Elvis Meets The Beatles
A look at the day the two super-powers of popular culture met.
- An EIN Spotlight -
'The Beatles & Elvis a Harmonic Convergence'
On a hot August night in Bel Air in 1965, the Fab Four finally met The King. A year earlier when The Beatles travelled to the U.S. in 1964, they frequently cited Elvis as a major influence.
A year later Epstein again initiated contact with Colonel Parker, and the decision was made that on the night of August 27, the Beatles would come to Elvis’ home for an informal get-together.
Intensive security arrangements were worked out, and it was agreed that no press would be involved and no pictures would be taken or recordings made of whatever happened.
Chuck Crisafulli and EIN's Piers Beagley investigates this amazing night.
See Below for more on the night John Lennon met Elvis.
For almost as long as there’s been rock ’n’ roll, Los Angeles has been a city at the center of its history and mythology—a town in which legends are made, burned, rebuilt, merchandised, forgotten. The city has had its fair share of native rock talent and has been the adopted home of many more singular rockin’ careers, but the powerful draw of L.A. has also meant that, through the years, the city has been the site of some of the most notable and unusual rock ’n’ roll encounters.
Some chance meetings have resulted in remarkable music—as in the low-key introductions that led to Crosby, Stills and Nash blending their first harmonies in a Laurel Canyon home. Some convergences have been darker—there’s the brief and creepy tangling of the Beach Boys with an aspiring songwriter named Charles Manson. Others are simply odd footnotes: David Bowie visiting an impatient Iggy Pop at UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute.
But perhaps the greatest of L.A.’s rock ’n’ roll tête-à-têtes occurred on a still summer night in 1965, high up in the rarefied climes of Bel Air. There, in a splendid home on Perugia Way, Elvis met the Beatles.
Or more precisely, the Beatles met Elvis. When the group traveled to the U.S. in 1964, they frequently cited Elvis as a major influence. Beatles manager Brian Epstein contacted Presley’s manager, the famously colorful Colonel Tom Parker, about organizing a meeting, but the logistics could never be worked out. The closest the Fab Four got to contact with the King came after their first visit to The Ed Sullivan Show, when the curiously charisma-deficient host read from a telegram: "Congratulations on your appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and your visit to America. We hope your engagement will be a successful one and your visit pleasant. Give our best to Mr. Sullivan. Sincerely, Elvis & the Colonel."
The following year, when the Beatles returned for a second U.S. tour, it all came together. The Beatles were in Los Angeles for a week, staying in a rented Benedict Canyon house while they played two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Elvis was at his home on Perugia Way in Bel Air, having just returned from location, shooting his latest movie, Paradise, Hawaiian Style.
|Epstein again initiated contact with Colonel Parker, and the decision was made that on the night of August 27, the Beatles would come to Elvis’ home for an informal get-together. Intensive security arrangements were worked out, and it was agreed that no press would be involved and no pictures would be taken or recordings made of whatever happened.
"So many things could have gone wrong," says Jerry Schilling, who was living at the Perugia house at the time and working as a member of the "Memphis Mafia," the entourage of guys who tended to all manner of Presley’s personal and professional needs. "If Colonel and Brian hadn’t gotten along, it wouldn’t have gotten past the phone-call stage. But there were no ego battles, and from the start it was approached as a pair of music greats coming together out of admiration for each other."
The uncomfortable subtext to the meeting was that, in 1965, Presley’s moments of musical greatness were behind him, and he had become deeply despondent over the string of mediocre films and uninspired soundtrack material he found himself contractually bound to deliver. "I remember asking him once what his next movie was going to be," recalls George Klein, a pioneering rock ’n’ roll disc jockey in Memphis, who began a lifelong friendship with Presley when the two met in an eighth grade music class. "He said, ‘Same story, different location. I beat up the bad guys, get the girl and sing 10 lousy songs.’ But as down as he was about what he was doing, I don’t think he really felt threatened by the Beatles. He appreciated the excitement of their records, and he thought they were fine songwriters. I remember him saying several times, ‘There’s room enough for everybody.’ Probably me and some of the other guys around Elvis felt more defensive than he ever did."
