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Millie Kirkham Remembers her first Recording Session with Elvis Presley

By: Elvis Australia
Source: www.elvis.com.au
September 24, 2017 - 6:02:58 AM
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Millie Kirkham's association with Elvis Presley began with the 1957 recording session that yielded, among other classics, Don't, Treat Me Nice and Blue Christmas, a song which features some of the most unique vocal background work she and the Jordanaires ever did with the King Of Rock 'N' Roll.

Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires has been quoted as saying that while Elvis liked Tubb but did not want to recut his song. Ordered to do the song, he told the band to play and sing as badly as possible. 'He argued and cussed with them for a couple of hours and finally told us to make the most horrible background we could, so they wouldn't record it', Stoker was quoted as telling a Nashville newspaper.

The backup singers laughed and sang a whooping 'woo-woo-woo-woo-woo' in the background.

'They said have fun -- do something silly', backup singer Millie Kirkham said in a CNN interview.

Presley chopped words into syllables, singing, 'I-I-I'll have a ba-lue Chrrrr-istmas ...'

'When we got through', Kirkham was quoted as saying, 'we all laughed'.

It turned out to be a repeat No. 1 hit for New York songwriters Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson.

Elvis Presley Video Millie Kirkham Remembers her first Recording Session with Elvis Presley (03:03)

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Interview with Millie Kirkham

By Bob Hayden (2003)

BH: Millie, your musical career started in what type of music, home singing along with the family and radio?

Of course I listened to music on the radio. I took piano lessons as a kid – played clarinet in the high school band - and sang in the church choir.

Millie Kirkham with The Jordanaires and Elvis Presley.
Millie Kirkham with The Jordanaires and Elvis Presley.

BH: May I ask you when and where you performed your first professional singing engagement?

My first 'paying' job was with a vocal group on radio station WSM, around 1950.

BH: Which artists and bands did you like when you were growing up?

Well, I grew up with the 'Big Band' era. So I listened to bands like Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, etc, and the singers who worked with them.

BH: Did you enjoy black gospel, or weren't you allowed to listen to that type of music?

We were allowed to listen to black gospel, but there was only one radio station in Nashville that occasionally played it, so I was never actually exposed to it.

BH: May I ask about your husband? Did you meet through music? Please tell the story of your life together including family.

My husband, Doug, and I met in the music business. He was a drummer and singer. We both sang with the Anita Kerr Singers. We had two children, a boy and a girl, and have one grandson. Our son was killed in an automobile accident in 1971, and Doug died in 1986. My daughter lives in Nashville, and my grandson is in college in California.

BH: How did become involved in the rock and roll/pop music scene?

I was singing with the Anita Kerr Singers when recording started in Nashville, so we were in the right place at the right time, so to speak. Through the years I also sang with the Jordanaires and other vocal groups. So we worked with pop, gospel, country and rock 'n' roll artists who came to Nashville to record.

BH: Who were some of your favorite recording artists of that era?

That's hard to answer. We enjoyed recording with so many of them, it would be a long list!

BH: Can I ask you to describe the following artists from the rock and roll era? Bob Luman, Connie Frances, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, George Jones, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Crash Craddock?

It's almost impossible to describe an artist. In that era, they were all different, with their own individual style. When you heard a record, you knew immediately who it was. Connie didn't sound like Brenda, and George didn't sound like Jerry Lee. But all the artists you mentioned were good singers.

BH: Please tell me about the original Bradley's Barn (studio)

It really was a barn out in the country, several miles outside of Nashville. Owen Bradley bought it, and remodeled it into a great recording studio, but kept the outside like the original barn. I have pleasant memories of a lot of great sessions done there.

BH: What about the late Grady Martin? I have a collection of his recordings released here in Australia. Was he as good a guitarist as I was told by Bob Moore?

Bob Moore was right. Grady was a great guitar player. Most of the time we had no written arrangements for a recording session. They just played a demo and we all did what we felt, and Grady was very inventive.

BH: Were Grady and all the musicians friends, as I have read about over the years?

