'Writing For The King'

Ken Sharp talks with EIN

'Writing For The King' by Ken Sharp is scheduled for a Dec 1st 2006 release from the FTD label. Focussing on over 140 interviews with Elvis' songwriters, it provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes investigation into the politics, money, inspiration, as well as the interesting trivia about Elvis and the songs he turned into classics.

The Elvis world seems to be flooded with too many 'biography' type books and so EIN wanted to know more about this new exciting idea. Author Ken Sharp kindly agreed to a pre-release interview, with EIN's Piers Beagley, giving us the low-down on what we can expect.

Ken Sharp is the author of the soon to be released book "Writing For The King". It is to be FTD's biggest project yet, 140 pages thicker than "Rockin' Across Texas" with the bonus of 2 fascinating CDs. One features demos provided for Elvis by songwriters, the other an amazing 22 unreleased live tracks from Elvis in his prime years 69-72. The book presents over 100 interviews with famous songwriters like Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James, even Paul McCartney.

The demo CD contains tracks that I never thought I would ever hear, like the demo of 'Heartbreak Hotel', 'Trouble', 'His Latest Flame', 'Devil In Disguise' even 'Burning Love'. These are quintessential Elvis songs that he managed to make his own. Most fans must have a deep fascination on how Elvis managed to put such an incredible genetic stamp on to these recordings and create such an amazing musical legacy from songs that he had no hand in writing.

Ken Sharp's in-depth interview with Ernst Jorgensen can be found on this very website.

EIN - Thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask you a few questions about "Writing For The King" before its release. At 400 pages the book must be packed with stories and photos. Can you give us a little insight into how the book is laid out?

Ken Sharp – The book is laid out in rough chronological order starting off with Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden who co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" and winding up with Layng Martine Jr. who wrote "Way Down". Wrapping up the book are interviews with Freddy Bienstock of Hill & Range and his Nashville compatriot, Lamar Fike.

The interviews are presented in the songwriters’ own words. I took the liberty of removing my interview questions and believe it makes for a much smoother and less redundant read.

EIN - FTD's last book "Rockin' Across Texas" was very impressive and beautifully printed, but of course that was basically a re-edit of "Elvis In Texas" whereas this is something totally new. How long have you been working on the book, and what started you on the project?

K.S – To be completely honest, the book happened purely by accident. I’ve been working on it full-time for the last year and a half. I was originally going to submit an article to Record Collector showcasing a few interviews with key songwriters whose work was recorded by Elvis. Little by little I did more and more interviews and soon I was staring at 50,000 words. At that point, I knew this wasn’t an article anymore but a book.

Somehow I came up with an angle that’s never been done before on Elvis, a book of interviews with songwriters whose work he recorded. With so many books coming out on Elvis each year, and many skimping on what truly matters the most—his music-- I think "Writing For The King" offers a fresh perspective on Elvis.

EIN - How many interviews did you do & did you have to leave any out you would have liked to include?

K.S – The book features 142 interviews and no interviews have been left out. It’s all here. Having said that, there were a few writers I tried to interview but was unable to coordinate, people like Paul Simon and James Taylor who were both either out on the road or in the recording studio. But in terms of who I wanted to interview for the book, I think I hit on about a 98% ratio, which is quite good.

EIN - There have been a few questions raised about the price of the book, but it sounds like an expensive project to get together?

K.S – I certainly empathize who those who feel the book is expensive; however, it is a massive 400-page hardback book (about 150 pages thicker than the biggest FTD book to date, Rockin’ Across Texas) with two CDs and one that’s published in limited quantities. Understandably, that alone will make it more expensive than other FTD projects in terms of costs to print the book and shipping. I know Ernst prides himself on making his FTD CDs and book projects the utmost quality. I am very proud of the book and hope fans will understand the expense involved into assembling such a project.

EIN - Who was the most fascinating person to interview?

K.S – That’s much too difficult to answer. Everyone has their own story and it’s up to the writer to draw it out. But having said that there were a few interviews I particularly enjoyed from a personal standpoint — Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Don Robertson, Mac Davis, Mark James, Winfield Scott, Dennis Linde, John Fogerty, Florence Kaye among many others.