Just before 10 p.m. on the 27th, Colonel Parker his Memphis Mafia comrade Joe Esposito rode in limos over to the Beatles’ Benedict Canyon house, picked up John, Paul, George, Ringo, Epstein and the Beatles’ road manager, Mal Evans, and returned to Perugia Way. "There was a huge crowd of fans at the gate to Elvis’ house," recalls Esposito. "The Colonel didn’t want any press, but he leaked word to a few fan clubs so that there’d be some excitement outside."
Elvis and then girlfriend (later wife) Priscilla Beaulieu met the Beatles at the door of the home, and as introductions were made between the Beatles and the seven or so Mafia members, the group moved to the smaller of two den areas, which was equipped with a large TV, a stereo system and a bar. As everyone found a place, there was an awkward lull. The two greatest rock ’n’ roll acts in the world were finally together, face to face. Now what was supposed to happen?
"No matter who you are," says Schilling, "walking into Elvis Presley’s house is a different experience. His presence put things on a certain level, and I think the Beatles could feel that. But Elvis knew how to handle it. He said, ‘If you guys are just going to sit around and stare at me, I’m going to bed.’ That broke the ice and got a laugh out of everybody. Right away, the Beatles understood that Elvis was a guy with a sense of humor—and a guy who really loved crazy British humor. It wasn’t too long before John and Elvis were talking about Peter Sellers and favorite scenes from Dr. Strangelove."
With the mood loosened up, the gathering turned into a friendly, free-flowing affair. Colonel Parker and Esposito, as well as Memphis Mafia "foreman" Marty Lacker oversaw the action at a craps table and roulette wheel that had been set up in the home’s larger den, while Schilling teamed with Ringo to take on Evans and Elvis’ cousin Billy Smith in a game of pool. Elvis wasn’t a drinker, so very little alcohol was served (though George Harrison slipped out to the swimming pool area, where he smoked pot with hairstylist Larry Geller and Mafia member Alan Fortas).
"I think there was probably some nervousness on both sides when the night began," says Esposito. "But it turned out to be a really enjoyable, down-to-earth, getting-to-know-you situation. Not a wild party—just a really fun night. For us, it was great to see Elvis enjoying himself that way."
Early on, Elvis showed off one of his musical pastimes to Lennon and McCartney—plugging a Fender bass into an amp to play along to records. Charlie Rich’s "Mohair Sam" was a favorite that summer, and Elvis nailed the boogeying bass line. There were guitars in the house, and there are varying accounts as to what extent the rock luminaries jammed. Esposito remembers a few ’50s oldies—not Elvis tunes—getting a run-through, though the left-handed McCartney had trouble doing much with a guitar strung for a right-hander. Schilling remembers Elvis playing bass but doesn’t recall any serious jamming. "I was paying attention that night," he laughs. "That’s something I wouldn’t have missed."
|John Lennon at Pergugia Way with Elvis on the left by the door
Whatever music got made, the four-hour get-together was successful enough that the Beatles wanted to return the favor, inviting some of Elvis’ guys to spend time where they were staying. "Just as they were leaving," Schilling recalls, "John said to me, ‘I know Elvis can’t get out, but if you’d like to come up to our place, we’ll be there the next few days.’ "
So Schilling found himself on a Benedict Canyon patio, at a table with John, Paul and George (Ringo was inside, on the phone with his wife). Either because they were freshly shampooed or wanted to protect their hair from the sun, the three Beatles had their heads wrapped in towels. Schilling remembers one other detail from that afternoon: "I was amazed watching their security guys grab up these girls who were scaling the canyon walls to get to the band, but the Beatles were so used to it they didn’t even notice."
