EIN - It's been a long time since we've seen you in Australia so I'm glad we have found the time to meet up. When were you last there?
Jimmy Velvet - I was last there in 1995 with the Museum and brought over a lot of special things. I've toured Australia 3 times and I just absolutely loved it over there. I did the TV shows, Don Lane and other national TV shows and I would love to come back. I've been reading about your Sydney Bushfires but it's only 48 F here in Hendersonville right now!
EIN - Let me ask you a bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get to meet Elvis?
J.V - I am originally from Jacksonville on the East Coast and my earliest connection with Elvis was that my substitute English teacher at Paxton High was Mae Axton went on to write Heartbreak Hotel. Mae was also a show promoter and she brought the Hank Snow Show to the Gator Bowl in 1955 and that was how I met Elvis. I got backstage at that time, as I was known in town as a local entertainer. I talked to him for a long time and then I finally introduced myself to him. He then said "Well I'm Elvis Presley" and I thought 'Wow, that's a strange name' as I had never even heard his name before that.
I was there actually to see Hank Snow and The Carter Family and so forth. But as soon as he hit the stage I knew who he was! I'd been thinking that he was just a guitar player but when he went out on stage they came out of the bleachers! This was the first time I had ever seen a show with so much screaming and fan input. I'd never seen anything like that. It was unbelievable.
EIN - Lots of people remember that Jacksonville show as being the first riot of its kind but most people forget that this was before Elvis recorded Heartbreak Hotel. Didn't Elvis say something like "I'll see you backstage" to the crowd and 7000 fans decided to take him up on the offer?
J.V - (Laughing) They pushed so hard you just couldn't hold them back. There just wasn't enough protection as this was a simple 'Country' show. There was just so many people! You never had those reactions with the country shows. Col Parker at the time had just taken on Elvis and he was adding him to his shows with Eddy Arnold & Hank Snow. So any of the venues that wanted to book Hank or Eddy had to take Elvis as well which was how the Colonel got him seen. And every time he performed he stole the show. Elvis was bottom of the bill that day and he hadn't even had a major hit yet, so you wonder what Hank Snow must have thought of the reaction.
EIN - It seems odd that Mae Axton would be an English teacher and also a show promoter. Was she from Jacksonville?
J.V - Her family were from Oklahoma but she lived in Jacksonville. Her family was an extremely well known oil family. Her brother was the governor of Oklahoma and of course her son Hoyt became a big star. I was at Mae's funeral here in Hendersonville where I live and it was really distressing. I was at J.D Sumner's funeral & Otis Blackwell's too - I've seen too many of my best friends die in recent years.
EIN - What got you into the music scene, was it anything to do with Mae?
J.V - I was already playing some local shows including some local TV shows but I wasn't recording anything at the time. But then when I got to meet Elvis and became friends with him he invited me on some shows. That made me decide to work hard on my music. I was just 15 when Elvis and I met and he was nineteen.
EIN - Tell me a little about Jimmy Velvet the performer. 'We belong Together' was a big hit for you in the sixties.
J.V - 'We Belong Together' and 'To The aisle', 'It's almost Tomorrow', 'Teen Angel' . . . there were several chart records for me. 'We Belong Together' was number 1 in a lot of places but the problem was that it was on my label and I couldn't get the wide distribution. To get around that I sold the master to ABC Paramount but by then it had already been in the top ten in so many cities that it never made it to number 1 in the national chart. But it sold well for almost a 2-year period.
EIN - A lot of the photographs you have are of you touring in the fifties. I was stunned by your photo collection including pictures of you with the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly and so many stars.
J.V - That is such small part of it. I have something like 6 thousand negatives and I just wish I had the means to put them together to make an absolute top quality coffee table book. They need to be professionally scanned and it gets very expensive to do them properly and to do them justice. I performed in a lot of those shows but often I was just there because they were friends and I just dropped by to say "Hi". I wasn't a major star like they were & many of the shows I opened but it was fun and I always had my camera with me. Everyone was relaxed and I got good pictures with my little camera.
EIN - Did you ever get to see Elvis working in the movies?