EIN - I am in awe of creative songwriters such as Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman, Leiber & Stoller. Of all the songwriters you talked with who impressed you the most?

K.S – Well, of course Leiber and Stoller were mighty impressive, judging their seminal work with Elvis and other artists. I also was quite impressed with Don Robertson, who wrote some of Elvis’ finest songs and also has become a close friend. He is a wonderful man.

EIN - Part of your interview from the book with publisher Freddy Bienstock was recently featured in the magazine 'Elvis: The Man And His Music'. I always think of him in connection to Elvis saying "Freddy the freeloader"! Did you feel that Elvis was pushed around by his publishers wanting to get in on the action & take their own slice of gold? (EIN Note: For 'Freddy the freeloader' reference- see Kid Galahad FTD review 'Home Is Where The Heart Is' take 13)

K.S – As with The Colonel, Hill & Range proved less effective as the years went on. Elvis wasn’t stupid. He knew the deal but didn’t get too involved in the business end. He wanted to purely concentrate on the creative part of his career. I think the Hill & Range scenario worked well for perhaps the first 7-8 years of Elvis’s career. But then the quality of the songs they presented to Elvis went downhill. By the mid 60’s Hill & range were not coming up with the goods and were stifling Elvis. That couldn’t have been clearer than in 1969 for the Memphis sessions. Case in point: "Suspicious Minds". That was a song not under the aegis of Hill & Range and was almost pulled by producer Chips Moman after he refused to allow Hill & Range to get a piece.

(Right: Freddy Bienstock, Elvis' friend Rex Mansfield, with Elvis at Paris' Lido nightclub in 1959)

Of course, in hindsight, the reins should have been loosened to allow a greater number of quality songs to make their way to Elvis.

EIN - I have tried many times to get an in-depth interview with Red West about the musical side of his and Elvis' relationship. Did Red provide you with some good stories?

K.S – Red was wonderful. I know he is tired of doing interviews, especially those that focus on the more sensationalistic aspects of Elvis’s life so I feel very fortunate he consented to do an interview with me for the book. Knowing that it was interview that focused on his work as a songwriter surely helped my cause. From his work on "You’ll Be Gone" and "That’s Someone You Never Forget" to "If You Think I Don’t Need You" and "Separate Ways," Red has some nice stories to tell about what inspired their creation.

EIN - Do you think fans are going to be surprised by how much they can learn about Elvis' creativeness from the book?

K.S – For the fans that truly want to get a new window into Elvis’s creative process, Elvis the musical artist, I believe the book delivers on that promise. Hearing stories from many songwriters about the inspiration behind the songs that Elvis later recorded offers a broader and more detailed musical picture of the man. And then having a CD containing demos of 25-26 songs ups the ante even further. It’s fascinating to hear how Elvis interpreted these demos. Sometimes he stuck to the feel and groove and vocal nuances of a song, for example on "Devil In Disguise". Other times he reinvented a song and brought it to a higher creative level on something like "Burning Love."

The book also includes fascinating documents from Hill & Range and many handwritten lyrics too. My favorite visuals in the book include the original working lyric for "Suspicious Minds" plus Stan Kesler’s original handwritten lyrics for the Elvis’s Sun Records songs, "I Forgot To Remember To Forget" and "I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone."
EIN - Tell us something about the 'Heartbreak Hotel' demo. Is this the genuine one Elvis used at RCA studio that day in 1956 and how on earth did you find that?

K.S – Boy, that was a big surprise. While I located many of the demos featured on the CD, all credit is due to Ernst on this great find. At the behest of Ernst, it was discovered by EPE in the Graceland archives and was Elvis’s own personal copy. We managed to be lucky enough to license it for the project. It is a significant and historic piece. It’s the demo of "Heartbreak Hotel" featuring Glenn Reeves on vocal to the lone accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. This is how Elvis first heard "Heartbreak Hotel" and it’s a fascinating listen, especially in light of how Elvis infused the song with his own creativity and inspiration and in the process made it one of the most seminal songs in rock and roll history. 

