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Interview with Larry Muhoberac

By: Bruce Elder
Source: Elvis Australia
June 12, 2009 - 2:15:42 PM
Elvis Interviews, Elvis Articles, By David Adams

TCB Logo - Elvis PresleyLarry Muhoberac grew up in Louisiana and by the age of five years, he could already play the accordion and piano and no two ways about it, he had music running through his veins. Fifteen years later he was working and touring with Woody Herman.

In 1959, Larry moved to Memphis. It was here that Larry first met Elvis Presley. He and his band played two of Elvis' charity shows. Not long after this, he moved to the West Coast to become a studio musician. At this time, Elvis was still making movies and he approached Larry to work on his film soundtracks. Larry worked on four of Elvis' films 'Frankie And Johnny' (1966) 'Paradise Hawaiian Style' (1966) 'Speedway' (1968) and 'Stay Away Joe' (1968). Larry's hands were also doubled for Elvis' in several movie scenes of Elvis playing the piano.

When Elvis Presley decided to return to a live audience following the end of his filming contract, James Burton had originally contacted Glen D Hardin to play piano. Due to other commitments, Glen D Hardin had to decline so James contacted Larry. Larry jumped at the opportunity and Elvis was happy to have him on board having worked with him before. Larry was also friends with drummer Ronnie Tutt, having worked together running a sessions studio in Dallas and Memphis.

It was he who put a word in for Ronnie when Elvis needed a top class drummer. Larry worked with Elvis throughout the entire fall of '69 Vegas engagement. He chose to return to producing and arranging and playing sessions in Los Angeles. Glen D Hardin was his replacement starting February 1970.

Larry Muhoberac is a respected composer, producer, keyboardist, arranger and musician and has conducted for top acts such as Seals & Crofts. As well as working for Elvis Presley he has worked and recorded with Tina Turner, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, Tanya Tucker, Barbara Streisand, The Carpenters to name but a few.

Larry packed up in 1986 and moved to Australia where he continues to produce, compose and arrange.

The connections between Elvis Presley and Australia are few. He never visited us. He never expressed any particular interest in the land 'down under' He was essentially a Memphis boy who, apart from his brief stint in the army in Germany, liked to stay in the Deep South and to spend his time in Graceland.

Larry Muhoberac
Larry Muhoberac

If you think about it, the only connection Elvis really had with Australia was back in 1959 when the legendary rock promoter, Lee Gordon, announced to the press that Elvis and Colonel Tom Parker had agreed to a six day tour of Australia. Elvis immediately denied it and the tour never took place.

It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that Larry Muhoberac, the man who played keyboards for Elvis for ten years, is an Aussie citizen and currently lives in a delightful home overlooking a valley full of gum trees on Sydney's northern beaches. Larry's story is one of those tales of a series of glorious accidents which led to a long period working for the most famous rock star the world has ever known.

As a young man Larry moved from New Orleans to Memphis to find his musical fortune. It was while he was living in Memphis that he was asked in 1960, to play with Elvis' band and from that moment right through to the famous Photos Las Vegas live performances in 1969, Larry was a regular.

He flew to Los Angeles to record the numerous soundtracks, he was called in to the studios in Nashville and Los Angeles when studio albums were required, and, best of all, he was there playing piano when Elvis decided to return to live performance and wowed the world at the Las Vegas International Hotel in 1969.

We wander downstairs at Larry's house and settle ourselves into a room set out like a studio where Larry still writes and plays. Larry relaxes and starts to tell his remarkable story.

'I was playing piano in New Orleans and a multimillionaire, John Pepper came to me and said 'Here's some money. Go and buy yourself a plane ticket to Memphis'.

I said 'Hang on. What's this about?' He said, 'You want to be in the record industry'.

Elvis Presley 1957
Elvis Presley 1957

I did that and I went to Memphis and we started a company. The company became a very large production company. We produced everything from symphony orchestras to rock 'n' roll to whatever.

'We did lots of commercials and records.

