Most people have heard about Kris Kristofferson's early days in Nashville when he swept floors and moved microphones around the Columbia Recording Studios. But Billy has the dubious distinction of holding that job first, and he gave it to his friend Kris when he left.
Q : How did you first get to be around Elvis?
A : I didn't know Elvis all that well. I just considered myself a lucky fan to have been hangin' out around he and his group at the time that I went to Memphis, what I'm about to tell you about here. I'd met Bill Black in Kentucky and he ended up publishing one of my songs that got to Clyde McPhatter and became a hit for Clyde McPhatter, and the song was called 'Lover, Please'. That got me to Memphis, basically, and I was 20 years old. And in January of '63 I decided to go to Memphis and write songs for Bill Black. So I get to Memphis and the first thing I do, once I got there, was I said, 'Wow, I've never seen Graceland'. You know, all the times I'd been down there I'd just never seen what Graceland looked like. So I go by there and I get out of the car and of course go up there at the gate and Travis Smith is there, Elvis' uncle. And I get to talkin' to him and tell him that I'm a songwriter, I'm moving to Memphis, lookin' for a place to stay. And he says, 'My son Billy just got married and has left home. We have a place at our house. Why don't you just get room and board from us?' And I thought, 'Wow, okay'. So that's what I ended up doing, was movin' in with Travis and his wife Lorraine, and they had another son, Bobby. And so I was in Memphis from January to May, '63, and I think I saw Bill Black maybe twice in that period. The rest of the time I was just hangin' around the gate where Travis was. And then naturally or fortunately, Bobby or Billy would let me go along with him when Elvis went to the fairgrounds or a skatin' rink or the movies. And that was fun, you know, especially the fairgrounds, and the skatin' rink was kinda fun, you know.
Q : What were Elvis' favorite things at the fair grounds?
A : I remember at the fairgrounds he liked the roller coaster and he liked the dodge 'ems.
Q : Did you get up there in the rink with him and so forth?
A : Yeah, yeah. In fact there was one time in while we were skating and one of his fellas, God bless him, I don't know which one it was, came out and he was gonna knock me down, I guess, push me down. And I had skated before and so I just defended myself and I did that, you know, and he went down, you know, and so I went on skatin' round. So about the second time around out of the corner of my eye I noticed Elvis. And the next thing I know is I'm up in the air and I do this complete flip in the air and I land on my rear end, you know, and I look up and Elvis is just laughin'. You know, he'd caught my leg, you know, or whatever, tripped me. And so he's laughin' and I'm laughin'. Fortunately I wasn't hurt. But he had torn my pants from the crotch area, just my whole seat of my pants out, you know. So I noticed that he was over in the corner talking to-- Priscilla had just come down at that time I think, whom I don't know and I didn't meet at that time. But she was in a little bleacher area and he was talkin' to her, so I go over and I said, 'Elvis, you know, when you flipped me it tore the seat of my pants out'. And he says, 'You wearin' underwear?' I says, 'Yeah'. And he says, 'It's okay'. You know, so I could continue skatin' with the seat of my pants torn out.
Q : That's like when someone was playing racquetball and he said 'Is it bleeding? Well then you're not hurt'.
A : Right. But like I say, I only spoke with him basically when he talked to me. You know, and he had his own guys and I was more or less an outsider, with Bobby or Billy, like I said. And once he asked me to go see if I could find Billy 'cause I guess he knew what I had done a couple things with him. And that was about it, you know. And then the next time I saw him and we didn't speak was in Nashville. I was living in Nashville. Oh, before I moved back home to Missouri in May of '63, Elvis' cousin Bobby told me, he said, 'Listen--' It was the day I was leaving. He said, 'Listen, Elvis is doing a movie in Las Vegas. I think if we go out there we can get a job working with him'. But I didn't wanna take that chance of going all the way to Vegas, not have any work or whatever, you know, and be stuck. So I said, 'No, I don't think so. I'm goin' home to Cape Gerado, Missouri', which is where I was from, 'and then maybe go on to Nashville', which is what I did in August of '63. And while I was here Billy Smith called me. Two or three years later they were there doing a session, Elvis was, and I was with Grady Martin in Floyd Kramer's office there, and I guess he had heard about it through Grady or Floyd, I don't know. But he called me and told me to come over to the sessions and I went over there for two or three nights. They were doing the 'Harum Scarum' soundtrack. And went out and got cheeseburgers, about 40 cheeseburgers one night with him and that was about it.