At one point, Lennon leaned over and asked Schilling to deliver a message to Elvis. "He said, ‘I didn’t have the nerve to tell Elvis this last night," Schilling recalls, "but you see these sideburns? I almost got kicked out of school for trying to look like him. Tell Elvis that if it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be here.’ "
Later, back on Perugia Way, Schilling found Elvis sitting alone in the den where the Beatles’ evening first started. "I didn’t tell him right away that I’d just spent the day at their place," says Schilling. "Elvis was a nice guy, but loyalty was very important to him.
I built up to it slowly, then told him what John had said. He didn’t say anything, but he had this little proud smile on his face. I could see how much it meant to him."
In the years since that August night, just a few unofficial photos have emerged—shots (right) taken at the Perugia gates, most likely by a fan, as the Beatles appear to be leaving.
The encounter lives on as a cherished memory for those lucky enough to have been there, but Esposito has come to question the occasion’s no-photo policy. "At the time, it seemed like the right thing not to have pictures or recordings, to let these guys just be themselves. But now I kind of wish we could have had some pictures taken, because it really was a helluva night."
Elvis close friends Marty Lacker and Billy Smith were also at the meeting and talk about Elvis and The Beatles in their book 'Elvis and the Memphis Mafia'
Here they fill in some more details.
Marty Lacker: In 1965, Colonel knew what he was doing about the meeting. He said to Elvis, "If you'd like, you could go to their house." And Elvis said, "No, no. Let Them come over to Perugia Way." Elvis told us we could bring our wives and kids over to meet them if we wanted.
Billy Smith: Jo couldn't believe the Beatles were coming to meet us. We were all real excited. We'd say, "The Beatles, hell, they're hot! This is a big thing!" But around Elvis, we knew not to let on too much because he'd get really pissed.
Marty: Somehow, the word got out about the meeting. And it caused a problem because Perugia Way is a very small circle. Before the Beatles even got there, the entire cove was packed with people hoping to see Elvis and the Beatles. The Bel Air police had to come so the Beatles could get their limousine in the courtyard.
When they came in the house, Elvis and some of the guys waited for them in the den. He wasn't going to go to the door because he didn't want to make a big deal out of it. So they came in the den, and when they met him, it was like they were in a trance, just looking up at him and shaking his hand. On TV, they were so boisterous, and here they were real quiet. After they said, "It's such a pleasure to meet you," they didn't know what to say. So Elvis said, "Let's go sit down." He had on a red shirt and gray slacks, and he sat in his usual place on the couch in front of the TV. And the Beatles sat on chairs around the room, as did our families.
Billy: At first, they didn't know what to do. They were just sittin' around staring at Elvis. Everybody was looking at each other like "What the hell's going on here? Who's going to do something?"
Marty: Finally, Elvis looked at one of them, and he said, "Hey, I didn't mean for this to be like the subjects coming to the king." And then he said, "Quite frankly, if you guys are going to stare at me all night, I'm going to bed. I thought we'd talk a while and maybe jam a little." And when he said that, they went nuts.
They all went to the piano, and Elvis handed out a couple of guitars. And they just started singing—Elvis songs, Beatles songs, Chuck Berry songs. Elvis played Paul's bass part on "I Feel Fine," and Paul said something like "You're coming along quite promising on the bass there, Elvis." I remember thinking later, "Man, if we'd only had a tape recorder."
Billy: We tried to join in the fun as casually as we could, without paying too much attention to 'em. Ringo wanted to shoot some pool, so we did that. Alveena, this heavy maid, brought some drinks and little hors d'oeuvres, and she stepped on Ringo's foot. He screwed up his face like he was in all kinds of pain, and he said, "I think she's broke my bloody toe."
He was funny. He'd get up there with Elvis and impersonate him with a cue stick for a guitar. Then he'd shoot the ball. It turned into a real good night. Seemed like everybody had fun.
Marty: In a little while, Colonel Parker walked in. Which meant it was casino time. Because we had this coffee table that could be converted into a gambling table. You reversed it and turned it into a roulette wheel. So Joe and Alan and Colonel opened up the casino in what we called the "round den" because it used to be an outside courtyard. Alan said Colonel was throwing money around like crazy. And I remember Colonel and Joe bragging that they took Brian Epstein to the cleaners, that he owed 'em about two or three thousand dollars.
