Interview with Jerry Schilling
'It was the coolest attitude without trying to have an attitude', said Schilling, 64. 'From Roy Rogers to Marlon Brando -- I was trying to be like anybody who was anything all my life. And there it was'.
That began a 23-year friendship Schilling recounts in his new book, Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley.
Schilling, the youngest member of Elvis' Memphis Mafia -- a mixture of friendship, support system and bodyguard unit -- also has been a music manager, a film editor, TV and documentary producer and president of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission.
He gives Elvis credit for making him who he is. 'I was a shy kid who didn't talk much, who has certainly made up for it since. Elvis gave me a certain amount of confidence'.
Schilling became friends with Bono, John Lennon and a host of other celebrities. 'Elvis gave me that backstage pass'.
Q: You sure have a spectacular view from your home.
A: Elvis bought this house for me.
Q: Can you tell me about the drugs?
A: I think enough has been said about them. It's all been blown out of proper perspective and deserves no further comments. Red, Sonny and Dave exaggerated and took things completely out of context.
Q: What did Elvis think about the book? [Elvis What Happened]
A: He told me that everything that could be written about him had been written about already. So it didn't really bother him personally. What did bother him was that this time it was coming from inside, from friends he'd been good to and had done things for. It hurt his pride. He also felt that a lot of other people could be hurt, like his daughter Lisa, or Vernon, or people that worked with him. Then I think it was extremely embarrassing for him, extremely.
Q: Do you know if Elvis read the book?
A: No. That's always been a puzzle. I know what he was aware of certain things that were in the book but I don't know if he actually read it.
Q: Billy Smith says no.
A: I don't think he did. Knowing Elvis, and the way he didn't even enjoy watching his movies, I doubt he read it at all. I don't think he would have.
Q: Other than the apparent attempt with John O'Grady to talk to Red and Sonny to try to convince them not to release the book, Elvis never made any effort, that you know of, to stop it, in the sense of calling Sonny or Red?
A: Yes, he called Red.
Q: I know he called Red the one time, but according to the book he said to go ahead with whatever they were doing.
A: Well that was after he thought he could convince them to hold up on the book. Elvis was never the type of person to ask somebody to do something they didn't want to do. The mere fact that he was calling Red was, if you knew Elvis and I'm sure Red knew, to say, 'Hey, this has gone on too long'. But he was not going to come out and say, 'Red, please don't write this book'. He would have been lowering himself. But the mere fact that he called and talked to Red, Elvis apologized in that way. He was so sensitive that he couldn't stand to have bad feelings going on.
Q: Why do you think Red, Sonny and Dave were fired?
A: I don't know exactly why, I suspect for a number of reasons that happened all at once. I do know what Elvis told me though, he said that they'd simply grown apart, that they were no longer interested in the same things. That other part of it was the lawsuits. I think Elvis was also getting tired of the over-protection, even though there were certainly times when it was needed.
Q: I've heard it said, and I guess this includes you, that the guys were hangers-on.
A: I'm not sensitive about it.
Q: You split away, and went out and did your own thing. right?
A: Sometimes, but I always returned. That was my thing. In fact I was talking to Lamar once and said, 'Let's face it, Elvis is a big part of our lives and always will be.
Q: I guess what I'm asking is, was there a genuine feeling or was Elvis a security blanket?
A: How I feel about it is, I always admired Elvis, even before I knew him personally. There is a lot of time for boredom in jobs like we had, a lot of time when you had to have an inner-strength to cope with that type of life. You say to yourself, 'I'm leading this type of life and it's all I know. What if I get fired?' But I think almost everybody that worked for Elvis started out as a friend first. All of us originals mostly came back to work because of friendship. It wasn't like Elvis was saying, 'Hey I need an accountant'.
I started in security, stood in for him on a few films and got into the editing as well, and then I was his personal public relations man for the last five years. That was the job he offered me when we went out to Washington to see Nixon. I was with him at that time. He offered it and at first I turned him down, because the idea of all that time off spent doing nothing but waiting to watch movies and watching movies didn't appeal to me.
