Interview with Terry Blackwood and Jim Murray

By: Arjan Deelen
Source: Elvis Australia
December 19, 2009 - 6:04:00 PM
Elvis Articles, Elvis Interviews


When The Imperials first worked with Elvis during the May 1966 'How Great Thou Art' sessions, he told them that he had been an admirer of their music for years. Murray and Blackwood were not singing with The Imperials yet at that point, but they were there when Elvis returned to live performances in 1969. The Imperials continued to sing back-up for Elvis until the fall of 1971, and can be seen in 'That's The Way It Is'. They recorded in the studio with him in May / June 1971, where Elvis recorded the Grammy Award winning album 'He Touched Me'. Because of Presley's love for Gospel music, Murray and Blackwood got to know him quite well, and in the following interview they shed some light on their relationship with him.

When did you first meet Elvis?

Terry: In the mid-fifties, my father Doyle Blackwood was running for the state representative position in Tennessee, and that's when I first met him, because Elvis loaned my daddy his pink Cadillac to be in a parade in downtown Memphis. So that's when I first met him, but Elvis had been a fan of Gospel music ever since he was a kid, and he would go to all the Gospel concerts. I'm sure we'd probably met him at one of those concerts, because whenever they had concerts in Memphis he would come. He'd come backstage. Sometimes in the evening they would announce that Elvis Presley was there, and he'd come out and take a bow. Colonel Parker wouldn't let him sing because of contracts, but he'd come out and take a bow...

Jim: and in about '66 or so, we did some studio work with him. He had asked us to be on a Gospel album with him. During that time is when he heard us and got to know the Imperials. So when he decided to go back on the road, The Jordanaires weren't able to come, so he asked us to come. That's when we really started working with him: in '69, '70 and '71.

What were your first impressions of him during those '69 rehearsals?

Terry: He was a workaholic! (laughs). We rehearsed from probably nine in the morning to six in the evening, and we would go over the same song dozens of times, just because he wanted to be comfortable with it. So we knew the songs backwards and forwards by the time we started doing the shows!

Jim: He wanted us to work as hard as he did. And he worked very hard.

There were two vocal groups - The Imperials and The Sweet Inspirations - and one solo vocalist, Millie Kirkham. Wasn't it difficult blending all these voices together?

Terry: The styles were different, but 'blend' may not be what he was going for. He was going more for power and big sound. He had a 40-piece orchestra, he had The Sweet Inspirations to sing all the high stuff, and we were singing all the mid-range stuff and Millie Kirkham (the soprano) was singing above the Sweets. So he just had a cast of thousands out there that just sounded humongous. It just sounded huge with everybody singing. So 'blend', we blended among ourselves, among The Imperials we blended, but ...

Jim: and the Sweets blended. So just the combination of all those voices together - I don't know how you explain it, but it sounded pretty good! (laughs).

Do you remember the songs that were rehearsed?

Terry: Everything that he did, every song that he sang

Jim: Everything he did in the show, the Las Vegas show

Terry: And some that we actually didn't do in the show

Jim: extra songs that he never used, that didn't make it into the show.

Terry: But we did a lot of songs.

Opening Night July 31st, 1969

Terry: Everybody was there, everybody that was anybody in showbusiness was at the International that night. It was electric, 'The Event of the Decade'. And he was prepared. His physical ability was at its prime. Vocally he was great. He was nervous, very nervous. He had a lot of nervous energy. He was always concerned about doing a good job. That was something that he never - he never slacked off. He never did less than his best.

August '69 was pure rock 'n' roll, but in the engagements after that it seems that he focused more and more on ballads. Do you think that this was a conscious change?

Jim: No, he just knew a good song, he liked good songs. He didn't care what slot it fit into.

Terry: I think he probably evolved from 'Blue Suede Shoes' and 'Hound Dog' to songs with a little more substance (laughs).

Some of the August '70 were recorded by MGM for 'That's The Way It Is'. Were there any differences with the previous engagements because of that?

Terry: It was just another concert for us. The only difference was that there were cameras everywhere. We did the same thing we always did.

Jim: I think by then he was pretty much - He knew what he could do on the stage, and he was pretty much in charge of everything. I don't think he was afraid of doing it, but I think that just the fact that with all these cameras around and all these extra people on stage and everything - But I don't think he changed anything he ever did. He was who he was. They had to work around him! (laughs). It's interesting, because the first movie 'That's The Way It Is' included a lot of interviews of fans. 'How do you feel about seeing Elvis for the first time', you know. They have just re-released a new 'That's The Way It Is' and they put a lot more rehearsal and concert footage in there, and a lot of that footage hasn't been seen before. The Imperials are on all of that.

Yes, I have seen it and it's great. I love that part during the rehearsal of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' where he says (about the Imperials): 'These guys sound like they are lost, which is true, but we don't want to emphasize that!'.

Terry: (laughs) I don't remember that!

Jim: It sounds like something he would say! (laughs).

