Duke was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on August 19th 1943 and raised on a heady brew of big band music and regional country fare, mixed with legends like Hank Williams and Roy Acuff.
Duke Bardwell worked both on stage and in the studio with The King in the mid-70s, and in all he played bass on 181 concerts. Yet he's always avoided media exposure about his association with Elvis, so in anticipation of the upcoming Elvis tribute tour I talked to him about that association. Duke experienced some great highs with Presley, including Elvis' first concerts in Memphis in 13 years (Duke gets an unusual name-check from Presley on the live album), the two amazing Houston Astrodome shows in front of 88,000 people, the dynamite shows at the L.A. Forum, with celebrities like Led Zeppelin in the crowd, but there were also the lows. During the period that Duke worked with Elvis, the latters problems with prescription medication were really beginning to take hold. Duke was there that infamous night in Las Vegas, when Presley told a stunned audience that he was sick of the rumours flying around about him, and that if he would find those responsible, that he would pull their tongues out 'by the roots'. He acknowledges that it was generally a difficult period, but nevertheless he still talks about Elvis with a great deal of affection, as this interview shows. 4 others during his entire career!
Duke, when did you start playing music?
I started playing my first instrument, which was a ukelele, when I was six.
I immediately discovered that if you played something and sang and performed, or anything like that, the girls liked it. And when I figured that out, that became a motivation. It wasn't just the girls, but I was from a large family of 7 kids. My father played music, he was a trombone player in swing orchestras in the late 30s / early 40s. It's always in a big family that you have to work to get the attention from your parents. It spreads so thin amongst everyone. They do the best they can, but it just wasn't enough for me. I found out that I could do two things; I could sing and play and get more attention, or I could get bad and get more attention – and I did both. I was a difficult child. I wasn't mean or anything like that, but I seemed to always get in trouble. And I knew that I was gonna get a lickin' for it. My daddy was a big man, and he would take his belt of and he would go ... (makes whipping sounds). So I took a few beatings, but I asked for it ... pretty much. But at the same time I had gone from the ukulele to the guitar as a youngster, and I knew that my father enjoyed jazz so I also took trombone in my 5th grade. I was still playing guitar. It was all country back then. In high school, I was able to play bass, guitar, trumpet, a little bit of keyboards ... but I really was a lousy student. I think looking back, my mother and I talked about it before she passed away, now if you're ADD or attention deficit or hyperactive, they give you Ritalin or some other medication. You would medicate for it. Back then, you would just get your butt whipped – that's all. So there was a lot of that going on, and I was not a good student. I didn't particularly enjoy the social aspects of the school, but I always enjoyed playing music. So by the time I was probably 17 and in the 11th grade, I actually started travelling with a band that had a regional hit and I was working. It took me a long time to figure out why my parents would let me do that. But as long as I didn't fail at school, they were willing to let me go on the road on the weekends.
So it was amazing that we lived through that all high school ... it was crazy.
Duke Bardwell, Charlie Hodge and Elvis Presley - 1974
How did you get to play bass for Elvis?
I played bass with a r&b band back home, shortly after that period that I just talked to you about. Their bassplayer wanted to go off and do something else, and I had played bass before. I inherited this bass ... continued to play guitar through a variety of bands throughout the years, ending up in Los Angeles, where I was playing bass on recording sessions for Jose Feliciano, that were produced by Steve Cropper. We got Ronnie Tutt as a studio drummer. Ronnie and I got along real well. I knew that he was Elvis' drummer, so during the breaks I would take him off to the side and go, 'Hey man, tell me about Elvis. Let me know about him, what can you tell me about him?'. He just started laughing and he said, 'EVERYBODY asks me that. First thing they wanna know, 'Who are you, Ronnie, how are you doing, buddy' and then, 'Tell me about Elvis'. And of course, much later I found out that that is exactly what happens to you, if you're affiliated with him it goes with the territory. If you're blessed enough to be a part of that performance circle, then it's an obligation to the fans and the curious to talk about him if that's what they want to do. Anyway, we got along real good on these recording sessions, and we played a couple of times after that. Jerry Scheff had decided to get off the road. The other guy, Emory Gordy, was really too busy with his own career, producing records and playing a lot. Ronnie told me that he put my name in the hat, and this was really crazy, because ... This was when I was playing guitar mostly, because I was working with Jose Feliciano's manager as a singer / songwriter, so I was out making 40 or 50 dollars a night in coffeehouses and steakhouses, trying not to do other people's materials. I was trying to do my own songs. I was trying to make a living with that. So I was doing that and working with Jose, when I asked Ronnie: 'What do you think I could do to get this job? Really, what could I do?', and he said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll send you three albums. You learn those albums and come to that first rehearsal when we get back together. I'll betcha you'll get that job'. And that's exactly what happened. I think all in all, Tom Parker's office really preferred things that were no trouble. They really didn't like anything to deviate from the way they had things, and when I showed up knowing most of the songs that they were doing already, they just never bothered to get anybody else. I think over a period of time, if they had known me better and how I am personally, they might have gotten some indication that it may not have been a good match in the long run.
