Jerry Schilling Interview
Interviewed by Ken Sharp
Back in 1954, the mighty hand of fate struck down hard on a gangly, 12-year-old, North Memphis youth named Jerry Schilling. It was there on a local football field that he first met a wild hillbilly cat known as Elvis Presley.
The two forged a close friendship that lasted from the mid-'50s until Presley's death in 1977. Jerry Schilling was a trusted friend and confidante who enjoyed an eyewitness take on life inside the gates of Graceland.
- Jerry Schilling was recently interviewed for Goldmine magazine by Ken Sharp
The last holdout of 'The Memphis Mafia' to pen a book about his friend, Schilling has written 'Me and A Guy Named Elvis' in collaboration with writer Chuck Crisafulli. It is a frank, warm and candid memoir of his life with 'The King of Rock and Roll'. (Read EIN review here)
Longtime Elvis friend George Klein said, 'Jerry has an insight a lot of people don't have. He was one of the few guys who would tell Elvis the truth. I think he has a different angle because he had a lot of quality time with Elvis and Elvis respected his opinion on a lot of stuff'.
And despite his continued closeness with the Presley family (Jerry was Lisa Marie's first manager and he maintains a strong friendship with Priscilla), the book is not a whitewash. Instead, it offers a strongly balanced, keenly insightful and, most crucially, human portrait of the music superstar. Like an onion, Schilling skillfully peels back layer after layer of the myth, and in the process reveals the real Elvis, an immensely talented man with flaws, doubts and insecurities like the rest of us. And in humanizing Elvis, it makes him that much more real, relatable and likeable.
What made Schilling stand out from Elvis' coterie of buddies was his desire be his own man and forge a career away from Graceland. In between stints working for Elvis, he managed the likes of The Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis, honed his editing chops working behind the scenes on such projects as the acclaimed 1972 documentary 'Elvis On Tour' and lent his expertise to such television projects as biographies on Brian Wilson and Sun Records chief Sam Phillips and the multi-hour documentary 'The History Of Rock & Roll'.
Packed with colorful stories about life inside the recording studio, on film sets, on tour and Elvis' meetings with the likes of The Beatles, Richard Nixon, Brian Wilson, Led Zeppelin and others, 'Me And A Guy Named Elvis' is an indispensable primer illuminating the legacy of the most influential musical icon of the past century.
Ken Sharp: Why did you hold out so long to do a book?
Jerry Schilling: There was a long period of time after Elvis passed away; professionally or publicly, I didn't talk about Elvis. I tried to go on with my life professionally. There was no way I could ever make up for the loss of Elvis personally.
I had a management company, and I was managing The Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis and worked with Billy Joel. I was more fortunate than some of my friends that didn't have those alternatives. I never expected to lose Elvis, especially at that young age. After about 10 years, I went to work for Elvis Presley Enterprises as creative affairs director. I also got to work as a producer, and I produced about nine documentaries on Elvis, shows like 'Elvis: The Great Performances'.
Ken Sharp: What does your book tell us about Elvis that others have been unable to convey?
Jerry Schilling: I had gone back to Memphis. They had done a nationwide search to find a president and CEO of The Memphis Music Commission, and I got the job, which was unbelievable. I did that for a little over three years.
After my term was up, I came back to L.A. My wife got very sick for a short period of time. I stayed here with her, and we were talking about our lives. I thought maybe I could write something on my life with Elvis. But I thought, 'There's been so much written on Elvis; could I do something that was not overdone?' As I would tell my wife stories, I felt there was a reason to do a book.
I had become very close friends with Peter Guralnick when he was doing his books on Elvis ('Last Train To Memphis' and 'Careless Love'). If I was gonna do it, I wanted to do on a first-class basis and honor my friend. Peter kind of guided me a little bit.
I spent six months doing a proposal with my co-writer, Chuck Crisafulli. We put together chapter four, which was about when I went to work for Elvis and the bus drive from Memphis to L.A. I was pleased with it. I felt that Chuck got my voice. What was really important to me was not to write a book about my life with Elvis as who I am today or what's happened in the last three decades. I wanted to go back to who I was then, a shy guy who was happy to be with Elvis. I really wanted to do this book as a piece of history.
(Right: Jerry Schilling & Elvis, 1972)
Also, there's this iconic view of Elvis, and that's wonderful, but I thought a big thing was missing here, which was the human side of it. I really felt I knew that side, and I was very fortunate to experience it. I realized about three years ago that I had a book that would be a good historical record of Elvis as a human being.
Ken Sharp: You first heard Elvis' music on WHBQ's 'Red, Hot & Blue' radio show.
Jerry Schilling: I had been listening to Dewey Phillips on the radio since I was 10 years old. Before Dewey came onto the scene, I was hearing what my parents listened to, the hit parade. It was good, but it didn't connect with me.
But, around that time, there was a group of white kids who were starting to listen to the rhythm and blues that Dewey Phillips was playing. He'd play everything — R&B, Dean Martin, Little Richard, The Platters. All that stuff was a big influence on Elvis, too.
When you think of how diverse Elvis was, I mean, look at the first album. You've got country, rhythm and blues, rockabilly ... everything. But, rock and roll was the music that was dangerous.