'I guess Colonel Tom Parker and the people who were after Elvis knew me from that association. I first made contact when I was rung up and invited to lunch. I didn't know what wanted but I went to the lunch, the Colonel was there but didn't say a whole lot. He sat and listened'.

'We had the meal and somehow I ended up paying. I'm not sure how that came about. I don't begrudge that because it was great fun. He had invited me and I paid the check. He said, 'Are you going to do this show?' I said 'I'd be happy to. It sounds like something I could really do'.

Anyway they employed me as a musical director. Not personal musical director for Elvis. It was for the whole show. I was employed to keep the show together. There were people like the Anita Kerr singers and The Jordanaires. Quite a few musicians came down from Nashville.

They were all people who had been related to Elvis' past. This was the 'Going Into Retirement' show.

'Elvis wasn't at that first meeting. I didn't meet him during rehearsals. That would have been the normal thing to do of any job that you took. We were in the record business and is what you did. Everybody was just doing their job. It was one-off thing. I didn't expect anything beyond that'.

By 1961 Elvis Presley was very famous.

The idea of a young musician from New Orleans becoming The Kings new piano player was something that took Larry by surprise. So, what was it like to meet The King in 1961. Larry thinks for a moment and smiles.

'My initial impression was that he was very quiet. Nothing outrageous. No outrageous behaviour. My first meeting with Elvis was out at Graceland. At that time he didn't have all the guards. He had one person at the gate to see who was coming in. I drove up. The guard says 'Well go around back'. I drove up the driveway and went to the back door. He still had a screen door entrance and everything else.

'I smelled gunpowder when I got out of the car. I opened the door at the back of the house and I couldn't see anything. There was smoke everywhere. It was so thick I could barely breath. It was hanging so low that I got down and crawled through the kitchen into what must have been the lounge room.

That was where I saw the 8 million Teddy Bears all over the place.

They were all sitting on the floor and in the chairs. I thought 'what is this I am getting into here?'

I'm crawling on my hands and knees and this door opens over near the hall and there's a room that is clear of smoke and there's a party going on. That was the first time I saw what some people would call outrageous behaviour. You know, Elvis would take a sip of water and one of the guys would run over and put a fresh glass beside him. At the time I thought 'What is going on?'. After a while I realised that was the way it was. Elvis was among his friends. They were having a good time. The security blanket was there. In Elvis' world at that time when you sit down to play, you just play and have a good time'.

So Larry, you feel that his friends, the people who became known as the Memphis Mafia were really a security blanket. They were there to protect Elvis from all the things that existed outside his world?

That was my initial impression and I didn't change it nine years I knew him. Incidentally the gunpowder was from the Roman candles they were shooting in the lounge room.

After that first concert Larry didn't have anything to do with the Elvis Presley organisation for the next six months. They had hired him to do a specific job and, like many of the jobs his company did around Memphis, he thought it was just another one-off. 'I just went back to my regular work', he explains.

Then, about six months later, he got another phone call. It was one of Elvis' minders and he asked if Larry could 'come out the MGM studios in Los Angeles'. 'I can't tell you how long but it will definitely be a week'.

Larry recalls: 'I remember a couple of the people who went out. There was Charlie McCoy from Nashville. I was the young kid. Everyone else was older at the time. Of course Elvis was still living at Graceland.

We would go to Los Angeles to cut the movie soundtrack at MGM. Most of the songs were recorded in the studio in Los Angeles. There was a lot of recording. Often we would record 2 or 3 songs each day. Some were good, some were not so good. We recorded at either MGM or Radio Recorders. Most of the musicians at that time were people who had worked with Elvis for years.

I had replaced Floyd Cramer who was a session player, then he got famous quickly. I got the call because Floyd was on tour. So I was a Memphis boy at that time. D.J. Fontana was playing drums. They put us in the middle of a huge studio orchestra. It was slightly ridiculous. It was 'one two three four go' and everybody sight reads.