With the Imperials being a Gospel Quartet, were you ever criticized for playing in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley?

Terry: There were probably some people who criticized us, but there always have been criticisms of people who are trying to do something different. I'm not justifying what we did, except to say that Elvis' background was Gospel music. He loved Gospel quartets, that's what he listened to. But he was known for his rock 'n' roll music, so when you work with Elvis Presley, you sing his songs. He didn't sing your songs. Except in rehearsal - I mean, when we were off the stage, and we were enjoying our time together, was when we sang Gospel music, because that's what he loved to sing. So what we were doing is - I don't feel like we were compromising - He was there because he was a rock 'n' roll singer and we were backing him up on his songs. I think we had an influence on his life. I don't know to what degree, but - I think that's what we as christians are supposed to do, is somehow impact other people's lives without being judgemental. Being true to ourselves, but also getting a chance when we can to share our work for the Lord.

How did you feel about Elvis as a human being?

Terry: Very generous, very kind, very polite to his elders - a Southern gentleman. Very respectful of -

Jim: Very loyal. Loyal to the people that worked with him. He'd take good care of you. And very much in defense of the people that worked with him. He would defend you.

Do you have specific examples of that?

Jim: Well, without going into a long story, one of our members had some things stolen from his house, or his house was broken into. Elvis jumped in to defend, 'call the sheriff', 'call the police' - whatever it took to find out who did it. That was the way he was.

Terry: But he expected loyalty from his people too. He had a group of men who were lovingly called the Memphis Mafia. They were around him all the time and helped him, supported him, encouraged him - Because deep down he was not really sure that he was worthy to be called The King of Rock 'n' Roll. So he had to be reminded of how great he was. It's difficult to go out there every night and prove that you're The King of Rock 'n' Roll, when you may not feel like it that night.

During the September 1970 tour, The Imperials were replaced by The Hugh Jarrett singers. Why?

Terry: We had a conflict

Jim: We had a conflict with the schedule of our own concerts. So a lot of times we weren't available to go with him, and I'm sure he had other people. We had our own concert tours, singing all across the country. A lot of the times they would just say: 'In two weeks we're gonna do this!'. Well, that's too late for us to change our schedule, because we already had booked things. So a lot of times we couldn't just go when he said 'go'. Which really was kind of the reason that we ended up moving on and leaving, because it got to be too hectic with two schedules.

Terry: See, when you have a contract with someone to be someplace, you've given them your word that you are gonna be there. So if Elvis and his organisation comes along and says: 'Can you do these dates?', and you've already got them booked, it's really not the right thing to do, to cancel someone who you've given your word that you'll be there, to go and work with Elvis. But we loved Elvis.

Jim: Elvis respected us for doing that. He wasn't upset with us. We just couldn't do the dates. It was never about money or anything like that.

Terry: Elvis was always very generous.

Did you receive any gifts from him?

Jim: Oh yes, lots of them.

Terry: Watches, a bracelet, a T.C.B. necklace - We had a picture made with Elvis when he gave us the necklaces.

Jim: He was very generous. There was one funny incident. He gave us a watch, a really nice 22 karat gold watch. Then somewhere later on he gave us another one, a little one that wasn't quite as nice. After a few months, one of the guys went to him, and said: 'Elvis, my watch is broke'. And Elvis said: 'I just give 'em, I don't fix 'em!' (laughs).

From all the concerts that you performed together with him during those three years, is there anything that sticks out in your memory?

Terry: There was one incident where, I believe it was in Vegas, someone was threatening his life, and he had gotten serious threats that he was gonna be shot on stage. Probably some jealous husband who thought his wife was gonna get to Elvis. I particularly remember that song, 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling', where he turns his back to the audience and the spotlight is right on his back. He was quite nervous about that!

Jim: And Ronnie said: 'I hope they don't miss!', because Ronnie Tutt was right behind him (laughs).

Terry: At that particular show they had guys out there in the audience, looking and making sure that nobody was gonna stand up with a gun. It was quite serious.

We've heard a lot of stories about the Gospel allnight singings in his suite

Jim: (laughs) They were literally all night!

Terry: We'd get through the second show at about 2.30, and then maybe once a week he would invite us up to the penthouse, and we would be up all night. Because we would stay up and sing until the sun came up.

And that was all Gospel music?

(both nod in agreement).

What kind of songs did he like?

Terry: He liked black spirituals, especially The Golden Gate Quartet, Jimmy Jones. He loved that old (sings in deep voice) 'Father along'. (to Jim) Remember that one?

Jim: (sings) 'Farther along' (laughs).

Terry: He played that over and over again. And a lot of the older Quartet music of The Statesmen, The Blackwoods - he loved all that old stuff.

You recorded an album of contemporary Gospel songs ('He Touched Me') with him in Nashville in 1971, and I believe that several of those songs had already been recorded by The Imperials

Jim: We always were ahead of our time. We as a group, The Imperials, we had a lot of people that didn't particularly like everything we did.

