Ed Bonja needs little introduction to most Elvis collectors and his pictures are some of the most famous images of Elvis ever produced. While his photographs can be found in almost every Elvis book, he has also published his own, "Elvis: Shot by Ed Bonja" and also the DVD "Elvis, The Colonel & Me." Ed Bonja worked for Colonel Parker throughout the seventies but was part of the Elvis family since his childhood.
This year Ed Bonja took part in the Las Vegas Elvis week celebrations and EIN's Piers Beagley spent a few hours talking with him about his fascinating life.
EIN - Every Elvis fan will own several of your fabulous Elvis photographs, whether they know it or not. Perhaps you could start by explaining how you came to work for Elvis & Colonel Parker.
Ed Bonja - My uncle, Tom Diskin, was The Colonel's right-hand man for many years even before Elvis. So I first met The Colonel back in Chicago in the early 50s and he was like a family friend. We used to call him "Uncle Tom" at first - and then "Uncle Colonel" later and his wife was Aunt Marie to us as we grew up. It was later on that my real Uncle, Tom Diskin, said, "Please call him 'Uncle Colonel' now, he likes his new title!"
EIN - I can't believe that you called him "Uncle Colonel"!
Ed - Well I just called him Colonel but there were 10 of us in the family and the others called him Uncle Colonel. It was a real family affair and there was a great deal of nepotism as my other brothers & even my cousins also worked for The Colonel. We handled concessions and stage-managed. Al Dvorin, of course, was working on the tours and his sons also came along with us. It was a real carnival family-affair and that's the way the Colonel liked it. He was a real 'carny' man!
EIN - Col Parker & your uncle Tom Diskin worked together before Elvis became a star. Can you remember their excitement about this new discovery that was Elvis, or were you too young? Did the early Elvis mean anything to you?
Ed - Before The Colonel had Elvis he was working with Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold and people like that. The Colonel would be at our house quite often when he worked in California because he did a lot of work on the West Coast. After dinner he loved to sit back and light up a big cigar and tell us his stories about showbiz & the carnival days. Very causally, one afternoon, he said, "Oh, and I signed a new boy this week and I think he's going to be pretty big. His name is Elvis Presley." It was as casual as that - but from then on it was 'all Elvis'.
He would send us all of Elvis' 45rpms and even 78rpms before that. We even got one of those RCA old turntables to play the darned things on! We should have saved them all but we had no idea at the time how things were going to work out! We got tickets to all the west-coast shows, the Shrine auditorium, The Pan Pacific .. So I saw Elvis perform very early on. I also remember when The Colonel told me that he had lined Elvis up for a screen-test and he said to me that Elvis had passed with flying colours!
EIN - So, not only did you tour with Elvis in the Seventies but you saw the early shows too!
Ed - Oh yeah! I was there for the west-coast fifties shows but also got to the NBC 68 Special. You can easily see my twin sisters sitting by the stage. When I think back at these things I can't believe how lucky we all were. It was extremely exciting to be there and see something so amazing. I went to both stand-up shows and, after seeing those terrible late-sixties movies, I thought it of it more as a 'rescue' rather than a 'comeback'.
EIN - So when did you actually meet Elvis for the first time?
Ed - I actually met Elvis first in early 1964. I got sick in my first year in college and The Colonel offered me a job for 10 weeks, during the summer, working on the Elvis movie Girl Happy. I was 19 at the time & helped out as The Colonel's extra secretary. The odd thing is that it was all in 'the family business' so at the time I never realised how special it was and never saved anything for souvenirs.
I just never thought about it. After the filming was done The Colonel, Aunt Marie & some friends actually went down to Palm Springs and we saw Elvis' newest movie Viva Las Vegas together at the local theatre!
EIN - During the sixties you went to college and studied photography. Did you ever think you would end up working with Elvis?
Ed - Actually I got interested in photography 'cos my brother Ron, who was in the airforce, gave me a tiny Agfa camera and that's what I used to shoot the very first tour. It was only after I had done my very first photography course that The Colonel asked me if I was interested in going out on tour. Elvis talked to my mum & dad about it and he said, 'bring a camera and if you want to take some pictures, feel free'. That was a great invitation! So the next time I saw Elvis was at his second engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.