They didn't leave until about two o'clock in the morning. Colonel used to have a thing about covered wagons. He used one as a kind of logo for his company—he had one on his stationery, I remember. And as souvenirs, he gave the Beatles these little covered wagons that lit up on the inside.
Billy: Jo was pregnant with our second child, and, of course, she was wearing maternity clothes, and her stomach was sticking out. We were all standing outside when the Beatles were leaving in their limousine, and somebody took a picture of Jo, and Patsy Lacker, and Jo Fortas, and Joanie Esposito. And it turned up in some magazine, with the headline THE NIGHT ELVIS SHARED HIS WOMEN WITH THE BEATLES! Jo laughed like crazy, man. She saved that magazine for a long, long time.
Marty: As they were saying goodbye, John and Paul said, "We're staying at this house on Mulholland Drive, and we'd like to invite you all to come up tomorrow." And Paul looked at Elvis and said, "I hope you'll be able to come." And then he looked at us and said, "But if he can't come, you fellows are welcome."
When they left, Elvis said, "I'm not going up there." He said, "I did my duty. I met them, and that's it."
The next afternoon, Jerry Schilling, and Richard Davis, and Billy, and I went up to where they were staying. And they were overjoyed to see us. They really were. John pulled me over by the picture window, and he said, "Last night was the greatest night of my life."
In subsequent years, the guys visited the Beatles three or four times when they came over here. Of course, Elvis never went. In the summer of '66, we saw Brian Epstein lying out on the chaise lounge by the pool. He was zonked out of his brain. And Paul and the other guys were sitting by the pool, and there were people all over the place—girls running around naked, people dropping acid.
About twenty minutes later, the Mamas and the Papas showed up. All four of them—Mama Cass, John, Denny, and Michelle—came marching in a row, like soldiers. And John and George immediately got up and went into the house with them. I was talking with this guy, Mal Evans, who was the Beatles' road manager and bodyguard. Big guy. And I said, "Where are they going? Are they talking business?" He said, "No, no, they're just going to get blown out of their skulls." It was party time.
Just before we left during one of those visits—I can't remember if it was '66 or '67—I went in this side room, where Paul was singing songs and playing piano. He looked up at me and he said, "Do you think Elvis would ever cut one of my songs?" The Beatles were the biggest thing in the universe right then. But that goes to show you, they still thought Elvis was bigger.
Paul McCartney descried the night for Ken Sharp in his essential book 'Writing For The King'
August 27, 1965 -
It was a great evening. I've heard people have said it was real weird and he was all drugged out and so were we, and it was crazy. It reallvwasn't. It was a very straight evening. We were major fans of Elvis, particularly his work before he joined the Army. We had a great evening. He was really brilliant. He was the first guy we knew who had a remote control on his television. That's how long ago it was.
Elvis played "Mohair Sam" all evening on the jukebox, 'cause he was well into that. Priscilla was wheeled in about half past ten for about five minutes as if she was a doll, which she looked like. It was great.
We were totally in awe of him. He was learning to play bass so I kind of taught him a little bit of stuff. A really nice guy, really regular person, what we saw of him.
I doubt very much if the Beatles would have happenned if it was not for Elvis. God bless you Elvis.
I still love him, particularly in his early period. He was very influential on me.
Go here for more information on 'Writing For The King'
John Lennon has also stated, When I first heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We'd never heard American voices singing like that. They'd always sung like Sinatra who enunciated well.
Suddenly there's this hillbilly hiccupping with echo and all this bluesy background going on. We didn't know what the hell Elvis Presley was singing about or Little Richard or Chuck Berry. It took a long time to work out what was going on. To us, it just sounded like great noise.