Do you remember that first meeting with Elvis?
That was at the RCA studios in Los Angeles. Not wanting to be late, I was the very first one.
I was just horribly nervous. John Wilkinson was the first one to come, and he said, 'I'm John Wilkinson, rhythm guitar player for Elvis Presley', and I said, 'Hi John, I'm Duke Bardwell, bass hopeful' (laughs). The rest of the guys got there, and Ronnie introduced me around. Everybody was waiting for Elvis. He'd been off for a couple of months, and he'd put on some weight. They had him on this really bad diet, you know, like 500 calories a day and injections. And he finally showed up; there was the glasses, the cape ... that whole scene. And Red West and all of those guys came in the door first, and held the door, and then he came in. It was a buzzing scene. I asked him why he carried a gun, and he said that it 'takes care of things from six feet out'. With his karate training, he figured that he had everything covered from six foot in. I was very much in awe of the whole situation. Quite honestly, when I was in the 6th grade I, like some of my peers at the time ... Our girlfriends were really going nuts over Elvis Presley, and we were going, 'Man, that ain't nothin', he ain't nothin', what is that, hillbilly music? It ain't blues, what is it?'. We weren't going for him. He had all those moves, and we could tell that he was getting them all worked up. So I was one of those people ... I wouldn't listen, I didn't care about him. But I had a dog at that time, from when I was in 7th grade ... I think that made me 13 or something like that, and this girl said, 'I want you to come over to my house'. So I went over there, and she said, 'What would you do if they had to put your dog to sleep, or if they wanted to shoot your dog?'. I said, 'They would have to kill me first'. She said, 'I want you to listen to something'. She sat me down on the couch and played 'Old Shep' and it really, it honestly changed my life. Because it was the first time that I had ever been touched by a piece of music. I mean, really, I was crying. I made a conscious decision at the time, if that's what you can do with music, if you can really reach out and find something that really means something to somebody and reach inside and touch them with it where they are really emotionally moved by it, then I wanted to do that. From that moment on, I was a huge Elvis-fan. As a young teenager I just loved him, absolutely loved him.
So me being there in the first place was just almost surreal.
Did he live up to your expectations?
In many ways he did, yes. Unfortunately, in '74, physically and emotionally, he was already declining. You know, that year, '74, that was one of his all-time busiest touring years. When he went out that year, he started off in pretty good shape. He really did. It wasn't until '75 that he started having some trouble.
Were you able to connect with him on a personal level?
I could tell that he was being reserved with me, because I was still on trial. But I wasn't really seeing him treating me much different than anybody else. We had not had any chance to communicate with eachother yet. I didn't feel like he had the desire to, and the opportunity certainly wasn't presenting itself. I hadn't gotten my TCB (chain) yet ... I was still on trial. So we did that first series of shows in Las Vegas, and then came home for about three weeks and then went on off on that tour that ended in Memphis.
In March of '74 we ended up doing a live album. [Elvis: Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis]
I remember really being aware of wishing that he was doing more rock songs, more rock & roll.
I didn't care for the big orchestrated stuff.
