me." Ed Bonja worked for Colonel
Parker throughout the seventies but was part of the
Elvis family since his childhood.
This year Ed Bonja took part in the Las Vegas Elvis week
celebrations and EIN's Piers Beagley spent a few hours talking
with him about his fascinating life.
- Every Elvis fan will own several of your fabulous Elvis
photographs, whether they know it or not. Perhaps you could
start by explaining how you came to work for Elvis & Colonel
- My uncle, Tom Diskin, was The Colonel's right-hand man
for many years even before Elvis. So I first met The Colonel
back in Chicago in the early 50s and he was like a family
friend. We used to call him "Uncle Tom" at first - and then
"Uncle Colonel" later and his wife was Aunt Marie to us
as we grew up. It was later on that my real Uncle, Tom Diskin,
said, "Please call him 'Uncle Colonel' now, he likes his
- I can't believe that you called him "Uncle Colonel"!
- Well I just called him Colonel but there were 10 of us
in the family and the others called him Uncle Colonel. It
was a real family affair and there was a great deal of nepotism
as my other brothers & even my cousins also worked for The
Colonel. We handled concessions and stage-managed. Al Dvorin,
of course, was working on the tours and his sons also came
along with us. It was a real carnival family-affair and
that's the way the Colonel liked it. He was a real 'carny'
- Col Parker & your uncle Tom Diskin worked together before
Elvis became a star. Can you remember their excitement about
this new discovery that was Elvis, or were you too young?
Did the early Elvis mean anything to you?
- Before The Colonel had Elvis he was working with Hank
Snow, Eddy Arnold and people like that. The Colonel would
be at our house quite often when he worked in California
because he did a lot of work on the West Coast. After dinner
he loved to sit back and light up a big cigar and tell us
his stories about showbiz & the carnival days. Very causally,
one afternoon, he said, "Oh, and I signed a new boy this
week and I think he's going to be pretty big. His name is
Elvis Presley." It was as casual as that - but from then
on it was 'all Elvis'.
would send us all of Elvis' 45rpms and even 78rpms before
that. We even got one of those RCA old turntables to play
the darned things on! We should have saved them all but
we had no idea at the time how things were going to work
out! We got tickets to all the west-coast shows, the Shrine
auditorium, The Pan Pacific .. So I saw Elvis perform very
early on. I also remember when The Colonel told me that
he had lined Elvis up for a screen-test and he said to me
that Elvis had passed with flying colours!
- So, not only did you tour with Elvis in the Seventies
but you saw the early shows too!
- Oh yeah! I was there for the west-coast fifties shows
but also got to the NBC 68 Special. You can easily see my
twin sisters sitting by the stage. When I think back at
these things I can't believe how lucky we all were. It was
extremely exciting to be there and see something so amazing.
I went to both stand-up shows and, after seeing those terrible
late-sixties movies, I thought it of it more as a 'rescue'
rather than a 'comeback'.
I just never thought about it. After the filming was done
The Colonel, Aunt Marie & some friends actually went down
to Palm Springs and we saw Elvis' newest movie Viva Las Vegas
together at the local theatre!
- So when did you actually meet Elvis for the first
- I actually met Elvis first in early 1964. I got
sick in my first year in college and The Colonel offered
me a job for 10 weeks, during the summer, working
on the Elvis movie Girl Happy. I was 19 at the time & helped out as The Colonel's extra secretary. The
odd thing is that it was all in 'the family business'
so at the time I never realised how special it was
and never saved anything for souvenirs.
- During the sixties you went to college and studied photography.
Did you ever think you would end up working with Elvis?
- Actually I got interested in photography 'cos my brother
Ron, who was in the airforce, gave me a tiny Agfa camera
and that's what I used to shoot the very first tour. It
was only after I had done my very first photography course
that The Colonel asked me if I was interested in going out
on tour. Elvis talked to my mum & dad about it and he said,
'bring a camera and if you want to take some pictures, feel
free'. That was a great invitation! So the next time I saw
Elvis was at his second engagement at the International
Hotel in Las Vegas.
- I believe that you started as a Tour manager in 1970,
so at what point did you switch to being a photographer?