'The movie cues, the underscore cues, were done with a full orchestra and a rhythm section but when it came time to do the single songs, which were the performance numbers in the movie, we'd be over at Radio Recorders, which is a more intimate environment for recording, and it would be just be the band and a rhythm section and sometimes The Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers.

Sometimes Elvis would not show but we would still rehearse the songs'.

'We never knew when he would show to record the songs. Really all we did during that time was fly in, do a movie score, do enough songs for an album (and maybe overcut), never knew what was going to go into an album - in fact some of the song titles weren't even there and the movies didn't even have a title'.

Larry remembers those years of recording with great affection. That nine years was just a job. It was great fun and you got to see Hollywood. We were looked after really well. All the times were good. I can't think of anything bad to say about those times. The sessions were always well run and fun. The studio sessions were relatively unstructured but everyone knew what they were doing. You'd make your own chord charts.

'The singles and the music soundtrack numbers were kept separate. The big themes and big dance numbers were scored after you had a rehearsal and made a rough demo. The records were done without all of that. You didn't have strings. You didn't add anything until after you had the rhythm track which was the basis of the record. We all knew Elvis' keys. We'd agree on a key'. Sometimes we would get a key from Tom Houston who had talked with Elvis. We'd make up the intro and endings.

So how active was Elvis in the process of creating the songs? 'Sometimes he was there when we started', Larry explains. 'The sessions came to life when Elvis was there. You had the person you were doing this for there. He was capable of making great contributions. You must keep in mind that you had a group of people who were all self-taught. I had a good foundation in music and I was capable of scoring pieces. Ron Tutt the drummer was brilliant. Maybe three people were capable of sitting down and writing a score but you didn't use those abilities. You used your ears and however you played your instrument.

'Elvis would contribute the energy that any artist contributes. He had a great feeling for the timing of the song. He contributed that and that was a major contribution. If a song was a little under or over the tempo, Elvis was very aware of that. It seems like a little thing but it was a big thing. The tempo has to be right and he knew that - he was very particular about that. Once we got it, that band stayed there. It was a tight group.

'Sometimes Elvis would say things like 'Extend the intro' or 'Couldn't we put an instrumental through there because all they hear is me' They were little things that put the puzzle together. 'I could be wrong but I don't think any track ever went to him where he just went and overdubbed his voice and never had a part. There was no producer. When I was involved there was no one producing. We all put it together'.

And what about Colonel Tom? Was he involved in the recording process?

'Never saw him. He was at the baccarat table. He was a mystery. You had access to Colonel Tom anytime. He's say 'Call me anytime. You'll find me'. 'We just never saw him in the studio. It was like an event if he came in. He would come backstage. I don't think I ever said more than a few words to him after that first meeting we had.

Colonel Tom parker and Elvis Presley
Colonel Tom parker and Elvis Presley

'Once you were in there was no need to talk. The team needed to be together. You'd get a phone call and they'd expect you to go. Whatever it took you to they'd be prepared to pay. Suppose you had a conflicting they would try and work it so that everyone's schedule was compatible. They would work it around your schedule.

'After I arrived Elvis completely stopped all personal appearances. The general opinion was that the Colonel wanted him removed from public view and stopped all the public appearances. That's how it was. No touring.

'That's usually the death of a career but in Elvis' case it was. the exact opposite.

They just went after that movie market; This went on for nine years. During that time Larry was involved in the recording of 'Frankie And Johnny' (1966) 'Paradise Hawaiian Style' (1966) 'Speedway' (1968) and 'Stay Away Joe' (1968) and dozens of singles. He recalls the sessions with a wry sense of humour.

'If you're making records you're paid to do the job. That's your day's work those sessions.

You might go through ten or twelve songs and you never play those songs again. You're not touring. I've had people say 'Did you play on such an album?' I say 'I don't know. I'll have to listen to it' I got to thinking about and it's true of everybody who records in studios.

'You recognise your own thing. In terms of the music there are many people who can play a certain style - as there are many people who can play Floyd Cramer's style.