I thought quite honestly that it was boring compared to the energy that he would put into songs like 'That's All Right Mama', 'Burning Love', 'Big Hunk O' Love' and all that kind of stuff. You know, 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and all of that kind of thing, even though they were beautiful songs and they went over real well in the big shows with the orchestras. I think that's why I enjoyed the '74 show at the Houston Astrodome so much, because it was just Elvis, the band and the singers, so we couldn't do all those songs. We had to rock & roll!
Elvis Presley - Houston livestock Show and Rodeo - 1974
Elvis Presley - Houston livestock Show and Rodeo - 1974
Was he nervous about that show?
Oh, it spooked him. He told us that this was absolutely the biggest show that he'd ever done, with this many people. Even though the Aloha show was seen by millions of people, they weren't all THERE. I think ... isn't that bootleg CD called 'Event Number Eight'? Because it was the livestock and rodeo show, and we went on right after the cattle. But that was a lot of fun, it really was.
I've heard that the sound was very problematic ...
It was rough ... I mean, it really was because there was so much reverb, so much sound was coming back to us on the stage. Back then, monitor systems weren't nearly as sophisticated as they are now. It was still these long Shure columns that sounded like they had been used a lot. The sound was extremely challenged at that place. We couldn't do what we normally did. We were having to use the system that was in the Astrodome. The sound wasn't good ... You could hear what you were doing coming back to you with a delay. But you got used to it. It was fun ... it really was. My favourite part of the whole thing was when they rode Tom Parker to the front of the stage on a jackass, with a cowboy hat on. He stopped the show.
You can see partitions on the stage in the photos from that show, this was to isolate the sound?
That's exactly what that was for.
A lot of people hadn't seen that used live before, but they did that to isolate Ronnie Tutt. He played so hard and so much, they really needed to make sure that the drumsound was gonna be contained and not get in all the microphones and stuff, so that's what that was for. Absolutely necessary ... Boy, did he hit! Oh, those kickdrums ... He got those double kickdrums going and you'd feel it all around your butt!
How did you get along with the other musicians, like Glen D., James and John?
I think okay. Glen D. and I were good friends. James is so quiet ... I don't think I bothered him, but it was hard to tell really what he thought. But I always travelled with my bass and my guitar, because I was always working on songs. So as soon as we got to the hotel, John Wilkinson would go to the ice machine so that he could start making his coctails. I'd bring my guitar out because I loved the way it sounded in the hotel rooms, and I'd start working on my songs. Before long James would just bust through the door and come in, and sit on the other bed, and take my guitar and not say anything. And he would just have me with my mouth open with the stuff that he could do. He would take that acoustic guitar and just play the hell out of it. He'd just take it, give it back to me, walk out and not say a word. He would just leave me there, you know, like, 'God ... what just happened here?!?'. So I really enjoyed being with James. Glen D. was my saviour on stage. People would come with requests. The band knew 'em, Joe Guercio had the sheet music for everybody, and everybody knew them – but the bassplayer. And Elvis didn't like mistakes. So it was a lot of stress for me to be there.
Would he comment on the mistakes?
Oh, absolutely. He had some negative things to say if you screwed up.
But Glen D. was fairly close to me, and he would try to tell me the keys. But the chorus could be like E – B – D, but you couldn't tell what he was saying so I'd go into the wrong note. I wasn't listening to the music, I was watching Glen D. but I couldn't understand it. That also happened one night when Elvis decided to do 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. I hadn't rehearsed it. I really butchered that one ... I didn't do it well. The same thing happened with Tony Brown, when Tony took Glen D.'s place. The way they told me, Elvis made him start it four times live, stop it and, 'Start it again, Tony'. He was not going to be made a fool of – not by you not doing your job. He wanted you to be a professional and do what he expected.
Were you affected by those comments?
Arjan, it was embarrassing. It certainly didn't do anything to improve my playing, you know. If you are to humiliate somebody instead of encourage them ... I don't care if it's our children or somebody you work with ... It has a negative effect. That's really all I'm going to say about that. I mean ... I never stopped loving him. To me, he was the Elvis of the 50s and I was always looking for that in him. That energy, that mysticism and all of that. I knew that what I had there in '74/'75 wasn't necessarily all that, but there was enough of him still there. I was crazy about him. I'm sorry that I did not please him always ... shit happens (laughs).