EIN - I also can't wait to hear demos for some of Elvis' poor mid-sixties songs like 'Kissin' Cousins' and even 'My Desert Serenade' -  (laughing)- Sorry I do have a thing about Harum Scarum!!

K.S  - In actual fact, the demos of "Kissin’ Cousins" and "My Desert Serenade" are quite good. I’ve always liked "Kissin’ Cousins" and the demo has a nice uptempo groove while "My Desert Serenade" also has its own charm. I also really like the demo for "C’mon Everybody" which is sung by Bob Johnston, the husband of the song’s writer, Joy Byers. It’s a favorite movie song of mine and it is full of great spirit and fun. By the way, Bob Johnston is a famous producer in his own right working with the likes of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.

EIN - What's this about an Alternate 'Clambake' song? This is obviously not the title song which was by Wayne/Weisman.

K.S – Ernst wanted to include a great track not selected by Elvis. The song, a Otis Blackwell/Winfield Scott, collaboration is simply irresistible and would have been a much better choice, in my opinion, as the title track of the film. It’ll be interesting to know the readers’ opinion on this as well.
EIN - Several of Elvis' songwriters have died recently such as Otis Blackwell, Ray Charles, Carl Perkins? Did you manage to interview any of these key writers before they passed away?

K.S – About 95 % of the interviews in the book were conducted by me however some of the deceased writers you mention (Otis Blackwell and Carl Perkins for example) were not done by me and were contributed from outside sources. Trevor Cajiao kindly allowed us to use his wonderful Carl Perkins interview while a few writers provided permission to use portions of their interview with Otis Blackwell including Jan-Erik Kjeseth (who for years had done wonderful work that appeared in "Elvis-The Man & His Music"), Phil Gelormine and others.

Sadly, in the course of doing the book, two writers I interviewed have passed on, Florence Kaye and Shirl Milete. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak with them for the project.

(EIN Note: Florence Kaye co-wrote over 40 Elvis songs with Bernie Baum and Bill Giant. These include songs going from the wonderful ‘Devil In Disguise’, ‘Edge Of Reality’, ‘Ask Me’ to the terrible ‘Queenie Wahinie’s’! Shirl Milete composed 4 Elvis songs including ‘My Little Friend’, ‘Life’ and ‘It’s Your Baby, You Rock It.’)
EIN - I was stunned by your recent interview with 'D.J Fontana'. You managed to get more great stories and insights out of him than in any previous interview that I have read. How did you approach interviewing all these people?

K.S – Many thanks for the nice compliment. It was thrill to interview D.J. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been a very curious person who asks a lot of questions so that is a big plus. I’m also a life-long Elvis fan and that certainly helps too. From a pragmatic angle, I’ve been in the music business for over 20 years--writing articles and books and conducting interviews—and I pride myself on being prepared and also bringing to the table a tangible enthusiasm for the subject.

EIN - The second CD of Elvis LIVE. Can you explain how that matches the songwriting side of the book, or is it just a bonus for the fans. Are there interviews with all the songwriters featured on the Elvis LIVE CD?

K.S – As most fans already have the master studio versions of all the songs represented on the demo CD, we didn’t want to go that route. The hardcore fans would have considered that a rip-off. For those fans who wished the Elvis CD would have included studio versions of the songs featured on the demo CD, I would encourage them to compile their own companion CD. In today’s age, that would be very easy to do.
Instead, we wanted to present extra value by offering something on the Elvis disc that the fans did not have. Ernst came up with the idea to include previously unreleased live tracks from Las Vegas circa 1969-1972. By the way, there is a rhyme and reason behind the songs picked for the live CD. For the most part they are songs written by the writers represented in the book.

And as for the idea of including studio outtakes on the Elvis disc, that also was problematic. Per Ernst, outtakes do not exist on quite a few songs featured on the demo CD as well, things like ‘Burning Love, for example or there may not be a previously unreleased outtakes of a specific song.

EIN - Ernst looks like he has found some gems on the LIVE CD, presenting songs we didn't know were recorded from 14th Feb, 1972 nor even that Elvis sang 'Words' at his August 25th 1969 show.