We can never forget that rock and roll was born out of segregation. It was dangerous for us to go down to Beale Street to buy our records. Our parents would have grounded us forever if they found out. It was a totally segregated society. Beale Street was black. Main Street was white. In the middle of all of that, Dewey Phillips played a record called 'That's All Right Mama' by a boy from Humes High School. He had to say Humes High School, because the audience would then know that he was white. Dewey played predominately black music. When 'That's All Right' came on the radio, it was so exciting. It rolled it into something to be a part of.
Ken Sharp: Take us back to how you came to meet Elvis.
Jerry Schilling: The first time I heard Elvis was in the second week of July 1954. That Sunday, July 11, 1954, I go over to my local playground in North Memphis — a very poor neighborhood. There were five older boys in and out of high school trying to get up a football game. That's how unpopular Elvis Presley was at that point. Elvis was just starting out, and nobody knew who he was yet.
Red West, a friend of my older brother's, knew I played grade school football. He said, 'Jerry, do you want to play with us?' Little kids love to play with the big guys, so, of course, I said, 'Sure'. We get in the huddle, and I swear to God I saw the other guy and said [To myself], 'That's the boy from Hume High that sang that song I just heard on the radio'. His name was never mentioned.
Why I knew that, I don't know. He didn't look that different. He looked cool. His hair was a little bit longer than the other guys, and he was damn good looking. He reminded me of characters I'd seen in 'Blackboard Jungle'. He was like one of those guys that I wanted to look like in 'Rebel Without A Cause' or 'The Wild Ones' with Marlon Brando. Elvis was not the guy you walked up to and slapped him on the back, and you became friends because you played football together. Even before he became a star, you kind of paid your dues for that friendship. Within a week or two of playing football with him, the record had gone crazy in Memphis, and a lot of people wanted to be his friend.
But, he was always nice to me.
Elvis could see through people. He was a deep man in an unassuming way. Elvis was one of the brightest people I knew. He innately knew human nature. So, every Sunday, we'd play football for hours, and that's how our friendship started. Within a year, he couldn't go out to the movies, so he'd rent them late at night or the amusement park, and I was always welcome to come along to those things. When he bought Graceland in '57, sometimes I'd get in and sometimes I wouldn't (laughs). Our friendship just developed over 10 years, and then, in my last semester of my senior year of college — ironically I was going to be a history teacher — he asked me to go and work for him.
Ken Sharp: When did you first see Elvis live?
Jerry Schilling: I first saw Elvis at The Ellis Auditorium in Memphis on Feb. 6, 1955, on my 13th birthday. It was the first day I became a teenager. What a great way to become a teenager.
Elvis was an extra added attraction at the show. It was mostly a big-name country lineup of people. I could have cared less about them; I was there to see Elvis. What sticks out in my mind the most is when he walked out onstage. It was that damn walk of his, which was like a tiger that had just gotten out of a cage. He picked up that microphone and started dragging it across the stage. He was doing things that hadn't been done yet, unless you went down to Beale Street and saw the rhythm and blues artists.
Elvis was all along the stage. It was Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Scotty's a dear friend of mine, and I call him the most gracious guy in rock and roll. Those licks that he played were very creative and very different. I had grown up in a very boring post-war South where everybody did the same thing. Everybody in my school had crew cuts. If you didn't play football, you were pretty out of it. Luckily, I played football. Elvis was like such a breath of fresh air. It was like freedom.
I later saw him perform while peeking through the door at The Chisca Hotel in Memphis. That's where Dewey Phillips' radio broadcast came from. Down in the basement they had a room that held 150 to 200 people, and Elvis played there. They served alcohol, so my friend and I couldn't get in.
Then, in 1956, I saw him play live at Russwood Park. By then, he was signed to RCA, and he was the #1 performer in America. He was like a primal animal that had even more confidence in being the primal animal. He was more dangerous than ever. He was starting to get huge criticism from religious leaders and political leaders. He was feeling great that people loved his music, but, on the other hand, the authorities were trying to take him down. Elvis was going over real big in the black community, as well. Before Elvis, where I grew up, you never knew a black person. They may come and work in the yard. Music brought us people together more so than religion or politics.
Ken Sharp: Did you see any of Elvis' live shows in 1961 in either Memphis or Hawaii?
|Jerry Schilling: Yes, I saw him in Memphis '61 (right). He was much tamer live but, at the same time, much more confident. He had grown as an artist. He looked stronger. It was a classier show. But, I have to say that my favorite times of Elvis onstage were in the '50s, with all of his rawness and unpredictability. But, there comes to a point where you have to move to the next level, or you don't survive. He was experimenting as an artist. He was evolving. Some people wanted him to stay the same but couldn't put Elvis in a box. Big business did in certain ways. But, one on one, you'd better not try to put Elvis creatively in a box, because you'd lost.
I don't think anybody really understood — outside of Elvis — what he really was doing. Sam Phillips did. Sam and Elvis spoke the same language. RCA never knew. They were lost with what to do with him when they signed him. Elvis had to direct and produce himself. Elvis and Sam talked later on; they remained friends after he left Sun Records, and he'd say to Elvis, 'Do your thing. Don't let anybody tell you what to do. Believe in yourself, 'cause you know what you can do best'. In my humble opinion, Elvis is the most underrated producer in musical history.