Sometimes you listen to a record and you can't tell. Glen D. Hardin and I play very, very similar'.

Such a long and sustained contact would surely mean that Larry could throw some light onto what kind of person Elvis was really like. How well did he get to know him?

'It was really very superficial', Larry concedes.

'You could hang out with and his friends. You could go up to the dressing rooms and hang out and talk life was so sheltered that you couldn't go anyplace. You could not go out in street. You couldn't walk through the casino. You couldn't do anything because the crowd was absolutely manic. One hint and there would be a riot. That was hard to fathom. I just had never been part of anything like that'.

'Sometimes you would sit there talking with him. He would often talk to three band members. Somebody like Jerry Lee Lewis would come in. Jerry Lee came into the studio one time and said 'That ain't no way to sing that song, Elvis' (Jerry Lee was having trouble getting arrested at the time.)

'He's a pretty brash character.

Elvis said 'Well thank you for that Jerry Lee'. That kind of thing happened.

The only times I saw him really relaxed were when he was at Graceland. You'd go over there and everything was very loose in the rehearsal room.

Larry's career with Elvis finally came to an end when The King decided to perform live once again. This was a magic moment. Larry remembers the preparation and the sense of excitement that greeted the prospect of Elvis once again stepping out on the stage.

We went through the rehearsals for about six weeks. We were paid even when we weren't rehearsing. The rehearsals started in LA. Then we went to Vegas. We started rehearsal with a group that was approved. That was James Burton, John Wilkinson, Jerry Scheff. Elvis did not rehearse with us until we got to Vegas.

There was also Charlie Hodge, he was Elvis' lifelong friend. He played his part.

The ones who really had to rehearse were a nucleus of five.

'We had everything down pat. Elvis showed up some times. Sometimes he didn't. Opening night there were something like 2000 people - everybody in the record industry. We had every record producer in LA after us. We were good, so all of a sudden people started hiring us. They heard us play and they thought 'It's got to be good! At the time we were being paid around $4000-5000 a week. By today's standards that isn't very high'.

'The first night I thought it was good but I knew it was a handpicked audience. It was the next night when it was so amazing, so exciting and the audience were hardcore fans who had paid money to see their star - and they'd grown up nine years. They were now more affluent and able to go to Vegas.

Elvis Presley in Concert
Elvis Presley in Concert

'The audiences were so enthusiastic. I remember one time when people started to rush towards the stage. I didn't know what they were going to do. They were coming onto the stage. Elvis was nervous but in fine form. He was very fit. He was wearing the white suit and the black suit and all the belts and everything'.

In the end, like anyone who works with another person over an extended period of time, Larry did start to reach some conclusions about The King. He looks back on Elvis from top: and concludes that in many ways Presley would have been very happy being a truck driver. 'That's my opinion.

It dawned on me when I found out a little bit about his background that his attitude was one which was not an extrovert. To me he was an introvert. Now, after all these years of working with lots of people, I realise that there are lots of introverts up there on the stage. I don't know how it happens. I would never want to be there myself. I think when you're being controlled by the Colonel and you're being offered all this money by RCA, you're caught up in a wave. It just happens to you. I think that's what did happen. Once that happens and the money starts getting behind you then it's not going to stop'.

'I saw Elvis one time after I had left. It was over at RCA studios. I saw Glenn D. Hardin who had replaced me. He was an old friend. I had worked for him sometimes in LA. All the guys were there. I talked to Elvis. He looked like he was in fine form. It seemed at that time to be a much more comfortable environment that he was in.

'You've got to realise that he was a physical fitness fanatic. He was always on top of things when I knew him and he was keeping good health. After that I didn't see him for quite some time. Then I saw him on TV and I couldn't believe it. Something had happened. All the dissipated features, the general lack of physical health. He did not look healthy. He looked very ill. Then he died'.

Larry thinks for a moment and smiles. 'You know, of all the people I have ever worked with the only person people ever ask about is Elvis. At the time you just did your job'.

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