How did that live album come about?
They were pretty smart about that. They didn't say anything to us about it.
[Elvis: Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis FTD Special Edition CD - The complete unedited concert on CD]
We had no idea that we were going to do it. I was really nervous going into that, because he hadn't played in his own hometown in 13 years if I remember correctly. We all really wanted it to go well for him. And he was nervous, he really was. And when we were going up on the stage with our instruments, Tom Diskin, the Colonel's assistant was standing there and we all had to sign a release. And we said, 'What's this for?', and he said, 'You're releasing all the royalty rights for the live album that we are recording'. 'LIVE ALBUM?!?' (laughs). I was like, 'OH MY GOD ...' (laughs). But it went very well. The energy was good.
And you got immortalized on the album ...
Yeah, 'I'm not really talking to you, Duke, just drinking water ...' or something like that ... good God (laughs). I remember thinking, 'If you're going to talk to me, talk to me, but don't say: 'I'm not talking to you' (laughs). But that was a great show. Not talking to you personally, Duke (3:38) (Memphis, TN., March 20, '74)
And we went to Graceland afterwards. That's when I got my TCB. I remember being in the back of the trophy room ... I was nervous just being there. I went out to the living room, and there was this long gold-plated grand piano ... I mean, GOLD! They painted that thing gold (laughs). And I sat down and I was just playing some chords and all that stuff. He was with Linda Thompson, and they came down. And he came up in my field of vision, I'd seen him come up. He said, 'Stand up from that piano, boy'. I thought that I was in trouble for playing his piano. I didn't know what to expect. I said, 'Oh man, I'm sorry' and he said, 'No, stand up and turn around'. Here coming down my face is this TCB chain, and he put it on me. That was a big deal for me. It really meant a lot to me, I didn't expect for that to happen. I was amused by the way he did it. I thought that my ass was in serious trouble for playing his piano and going down to his house when I hadn't been invited. You know, I've wondered for years what in the world the Lord had in mind to put me in that situation. I just couldn't figure it out why. If I was ever curious in my musical career about what it would be like to be exposed to thousands of fans and to have attention just riveted to you like that ... If I had ever in my heart wanted to experience that ... I never really expected anything like that to happen for myself ... I wanted to have my place in the music business, but I never considered myself driven to the point where I was going to be some kind of a star. But I was curious. I got to see it with one of the best, one of the biggest draws in the world and it was terrifying ... it really was, with that many people concentrating on every move you make and every word you speak.
Do you have any special memories from life on the road?
You know, after a while, it really is true what you're hearing about when you're doing a lot of road work and touring, because you sit inside of a plane, inside of a bus ... We stayed in nothing but Hilton hotels, so they all looked alike, then the inside of a theatre or a coliseum, then back inside of a bus, the hotel, back in the plane ... the things that really stuck out were things that were odd, or when he really had some odd behavior. One time, they had us up on a stage that was built up on a scaffold. It was this large stadium. When the women all came down to get the scarves and stuff like that, I was seeing one woman actually climbing up the scaffold trying to get to him. Because of the press of the people behind her, she lost her balance and she fell back while her body and legs were still into the scaffold, and she broke both of her legs ... just horrible. To me the concerts were great if he would just let me play and not make a fool of me. You know, entertain those people, but not at my expense. That was near the ending.
Above, listen to Elvis joke about Duke's hometown (Kansas City, MO, June 29, '74).
What was the difference between playing on the road and playing in Vegas?
Well, you were more rested in Vegas. You know, the road was tiring, because you're in a different place every night. Sleeping was hard ... Back then, there were some drugs being passed around and used.
The usual, nothing exotic. Nobody was tripping on anything, you know. The only thing that there was, was alcohol and speed. We would drink some and take some speed, so that we could get to the next town and do our job. Then you couldn't sleep, so you had to drink some more.
Duke Bardwell and Elvis Presley Tulsa, 1974
What really happened that night in Vegas?