Ken Sharp: What's your take on Elvis' producer, Felton Jarvis?
Jerry Schilling: He did really good in bringing in the right musicians. Felton Javis really tried hard when it was difficult to get good material to
Elvis through all the politics. Felton recognized that Elvis was his own producer. He didn't get in the way of that, and he complemented that.
Ken Sharp: You were there when Elvis met the Beatles in August of 1965. Share your memories.
Jerry Schilling: Elvis listened to The Beatles and liked them and recorded some of their songs. Was Elvis a fan of the Beatles like I was? No. Did he appreciate and like their music? Yes. The Beatles pushed to meet Elvis. They had tried to meet him a year before. They were the new sensations. Elvis said, 'Sure, set it up'.
The Beatles were in awe of Elvis. It was really obvious. John Lennon told me that the next day. The Beatles were just sitting there staring at him, and he said, 'If you guys are just gonna sit down and stare at me all night I'm going to bed'.
He said that with a sense of humor and that broke the ice. It was a fun time. Elvis had this habit of putting the TV on but with no sound. He'd put on music, and he would play a big Fender bass. You could leave the house and be walking down Perugia Way where we lived, and you could feel the street vibrating from Elvis' bass. Paul told me when he saw Elvis with the bass guitar, he knew he was in.
Ken Sharp: Do you remember if they jammed?
Jerry Schilling: For some of the time, I was in the other room playing pool with Ringo and Mal Evans and Billy Smith, Elvis' cousin. George Klein was down by the pool talking with Larry Geller. If Paul and John and Elvis jammed, I didn't hear it, and I was right next door. I don't think it happened, but I've learned over the years never say nothing happened. And believe me, I wish it would have.
A few years back, I was at the session in New York where Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana played with Paul McCartney, and I talked to him about the time when Elvis met the Beatles. Paul told me that he had recently gotten together with Ringo Starr and George Harrison, and they were trying to remember what went on that night. You've gotta remember, it was over 40 years ago.
Elvis got along with the Beatles well. He had an English humor and loved Peter Sellers. When the Beatles left, I happened to be walking beside John, and he said, 'I know Elvis can't get out, but we're up on Benedict Canyon, and we're gonna be here another three days if you wanna come up'. I said, 'Great'. but I never planned on going up. There was a very pretty girl at Elvis' gate, and I was going on a motorcycle ride. She said, 'Can you give me a ride down to Sunset?'
And I said, 'Sure, hop on the back'. So we're going down Sunset, and she said, 'You know, The Beatles are in town'. Totally out of my character I go, 'You wanna meet 'em?' She laughed, and I pulled right up the canyon. I knew where the house was; it was one that we almost leased for Elvis. It had six or seven bedrooms. So, I got up there, and the police wave me off, and boy, my ego was back down. Mal Evans happened to see me and said, 'Come back, Jerry'.
By the time I got off the motorcycle, John was at the door. We went in and talked a little bit. Paul and George were sitting at this little table out on the patio. Their hair was all in towels. So, I sat at the table with John, Paul and George. Ringo was in another room on the phone with his wife, who was in England. That's when John said, 'Jerry, can you do me a favor?' I said, 'Sure'. 'See these sideburns? I almost got kicked out of school because I wanted to look like Elvis. I wanted to tell him that last night, but I didn't have the courage. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here'. That night when I got back to the house and Elvis was in the little den, I was sitting there, and I related the story to him. He looked over and just smiled, kind of like that smile of his on the cover of my book, and that was it.
I almost got to see them play at The Hollywood Bowl. I was in the car with John and Joan Baez. You know, there are rock and roll politics. I'd been up at the Beatles house all day, but I worked for Elvis Presley. I figured that I'd better get back home, so I didn't see the show. I was so close and yet so far.
Ken Sharp: George Harrison also met Elvis in the '70s before his show at Madison Square Garden.
Jerry Schilling: I'll never forget that. Right before we went onstage someone said, 'Elvis, George Harrison wants to say hello before the show'. and he said, 'Sure'. Nobody was with George. He had on a little blue Levi's shirt and Levi's on. He looked a little scraggly, and he came back to meet Elvis. There was some small talk. Elvis was glad to see him. George was a quiet guy, but he had a big smile on his face.
Ken Sharp: In the '60s, Elvis recorded Bob Dylan's song 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time'. and he also cut a few other Dylan songs, including 'Blowin' In The Wind'. Do you know how he first came across the work of Dylan?
Jerry Schilling: I was really into Peter, Paul & Mary. They were really controversial down south, because they were speaking of freedom and all that type of stuff in their songs. While we were doing the movies, right in the era of '65, '66, '67, I brought Elvis this Peter, Paul & Mary album. I thought he might like it.