Q : Tell us how 'I Can Help' came about.
A : Well, when my wife and I got married, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge gave us a little RMI portable organ as a wedding present. I guess it's mostly to me since little-- , you know. But Marlou fixed up a little music room in a little closet area of this duplex we were livin' in and she had her little drum machine that went Bom-bom-bom-bom, you know. And I was playin' with that rhythm one time and started playin' the organ and that's when I wrote I Can Help.
Q : It had a very unique rolling organ type sound.
A : Mm hm. Yeah. I think that little drumbeat though just-- I'm lucky that was just-- it only had like, two beats and one of 'em just went Boom-boom Boom-boom had that sixteenths thing happening, you know. Felton was there. And there's this huge belt on Beckam's table-- and I don't know if all this is gonna make sense. There's this huge belt-- I mean it looked like something Santa Claus would wear, you know, about this wide, you know. And since it was Felton was there I thought well maybe-- in the back of my mind I thought maybe it's one of Elvis' belts or something, I don't know, you know. But Beckam says 'Would you wear somethin' like that, Swan?' And immediately, you know, 'No, I don't think so'. You know, I don't know that I'd look too good in that belt, you know. So anyway, we went on talkin', and then Felton started tellin' stories of Elvis giving people a couple things, a car or something, you know. And out of the blue I said, 'Give me a pair of his socks' and I never thought any more of it. So about a month, four or five weeks later I walk in the combine, in one end the second floor, and Felton's comin' in the other end. And we're walkin' toward each other and he takes his briefcase and he opens it up and he pulls out a pair of socks. They were black socks. And he said, 'Here. Elvis was wearin' these when he recorded I Can Help'. And I said, 'Wow!' you know. And of course I was thrilled to death to get 'em and still have 'em. And I think that's when I heard that he recorded it.
Q : What did you think of his version of it?
A : I thought it was great. I thought it was great. In fact the last time I saw him was-- and I'd never seen him live and my wife and I went to see him in Las Vegas. And about halfway through the show he introduces me in the audience, which was a complete surprise. He introduced the band. Then he said, 'There's a gentleman here, did this song, 'If your child needs a daddy I can help' and I just recorded it and I'm gonna knock him off the charts'. And it had long been off the charts, you know. Then he says, 'Where are you, Billy Swan?' And stood up and saluted him and all that.
And as he was doin' his last song one of the gentlemen that worked with him, Lamar Fike came around, got my wife and I and took us to the dressing room, which was packed, and Redd Foxx was there and my wife got a big kick outta meetin' Redd Foxx. But of course Elvis was goin' all the way around the room talkin' to everybody that he could and got to me and we start to talkin' and he got to asking about Billy and we talked about Billy Smith a little bit. And then he said, you know, 'I did-- when I recorded your song I did that thing I did in some of my earlier records'. And I said, 'Oh, yeah? Great'. And I didn't know what he was talkin' about. I said, 'Good'. You know, and I didn't know what it was 'til I heard it, and what it was was this stripper ending. 'If your child needs a daddy I can help', which is like he did on I Got a Woman, you know, and a couple other things. So then I understood that. But I thought he had a great version of it. Fantastic version.
Q : When you were with him in the '70s did you get to talking about any specific subjects?
A : Not really. Not really. Like I said, he and I never really had any heavy conversations and it was just real fast, you know, in the dressing room. He'd go ask me if I could go see if I could find Billy once, and we never got in any really deep discussions or anything.
Q : When was the last time you saw him?
A : I did see him on an airplane once. I was on an American Airlines flight and I had came from Nashville and they stopped in Memphis, comin' to L.A. from Nashville. They stopped in Memphis. And I was in the tourist section of course with a friend of mine. I was comin' out here to work with Kinky Friedman at the Troubador. And all these people got on and I noticed it was Elvis and Joe Esposito and I forget who all was with him. I think Red West was there, but I didn't get the nerve really to go up and say anything. It was gettin' close to L.A. and then I walked up and I said, 'Hey, Elvis, blah blah blah', and 'Oh, how are you doin', man?' You know, and he was with Linda Thompson at that time. And all the guys were just very friendly. They said hi. They were super guys. And I talked about the skatin' rink incident and of course we laughed about that. And that was it and he was just so polite. You know, just so polite. I always got him in a fairly decent mood, you know.