Yes! We all worked together day after day, so we were good friends. However, we didn't have much time to socialize outside the studios because of our work schedules.

BH: How did you meet the Jordanaires?

I met them in the music business. In the early days of recording in Nashville there were only a few musicians and singers, so we all knew each other. I worked on sessions with the Jordanaires almost every day for about 25 years. We're real close friends and I still work with them occasionally.

BH: Was it Gordon Stoker who asked you to sing soprano for Elvis?

In 1957, the Jordanaires had gone to California to do some recording sessions with Elvis. They told him they had been working with me on sessions in Nashville, and I was the girl who sang the high part on Ferlin Husky's record 'Gone'. Elvis said, 'See if she will come out here and work with me'. So Gordon called me, and I hopped on a plane and went immediately.

BH: Did you go on the road with the younger Elvis and the band in the early days?

No. I didn't start working with him until 1957 and his early traveling days were just about over by then, because he went into the army shortly thereafter.

BH: Tell us about the recordings with Elvis in the studio, such as the christmas album and others.

The Christmas album, the one with 'Blue Christmas' on it, was done on the sessions in California. After he came back from the army, he started doing his sessions in Nashville at RCA Studio B. He liked to record at night, so the session would start around 7pm, and go into the wee hours of the morning, sometimes all night until 5 am or 6 am. We usually had the same musicians and singers on the sessions, and we treated Elvis like one of us, which was the way he wanted it. So it was like a bunch of friends getting together and having fun.

BH: Did you like most of the songs you sang with Elvis? Were there any you would like to forget about?

Yes, we liked a lot of the songs we did with him, but we did so many over the years, there were naturally some we'd like to forget.

BH: Can I ask about the return live performances in Vegas for August 1969? Who asked you to join the band?

I did not work with him in Vegas until 1970, Bob!

BH: Can I ask you your professional thoughts on the members of the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations?

All those guys are great musicians, and of course the Sweets are fantastic. We're all friends, and had a great time touring together on 'Elvis: The Concert' recently. It was like a reunion.

BH: Millie, did you know that opening in Vegas had fantastic reviews here in Australia?

No, I did not know that, but I would not be surprised.

BH: Moving onto the movie 'Elvis: That's The Way It Is', can I ask you for your views and thoughts on the making of this movie?

It was a thrilling experience. The International was a new luxury hotel with a gorgeous showroom. We had sold out shows every night. People from all over the world, and stars like Gary Grant and Sammy Davis came to see us. Opening night we were all a little nervous because we had to learn about 45 or 50 songs for the 5 or 6 shows they filmed. But once on the stage it was relaxed and spontaneous.

BH: Was Elvis that good-looking? Bob Luman said that Elvis was so stunning in looks and dress in the '50s, so what was so different this time about Elvis that made him look so fantastic for you ladies?

People are always asking me if I thought Elvis was a handsome man, and my answer is, 'I'm not blind, you know'. When I started working with him in 1957, he was in his early 20s, and his style of clothes was different to the later years. By the '70s he had evolved into the elegant white jump suits and, yes, he was stunning!

BH: Have you seen any other performer come close to matching Elvis? If so, please mention.

No, can't think of one!

BH: Could Elvis take a joke, or was he 'the joker' all the time?

As I have said, we were all friends. So we kidded him as much as he kidded us. He loved to do silly things, and try to break us up while we were singing.

BH: Did he respect other performers, and mention them during his shows that you were on?

Yes, he definitely respected other performers, but I do not remember him mentioning them on stage.

BH: For those who never saw him perform live on stage, please tell us what they all missed.

Well, you all missed a lot! Elvis was not only a good singer, but he was a great performer. He had that unique ability of reaching an audience, no matter how big it was. When he sang, each person felt he was singing directly to them.

BH: About 'Elvis The Concert', did you enjoy coming back and doing a show with Elvis on the screen behind you?