I said, 'How do you think I feel, we'd come back to Memphis and I sit there for three months and we go to watch the movies all night' He was so great. He just said, 'How do you think I feel, I do the same thing'. Later he sent me cards that said I was his personal public relations manager. And the checks started rolling in again. I promised myself that if it ever started to get like a job I would quit because I didn't want it to interfere with the friendship. Not only did we work together, we lived together, I think that the group who worked with Elvis was set up, not consciously, but it was set up out of necessity so that Elvis could live the type of life that he wanted to live, and I think this group provided him with that.
Q: Why do you suppose that Elvis created his own community and never really did anything, as you say, the big thing was to go to the movies? He paid the people that he wanted to be around, to be around him? To me it's almost unreal.
A: First of all, the people around him were a special breed of people. I think basically, the group was a reflection of Elvis. Here's a guy who was a well known big entertainer who was a nice guy. Also, he was pretty sharp, no dummy could have entranced the world like this man did. This man was so deep that he really had to go to movies just to get things off his mind. We knew that. We did childish things when we were grown men. It was a way to release. The movies were just a big thing to him, and that became his way of life.
One time we were all set to go to Europe for a vacation. He was flat out telling me that it was going to happen, we were going. Then he had a meeting with the Colonel who reminded him doing that without having a press conference for the fans over there would hurt their feelings. So we wound up going to the Bahamas instead. You ask why he didn't do things the way others in his position might have done them? That's a perfect example. Because there was always someone or something that would throw a wrench into the works.
Q: Do you think that things would have gone differently if Red, Sonny and Dave's firing had been handled somewhat differently?
A: Yes, I think the dismissal was not handled right. I understand their anger and I agree. If Elvis had come to me about that I would have disagreed. I don't mind the guys being upset, it was handled totally wrong, but at the same time, if you knew the nature of Elvis, he sensitively could not handle it. He couldn't look at those guys and say, 'Hey, you're fired'. At the same time however, I'm convinced that two, possibly all three of them would be back working for him today.
Q: You feel he would have asked them to come back?
A: Oh sure, but it was handled wrong and my feeling is that they could have complained, did whatever they wanted to do, but I still don't think it gave them the right to go to a publisher and to degrade the man's image.
Q: Is there anything that you'd like to add?
A: Yes. I talked earlier about how much I admired Elvis even before I met him. I'd like everyone to know what when I did get to know him he became just another guy, but a very special friend, you could always depend on him. At the same time, he was a very special man, but he was also a human being and like any human being he might do something wrong. Judge the man by what he did. He was a man who made a lot of people in the world happy, he brought a lot of joy to the world and gave the world a lot of freedom. He dared to be different. Here also was a man who never really hurt anybody. He did a lot of good and if he hurt anybody, he hurt himself, and that wasn't intentional. But I think he had a right to do that. I think the world lost a lot of magic when Elvis died, and I know it will never be the same for me.
The book, written with freelance music writer Chuck Crisafulli, combines the story of Elvis' rise to entertainment superstar with Schilling's personal, backstage stories about the King and himself. He writes about Elvis' happy moments, including when his daughter, Lisa Marie, was born; his anger when Schilling was involved with women Elvis also was interested in and vice versa; and his ever-present frustration -- not being able to star in serious movies and move ahead creatively.
Longtime Elvis friend George Klein said, 'Jerry has an insight a lot of people don't have. He was one of the few guys who would tell Elvis the truth. I think he has a different angle because he had a lot of quality time with Elvis and Elvis respected his opinion on a lot of stuff'.
Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, 'This book shows Elvis as a real guy who was a true friend. There are stories -- you think you've heard them all -- and all of a sudden you're hearing stories you've never heard before'.
Schilling, whose mother died at 27 of rheumatic fever when he was a year old, basically lived with his grandparents until he was 12 and moved in with his dad. Jerry and his older brother, Billy Ray Schilling, former Chief of Police and Shelby County Sheriff, were estranged for a long time.
'I had such simple dreams back then', Schilling said. 'One of my dreams was to go to Humes High before I met Elvis. The band marched down Leath street practicing for the Christmas parade. That was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen in my life. I remember those orange-and-white uniforms'.
Schilling, who went to Holy Names because it was within walking distance of his grandparents' house, also loved to listen to the wild deejay Dewey Phillips play rock and roll music on his 'Red, Hot & Blue' radio show. 'It was this exciting sound that was dangerous, forbidden'.