Early in the morning before going into the studio, while we were having breakfast, Elvis would put this album on. It had 'Leaving On A Jet Plane' and 'If I Had A Hammer'. Elvis really liked 'Leaving On A Jet Plane'. We played it for a month or so. He wound up recording some of those songs. I think half of the songs on that album were by Dylan. I don't know at that time if he thought he was recording Peter, Paul & Mary or Bob Dylan. Some of the girls who came up to our house were platonic friends. They were friends also with Brian Wilson, who lived down the street, and with Bob Dylan. I know one of those girls must have given Bob Elvis' phone number, because every few months, he would call and wanted to meet Elvis, and Elvis never met him. Does that tell you how he felt about the Beatles? (laughs)
Elvis would also listen to Odetta. I was in college right before I went to work for him. I was hanging out at this folk place, The Bitter Lemon [was] owned by this really weird-looking guy who taught pottery, John McIntire, who ironically made the statue in the meditation gardens overlooking Elvis' grave site. I was into Odetta, because my friend was introducing me to all of this folk music.
Ken Sharp: As a vocalist Elvis is revered internationally as one of the greats. But who were the singers that he loved?
Jerry Schilling: Elvis was really into Jackie Wilson. They became friends, and he came to the film studio. We saw him play live at The Trip. He was a huge fan of Roy Orbison vocally ... huge fan of Tom Jones. Elvis loved Roy Hamilton. He caught up with him when they were both recording at [Lincoln Wayne] 'Chips' Moman's studio, American. He loved Aretha Franklin. I think that had something to do with him getting The Sweet Inspirations as his backing vocalists, because they were doing all the backgrounds on Aretha's records. He loved James Brown. He liked Charlie Rich, too. In fact, his record, 'Mohair Sam' was playing when The Beatles came to visit. Elvis also loved Dean Martin. He was a huge influence on him.
Ken Sharp: There's a story in your book about 'All Shook Up' being played at Graceland by someone, and Elvis strongly asking for it to be taken off.
Jerry Schilling: I'm gonna get a lot of criticism for saying that. But, you have to understand that happened in the '50s when Elvis was rising to the top. He was doing so many concerts. He was the hardest-working guy in rock and roll. So, to be downstairs in the music room at Graceland and for his records to come on it was like, 'Get that crap off! Who's the wise guy?' But, later on in life, we would sit for hours and listen to his recordings.
After a session that he felt good about or a session that might have been symbolic of what was happening to him in his life, we would listen after the session at the studio for hours. Then, the next day he'd put it back on at the house. I remember he did that with 'Separate Ways'. That was because he was going through a divorce, and then sometimes it could be a song like 'Suspicious Minds'. He really liked that one.
There were a lot of times when not only would he listen to the recordings but start singing along with them. The real memories of him singing at the house that stand out in my mind are the times when nobody was around. I'd see him off in the piano room singing his heart out by himself. He'd be singing songs like 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and 'How Great Thou Art'. In his personal time, Elvis was almost an operatic singer. On a rare occasion, he could be off by himself and enjoy his own talent, and I'm so glad that I can be able to say that.
Ken Sharp: Speaking of 'How Great Thou Art'. you have strong memories of that recording session.
Jerry Schilling: When I saw him record 'How Great Thou Art', it was unbelievable. Everybody would be off playing cards, but I was fascinated by the recording process. I liked to hear the musicians tune up; I liked hearing the people in the control room. I liked Elvis giving direction; 'I hear this here, and I want the voices here'. When Elvis got down with recording 'How Great Thou Art', he knew it was special. It almost took the life out of him, and when he was done, he looked ghost white. Then he just kind of looked up, and he knew he had done something great.
Ken Sharp: What's your perspective on the period in the '60s, when Elvis was recording primarily movie songs? Some of the songs were good, but the majority weren't worthy of his talent. Was he disheartened by this?
Jerry Schilling: I got it straight from the horse's mouth. He hated it. He tried not to do it. Elvis had the greatest ear in the world, and he knew how to pick hit material, and he got lied to; he got threatened.
In his first movie, 'Love Me Tender', he was supposed to do a total acting performance without any music. Then, he was talked into doing the title song for the film, and that was reasonable. Then, they threw in the other four songs, and he hated it.
Watch those songs in the movie and they're fine, but does it fit the movie? No. 'Loving You' is great. The music works. It's kind of the story of Elvis' life. 'Jailhouse Rock' was another movie with great music and was a great movie. My favorite film, and Elvis' too, was 'King Creole'. He got that movie by accident. It was prepped for James Dean and [he] was killed.
So, there you go. They were all good movies and the music — with the exception of 'Love Me Tender' — works. Then, when Elvis gets out of the Army, there were some fairly good movies, some good music and some not-so-good music. But, then it got to where they just wanted to pay for Elvis. They didn't want to pay for a good script or co-stars of a quality he deserved. They wanted to control and own the music and get the publishing so the quality of the songs he was presented went way down. He knew it before it went down.
He was the long-term guy, and the other people were the short-term guys. They felt, 'We've got Elvis Presley; we don't need to play for all of this other stuff'. They made a fortune on soundtrack albums. It was killing him that he had to do stuff that he did not believe in.