K.S – Yes, absolutely amazing stuff. Any time I can hear unreleased Elvis live tracks from 1969 I’m happy. "Don’t Cry Daddy" was the first single I ever received and remains a personal favorite so to hear a previously unreleased live version is a thrill, even though Elvis laughs his way through some of the song.

EIN - The Elvis world is an amazing place. I'm always amazed to meet fans who are only interested in the jump-suits rather than the music. Does this side of the Elvis world surprise you?
K.S – Not at all. Some people like vanilla ice cream, some like chocolate. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and likes and dislikes and I respect that. Personally, I’ve always been much more interested in the musical side of Elvis hence my interest in creating a book like "Writing For The King." I know that this book will not appeal to everyone. But for those interested in another side of Elvis, the creative process of a musical artist, I believe they’ll be pleased.

EIN - Thanks so much for taking the time out. I can't wait to see the book especially as it always takes a little longer to get down to Australia!

K.S - Many thanks! I’m grateful for your interest.

See below for excerpts from Ken Sharp's interviews with Freddy Bienstock and D.J Fontana. Plus tracklist for 'Writing For The King' CDs.

Ken Sharp was interviewed by Piers Beagley for EIN, November 26th 2006.

- Copyright Elvis Information Network 2006. Do not re-publish this interview - or interview material below.

Click to comment on this interview

Excerpt from Ken Sharp's interview with music publisher Freddy Bienstock.

Ken Sharp: I understand there's a funny story about Jean Aberbach presenting a strange choice of a song for Elvis to record...

Freddy Bienstock: We had a recording session in California and Elvis was doing a Christmas song or a religious song. Jean had this song called 'Here Comes Peter Cottontail'. I told him I didn't think it would be for Elvis but he insisted that it would be good for him. He brought in a piece of sheet music and when Elvis was out on a break he put the sheet music on his music stand (laughs). Elvis came back and looked at it and said, "Who brought that Brer Rabbit shit in here?" (laughs) Jean left in a hurry and never came back to another session (laughs). I told Jean that Elvis would not do that song and that it was ridiculous. But he insisted that Elvis would do it. So Jean put it on his stand and hoped he would thank him in appreciation and that didn't happen (laughs).

Ken Sharp: What are your memories of visiting Elvis in Paris and Germany while he was stationed in the Army? Was he worried about the state of his career?

F.B: In Paris, Elvis was primarily interested in having a good time. I didn't know what to do with him so I decided to take him to this nightclub called The Lido on the Champs Elysees. They had a chorus line of English girls. You wouldn't believe it. He was there for ten days and he made it with 22 of the 24 girls (laughs). It was unbelievable. There was one coming in the front and one leaving in the back. The overflow was too hard to handle (laughs). We didn't talk much about songs; it was mainly a social visit. Elvis was concerned about his career to some extent. He thought that maybe the fans would forget him or be less enthusiastic about him. What helped keep the fans' interest were the singles and the pictures.

Ken Sharp: What's your take on the `movie' songs?

F.B: There was a time when Elvis was doing four pictures a year for MGM. It was a real drag. For these movies I had writers like Ben Weisman, Pomus and Shuman and Tepper and Bennett. They were able to look at scripts and come up with songs that would fit. Leiber and Stoller were reluctant to put too much effort into sitting down with scripts and coming up with songs on short notice. Giant, Baum and Kaye and (Ben) Weisman and (Aaron) Schroeder really wanted to get Elvis to record their songs. They would sit and look at the movie scripts and try hard to fit songs into particular scenes. It became apparent when you read the scripts what kind of a song should go into a particular spot. I'd go through the scripts and determine where songs should go fitting a particular scene
Things had to always be done in a hurry for the films. It was not really inspirational. The songs did not amount to big hits. There were some good ones that came out of the films but it would have been better if Elvis had done less pictures. Then of course he always wanted to have a title song for a picture and it was very difficult to get a good song out of a title like `Harum Scarum' or anything like that.
When he did the movie songs he would record them in California. I would go out to California and we'd be in the studio and would present the songs to Elvis. Elvis would always choose the material. I would present demos, which were on acetate. He'd always have a choice of at least two or three songs for each scene and then he would choose which one to record.