Did you continue doing both?
- When you work for The Colonel, anything he finds out you
can do, he would get you doing it somehow! My brother Ron
and I started doing very mundane work on the baggage & equipment
and got to see a lot of Elvis shows! However he then started
to pay me for some of the photos. The Colonel would look
at the photos I had taken, for a couple of hours, and then
pick out some for album covers or publicity. Finally I'd
get a cheque in the mail. In some ways I was lucky since
they were my photos and negatives, rather than being employed
as The Colonel's official photographer.
- One of your first assignments was the November 1970 Tour.
This was Elvis' first real Tour since 1957! What was it
like? Did you get any feel of the impact it must have had
- There was a real buzz from Elvis once he escaped from
Vegas & got back on the road. I've heard the term used about
him on that tour, that he looked like a caged-animal - and
Elvis even laughed about that sometimes! He was so full
of energy and so wild onstage, you could tell how much he
loved that freedom of being out there. It was excitement
- There are some images where Elvis seems to be looking
directly at you - how close were you allowed to get?
- Elvis sure knew I was there and he was an extremely gracious
man. When I wanted to shoot him, as he first came out on
stage, I would get out there right in centre aisle. Elvis
would see me and you see him pointing down at me, with the
guitar around him. He'd be saying, "how's it going tonight
Eddie?" and he'd acknowledge me - & after that he would
pause just so that I could get an outstanding shot of him!
Big stars rarely do things like that. At other times when
Elvis was running around & I'd be right on stage with him,
hiding behind the speaker-stack, and he would look right
in the camera, look right at me!
- There are some ridiculously close pictures that you took
at 'Aloha', I'm surprised that we can't see you on stage.
- I took after my uncle, Tom Diskin, and always tried to
stay in the background. I'm fairly shy so I try to stay
out of the way. For Aloha I worked up & down the aisle and
used a Nikon 180mm lens to get those great shots.
- Did you ever get any feedback about your photos from Elvis?
- The Colonel insisted that we keep a business relationship
with Elvis & his entourage. He didn't like us mixing socially
and sometime went to extremes to keep it that way. I got
Elvis' feedback usually via Joe Esposito, whom I would give
my photo albums to for Elvis to have a look at. I did find
out that way that Elvis liked particular photographs.
- Did the Colonel employ any other official photographers
who came on tour?
- The only time I remember another official Photographer
being there was for the 'On Tour' movie, when MGM sent someone
out to do some shooting. Then after the tour MGM said they
needed some different shots, so they came over & looked
at some of my pictures and bought three or four. That famous
one when Elvis is crouching down, that's mine. The Colonel
said, "See Eddie, I got you some extra money"! '
- The crazy thing is that with Elvis being such a big star,
The Colonel really should have employed ten photographers!
- Looking back of course it's easy to say that. I've
always said that he should have shot everything and
filmed everything. If I had had any true inkling of
what I was involved in I would have shot photos day & night.
didn't photograph Elvis backstage very much because
I didn't want to impose on his privacy. That was a
real mistake of The Colonel's that he also didn't
video tape more of the shows.
- Let me just mention some of the classic Elvis images of
yours that everyone will know. All those amazing Aloha photos,
Madison Square Garden, the On Tour photos, even the classic
1975 image of Elvis pointing his finger from the Elvis Presley
Boulevard LP. What is your favourite from your collection?
- My favourite shot of him is the one of Elvis in that white
suit, on his aeroplane. We were in Alabama and had three
planes but Tom Diskin & I stayed the night and we went home
on Elvis' plane. I was sitting in the back and when Elvis
came on board he went all the way to the rear of the plane
to the rest-room. When he came out I lifted up my camera
and Elvis stopped. He turned to me - and I'm thinking to
myself that I'm bothering him and that I shouldn't be doing
this. I said, "I'm sorry Elvis, you don't have to pose."
He broke the ice completely by saying, "Oh, I'm not gonna
pose. What do you want me to do, hold my dick in my hand?"
We were laughing & I quickly took that shot.