Where he blew his cool on stage and blasted those that spead rumours about him?
That was an unusual night. We all knew that he had not been feeling well.
His performances had gotten a little bit sluggish. We knew that he didn't feel well. I think he had a little fever on top of his fatigue, and he wasn't sleeping well ... he was way off of his natural cycle.
When he started those monologues, we knew that something was really wrong and we were very surprised by how badly it went. It was very painful for everyone to hear him actually lose control like that, because basically that's what he did. The thing that's so odd about it, was that the audience admired him so much that when he would be making those explanations about ripping a guy's tongue out by the roots and that kind of stuff, they would laugh and applaud a little bit. It's like they didn't know what to do.
Listen to Elvis joke, 'Bardwell, what kind of name is that?' Elvis dialogue, Richmond, VA, March 18, '74
Were you aware at the time that he was on medication?
Oh sure, everybody knew that he was medicated. That whole misconception of, 'Well, it's okay because it's a prescription ...'. It's very naive ... Well, I think a lot of the stuff he actually did need because of physical problems that he had. But I know that he was taking some stuff ... I mean, he liked to get used to ... But you know, I can't point my finger at him. I had the same problem myself, but I was very fortunate to get out of it. I met my wife 20 years ago, and she's inspired me to stay away from that stuff. But it's not unusual for anybody that performs on the road to do that, to have something that gives some comfort, whether it's the bible, whether it's a companion, or drugs or alcohol or whatever. Something has got to get you through, because it's hard. Anybody that's been gone for any length of time will tell you how hard that is, and if you're in the business, then you have to stay on the road in order to make a living.
What's the story behind that one time where you sang and performed on stage during his show?
We had done something that we had not done before.
We had gone out on a relatively short tour, and then we went to Tahoe for about five days. I still don't know why the Colonel had it lined up like that, but we did it. By the time we got towards the end of our stay there, Elvis was worn out. It was obvious to all of us on stage. He was sluggish and obviously tired. He didn't have his real vocal power and he was running out of gas, but he wanted to give them their money's worth. He got all the singers individually to do a song ... Kathy Westmoreland did this huge Gospel song with the orchestra, with her beautiful voice soaring ... She did a great job, and the crowd loved it.
Elvis was still looking for something to do. Of course, all the musicians knew that I play and sang, because I always was playing and singing at all of our parties, after the shows in the dressing room, at the hotels ... They knew some of my songs. Elvis was obviously hesitating and thinking of something else to do, and Ronnie said: 'Let Bardwell sing'. He just went, 'Yeah, right ...'. And Guercio said, 'No, really. You wanna do something else, let him sing, because he can sing'. So Elvis went, 'Ladies and gentlemen, my bassplayer is going to sing now'. So Charlie Hodge gave me his guitar and I got Charlie's mike. Charlie was holding another mike on the guitar, for me to play it. And I didn't know what to do. I mean, how am I going to follow Kathy Westmoreland doing 'My Heavenly Father'? And Donnie Sumner said, 'Do the Hurricane song'. You know, 'Please Don't Bury Me' by John Prine. It's one that they all thought was funny, and they all knew how it went. I started that song, and by the time I got to the first chorus, the whole band got in it. By the time I got to that chorus, the singers that knew the song were doing the harmony parts to it. He looked a bit unsettled, you know, 'Hey, wait a minute ... You all know this. How come I don't know anything about it?'. It got to the last verse of the song that's a bit off colour, and he really enjoyed that part. We were going from 'My Heavenly Father' to 'Kiss My Ass Goodbye', and it just took everybody by surprise. Elvis really got off on it.
He really didn't know it – they didn't know who John Prine was. That was a really good moment, because I had shown him a part of me that he didn't know of. He knew that what we had just done was showbusiness, and it was good showbusiness, because it was entertaining.