Some of the '60s films were good, like 'Viva Las Vegas'. I'm thinking more when it gets into 'Clambake'. 'Tickle Me'. 'Stay Away Joe'. 'Live A Little, Love A Little'. He hated doing the music and those movies. I've spoken about that a few times in interviews over the years. I got that tape a couple of years ago when I was in that interview with Elvis for 'Elvis On Tour'.
I got to thinking maybe that was what I thought about those movies and movie music ... maybe that's not what Elvis was really thinking. When I heard this tape, I was totally vindicated on everything I've ever said about Elvis' frustrations.
(Right: Jerry Schilling playing Elvis' double for the movie Charro!)
Ken Sharp: In that interview, Elvis speaks about how doing the movies was making him 'physically ill'. Why couldn't Elvis have said, 'Enough, I'm not doing these crappy songs or these crappy films'?
Jerry Schilling: Some big-name stars who I've spoken to have said similar things to me: 'Jerry, he was Elvis Presley. He could do what he wanted to do'. I was there when he protested that he wasn't gonna do a film. He was told if he didn't honor these contracts he couldn't do anything. The Colonel had a network, and he controlled the record company. He controlled the studios when it came to Elvis product. He controlled the agency, and don't forget, the same thing happened on the road.
When Elvis fired Colonel Parker in the '70s, when Elvis tried to get a tour together, everybody was afraid that The Colonel would be back in. And if they moved on it, they were gonna be out, and nobody would touch 'em. I lost my friend at a very early age because of these frustrations. The drugs were only the Band-Aids. This guy wasn't a drugger. This guy was a creative giant that they gave morsels to, and it just didn't sustain him.
Ken Sharp: When Elvis returned to the stage in Las Vegas in 1969, how had he changed as a live performer?
Jerry Schilling: I'd said earlier that I loved the raw Elvis of the '50s, but I'd also have to say from the '68 Comeback Special to the first couple of engagements in Vegas, the first couple of years, that's where he was at his greatest. He looked the best, he sounded the best and, unlike the shows he did after he came out of the Army in 1961, he was showing off his animalistic rebelness. So, he had it all. He took it to the next level when he did 'If I Can Dream'. That song is Elvis.
Ken Sharp: Outside of the '68 Comeback Special'. Elvis never sang that song live.
Jerry Schilling: I've never thought of that. It was a hit, and it was one of his most powerful performances. I'd put that up on the level with 'How Great Thou Art'.
The '68 Comeback Special wasn't the show the Colonel had planned. He wanted Elvis to do a Christmas special. Thank God for (director) Steve Binder. Now, there was a producer who knew what he wanted and has the conviction and strength to achieve his vision. Elvis got to be Elvis. Same thing happened when Elvis worked with the producer 'Chips' Moman on the Memphis sessions. You will notice that you won't see them again, which in normal business, if you go in and have hits, like Chips Moman did with Elvis, who do you bring to produce the next session? Chips Moman? Nope.
Ken Sharp: So, why didn't Elvis work again with Steve Binder or Chips?
Jerry Schilling: I think in the later years the people that he had great successes with were creative challenges to the business atmosphere that was around. I think it made those business people nervous. Most of these things come back to monetary issues.
When you've got Chips Moman, you're gonna pay a producer what you're gonna pay a producer regarding the material that comes in. George Klein told Chips how to get along with Elvis. 'Don't tell him things in front of people. If you want to talk to Elvis, do it one on one'. Chips said, 'Elvis, can I talk to you for a minute?'
Chips said, 'I have a stack of records here that your publishers brought in, and none of them are hits. I have a stack of records over here that you don't own the publishing on, but they're hit records. Which pile do you want to do?' Elvis said, 'Look, I wanna go back on the road. I want hit records'. If that doesn't tell the story, I can't explain it any better.
Ken Sharp: So, financially, to get really good people working with Elvis, there would have been a significant outlay of income?
Jerry Schilling: Yes, on the short term, but there really wouldn't have been a loss of income. It was about people being paid what they deserved. On the long-term, we would have had an Elvis that would have been around singing today, and a lot of people making a lot of money.
Ken Sharp: Share your memories of watching Chuck Berry play a 3 a.m. show in Vegas with Elvis.
Jerry Schilling: Elvis and Priscilla and myself and my wife, Sandy, went to see Sammy Davis Jr. This was back in the '70s. We went to see Sammy, and then we went backstage and hung out with Sammy and his wife, Altovise.
Sammy and Elvis were kind of magic together. Sammy had that great personality, and he kept Elvis laughing. It was after the late show, and Elvis said, 'Would you guys like to come over to our hotel up to the suite?' We all go in the car and go back to The Hilton, and as we're walking through the lobby going to the elevators, we heard a very a familiar Chuck Berry intro. And Sammy and Elvis just looked at each other and with a smile, we all just turned around without anything being said, and we headed for the lounge.
There was one table of people, maybe two. The whole lounge was about empty. We went down to a booth in front, and Elvis was a fun guy. He would holler out a tune. Chuck saw that it was Elvis and said, 'Hey Elvis, remember when we were battling for #1, and you had this song, and I had the other song?' The real payoff was when Elvis said, 'Do 'Promised Land!' And he's sitting with Sammy Davis Jr., and they're singing the lines along with Chuck about a poor boy wanting to go clean through Mississippi.