It was very exciting, we were all nervous as hell, and we met him in his big house in L.A. - probably as big as the one we were staying in, but it still felt like "Big house, Big Elvis." He had lots of guys around him, all these guys that used to live near him (like we did from Liverpool, we always had thousands of Liverpool people around us, so I guess he was the same.) And he had pool tables! Maybe a lot of American houses are like that, but it seemed amazing to us. It was like a nightclub.
MORE John Lennon quotes about Elvis.
"I always wanted to be this tough James Dean type, but Elvis was bigger than religion in my life. When I heard Heartbreak Hotel it was so great I couldn’t speak, I didn’t want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind."
"I’m an Elvis fan because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool."
"There's only one person in the United States we ever wanted to meet ... not that he wanted us. And we met him last night. We can't tell you how we felt. We just idolised him so much. ... You can't imagine what a thrill that was last night. Nothing really affected me until I heard Elvis. If there hadn't been an Elvis, there wouldn't have been the Beatles."
About meeting Elvis - "He had his TV going all the time, which is what I do; we always have TV on. We never watch it - it's just there with no sound on, and we listen to records. In front of the TV, he had a massive amplifier with a bass plugged into it, and he was up playing bass all the time with the picture up on the TV. So we just got in there and played with him. We all plugged in whatever was around, and we played and sang. He had a jukebox, like I do, but I think he had all his hits on it. But if I'd made as many as him, maybe I'd have all mine on.
"At first we couldn't make him out. I asked him if he was preparing new ideas for his next film and he drawled, "Ah sure am. Ah play a country boy with a guitar who meets a few gals along the way, and ah sing a few songs." - We all looked at one another. Finally Presley and Colonel Parker laughed and explained that the only time they departed from that formula - for Wild in the Country - they lost money."
It was nice meeting Elvis. He was just Elvis, you know? He seemed normal to us, and we were asking about his making movies and not doing any personal appearances or TV. I think he enjoys making movies so much, We couldn't stand not doing personal appearances, we'd get bored - we get bored quickly. He says he misses it a bit.We never talked about anything else - we just played music. He wasn't bigger than us, but he was "the thing." He just wasn't articulate, that's all."
The Night John Lennon and The Beatles Met Elvis
No real photos were taken. No tape recordings were made. Less than twenty people were present. All of which helps to explain why the greatest summit meeting in the annals of rock 'n' roll history has remained a relatively little-known bit of rock trivia. But the facts are this: on a balmy August night in 1965, inside a rented mansion up in the tony hills of Bel Air, Elvis met The Beatles.
The mansion was Elvis', and The Beatles (in a caravan of individual limos) came to him - a fitting protocol for young superstars seeking to pay tribute to the older star who'd been such an inspiration for the group, and for John Lennon in particular. Lennon and Paul McCartney had both expressed a desire to try to meet with the King when The Beatles first came to the U.S. in February of 1964 and Beatles manager Brian Epstein reached out to Presley's manager, the wily and formidable Colonel Tom Parker. But schedules could not be aligned and the only star-to-star contact was by way of a congratulatory telegram from Elvis and the Colonel that Ed Sullivan read on-air to the group after their debut performance on his show.
Towards the end of The Beatles' '65 tour, though, everything fell into place. The group was in L.A. for shows at the Hollywood Bowl, and Elvis was in town after having completed the filming of Paradise, Hawaiian Style in Hawaii. Epstein and Parker quickly worked out some crucial ground rules: a low-key get-together at Elvis's place with no pictures taken and no press present (though Parker would make sure to leak word to a few fan clubs so that there'd be the requisite screaming throng outside Elvis's gates). The four Beatles would be accompanied by Epstein and road manager Mal Evans. Elvis would be with his wife Priscilla, and a few trusted members of his "Memphis Mafia." For diversions, there'd be a pool table, a Colonel-provided roulette wheel, a craps table, and (Elvis not being much of a drinker) a lightly-stocked bar.
A little after 10 p.m. on August 27, the line of limos containing John, Paul, George, Ringo, Epstein and Evans rolled through the crowd and onto the grounds of Elvis's Perugia Way home. Within minutes, the two greatest forces in rock 'n' roll were face-to-face. Introductions were made and seats taken. But what was supposed to happen now? The Beatles themselves seemed a little star struck, and there was a moment of awkward silence.