J.V - I was down in New Orleans while they were filming King Creole for 3 days and Elvis also invited me to Philadelphia I believe it was March 57. His father Vernon and I got to be real good friends and I would go to Memphis a lot and stay at Vernon's home over on Dolan. In the original days when I was struggling I stayed with Uncle Travis and Billy & Bobby, then kids. I remember Elvis giving me & Bobby a $100 cheque to cash for expenses. Bobby was on crutches and a wheelchair and I drove him down to Florida when they were filming 'Follow That Dream'. They were great times. I was always welcome at Graceland and Elvis was always good to me but I didn't hang around there a lot like a lot of the friends and of course I never worked for him. I had to get out and make a living so I wasn't there all the time.
EIN - Don't you think that your relationship with Elvis & the family would have changed if you had been one of his paid friends?
J.V - Oh yeah! There were never any times that we had any hostile words between Elvis & I. Vernon used to come over to visit with Dee when I was living in Huntsville AL and I was actually dating Dee's niece at the time. Vernon & I were actually going to build a space museum together but that was before NASA did the same.
EIN - Do you ever run into Billy Smith nowadays?
J.V - I haven't seen Billy in about 3 or 4 years. He's such a nice guy. Some of the guys are always trying to make themselves look like they were the most important friend to Elvis. But in truth I can tell you that Billy smith was the closest to Elvis from what I could see. Elvis really loved David Stanley too 'cos he was just a big kid. Joe Esposito was the levelheaded person who handled the business. There were a lot of good guys there too. I also always liked Red West. He was tough when he had to be but he had a good heart. He is also a great actor - I don't know where he picked that up from but he is really good. I ended up buying most of his Elvis collection from him. Sonny's a good man too.
EIN - Were you at any of Elvis recording sessions?
J.V - Yes I was. Two or three of them, mostly Nashville ones. I photographed him at two of those. One in 1961 and also 1965. He was kind of amazing when he worked 'cos he would waste a lot of time in there. He'd send out for 100 hamburgers & if he wanted to quit, he'd quit - but if he wanted to stay all-night he would. Sometimes he'd go out and shoot some pool and then come back. But he was worth it; he sold a lot of records!
EIN - I've been dying to ask you your opinion of Col Parker because people's feelings about him vary so much.
J.V - Personally I loved The Colonel! I was around The Colonel a good bit and he was good to me. In fact I was at his last birthday party too along with Baron Hilton & George Hamilton!
The Colonel was a shrewd businessman who was very good at what he did & without The Colonel Elvis would probably not have made it. Because you have to remember that you couldn't open doors when you looked and sounded like Elvis Presley in those days. What got the adults interested was when Elvis started singing 'Peace in the Valley' & gospel because nobody sings gospel better than Elvis. And when people started reading that Elvis bought his parents a house and his Mother a car and all of these great things. Gosh, where do you put the line? - Elvis was a business to the Colonel as well as a friend.
Elvis' contract with The Colonel ran out long before and everyone said "Great, your contract's up with the Col you don't have to do this any more" but Elvis said "I'm doing it my way but the Colonel is still in. He's the one that got me here and he's still going to get his percent". That's just the way Elvis was. If Elvis thought The Colonel was screwing him he wouldn't have cared anyway as long as he could go out and book a show to take in enough money!
EIN - I think the frightening thing is that by the end The Colonel was taking a greater percentage than Elvis and also that Vernon, who never finished high school, was in charge of Elvis' financial affairs.
J.V - But that's the deal that Elvis agreed to with The Colonel! Actually it was Vernon who allowed me to open up The Elvis Museum across from Graceland after Elvis died. I was so sad when Vernon died too. I watched Vernon die from a broken heart. When Elvis died I watched Vernon age so rapidly you could see that week to week looked like 5 years on him. He was just lost without Elvis cos' he loved Elvis to pieces. Elvis would yell at him about this & that 'cos he wanted things his way. Elvis was like a spoiled kid and he never really grew up.