EIN - I believe that you started as a Tour manager in 1970, so at what point did you switch to being a photographer? Did you continue doing both?
Ed - When you work for The Colonel, anything he finds out you can do, he would get you doing it somehow! My brother Ron and I started doing very mundane work on the baggage & equipment and got to see a lot of Elvis shows! However he then started to pay me for some of the photos. The Colonel would look at the photos I had taken, for a couple of hours, and then pick out some for album covers or publicity. Finally I'd get a cheque in the mail. In some ways I was lucky since they were my photos and negatives, rather than being employed as The Colonel's official photographer.
EIN - One of your first assignments was the November 1970 Tour. This was Elvis' first real Tour since 1957! What was it like? Did you get any feel of the impact it must have had on Elvis?
Ed - There was a real buzz from Elvis once he escaped from Vegas & got back on the road. I've heard the term used about him on that tour, that he looked like a caged-animal - and Elvis even laughed about that sometimes! He was so full of energy and so wild onstage, you could tell how much he loved that freedom of being out there. It was excitement personified.
EIN - There are some images where Elvis seems to be looking directly at you - how close were you allowed to get?
Ed - Elvis sure knew I was there and he was an extremely gracious man. When I wanted to shoot him, as he first came out on stage, I would get out there right in centre aisle. Elvis would see me and you see him pointing down at me, with the guitar around him. He'd be saying, "how's it going tonight Eddie?" and he'd acknowledge me - & after that he would pause just so that I could get an outstanding shot of him! Big stars rarely do things like that. At other times when Elvis was running around & I'd be right on stage with him, hiding behind the speaker-stack, and he would look right in the camera, look right at me!
EIN - There are some ridiculously close pictures that you took at 'Aloha', I'm surprised that we can't see you on stage.
Ed - I took after my uncle, Tom Diskin, and always tried to stay in the background. I'm fairly shy so I try to stay out of the way. For Aloha I worked up & down the aisle and used a Nikon 180mm lens to get those great shots.
EIN - Did you ever get any feedback about your photos from Elvis?
Ed - The Colonel insisted that we keep a business relationship with Elvis & his entourage. He didn't like us mixing socially and sometime went to extremes to keep it that way. I got Elvis' feedback usually via Joe Esposito, whom I would give my photo albums to for Elvis to have a look at. I did find out that way that Elvis liked particular photographs.
EIN - Did the Colonel employ any other official photographers who came on tour?
Ed - The only time I remember another official Photographer being there was for the 'On Tour' movie, when MGM sent someone out to do some shooting. Then after the tour MGM said they needed some different shots, so they came over & looked at some of my pictures and bought three or four. That famous one when Elvis is crouching down, that's mine. The Colonel said, "See Eddie, I got you some extra money"! '
EIN - The crazy thing is that with Elvis being such a big star, The Colonel really should have employed ten photographers!
Ed - Looking back of course it's easy to say that. I've always said that he should have shot everything and filmed everything. If I had had any true inkling of what I was involved in I would have shot photos day & night.
I didn't photograph Elvis backstage very much because I didn't want to impose on his privacy. That was a real mistake of The Colonel's that he also didn't video tape more of the shows.
EIN - Let me just mention some of the classic Elvis images of yours that everyone will know. All those amazing Aloha photos, Madison Square Garden, the On Tour photos, even the classic 1975 image of Elvis pointing his finger from the Elvis Presley Boulevard LP. What is your favourite from your collection?
Ed - My favourite shot of him is the one of Elvis in that white suit, on his aeroplane. We were in Alabama and had three planes but Tom Diskin & I stayed the night and we went home on Elvis' plane. I was sitting in the back and when Elvis came on board he went all the way to the rear of the plane to the rest-room. When he came out I lifted up my camera and Elvis stopped. He turned to me - and I'm thinking to myself that I'm bothering him and that I shouldn't be doing this. I said, "I'm sorry Elvis, you don't have to pose." He broke the ice completely by saying, "Oh, I'm not gonna pose. What do you want me to do, hold my dick in my hand?" We were laughing & I quickly took that shot.