"You walk into Elvis Presley's house - it's different," said Jerry Schilling, who was present as one of Elvis's inner circle of Memphis Mafia guys. "No matter how talented or confident you are, his presence put things on a certain level. You could see The Beatles felt that. But Elvis knew just what to do. He looked around the room and said, 'You know, if you guys are just going to sit there and stare at me, I'm going to bed.' Everybody laughed and that broke the ice."
Elvis and John Lennon soon discovered they shared an appreciation of Peter Sellers, and began reciting lines from Dr. Strangelove, which had come out earlier that year. "Elvis loved crazy, almost absurd humor, and I think that really surprised The Beatles," recalled Schilling. "He loved doing the move where the doctor can't stop from choking himself with his own artificial hand, and I remember John had a pretty strong Dr. Strangelove impression, too. Personality-wise, John really reminded me of the more cutting side of Elvis - the side you never saw in his movies. Elvis was sharp and fast and could cut through you with a remark, but usually only the few of us who lived with him ever saw that side of him. It came out that night with John, though."
(Right:An early John Lennon photo shows the Elvis Influence)
As cocktails were sipped and a comfortable vibe settled over the proceedings, Elvis indulged in one of his musical habits - he put on a favorite current record (Charlie Rich's "Mohair Sam") and played along with the tune on an electric bass, run through an amplifier set up next to his stereo system ("You could see Paul's eyes light up," recalls Schilling. "Now he had something to talk to Elvis about.") George Harrison drifted outside to smoke pot with Larry Geller, an Elvis insider with the unusual role of hairdresser and "spiritual advisor." Jerry Schilling teamed up with Ringo to take on Mal Evans and one of Elvis's cousins at the pool table.
Over the years, there's been a fair amount of speculation about what may have happened after a few run-throughs of "Mohair Sam." There were other guitars at Elvis's place, and it's possible that he and Lennon traded a few licks of favorite '50s tunes. But there were no drums around, and nothing strung for a left-handed player, so rumors of an incredible all-night Elvis-Beatles jam are sadly far-fetched. "Uh, I was kind of paying attention that night," laughed Schilling. "If they'd really started playing, I would have dropped my pool cue in a hurry."
The evening eased along, with Elvis and the four Beatles all seeming to relax enough to truly enjoy themselves. "Here were the only five guys in the world who could understand the level of fame that the other was at," said Schilling. "The five biggest entertainers in the world were in one room, and there weren't any ego problems at all. Without ever talking about it, I think they all appreciated what the other had experienced, and there was nothing but respect there. Everybody was down to earth, and nobody was trying to impress anybody. The Beatles had the same 'no bulls---' quality Elvis had, and that made it a really enjoyable night."
Just before The Beatles left for the night, Lennon extended an invitation to Schilling. John said he knew Elvis couldn't get out to come to their place, but wondered if Jerry might like to spend some time there. So, the next day, Jerry found himself sitting on a patio overlooking a steep canyon, at a table with John, Paul and George (Ringo was inside on the phone with his wife). The three Beatles had their heads wrapped in towels, getting their moptops ready for that night's show in San Diego. At one point, Lennon leaned towards Jerry with a message he wanted him to deliver to Elvis. "John Lennon said, 'I didn't have the nerve to tell Elvis last night, but when I was in high school I wanted to do everything I could to look like him. I almost got kicked out of school for it. Tell Elvis, without him, we'd be nothing."
Schilling accepted an invitation to come back to The Beatles' pad the following day, too, and in the late afternoon found himself riding in a limo with John Lennon and Joan Baez (!), on his way to The Beatles' show at the Hollywood Bowl. As the limo got to the Bowl, however, Schilling began to think about the premium Elvis put on loyalty within his inner circle. "I had a great life going, and all I needed was one of the other Mafia guys to say to Elvis, 'Guess where Jerry is,'" says Schilling. "Elvis chose to be a nice guy most of the time, but that's the kind of thing he would not have been happy about. So I'm probably the only guy that was ever driven to a Beatles concert in a Beatles' limo and walked out before the show started."