But that was the funny side and the good side of Elvis and I'm glad he didn't. He had such a good heart and he was so generous. He just loved to look at people's faces when he gave them something that was way beyond their means. - I remember when Elvis gave away so many of those cars one night, which happened numerous times. This particular time Vernon said "Evis, you just can't afford this". Vernon called him "Evis" he could never say "Elvis"! - Elvis said "Daddy it's my money I'll do what I want to do. I can make a call right now to any colosseum in the world and be sold out tonight and bring home ½ million dollars tomorrow. So if I don't have any money I can go out and play a show and I got it". Elvis was adamant about it and he just loved to give and not even Vernon could change that.
- (Laughing) We'd go out to a restaurant and Elvis would never have any money with him so Billy or Joe would lay down a $100 bill on the table for a tip, & walk out the door and then you'd see Vernon come along and pick up the $100 and put a $5 down. You see Vernon never had anything, he grew up poor.
EIN - Elvis gave you a Cadillac isn't that right?
J.V - No actually he gave me a Mercedes limo! That was an odd situation you know. I was over at the house one day sitting by the pool with Vernon & I had been there about 3 days. It was 1974 I think. Anyway Elvis came through the back gate on his horse Sun. He tied up the horse and came over to where Vernon & I were talking and I said something about the Mercedes since the hood had been up for the 3 days that I had been there. Elvis said "You mean that piece of shit! Daddy, call the junk yard and tell them to come and get that piece of shit". Well I said "You can't throw that car in the junkyard!" So Elvis says "Why? You want it?" I said "Well if you're going to throw it in the junkyard I'll take it". Elvis said "Jim, it's not worth fixin'. It'll cost you more to fix than it's ever going to be worth!"
After Elvis died I still had the car and he was right because it cost $13,000 to fix because the new block had to be ordered from Germany. Unfortunately I had to sell it to a friend when I needed to raise some money but I did it on the terms that he would always sell it back to me. But 4 years later I saw that the car was sold at a Las Vegas auction and he never called me to say that he was going to do it. So I didn't get the car back and it really upset me because I never wanted to sell it. A real shame.
EIN - What about your famous memorabilia collection, didn't you have to sell the majority of it too?
J.V - At one time my Memorabilia collection was the largest in the world but of course I had to sell a lot of it off and I've now retired. Being in Memphis for the 2002 convention was my first time in several years. A bad business deal wound up breaking me and just took everything I could make and so I ended up having to sell almost everything and just start over again. I would really like to put another road tour together. I'd love to tour something like a "Legends & Superstars" and have some Elvis in it. But it couldn't be all Elvis 'cos I don't have enough stuff. The whole time I had the Elvis Museum which was round about 20 years I never took a salary the whole time 'cos I had another business that I owned and so all the money that it earned I just kept pouring back in. So it was pretty hard when everything just fell apart on me. But these things happen and I grew up with nothing so I'm used to that!
EIN - What have you been doing recently?
J.V - I was working on the big Fox Network Elvis thing ("Is Elvis alive?") in Cleveland. They couldn't find any of Elvis' DNA and I had certified stuff that they needed. I have a complete set of fingerprints, his blood, and his saliva so I gave them what they needed. They had this guy who claims he's Elvis and that doctor that claims he has been treating him now for 25 years. First of all I had to tell the show's producer, "Elvis is not alive". I said that I was willing to bring this DNA and I wasn't going to charge them a dime because I didn't want to prove that the guy was Elvis but to show them that he is not. She so wanted to prove that he was Elvis and I said "We would all love to prove that he's real but he ain't"! Of course if Elvis was really alive I would be the happiest man in the world!
I once did an interview with NBC TV when I had the Elvis Museum and was starting up The Legends Hall of Fame. It was at the time of all the Elvis sightings and they asked me live on-air what did I think about all these reports of Elvis being alive. I replied "Well, when I had breakfast with Elvis this morning he was upset that you fellas would still think that he was alive". Well you could hear a pin drop, they didn't say a word! I had to break the silence to point out that their question was just about as silly as my answer! We all wish Elvis was alive, we'd give anything in the world, but he's not. That was the best shot I had ever had!
EIN - When was the last time you saw Elvis?
J.V - About 3 weeks before he died and he looked so bad. I just couldn't believe how he looked. I actually went over the next day to Vernon's to talk to him. I said to Vernon that Elvis really needed to go to hospital. He said "Jimmy, we've tried everything in the world to get him straightened out but I just don't know what to do with him. Elvis just doesn't believe that he's got a problem".