Ken Sharp: During Elvis' shows in Vegas in 1969 and 1970, he was enamored with doing his own versions of contemporary material ('Sweet Caroline', 'Proud Mary'. etc.), perhaps more so than his own. Why?
Jerry Schilling: He'd get bored of his own material. I think he was looking to do songs that would please the audience, and that would keep him fresh. When Elvis did a song, he made it his own. Doing that material was a real natural progression for him.
Ken Sharp: Discuss how the material Elvis chose to record in the '70s took on an autobiographical slant with songs like 'Separate Ways'. 'Always On My Mind'. 'It's Over' and 'Pieces Of My Life'.
Jerry Schilling: He was going through a really rough period on a lot of fronts. The road had taken a toll on all of us and our marriages. That bothered Elvis. Basically, he was a one-on-one relationship guy. He was a family guy — of course, with every temptation in the world.
He always thought that at age 40 it was gonna be all over for him. He didn't want to be 40. So, here he was approaching 40. Creatively speaking, he hadn't had a hit record in a few years. He was doing songs like 'Softly As I Leave You'. a narrative thing by Charles Boyer. Red West wrote 'Separate Ways' (Ed note: the song was co-written by Richard Mainegra). Joe Esposito, myself and Elvis were all going through a divorce at pretty much exactly the same time. I'll never forget that after Elvis recorded 'Separate Ways' he brought Joe and I in, and we listened to the song for three hours in the studio. He'd just looked up and shake his head. 'You guys wanna hear it again?' And we'd play it and play it. It was a real sad time. Songs like 'Separate Ways' and 'You Gave Me A Mountain' were very reflective of his life. He wasn't getting any hit material anyway. I think he just kind of sang about his life.
Ken Sharp: Against the string of melancholy ballads Elvis was inclined to record during that time came the rocker 'Burning Love'. But, surprisingly, Elvis originally didn't want to record this obvious hit. Why?
Jerry Schilling: Felton Jarvis felt it was a hit record. Having heard the demo of 'Burning Love'. I also felt it was a hit record as well. Joe Esposito and I also really encouraged him to record it.
Ken Sharp: Why was he reticent to record it?
Jerry Schilling: Well, he wasn't in the mood. The last thing he cared about at that moment was to record some hip-shaking, rock and roll record. Elvis finally went on to record it. It's a great record. He sure as hell didn't listen to it after. There's an interesting psychological thing that's documented in 'Elvis On Tour'. Elvis had a photographic memory, but every time he went to sing 'Burning Love' he brought the lyrics out. He didn't look at them hardly, but he had them out. When it became a hit, he began to like it. There's no artist that doesn't like a hit record. He grew to like it.
Elvis was always open to doing songs that caught his ear. I don't think he cared about what type of genre they were; it could have been a gospel song, it could have been a rock song, it could have been a ballad. One difference is he felt his voice had matured, and he was looking for songs that would showcase that.
Ken Sharp: In the course of his life, Elvis routinely met many major entertainment stars, from Cary Grant to Barbra Streisand to The Beatles. Do you recall any instance where Elvis himself was overly excited to meet anyone?
Jerry Schilling: The actor Jack Lord is the person who first comes to mind. Elvis would spend time with a lot of celebrities. We'd finish the first show in Vegas, and Joe would say, 'Would you take Mr. and Mrs. Lord up to the suite? I'm gonna have dinner with them'. He always spoke softly because they were real classy people. He really had a reverence around Jack Lord. It was amazing. The only other people that I saw Elvis have that kind of respect for were his in-laws, Priscilla's mother and father. They're wonderful people.
Ken Sharp: There's a funny story in your book about the night Elvis met Brian Wilson back in 1975.
Jerry Schilling: We were at a rehearsal session at RCA Studios in Hollywood, and Elvis always prided himself on our security. There was security at the studio as well. This big, overweight, bearded guy came into the studio and went right up to Elvis and went, 'Hi Elvis, I'm Brian'. And Elvis was very upset with us thinking, 'How did this guy get in here and who is he?' So Brian said, 'I'm recording next door. Would you come over and listen?' And Elvis looked at us; it's almost in spite of us since this guy had gotten through. He said, 'Yeah, I'll go over'.
So we went over, and Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, was producing. Terry played a track for Elvis, and Brian said, 'Do you think we have anything?' And Elvis said, 'No'. And we went back to our studio. Later, the security guys told us it was Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Ken Sharp: Not much has ever been reported about Elvis meeting one of rock's greatest guitar players, Eric Clapton.
Jerry Schilling: That happened through my friend, Richard Cole, who was Led Zeppelin's road manager. After Zeppelin met Elvis, I became pretty good friends with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Richard Cole. I hung out a lot with all of them. I hadn't seen Richard in a year or so, and he called me and said he was doing the 'I Shot The Sheriff' tour with Eric Clapton.