Ken Sharp's interview with D.J Fontana.
Excerpt from the magazine Record Collector

Ken Sharp: Did Elvis feel any competition with some of the acts out at the time?

D.J Fontana: No, no. He loved Carl [Perkins] and he loved Jerry [Lee Lewis]. He really did. And Johnny Cash. And [Roy] Orbison. Aw, he thought Orbison was probably the greatest singer in the world. I don't think Elvis worried about any competition. He didn't think that way. He said there was room for everybody, not only me, but everybody. He said there's room for all of us.

Ken Sharp: Throughout your time working with Elvis, did you ever feel you got close to him?

D.J: There was always a slight barrier between us. But early on we didn't have all these people around. We didn't have nobody but me and Scotty and Bill. We could deal with him better than most. We all got along and if we had something to say we'd say it. We'd say, `Elvis, we need to do this, we need to do that or we need a new car', whatever. He'd say, `OK, I'll take care of it. Don't' worry about it.' Once he said he'd take care of it, we didn't worry about it anymore.

(Right: The beat behind The King D.J. Fontana, & Elvis 1956)


Ken Sharp: When the `Memphis Mafia' came onto the scene, was it more difficult to get close to Elvis?

D.J: Oh absolutely. They were all tellin' different things in his ear and he didn't get out on the street that much to know what was going on. I'm sure they had a lot of influence over on him.

Ken Sharp: The Steve Allen Show - where he was forced to sing to a basset hound - wasn't so much fun.

D.J: No. He didn't like Steve Allen up to the day he died. He didn't like the idea of the tuxedo and having to sing to a dog, even if the song was Hound Dog. He didn't think that was a good idea, but that's what they wanted so he had to go along with it. He wasn't thrilled with it and he never got on with Steve Allen after that. He thought it was demeaning. We all did. You just don't do those things to guys like Elvis. Steve Allen was a jazz player. He was a good musician. He didn't like rock'n'roll and couldn't understand it. He didn't know where we were coming from exactly. He couldn't figure out the heck what we were doing.

- D.J Fontana interview copyright Record Collector/Ken Sharp. 2006

'Writing For The King' - CD information:
Release, December 2006.

Elvis Live in Las Vegas:
- MS = Midnight Show, DS = Dinner Show.
 1. Blue Suede Shoes (69 - Aug 24, MS)
 2. I Got A Woman (69 - Aug 24, MS)
 3. All Shook Up (69 - Aug 24 MS)
 4. Love Me Tender (69 - Aug 24 MS)
 5. Jailhouse Rock/Don't Be Cruel (69 -Aug. 24 MS)
 6. Heartbreak Hotel (69 - Aug 24 MS)
 7. Hound Dog (69 - Aug 24 MS)
 8. Words (69 - Aug 25 DS)
 9. Yesterday / Hey Jude (69 - Aug 25 DS)
10. In The Ghetto (69 - Aug 25 MS)
11. Don't Cry Daddy (70 - Feb 16 DS)
12. Polk Salad Annie (70 - Feb 16 DS)
13. Kentucky Rain (70 - Feb 17 DS)
14. Walk A Mile In My Shoes (70 - Feb 16 DS)
15. Something (70 - Aug 11 DS)
16. You've Lost That Loving Feeling (70 - Aug 11 DS)
17. I Just Can't Help Believing (70 - Aug 13 DS)
18. Never Been To Spain (72 -  Feb 14 MS)
19. Love Me (72 - Feb 14 MS)
20. Teddy Bear / Don't Be Cruel (72 - Feb 14 MS)
21. A Big Hunk O' Love (72 - Feb 14 MS)
22. Suspicious Minds (69 - Aug 24 MS)
23. Can't Help Falling In Love (69 - Aug 24 MS)