Oh, it was great. It was like a reunion, working with the band and the Sweets, and the Stamps and the Imperials again. At first it was a little eerie, we almost felt like Elvis was there, especially when we did a week in Vegas on the same stage we had done 'That's the Way It Is'.

BH: How come you never made it to Australia with 'Elvis The Concert'? Joan Tillitzki and I were looking forward to meeting you and taking you up on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

After we did the first European tour, Graceland turned the show over to the producer, and he cut expenses, and decided he didn't need me on the show. Guess he thought nobody would miss me. I'm glad to know somebody did! Actually, I was sort of glad to stay home and rest for awhile. Touring is exciting, but three weeks of one-nighters was exhausting for this old girl!

BH: Will we ever see you in Australia?

I doubt it. I would like to see Australia, but don't guess I'll have the opportunity.

BH: What was it like for the recent '25th Anniversary' show in Memphis?

A once-in-a-lifetime experience, because most of the people who ever worked with Elvis through the years were there. Of course, Memphis was packed with Elvis fans from all over the world who still come to celebrate.

BH: Could I ask you to name the songs you remember the most that you sang with Elvis?

Well, I remember 'Blue Christmas' because it was the first song I recorded with him, and I remember all of the big hits. But there were a few that you don't hear a lot that I personally like, such as 'Just Pretend', 'Stranger in the Crowd', 'Love Letters' and, in the religious field, 'Stand by Me'.

BH: Before closing, can I ask have you enjoyed your musical career?

I certainly have, Bob. Most people can't wait to retire, so they can do what that enjoy. I was very fortunate that I spent my career doing what I enjoy, so I'm not looking forward to retirement.

BH: Would you do anything different, if you had to do it all over again?

Absolutely not. The following is my biography that was used in the program for 'Elvis The Concert', it will give you an idea of why I wouldn't do anything different.

BH: Millie, thank you for all the time you have allowed for this interview, and I am ever so happy I finally got the interview completed.

Bob, it was a delight. And I hope that this was the type of interview you had in mind. I tried to keep the answers short and to the point so I wouldn't be rambling. This was a long interview, and I realize you might want to shorten it. However, I assume the portion you use will be printed without being edited. I hope so, because in the past I've been burnt by some interviews where I was misquoted or things were taken out of context. That's why I don't usually agree to interviews, but I'm trusting you! (I assured Millie the interview will be published in full, and with no editing. Bob Hayden (August 2, 2003).

About Millie Kirkham

Kirkham's strong, clear soprano can be heard on many of Elvis' pop, rock, gospel and country recordings such as The Wonder Of You, Surrender, How Great Thou Art, Polk Salad Annie, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Don't, Just Pretend, (You're The) Devil in Disguise, See See Rider and many others.

Millie Kirkham also sang with Elvis on many of his movie soundtracks and performed with him on stage in the 1970 documentary, Elvis: That's the Way It Is in Las Vegas. A longtime fixture in the music community, her credits include numerous radio and television appearances, collaborations with the Jordanaires and the Anita Kerr Singers along with her countless recording sessions in Los Angeles, New York City, Las Vegas and Nashville. Her distinctive voice can be heard on classic recordings by Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis, Burl Ives, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Pete Fountain, Bob Dylan, Perry Como, Carl Perkins, Rosemary Clooney, Little Richard, Reba McEntire, Brook Benton, Tammy Wynette, Vic Damone, Paul Anka, George Jones, Sonny James, Patti Page, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Eddy Arnold, Loretta Lynn, Jim Reeves and of course Elvis Presley to name a few. Kirkham was born in Nashville, Tennessee. She performed in high school bands in the early 1940s before graduating to session work.

On August 17, 1970 Soprano Kathy Westmoreland replaced Millie Kirkham, who has in essence taken over some of departed Sweet Inspiration Cissy Houston's solo duties solely for the filming of 'That's The Way It Is'. Kirkham who is busy with session work in Nashville cannot extend her commitment through the engagement and Kathy signs on initially just for the remaining three weeks - but stays for the next seven years.

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Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD + 16 page booklet.

Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever.

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