Q : You did a tribute album to Elvis.
A : Yeah, at Sun Studio in Memphis, which I'm very proud of. And it was on Audium Records and it's called 'Like Elvis Used to Do'. And it was fun. Actually I got the idea years ago when we did the 'I Can Help' album, I did a slow version of Don't Be Cruel, which got a lotta positive comments.
Q : How did you choose the songs?
A : Personal favorites and just sitting in my little music room of my home and going through the songs and seeing what little arrangements worked with some songs and which ones didn't, you know. And I kinda had some ideas what I'd like to try to do. You know, I wanted to do some a cappello and that was gonna be Jailhouse Rock, but it ended up being Viva Las Vegas, and it worked well. Yeah, I did the whole album at Sun, and it was quite a trip, you know, standin' there in the studio sometimes and thinkin', 'Well maybe Elvis was here or Jerry Lee or Carl Perkins or those people." And then you gotta slap yourself, "Hey, get back to work'.
Q : Was it the song, 'Lover, Please' that got you started?
A : Yeah, yeah. It really did. With Clyde McPhatter doin' it, it kinda helped get my foot in the door in some places, you know, 'cause people would recognize the title or somethin', I mention it. No, actually it was a poem that I wrote in high school when I was 16, Lover, Please was, and I knew two chords on the guitar and that's-- there's just two chords in the song. So that was the reason for it. If I'd known three chords, there mighta been three chords in the song.
Q : I'm sure that record endeared you to Elvis.
A : Yeah, I know. And he never mentioned that, or I don't even know if he knew it. I really don't.
Q : Well when you were in Vegas and you saw Elvis--
A : The night we saw Elvis, they invited us up to his suite, so we went up there. There was a buncha people in the penthouse there and my wife and I were sittin', talkin' to Tony Brown and I guess it was his wife. And when Elvis came in he went right to his room. He wasn't feeling well, from what I understood. And so we sit there a while and I say to my wife, I said, 'Let's go see if we can go see Frank Sinatra, you know? That might be neat'. She said okay. So said goodbye to Tony Brown and his wife and I went up and Red West was there at the little bar they had, and I told him to thank Elvis and said goodbyes to everyone else there and my wife and I left. We went over to Caesar's Palace, which was kind of-- wasn't across the street, I think we had to drive to it, yeah. And walked right in there, past that old Cleopatra barge and right up into the showroom and sat down, you know. And, man, as soon as we sat down the show started and on comes Sinatra, and he was great. And so there, we saw Elvis and Sinatra the same night.
Q : In your words, what did Elvis mean to you?
A : Elvis was an inspiration. I mean I think Buddy Holly said it, a lot of us wouldn't be doin' it if it wasn't for Elvis, and I think that is so true. I'd never, I don't think got into music if I hadn't a been an Elvis fan. So he kinda gave me something else in life I could do besides maybe working in a filling station or being a policeman or a fireman or whatever. You know what I'm saying? Or a big scientist, you know. So I got interested in music and it's been like this, but it's been quite an experience.
Q : What do you think it was about Elvis that made him so special?
A : Well, you know, Elvis had the whole package. You know, Elvis had the style, he had great music, he had the looks. And he-- Like I think when he first started, Scotty and Bill and D.J. and the Jordanaires and all that, everything just fell into place it seemed like for him, you know. He was really blessed in a lotta ways, you know?
Q : Thanks a lot, Billy.
If you like reading this article, you will love the book; Writing For The King - a 400 page Book with more than 140 interviews with songwriters like Paul McCartney, Leiber & Stoller, Pomus & Shuman, Red West, Mark James and Tony Joe White. Included are two CDs, the first contains previously unreleased RCA recordings of Elvis performing live in Las Vegas (1969 through 1972), the second a selection of the original demos submitted to Elvis.
The demo CD takes us from Heartbreak Hotel through classics like Teddy Bear, Trouble, Burning Love and Way Down.
'Writing for the King' by Ken Sharp is a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of politics, money, inspiration and great trivia about Elvis and the songs he turned into classics.