Elvis Demos:
1. Heartbreak Hotel (Axton/Durden/Presley)
Singer: Glenn Reeves
2. Teddy Bear (Kal Mann/Bernie Lowe)
Singer: Otis Blackwell
3. Don't Ask Me Why (Fred Wise/Ben Weisman)
Singer: Jimmy Breedlove
4. Hard Headed Woman (Claude DeMetrius)
Singer: Jimmy Breedlove
5. Trouble (Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller)
Singer: Unknown
6. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck (Bert Carroll/Russell Moody)
Singer: Gus Coletti
7. Pocketful Of Rainbows (Fred Wise/Ben Weisman)
Singer: Jimmy Breedlove
8. No More (Don Robertson/Hal Blair)
Singer: Don Robertson
9. His Latest Flame (Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman)
Singer: Mort Shuman
10. Good Luck Charm (Aaron Schroeder/Wally Gold)
Singer: Robert Moseley
11. Devil In Disguise (Bill Giant/Bernie Baum/Florence Kaye)
Singer: Bill Giant
12. Viva Las Vegas (Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman)
Singer: Mort Shuman
13. C'Mon Everybody (Joy Byers)
Singer: Bob Johnston
14. Kissin' Cousins (Fred Wise/Randy Starr)
Singer: Malcolm Dodd
15. My Desert Serenade (Stanley Gelber)
Singer: Kenny Karen
16. Could I Fall In Love (Randy Starr)
Singer: Malcolm Dodd
17. The Love Machine (G. Nelson/F. Burch/C. Taylor)
Singer: Gerald Nelson
18. Clambake [Alt. song] (Winfield Scott)
Singer: Winfield Scott
19. Wearin' That Loved On Look (Dallas Frazier/A. L. Owens)
Singer: Dallas Frazier
20. I've lost You (Howard/Blaikley)
Singer: Peter Lee Sterling
21. The Next Step Is Love (Evans/Parnes)
Singer: Paul Evans
22. Mary In The Morning (Cymbal/Rashkow)
Singer: Johnny Cymbal
23. Burning Love (Dennis Linde)
Singer: Dennis Linde
24. T-R-O-U-B-L-E (Jerry Chesnut)
Singer: Jerry Chesnut
25. Raised On Rock (Mark James)
Singer: Mark James
26. Way Down (Layng Martine Jr.)
Singer: Layng Martine Jr.








EIN highlighted reviews?
DVD: Colonel Parker
Film: Elvis Killed My Brother
CD: Elvis A Legendary Performer Vol. 7
DVD: A Tribute To The King (Scotty Moore)
Book/CD: Memphis Recording Service
Book: Elvis and the Memphis Mafia
CD: All Shook Up (reggae tribute)
Book: The King's Ransom
Book: The King (graphic novel)
'Elvis On Tour Outtakes' DVD review
'Hitstory' CD EIN in depth review
CD: Hitstory (USA edition)
FTD: Summer Festival
DVD: Born To Rock
Book: Elvis Aaron Presley: A Candle In The Wind
FTD: Too Much Monkey Business
Book: Desert Storm
Book: Elvis On Stamps
FTD: Elvis Today
Book: Behind The Image Vol. 2
Book: Elvis on Screen
DVD: Elvis & Me
FTD: All Shook Up
FTD: Tickle Me
CD: Elvis by the Presleys
Book: Warman's Elvis Field Guide
DVD: Why Elvis?
Book: Dewey and Elvis
CD: Black & White Elvis
CD: All Shook Up
Book: Rough Guide to Elvis
FTD: Rockin' Across Texas
FTD: Elvis Is Back
TV Special: "Elvis by the Presleys"
Book: Elvis by the Presleys
CD: Tom Green
CD: A Legendary Performer Vol. 5
FTD: Big Boss Man
FTD: Flashback
FTD: Paradise, Hawaiian Style
CD: I Remember His First Love Song
FTD: Polk Salad Annie
DVD review: Aloha From Hawaii
CD: Elvis At Sun
DVD: Comeback Special
FTD: Elvis Recorded Live In Memphis
FTD: Spinout
Book: Elvis Fashion
Did you miss?
CD review: The Greensboro Concert
FTD review: Girl Happy
Article: Political correctnesss and intolerance in the Elvis world
Article: All you ever wanted to know about Graceland
Interview: Larry Geller
FTD review: Viva Las Vegas
CD review: Close-Up
Debate: Is Elvis Alive?
Article: The pitfalls of re-mixing The King