I went back to the dressing room after the show, and Tom Diskin knocked on the door. We let him in, and he said, 'I have a message for you from the Colonel'. And I'm going, 'I'm a fired bassplayer because I had sang 'Kiss My Ass Goodbye' right after a gospel song, in front of everybody'. The Colonel wouldn't speak to any of us ... NEVER spoke to any of us. I mean, you could say, 'Hello Colonel, how are you doing, nice to see you ...'. He wouldn't even acknowledge that you were there. He was not going to look at you or speak to you. You weren't there. I thought it was just me. Phew, I was mad about that!
But it wasn't just me, that's the way he was with almost everybody, except Charlie because he liked Charlie. Glen D. told me that he never talked to him either. So I figured that I was fired when he sent Tom Diskin into the dressing room, but he said, 'The Colonel wants me to tell you that that's one of the funniest things he's ever seen at an Elvis Presley show'. I was thrilled with that. If I didn't do anything else I had done that. That was fun. It was great having a good time. That's why I was there, because that was a good time. Playing that music was fun. Playing with Elvis Presley was F – U – N. Big fun, I mean it really was. But he was hurting ... he was in pain. That's why I figured that it was going ... Do you have the same saying around here about the ship going downhill? Well, I figured that it was going downhill.
You mentioned earlier that he was genuinely interested in one of the songs you wrote, ‘You & I'.
Above, listen to You & I as performed by Duke Bardwell.
Yes ... That same night, Elvis had one of the guys come and tell me to pick up my guitar and come upstairs. I went up there, and it was the usual scene in his penthouse that they had for him there in Tahoe. All the guys had been trolling the lobby for all the ladies for them to be brought up there, you know, 'You wanna meet Elvis? Come with me'. That's what they did every night. So that was all going on, and he was there. Elvis said, 'They tell me you write songs, too'. I said, 'Yeah, I do ... I really enjoy doing that. That's what I was doing when I met Ronnie Tutt'. He said, 'Why don't you play me some of your songs', and I said, 'I really don't know where to start'. He said, 'You got a favorite?', and I did have a couple of favorites. I had written a song as a wedding present to my sister titled ‘You & I'. I played it for him ... And he was sitting there, he always had this way of sitting ... He would always cross his leg with his ankle up on his knee, and his foot was always vibrating, you know, nervous energy just buzzing. I played the song for him and he didn't say anything, so I started thinking 'Well, he didn't like that', so I was trying to think of what to do next for him, and then he said, 'Play it again'. So I played it again, and he still didn't say anything. Then he said, 'Play it again'. His foot was buzzin'. So I played it again. I started catching dirty looks from some of the guys, because they had business to take care of ... monkey business (laughs), and this wasn't part of the party plan. But if he wanted me to play it again, they could dirty look me all they wanted to ... I'd play it again. I don't know how many times I ended up doing that song, but I had to do it over and over again, until finally everyone left but me and him. I didn't know ... I knew that he was hearing something in it that was getting to him. I had no idea what part of it it possibly could have been. I didn't know what was going on. I was really confused. Finally he got off the couch and said, 'I want you to contact Colonel Parker's office when we get back to L.A., because I want to record that song'. So when we got back, I went to Tom Parker's office with the sheet music. A percentage of my publishing company was tied up with record label owner Lou Adler in Los Angeles, and the Colonel figured out that he was not going to be able to get all of my publishing, the copyright of it that he wanted, and he just dropped it. That was what was in it for them ... He'd record your song but it was going to cost you most of your rights to it.
You played on the 'Today' sessions in March '75 ...
It was the most magnificent thing musically that ever happened to me.
Official Sony/BMG Elvis releases featuring Duke Bardwell
Interview with Larry Muhoberac
Interview with John Wilkinson
Interview with Michael Jarrett, songwriter, I'm Leavin'
Interview with James Burton
Interview with James Burton Sydney Australia 2006
James Burton : First Call For The Royalty Of Rockabilly
Interview with Ronnie Tutt
Interview with Ronnie Tutt #2
Interview with Jerry Scheff
Interview with Glen D. Hardin
Interview with Sherrill Nielsen
Interview with Terry Blackwood & Jim Murray
Interview with Tony Brown
Interview with Scotty Moore
Interview with D.J. Fontana
Interview with Charlie Hodge
Interview with Ernst Jorgensen
Elvis Presley & the TCB Band