'There was only one King and that was Jesus', rock 'n' roll icon Elvis Presley often told John Wilkinson.
It was one of many conversation topics the pair discussed when casually watching John Wayne movies or football at Presley's Graceland home.
For eight years, Wilkinson knew Presley not just for the music idol he was, but also as a pal who wished he could just put on a pair of shorts, call a few buddies and head to the local pizzeria.
Wilkinson, a talented guitarist, stepped into one of music's most sought-after gigs when he joined Presley's TCB Band in 1969, strumming his six-string until the singer's untimely death in 1977.
Nearly 30 years after music lost its King, Wilkinson, 61, of Springfield, Mo., shares his memories in My Life Before During and After Elvis Presley, a book he co-wrote with Nick Moretti, of Warren. Written in the first person, the book puts to rest many rumors about Presley and gives readers a chance to know Wilkinson.
'Elvis' career during the last years of his life, with the jumpsuits, is very cartoonish and negative', said Moretti, 37, adding that Presley still churned out great music in the '70s, despite several health problems and an addiction to prescription pills.
'I think (the book) turned out just right', said Moretti, a 1986 Eisenhower High School graduate who grew up in Shelby Township. 'I think it's a great read for any musician. We get the privilege and treat of seeing Elvis through John's eyes. Elvis fans will especially love it'.
Moretti and Wilkinson became acquainted in recent years. Wilkinson married a woman who went to Lamphere High School in Madison Heights. Wilkinson's wife, Terry, who knew Moretti's mother from high school, were in touch a few years ago, thus the pairing of Moretti and Wilkinson.
Wilkinson was a kid when he first met Presley. Years later, Presley insisted Wilkinson, a folk player, join the TCB Band. And hardcore Presley fans know what TCB meant - taking care of business, Presley's signature statement.
'When Elvis asked John to join his band he said, 'John, I don't have a contract', Moretti said. 'Elvis held out his hand and they shook hands on the deal'.
They both kept their end of the bargain. Wilkinson jammed on stage with Presley and the band in more than 1,100 shows.
'It was like grabbing hold of an electric wire', Wilkinson said of the vibe Presley generated each time he performed. 'When he was on stage, you felt like you were the only person he was singing to'.
Wilkinson remembered playing the Pontiac Silverdome, recalling mountains of snow and a frigid stage because of no heat in the new stadium.
Burning Love, Can't Help Falling In Love and How Great Thou Art were Wilkinson's favorite tunes to play. The guitarist often stopped and pinched himself. 'As a kid from the Ozarks, winding up on stage with the biggest entertainer ..'.
Wilkinson and Presley eventually became more than just two musicians on stage. They bonded as buddies, and Wilkinson knew Presley as just one of the guys.
'We were very close. He was just a human being', Wilkinson said. 'He was as human as you and me, and he loved people'.
'Elvis was all about his fans', Moretti said. 'He refused to take time off to get his health in order. He liked to work'.
When writing the book, Moretti and Wilkinson watched old Presley videos together to recapture the magic of Presley.
'It's just so weird to be sitting next to this guy who's on TV with Elvis', Moretti said.
Presley loved performing and knew it came with a price. Wilkinson recalled many times the megastar grumbled about being secluded because of his fame. And although the legend with the swiveling hips from Tupelo, Miss., was dubbed 'The King of Rock 'n' Roll', it never sat well with the superstar. Presley, a Southern Baptist, believed Jesus Christ was the King, not the guy belting out Jailhouse Rock. It's Presley's gospel recordings that really caught Moretti's attention.
'It is the perfect fit for him', Moretti said. 'He was really comfortable with it'.
Always On My Mind
Wilkinson knew something was wrong. He felt it. The TCB band was in the air, flying from the West Coast to Portland, Maine, to begin a tour. The calendar read Aug. 16, 1977.
But the plane flew off course, landing in Pueblo, Colo., where an officer summoned band member Marty Harrell. After a few minutes, Harrell returned to the plane and broke the news.
'He was crying', Wilkinson said. 'He said 'gather round, boys and girls. Elvis died this morning''.
Disbelief swallowed the band, and the plane returned to the West Coast. Wilkinson attended the King's funeral. Those jokes about Presley living in Kalamazoo are so old.
'He did die', Moretti said. 'There's no question about it'.
'People say he was depressed and waiting to die and that's not true', Wilkinson said. 'He had all kinds of plans. He wanted to get behind the camera (as a director). He was looking for a real good movie script for himself. He wasn't thinking about the end of his life'.
Despite offers from Tom Jones, John Denver and others, Wilkinson stopped performing for a long time. In '89, Wilkinson suffered a stroke and can no longer play his guitar. He still sings live, performing for fans in Europe. He said TCB members are still in touch.
In 1992, Wilkinson visited Graceland, in Memphis, for the first time in several years.
'Shivers ran up and down my spine walking through those doors', Wilkinson said. 'The dining room is where we had many wonderful dinners'.
Had he lived, would Presley still be playing music today?
'Absolutely', Wilkinson said.
'I think he'd be bigger than ever', Moretti said.
By Maria Allard
C & G Newspapers Staff Writer