Diskin who was sitting next to me said, "Let that be a lesson,
don't ever hesitate again!" I was very lucky that being
on The Colonel's side, I could break the general rule and
take candid photos of Elvis. However, I was also very cautious
in making sure that I never became intrusive or bothered
- You were there for the 'On Tour' film tour and some of
those photos are spectacular. There's the red Burning Love
suit photos as well as the 1972 Way Down Black suit. In
fact, if I have any complaint it's that RCA used too many
of the White jumpsuit photos whereas the colour ones, from
a photographer's perspective, looked sensational. Did you
have any input as to which photos RCA used?
- It seems that a lot of people think that Elvis only wore
white jump-suits. In fact it was extremely frustrating because
for an album cover, or anything new we were going to do,
I'd bring in a screen and The Colonel would look at my slides
for a couple of hours. He'd then pick some out & give them
to RCA. However I always thought that he sure could have
picked out much better pictures. I think that there might
even have been a jealously there and he wanted Elvis to
look 'all right' but not too good, since he figured that
it would sell anyway!
- It almost seems a power thing where The Colonel is saying, "You can have this, but I've got better." I mean, what was
he doing on the Separate Ways LP with Elvis in a white jumpsuit
standing on a highway? The Colonel didn't have an arts degree
did he? !
- (laughing) No I think he failed that class! That LP cover
was The Colonel's inspiration! Boy, if you could ever get
into his mind, you'd go crazy thinking about it!
- So why didn't the Elvis Live In Memphis LP have a dynamic
concert photo on the cover?
- RCA really wanted to beat the bootleggers on that one
and so Tom Diskin talked to The Colonel & suggested that
I get some good shots of the concert, so that we could get
it out immediately. However, The Colonel already had other
plans. He knew someone on the Memphis Commercial Appeal
whose son was going to college & studying photography. Without
anyone else knowing it The Colonel had arranged for this
guy to take the pictures of that show. So when Tom Diskin
suggested he make sure I brought my camera along The Colonel
replied, "No, don't worry about that. When The Colonel needs
pictures I can just snap my fingers."
I did as I was told and I didn't take any shots of that
show. When we got back to our office at MGM studios a few
days went by and a package arrived and it was all these
photos this guy had taken. And they were all just terrible!
The Colonel's tearing them up going, "What is this crap!"
Suddenly he's screaming, "EDDIE, you need to get to Memphis
tonight and get some pictures." So that night they booked
a red-eye reservation to get me to Memphis. Lamar Fike met
me at 6am at the airport and I went straight to Graceland
and I shot the back, the front, the grounds. I still have
a few proofs including some of me taking those photos!
I was back in L.A by four in the afternoon and again The
Colonel picked the cover shot. I had an even better one,
with the edges of the mansion cut off which gave it a better,
surreal look. You know, he should have let me choose the
pictures! So that's the reason why it is Elvis' only live
album of the seventies without a concert shot of him on
the front! Of course the 1976 LP recorded at Graceland strangely
did use a live concert cover photo!
- Which reminds me of that great shot on the front of the
album From EP Boulevard with Elvis in his 'Indian Feather'
suit pointing the finger at you. That is such a good photo.
- I agree with you. That was the last concert I shot. And
that picture is one of the most used photos of Elvis in
history; it's on everything. They did a little airbrushing
to it to try & match his image but it's an amazing shot
of Elvis in 1975. There was a real gap in RCA's photos from
Aloha to that shot of Elvis 2 years later.
- If you were always travelling with Elvis, did you never
get a chance to keep rare souvenirs?
- Well, in late 72 Elvis actually sent 12 jumpsuits back
on a plane with us because he didn't want them any more!