Richard said, 'We're doing this big show at the Mid-South Coliseum, and we're supposed to fly in and fly out, but Eric will come in the night before if he can meet Elvis'. I said, 'Richard, Elvis doesn't really meet many people'. I really felt bad because when I went to a Led Zeppelin concert I'd sit on the side of the stage with Peter Grant bringing me Dom Perignon champagne. I said, 'We go to movies quite a bit, so let me see if it's okay with Elvis if he comes to one of the movies'. I said to Elvis, 'You remember Richard Cole?' And he said, 'Crazy Richard'. I told him he was the tour manager for this tour and that Eric Clapton was this great guitar player. Is it okay if we go to the movies that I bring him by and introduce him?' He said, 'Yeah, that would be okay'.
We were down at the Circle G Ranch in cowboy boots and cowboy hats driving our trucks. As we're going to the movie theater, I reminded Elvis that Eric Clapton was gonna be there. We drove up, and there's two limousines, and there's Elvis in a truck wearing a cowboy hat. He goes, 'Who in the f**k is Eric Clapton? Goddamn limousines! Why does he have to bring a fuckin' limousine to a movie theater?' I said, 'Oh my God, what am I gonna do?' Then, to top it, Elvis always sits in a certain place in the theater, and Eric's sitting there (laughs). It's like rubbing salt in the injury.
I made the introductions, and Eric was just his wonderful self, and he said everything right. Elvis liked him immediately. We stood and talked for about 15 minutes, and then it was time to start the movie. Elvis invited him and his wife, Pattie, to stay and watch the film. Then he went out to the bathroom, and someone would always go with him. When we go out there, he said, 'Hey, you know that Eric is a pretty nice guy' (laughs). I told Eric that story years later when Scotty Moore was being inducted at The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. I went up to him and introduced myself, and he said, 'I know you, Jerry. You introduced me to Elvis'. I said, 'Well, could I introduce you to Scotty Moore?' and he said, 'Where is he?' So I got to make that introduction.
Ken Sharp: Over the years, The Memphis Mafia has received a bad rap in the press. What role did they have in Elvis' life?
Jerry Schilling: The Memphis Mafia that Elvis created was a group of loyal, trusted friends. Elvis felt he was a multi-million dollar business, and he couldn't do this by himself. There's various levels of who did what and how important people were, and that changed as the years changed. First of all, Elvis didn't go out and look for an accountant or a road manager or a security guy. He looked [to] friends that he trusted that not only were gonna work with him but live in his house 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
When I began to work with him, he only had about four people working for him at that time. He needed somebody, and I just filled in with whatever, whether it was security or companionship. Of course, over the years, I worked up and took on more important roles. But there had to be people surrounding him on a personal level.
Joe Esposito did a great job. He would know how to take care of people in Vegas. He'd keep us on schedule for the studio. Red West was a great friend and a source of security to Elvis. What people don't know is Red and Charlie Hodge were great sounding boards musically for Elvis.
Red wrote a bunch of songs that Elvis recorded. Sometimes, Red and Charlie and Elvis would sing all night. We did everything from being close confidantes to traveling companions. We were the original entourage. We were brothers. As [the] entourage [goes], some of the people might not have been as instrumental as others.
Elvis liked characters, and we always had a character or two within the group. But if you look at various people around Elvis, and you look at their lives afterwards, you'll see that they weren't a bunch of dummies. You look at Red West and his acting studio and his acting career.
Lamar Fike was a successful publisher. Joe Esposito is a casino host at the largest casino in Vegas. Sam Thompson is a retired judge, and he's
the head of business affairs for Warner Brothers. We weren't just a bunch of guys who sat around and laughed if Elvis told a joke.
Ken Sharp: Many gifts that Elvis gave were spontaneous with not much thought going into it, but the gift Elvis gave to you was special. Elvis gave you a home.
Jerry Schilling: My mom died when I was a year old, so I never really knew her. I lived with grandparents and aunts and uncles in North Memphis in a poor neighborhood. I never told Elvis that my mother died when I was young, and that I was this poor kid who felt lonely and out of place.
I'd be at my aunts' and uncles', and they'd kiss my cousins good night and kind of wave to me. I always thought, 'What's wrong with me?' If you had a problem, and you didn't want to bother Elvis about it he'd know about it. He'd say, 'Hey, do you want to talk about it?' Those were gifts as well.
For him to say, 'Your mother died when you were a year old. You never had a home. I want to be the one to give it to you'. That's about as unselfish of a friend that you can have. This house has a certain feel about it. I remember Carl Wilson coming in here and saying, 'Oh my God, I feel safe'. I like to say I have a little piece of Graceland West here.
It's really special. I got to share a lot of special times with Elvis. It's after I worked for him and quit a few times, he had me come back to stay at Graceland for Christmas. I was working as a film editor in L.A. He insisted that I stay for the birth of his child.
I wasn't working for him with that lost weekend where nobody in the world knew where Elvis Presley was. We wound up in the Oval Office at The White House with President Nixon. That's a pretty magical moment. I had to think back to two guys playing football in North Memphis in 1954 before he had a hit record and less than 20 years later, we're in the oval room of The White House (laughs). It almost felt like Graceland. Elvis was kind of in control. (laughs)
(Right: President Nixon, Sonny West and Jerry Schilling in the Oval office)
Ken Sharp: Elvis imitators were not as wide spread while Elvis alive. Did he have any contact with any of these people while he was alive?