Tom Diskin who was sitting next to me said, "Let that be a lesson, don't ever hesitate again!" I was very lucky that being on The Colonel's side, I could break the general rule and take candid photos of Elvis. However, I was also very cautious in making sure that I never became intrusive or bothered him.
EIN - You were there for the 'On Tour' film tour and some of those photos are spectacular. There's the red Burning Love suit photos as well as the 1972 Way Down Black suit. In fact, if I have any complaint it's that RCA used too many of the White jumpsuit photos whereas the colour ones, from a photographer's perspective, looked sensational. Did you have any input as to which photos RCA used?
Ed - It seems that a lot of people think that Elvis only wore white jump-suits. In fact it was extremely frustrating because for an album cover, or anything new we were going to do, I'd bring in a screen and The Colonel would look at my slides for a couple of hours. He'd then pick some out & give them to RCA. However I always thought that he sure could have picked out much better pictures. I think that there might even have been a jealously there and he wanted Elvis to look 'all right' but not too good, since he figured that it would sell anyway!
EIN - It almost seems a power thing where The Colonel is saying, "You can have this, but I've got better." I mean, what was he doing on the Separate Ways LP with Elvis in a white jumpsuit standing on a highway? The Colonel didn't have an arts degree did he? !
Ed - (laughing) No I think he failed that class! That LP cover was The Colonel's inspiration! Boy, if you could ever get into his mind, you'd go crazy thinking about it!
EIN - So why didn't the Elvis Live In Memphis LP have a dynamic concert photo on the cover?
Ed - RCA really wanted to beat the bootleggers on that one and so Tom Diskin talked to The Colonel & suggested that I get some good shots of the concert, so that we could get it out immediately. However, The Colonel already had other plans. He knew someone on the Memphis Commercial Appeal whose son was going to college & studying photography. Without anyone else knowing it The Colonel had arranged for this guy to take the pictures of that show. So when Tom Diskin suggested he make sure I brought my camera along The Colonel replied, "No, don't worry about that. When The Colonel needs pictures I can just snap my fingers."
So I did as I was told and I didn't take any shots of that show. When we got back to our office at MGM studios a few days went by and a package arrived and it was all these photos this guy had taken. And they were all just terrible! The Colonel's tearing them up going, "What is this crap!" Suddenly he's screaming, "EDDIE, you need to get to Memphis tonight and get some pictures." So that night they booked a red-eye reservation to get me to Memphis. Lamar Fike met me at 6am at the airport and I went straight to Graceland and I shot the back, the front, the grounds. I still have a few proofs including some of me taking those photos!
I was back in L.A by four in the afternoon and again The Colonel picked the cover shot. I had an even better one, with the edges of the mansion cut off which gave it a better, surreal look. You know, he should have let me choose the pictures! So that's the reason why it is Elvis' only live album of the seventies without a concert shot of him on the front! Of course the 1976 LP recorded at Graceland strangely did use a live concert cover photo!
EIN - Which reminds me of that great shot on the front of the album From EP Boulevard with Elvis in his 'Indian Feather' suit pointing the finger at you. That is such a good photo.
Ed - I agree with you. That was the last concert I shot. And that picture is one of the most used photos of Elvis in history; it's on everything. They did a little airbrushing to it to try & match his image but it's an amazing shot of Elvis in 1975. There was a real gap in RCA's photos from Aloha to that shot of Elvis 2 years later.
EIN - If you were always travelling with Elvis, did you never get a chance to keep rare souvenirs?
Ed - Well, in late 72 Elvis actually sent 12 jumpsuits back on a plane with us because he didn't want them any more! I stored them in The Colonel's closet at MGM. The Colonel then got upset that they were filling up his closet and told me to get rid of them. I asked him what he wanted me to do with them and he said, "I don't care what you do with them, just get rid of them." I should have just put them in my car but instead we treated them like some kind of problem and I put them in a couple of trunks and sent them back for Vernon to deal with! It's so ironic, - the opportunities I missed!
EIN - Some of your most astounding shots are from the Aloha special. It's hard to imagine the enormity of the event but there's also an odd vibe about the concert too. Can you tell us what it was like being there?