Terry: Other singers! (laughs)

Jim: Other singers, yeah. But Elvis actually heard our project, and he turned around and recorded all of the songs that we had already recorded, because he liked them. So really he kind of jumped in on that, and made those songs his own.

At that point you had already done many live shows with him, so how was it to work in the studio with him?

Terry: It's funny, because when you go in a studio, if you have ever seen people recording they stand around the mike, real close to the mike, and they just sing. Elvis would have the mike in his hand, and he'd be doing all of his stage gestures like he was on the stage! (laughs). I guess so he could get into the song. He just wasn't used to standing there with a mike hanging in front of his face. He had to have it in his hands. He was very animated.

What is your favorite songs of the ones you recorded with him?

Jim: That would be like saying: 'Which one of your kids is your favorite?'. That's not a fair question! (laughs).

I have read that Elvis stormed out of the studio during the June 1971 session, because he was upset over the fact that the girl singers couldn't get their parts right. You were present at that session, so do you remember that happening?

Terry: I don't remember that at all.

Jim: I have heard that story before, and I can't remember that happening. But we weren't always - sometimes we went back in and did overdubs when he was not there. But I don't remember that happening - He wasn't really that kind of guy that would storm out of a studio. He just didn't do that. He would stay there until it was done right. He wanted everything to be done well, and if it was him or the background singers or the musicians, they would stay until it was done right. Not that he didn't lose his temper and get upset, but I don't remember him storming out of a studio.

How would you evaluate the voice of Elvis Presley?

Terry: He would probably be considered a baritone, but he could reach notes that most baritone singers couldn't reach, so ...

Jim: He had a great range.

Terry: You had to say that much of his abilities were eminated from a very intense desire to execute a song as he wanted to do it, which meant that he really sang higher than he really was able to sing. Because he had the desire, he had the will to excel above what he was really capable of. I think often when the adrenalin is going, and the song is really pumping, you can get into that mode where you can actually do things vocally that you couldn't normally do. He had a tremendous range because of his desire to excel and be better. That's why he could do a lot of things that most people couldn't do.

Why did your association with him end in late '71?

Jim: Like I said earlier, it was a conflict of schedules. He started working a lot, and as he increased his schedule, he wanted us to do the same. We couldn't do that. We were also working with Jimmy Dean, the country singer. It wasn't because we didn't want to, it was because we couldn't do it all. We had more of a set schedule with Jimmy, and our own concerts. Sometimes Elvis would be last minute. So that kind of solved the problem.

Terry: You just had to be available all the time. That's not necessarily bad if that's what you want to do, and we wanted to do it, but there was a schedule conflict. We just couldn't get out of some of our commitments.

Did you stay in touch with him after that?

Terry: Not as much, but I'll tell you, I was shocked to see him several years later. He had put on quite a bit of weight since we'd worked with him. I was surprised at that, but he still had the desire. He was getting older, and it was tougher to execute all those songs - His concert was very demanding on him. The singing, and all the jumping around - it was very demanding. It just got increasingly difficult.

Much has been said over the years about his drug abuse. Did you ever experience him abusing drugs?

Terry: All I can say is: I never saw any drugs myself. We were with him in rehearsal, we were with him at concerts, and occasionally in the penthouse 'til daybreak, singing - I never saw drugs. So I can't attest to whether he did drugs or not. Adn I'm not saying he didn't; I don't know. If he did, they were probably pills to get him up for a show that he physically wasn't able to perform without some enhancement. And then he would have to take a pill to probably get him back down, so he could go to sleep. I mean, IF he took pills, because I don't know that he did.

Jim: And he used to get those vitamin B shots quite often. Dr. Nick gave him B-12 shots. At least, that's what they said it was. But we never saw him smoke dope, do cocaine or any of that stuff.

How do you look back on your association with him?

Jim: As a person, he was always so nice to us, and respectful to us. Here was a guy that was The King of Rock 'n' Roll, you know, and he made us feel part of that. He was just a great guy to be around. I have a lot of good memories.

Terry: I mean, to think that this man who had so many tremendous hits and was known around the world, would invite you after a concert to come up to his penthouse and sing. And then he would defer to you and your taste, partly because that's what he loved. When he didn't have to perform, he showed you what he really loved and where his heart was, and that was to sing Gospel music, quartet music. The songs that he grew up with. I thought that it showed a tremendous amount of respect for us, and the fact that he loved what we did, and wanted to be part of what we did.

Jim: He thought that he had offended us for a long time, because we didn't go up after the show. We would go back to our hotel and go to bed, you know, and of course the party was going on upstairs. He thought that he had offended us, and he came to the dressing-room one night and said: 'Have I done something guys to make you mad?'. We said: 'No'. And he said: 'Well, you don't come up to the suite afterwards. We sing, we have food, have a great time, you know. I wish you would come up'. So we started going up after that. But he really thought that he had offended us, and we just didn't know that we should go up there, you know, that that was his personal space. But he wanted us to be there, that's what he enjoyed.

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