Jerry Schilling: I introduced him to the first person I ever knew that did an Elvis show. It was while we were in Vegas. The guy that did the Elvis show was an artist named Alan Meyer.
Charlie Hodge introduced me to him and his wife one night and said, 'Jerry, this is the guy who does the Elvis show'. He was a nice looking guy, real sincere and I really liked him. I said, 'Alan, between the first show and the second show we get off the elevator and we walk down the back hallways by these garbage cans. If you want to be standing there by the garbage can, I'll introduce [you] to Elvis' (laughs). And I did.
I said, 'You know Elvis, imitation is the greatest form of flattery'. Later on, somebody asked Elvis about an imitator, and I heard him say, 'Well, you know, imitation is the greatest form of flattery'.
Ken Sharp: Colonel Tom Parker is a very complex character. You were closer to him after Elvis' death. What's your take on the man, good and bad?
Jerry Schilling: The Colonel was a very complicated person and was the hardest character to write about in the book. Colonel did a lot of great things. Colonel wasn't a bad person and was a great manager in certain areas, but creativity wasn't one of them.
Ken Sharp: Did The Colonel recognize his flaws?
Jerry Schilling: No, I don't think Colonel Parker thought he had a flaw. Great people don't usually (laughs). He never opened up about Elvis to me while he was managing Elvis. But after Elvis died, I probably was his closest confidante. I spent more time with him than anybody else, and we talked about everything. But, we talked about everything on Colonel's terms. I told you the short-term reason why nobody would book Elvis when the Colonel and Elvis had that short separation. Eventually that would have turned around.
Also, Elvis had this loyalty factor to the Colonel They had a real relationship, and there was a real love there. But, I think Elvis just outgrew The Colonel. And Elvis needed to grow more, and that was the friction. Elvis wanted to go overseas, and I talked to The Colonel about it, and I talked to our promoter, and I came back, and Colonel threw his cane down the hall and said, 'Then you handle him!' We didn't know all of the foreign background of Colonel Parker while Elvis was alive. It's very complicated. It's not that Colonel was a good guy or a bad guy. Those books have been written. That's why I wrote this book, to give you the layers. Colonel did love Elvis.
I miss The Colonel a lot. He was an interesting man to be around. When I worked with Elvis and I had to go see the Colonel one day a week I'd go, 'Oh God, I've gotta go see The Colonel'. Then, I'd realize after the end of the day, 'Damn, that was interesting and fun'.
Thank God I did get those moments while he was still in power. It's kind of sad to see a real powerful guy in the later part of their life where they're not so powerful anymore. There's good and bad to that. You learn a lot more about them on a human level.
Ken Sharp: So The Colonel missed the power?
Jerry Schilling: Yeah. He missed the power, because he was the most powerful manager in the world at one point. I think in small ways he thought he still had it, because he was a consultant to the Hilton hotel, and he was doing all these little projects. But that's what it looked like to me ... little projects.
Ken Sharp: Not much is known publicly about The Colonel's assistant, Tom Diskin. You describe him in your book as Colonel's 'chief lieutenant'.
Jerry Schilling: Tom Diskin was the Colonel's right-hand man. Tom saw the whole history from the beginning to the end. Tom was a silent hero, and Elvis liked him. When Elvis was really creating, he couldn't do it in front of Colonel 'cause Colonel was always thinking business. So, at the recording session and stuff like that, Tom was kind of the representative. Tom knew how to deal with artists and knew the sensitivity of artists. I think Tom was the real tour manager for Elvis. Tom took care of the musicians. Tom was just a great guy and a big part of it.
Ken Sharp: What Elvis song resonates the strongest with you on a personal level?
Jerry Schilling: 'I Was The One'. I liked rockin' Elvis, and this was the first ballad that I heard of Elvis'. I was at this place called 'The Stand' in North Memphis, which was right down the street from Humes High. Elvis was out of town on tour, and I went in, and 'I Was The One' was on the jukebox. My girlfriend had just broken up with me. The lyrics of the song and his voice really connected with me on a deep level.
Ken Sharp: Did Elvis know how good he was?
Jerry Schilling: I think he knew he was a great singer but not on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes he thought he was washed up. But I've seen him where he enjoyed his own voice and knew it was something special, but he wondered a lot and searched a lot as for why he was so blessed with his gift.
Ken Sharp is the author of the fabulous FTD book - Writing For The King a 400+ page book with more than 140 interviews with songwriters like Paul McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James and Tony Joe White. Included are two CDs, the first contains previously unreleased RCA recordings of Elvis performing live in Las Vegas (1969 through 1972), the second a selection of the original demos submitted to Elvis.
Go here for EIN's exclusive interview with author Ken Sharp
Interview by Ken Sharp
-Copyright GOLDMINE, January 2008.
Ken Sharp is also a musician in his own right, which helps makes his interviews even more insightful. His new CD 'Sonic Crayons', right, was recently released and you can hear some clips on his myspace page. Reviewed in MOJO magazine it was given 4 stars. His music has also been featured in commercials as well as music documentaries. Have a look here if you are interested.
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