To this day, Schilling doesn't regret the lack of audio, video, or photographic record of Elvis meeting the Beatles: it's more special as a treasured memory. He does sometimes regret the timing of that meeting, though. "I only wish they could have met when they were both at the peak of their abilities as artists," says Schilling. "We had a really nice time, but a few years later The Beatles would have been coming off of Sgt. Pepper and Elvis would be working on his '68 special. That would have been a very interesting night."
John Lennon: 9th October 1940 - 8th December 1980. Like Elvis, taken from us way too young. RIP.
The Night John Lennon Met Elvis:
Following our story above, Memphis Mafia member, Marty Lacker, sent us these additional comments about the night:
Jerry Schilling must have had plugs in his ears because you couldn't miss hearing Elvis and the Beatles singing and playing.
We were gathered around the piano and they were trading Chuck Berry songs as well as Elvis singing a couple of Beatles songs. Elvis and Paul alternated at the piano and Lennon was playing a guitar. Ringo was beating on a chair because there were no drums and George took turns joining in and then going out by the pool to smoke a joint. they also sang along with a couple of records. All in all they jammed in that fashion for at least 30 minutes.
It's funny that Ringo has no recollection of it as he stated during an interview and George one time said they did and another time they did not. My ears and the ears of most of the wives and kids that were there listened intently and I have always had a very good memory.
|More On John Lennon And Elvis: On October 8 1980 John Lennon was shot dead outside his New York apartment. In commemoration LA Times music critic Robert Hilburn remembers discussions with John Lennon about life and Elvis.
>> In mid 1980 John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono's home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer's new single, "The Wanderer." "Listen!" Lennon shouted as he put the 45rpm on the record player. "She's doing Elvis!" I didn't know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer's usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.
"See! See!" John shouted, pointing at the speakers "That's Elvis!"
Lennon plugged in one of his prized possessions a vintage jukebox. He then punched one Elvis Presley record after another and bopped around playfully.
|Lennon ended up spending so much time talking about Elvis and other favorites from the 1950s that I was afraid we weren't going to get to the Beatles and his solo career.
As Elvis sang "Don't Be Cruel" in the background, John recalled his first and only meeting with our mutual rock hero. It was a story he relished sharing as much as he did his Beatles memories.
"It was probably 1965 and we had a break in L.A. during a tour. We went up to his house and we were terrified. I can't remember the first moment I saw him, but Elvis looked great. We started singing some of his songs. That's what we always did when we met Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins or any of them."
I asked if Elvis had known how big the Beatles were and if he had felt any hint of competition.
"Are you kidding?" John replied with a laugh. "Elvis knew damn well who we were -- from the word 'go.' He was terrified of us and the English movement because we were a possible threat to him. To us, Elvis was a god. We'd like to beat his record and become the champion, but we would always give Elvis credit. It always hurts and infuriates me when Mick Jagger puts Elvis down. Maybe he's jealous because Elvis was the original body man in rock and it's too near to Mick's game for him to admit that Elvis' movements were at least as good as his and that maybe Elvis could sing a damn sight better than he could."
We had such a good time over the three days that Lennon invited me to his and Sean's birthday party. I knew what the perfect birthday present for John was. I had mentioned in the studio that there was a great new Elvis photo book by Alfred Wertheimer, who had spent a couple of weeks with Elvis around the time of "Hound Dog" in 1956. John hadn't seen it.
I didn't want to bother John, so I left the book with the doorman.
Two months later Lennon was dead."
CHUCK CRISAFULLI is an L.A.-based writer whose books include 'Me and a Guy Named Elvis' with Jerry Schilling. See EIN's book review here.
Spotlight created by Piers Beagley.
-Copyright EIN April 2010. Do Not reprint or republish without permission.