One night, Phillips introduced a song recorded by a guy named Elvis Presley who went to Humes. 'Today, every city block somebody's got a CD. Back then I didn't know anybody in Memphis, Tenn., who had a record. But a guy who lived down the street from me? That was exciting'.
Phillips played the record, That's All Right (Mama), more than once and then interviewed Elvis. 'The little stutter -- I don't know if it was James Deanish or Brando. That's when I said that little prayer, 'Hey, I'd like to meet that guy sometime'.'
Schlling's prayer was answered a few days later when Red West, an All-Memphis football player at Humes, asked if Schilling wanted to play football with him and some other older boys at Guthrie Park. 'I'm listening to everything Red's saying. He's the hero. The other guys were just kind of a blur. Until the huddle.
'The interesting thing -- and this stayed after the first impresson for a long time -- was Elvis was not easily approachable. He had this kind of a edge and then he had this kind of little look in his eyes or maybe a little smile. You think of James Dean, where you wouldn't go up and slap him on the back and all that.
'People make movies and records and start acquiring this image, this star persona. Elvis had that in 1954. Nineteen years old and without a hit record'.
Ten years later, Schilling went to work for Elvis instead of finishing his last semester at college and becoming a history teacher. He worked for him on and off for 11 years. He was a pallbearer at Elvis' funeral in 1977.
What made Schilling finally write a book about Elvis? 'I never said I wasn't ever going to write one, but there were so many. It was a real important thing to me after Elvis left us that I continue on with my life, as difficult as that was 'cause he was always there for me. I wouldn't even do interviews for two years after he passed away. It was too hard in the beginning'.
Schilling decided to write a book 31/2 years ago. 'My feeling was there's this huge iconic image out there and that's a good thing in a lot of ways. But the human, personal, sensitive, friendship side of Elvis has been lost in this big, huge picture. I decided to write my story with my friend from my point of view'.
An arresting image in the book is when Schilling sees Elvis in an oxygen mask walking arm-in-arm downstairs with his father, Vernon Presley, at Graceland. 'I was 21, 22. I'd known him for 10 years. Playing football in the mud. All-night movies. The amusement park -- dodge 'em cars with the black smut on our faces from the floor. But I'd never seen Elvis look anything but great. And here I am by myself at Graceland and there I see Vernon and Elvis walking down the stairs. Vernon was holding this oxygen mask of Elvis'. He looked so weak. Vernon looked so concerned. I later found out that he had been in the hospital to have some test X-rays a week or so before that. He could see I was shocked. He takes the mask off and with a little smile said, 'Man, this California smog will get you'.'
Elvis never told Schilling what was wrong with him. 'He didn't ever want anybody to think there was anything wrong with him. He wanted to take care of everybody else'.
The human side of Elvis is shown in Schilling's story about the time they got drunk in Las Vegas. 'He was fun-loving. He would laugh. He would laugh so hard he would fall on the floor and sometimes he did. If I had to choose a drunk to be around, it would be Elvis Presley'.
But Elvis rarely drank, Schilling said. 'The two or three times that I saw him and I participated with him, he just could not handle the hangover. More important, I think he had seen what had happened to some people -- not in the immediate family -- but relatives. He didn't discuss it, but I had felt it'.
'Me and a Guy Named Elvis' isn't a lurid or racy book. 'Yes, there's some rare situations I could have put in, some scene that would have grabbed headlines. You can always go to this extreme or that extreme, but I wanted people to know my friend as I knew him on a day-to-day basis with love, anger, temptation, generosity, with all those things. That would have been good if I was writing about the iconic image. I was writing about the human image'.
Schilling and his wife, Cindy, still live in the hillside house off Sunset Boulevard Elvis bought for him in 1974. After giving him the house, Elvis said, 'Jerry, your mother died when you were a year old. You never had a home. I wanted to be the one to give it to you'.
Was Schilling Elvis' best friend?
'No. I was certainly one of them'.
Interview with Jerry Schilling by Ken Sharp 2007
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Photos : The Day Elvis Met Nixon
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Interview with Michael Jarrett, songwriter, I'm Leavin'
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