At that time Otis Blackwell who wrote those great songs like 'Don't Be Cruel' was around and I wanted to bring him up to meet Elvis because they had never met. I said to Vernon that I wanted to bring Otis by but Vernon said "Jimmy, not while Elvis is like he is, he looks terrible. Bring him over when Elvis is feeling good because he has always wanted to meet Otis and he would love to talk to him". It broke my heart because then Elvis died and the two never got a chance to get together.
EIN - Was Otis Blackwell a good friend of yours?
J.V - Oh yes. Otis Blackwell was a dear friend of mine and he was a wonderful and warm man. I went to his funeral last year and spent a lot of time with his daughters. When he was in his coma for a while & couldn't talk, I used to go down to the hospital and hold his hand and just talk to him. You could tell from the expression in his eyes that he could hear me.
EIN - When was the last time you ever had a talk with Elvis? Did he ever say anything about how he felt during those final years?
J.V - Well I didn't see much during those times but I can tell you that he did come and see my show twice. He would come with some of the guys and just sit at one of the back tables. I talked to him 2 or 3 times like in 1973 when we were sworn in as Deputy Sheriffs together. Vernon & I were made Captains and Elvis was made a Chief Deputy. I photographed him there and it was a fun time. Elvis looked great then and he still looked good in 74 and even 75.
EIN - He must have been a lonely man by the end when he had to sack Red & Sonny and it all seemed to be going wrong
J.V - He went through hard times then. He didn't like to be alone, he liked people around him. He was a great guy though. I was a lucky person to know such a wonderful man. I definitely wasn't his closest friend I'm sure because I wasn't there that much of the time and there were a lot of friends closer than me. However he always made me feel good & feel welcome and I did get to see him on a lot of occasions. He was a dear friend, I miss him.
EIN - Thanks so much for sparing so much of your time, hopefully we can see you in Australia again sometime.
NOTE - Great EIN Jimmy Velvet photo offer. As mentioned, Jimmy has an excellent selection of rare Elvis photos both in colour and black & white. If you are interested, glossy original prints cost just US$10 and if you like, Jimmy will also autograph them for no charge.
For more information click here to contact EIN.
*** EIN Copyright 2003 ***
"Inside The Dream" Book Review: Fans will know Jimmy Velvet as a friend of Elvis’ as well as the creator of the Elvis Presley Museum and owner of one of the world's biggest collectors of rock’n’roll memorabilia. Jimmy Velvet was also a successful recording artist and personally knew almost all the major stars that you can imagine - and was also luckily an enthusiastic photographer who always had his camera with him. He toured with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard – and ELVIS - just to name a few! Being a contemporary of these mega-stars he managed to capture thousands of candid photographs in a way that a press photographer couldn’t.
The photographic memoirs of Jimmy Velvet’s amazing life ‘Inside The Dream’ was released in 2007.
EIN’s Piers Beagley spent several days examining this hefty photo-biography to give you this detailed review - including rare photos of Elvis and more!
(Book Reviews, Source;ElvisInformationNetwork)
"New Elvis photos published in Jimmy Velvet's new book":
Jimmy Velvet is working on a new book to be titled "Inside The Dream: The Jimmy Velvet Story" due out in August 2007. As a performer in the 1950s, Jimmy toured with just about everyone in the Rock'n' Roll business including Elvis. And best of all he, always had his camera at hand to capture some fabulous candid moments in the history of popular music. The book will be about his life from the beginning and will feature the best of his 6000 unpublished negatives which document the Rock N' Roll Era. Jimmy will also include some wonderful stories about Elvis on the road, as well as his time spent relaxing at Graceland. It will be a large Coffee Table Book of the finest quality and will have hundreds of truly never seen photos - including some great candid Elvis shots. The book of course includes Elvis but also many, many others. Jimmy told EIN that the hardest job was having to choose only one of every 15 photos in order to supply the 400-500 photos that will fit in the book.
Click here for information and to purchase this great book.
Click here to comment on this article
Interview by Piers Beagley.
Copyright © www.ElvisInfoNet.com - 2003