I stored them in The Colonel's closet at MGM. The Colonel
then got upset that they were filling up his closet and
told me to get rid of them. I asked him what he wanted me
to do with them and he said, "I don't care what you do with
them, just get rid of them." I should have just put them
in my car but instead we treated them like some kind of
problem and I put them in a couple of trunks and sent them
back for Vernon to deal with! It's so ironic, - the opportunities
- Some of your most astounding shots are from the Aloha
special. It's hard to imagine the enormity of the event
but there's also an odd vibe about the concert too. Can
you tell us what it was like being there?
was not happy about that as you can probably tell when you
see the new DVD. He could have told them "no" but he obviously
didn't want to let Marty Pasetta down. It just shows how gracious
- There was a strangeness, and a quickness too. It
seemed like Elvis had to get in a certain number of
songs and he kept to (producer) Marty Pasetta's plan
to just do the songs with no fooling around. But you're
right, since the rehearsal show was the same. There
was no talking to The Sweets or The Stamps which was
was an amazing historical piece, but it really wasn't
Elvis. And being dragged back at 3am after the show
to do those 5 Hawaiian songs!
3am I was still there and sitting at the end of the runway,
absolutely front row seats. There was a point where Elvis
had done quite a few of the songs and he was noticeably
getting hoarse. Elvis said, "Are we almost done now? I'm
getting pretty tired." Well, Marty Pasetta says, "Yeah I
know Elvis, we're all tired. We've all had a long day." Well did Elvis get pissed off at that! To his credit he
didn't say anything, he just bit his lip and finished the
job, but we could all see it.
- I know that you lived in LA, so did you ever get to go
to Graceland? Did you ever hang around with Elvis gang?
- The only times I went to Graceland was when there were
after-tour parties, and of course I was there to shoot the
house for that album cover. In general I didn't socialise
with Elvis & the guys as it was strictly a working relationship.
But there is so much truth when people talk about Elvis'
charisma & aura, 'cos if you were there, you could really
feel his presence in a room. Sadly The Colonel wanted a
hands-off relationship and I was a really obedient kid!
- I believe that we have you to thank for the fabulous tape
of Elvis' rehearsal for the Opening show in Las Vegas August
- You are right. I was there for that rehearsal and one
other at RCA that Tom Diskin couldn't make. I recorded that
74 rehearsal and Tom said to make sure that I kept the tape
because Elvis might want to hear something. Well, no one
ever asked me for it and so I ended up with the cassette.
I used to play it in my car on my way to & from work and
driving around! Finally Ernst Jorgensen called me and in
the end I went to New York and sold it to RCA for practically
nothing! That's how they got 'Twelfth of Never'.
- Don't you think that it would be fabulous for FTD to put
out a double CD of the rehearsal, along with that amazing
August Opening Show?
- It sure deserves a full release. However, while they only
actually paid me for the 'Twelfth of Never' they do have
a DAT copy of the whole original tape and have used other
stuff off it since. (Laughing) But of course they didn't
bother to send me another cheque for anything else.
- Well I sincerely hope that they pay you something if they
decide to release the whole tape!
- People who know me laugh 'cos they know how I'm always
getting ripped-off with my pictures everywhere. Al Dvorin
said to me, "Eddie, when a con-man comes to town the first
thing he does is look up your number in the telephone book
so that he can call you & get something from you!" Al Dvorin
is like a father to me. We are such good friends and often
spend hours on the phone just talking about the old days.
He's coming here to Vegas next week to do the Elvis Week
show and we have so much fun together. I enjoy talking about
Elvis and the good old days better than anything else.
- You knew Elvis from when you were a child so, when did
Al start working for him?
- You know, Al Dvorin worked with Elvis longer than anyone
else. He was there on the road even during early days and
the fifties. Although everyone knows him mainly for being
the Master Of Ceremonies at Elvis' shows throughout the
years, Al did almost every job apart from performing on
stage with Elvis itself! He was the booking agent, managed
the tours, lighting guy, a bandleader & also help set-up
everything. Al worked really hard for the Colonel since
the early fifties. He is the nicest guy and also has the
sharpest memory for specific events, of anybody I know.
If you want to interview somebody about life with Elvis,
Al Dvorin is your man.
- This interview took place August 5th, just 2 weeks before
Ed Bonja & Al Dvorin's tragic car accident.
Click here for Part 2 - Where Ed Bonja talks about the Closing Night row between
Elvis and The Colonel, the Final years, and why he had to
walk away from it all.
Elvis: Recorded Live On stage In Memphis FTD CD review
to comment on this interview
wishes to record its sincere thanks to Paul & Joan Gansky
for their assistance in arranging this interview.