Ed - There was a strangeness, and a quickness too. It seemed like Elvis had to get in a certain number of songs and he kept to (producer) Marty Pasetta's plan to just do the songs with no fooling around. But you're right, since the rehearsal show was the same. There was no talking to The Sweets or The Stamps which was really unusual.
It was an amazing historical piece, but it really wasn't Elvis. And being dragged back at 3am after the show to do those 5 Hawaiian songs!
Elvis was not happy about that as you can probably tell when you see the new DVD. He could have told them "no" but he obviously didn't want to let Marty Pasetta down. It just shows how gracious Elvis was.
At 3am I was still there and sitting at the end of the runway, absolutely front row seats. There was a point where Elvis had done quite a few of the songs and he was noticeably getting hoarse. Elvis said, "Are we almost done now? I'm getting pretty tired." Well, Marty Pasetta says, "Yeah I know Elvis, we're all tired. We've all had a long day." Well did Elvis get pissed off at that! To his credit he didn't say anything, he just bit his lip and finished the job, but we could all see it.
EIN - I know that you lived in LA, so did you ever get to go to Graceland? Did you ever hang around with Elvis gang?
Ed - The only times I went to Graceland was when there were after-tour parties, and of course I was there to shoot the house for that album cover. In general I didn't socialise with Elvis & the guys as it was strictly a working relationship. But there is so much truth when people talk about Elvis' charisma & aura, 'cos if you were there, you could really feel his presence in a room. Sadly The Colonel wanted a hands-off relationship and I was a really obedient kid!
EIN - I believe that we have you to thank for the fabulous tape of Elvis' rehearsal for the Opening show in Las Vegas August 1974?
Ed - You are right. I was there for that rehearsal and one other at RCA that Tom Diskin couldn't make. I recorded that 74 rehearsal and Tom said to make sure that I kept the tape because Elvis might want to hear something. Well, no one ever asked me for it and so I ended up with the cassette. I used to play it in my car on my way to & from work and driving around! Finally Ernst Jorgensen called me and in the end I went to New York and sold it to RCA for practically nothing! That's how they got 'Twelfth of Never'.
EIN - Don't you think that it would be fabulous for FTD to put out a double CD of the rehearsal, along with that amazing August Opening Show?
Ed - It sure deserves a full release. However, while they only actually paid me for the 'Twelfth of Never' they do have a DAT copy of the whole original tape and have used other stuff off it since. (Laughing) But of course they didn't bother to send me another cheque for anything else.
EIN - Well I sincerely hope that they pay you something if they decide to release the whole tape!
Ed - People who know me laugh 'cos they know how I'm always getting ripped-off with my pictures everywhere. Al Dvorin said to me, "Eddie, when a con-man comes to town the first thing he does is look up your number in the telephone book so that he can call you & get something from you!" Al Dvorin is like a father to me. We are such good friends and often spend hours on the phone just talking about the old days. He's coming here to Vegas next week to do the Elvis Week show and we have so much fun together. I enjoy talking about Elvis and the good old days better than anything else.
EIN - You knew Elvis from when you were a child so, when did Al start working for him?
Ed - You know, Al Dvorin worked with Elvis longer than anyone else. He was there on the road even during early days and the fifties. Although everyone knows him mainly for being the Master Of Ceremonies at Elvis' shows throughout the years, Al did almost every job apart from performing on stage with Elvis itself! He was the booking agent, managed the tours, lighting guy, a bandleader & also help set-up everything. Al worked really hard for the Colonel since the early fifties. He is the nicest guy and also has the sharpest memory for specific events, of anybody I know. If you want to interview somebody about life with Elvis, Al Dvorin is your man.
EIN Note - This interview took place August 5th, 2004, just 2 weeks before Ed Bonja & Al Dvorin's tragic car accident.
Click here for Part 2 - Where Ed Bonja talks about the Closing Night row between Elvis and The Colonel, the Final years, and why he had to walk away from it all.
Elvis: Recorded Live On stage In Memphis FTD CD review
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EIN wishes to record its sincere thanks to Paul & Joan Gansky for their assistance in arranging this interview.
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