You started working for Elvis in February 1970.
What were your first impressions of him?
The first time I met him and played at a rehearsal, I enjoyed his company very much. He was a lot of fun, very friendly. We didn't work very hard, we just played and laughed, told jokes- He seemed like a very ordinary fellow. I enjoyed his company a lot.
Musically speaking, did he contribute a lot of ideas?
At that time I didn't notice that much 'cause we just did some of his old stuff. But from then on, yeah, he contributed a whole lot. Most of the time he knew an awful lot about what he wanted, and he was very clear about things. He was especially good at working with singers. He left a lot of orchestration work to me, and I did that the way I wanted it. It was very easy to work with him.
It's been said that he had difficulty taking criticism ...
Well, I don't remember ever criticizing him outright! (laughs) But no, I don't know, I don't think he was like that. I think he could take direction very well. As a matter of fact, when he did all those movies, he was known to be very cooperative. You know, just do the job as best as he could.
How many songs did you rehearse in February 1970 (approx.)?
Oh gosh, it was a lot, as I remember. Elvis loved to get together. With him it was more than just get together and work. He just loved to get together, hang out with the guys and have a good time. But while he was at it, we'd get a lot of work done. As I remember, we ran through an awful lot of songs. And some of them we only ran through one time, just in case he ever wanted to do it. So we got a lot of work done - it was a lot of songs. But I think most of us grew up with his music, so we knew it. It wasn't like I had to learn an awful lot of things.
Elvis often played piano in private. Did he ever jam together with you?
Not together. I know he did play a little bit. I thought he was about the worst piano player I ever heard! (laughs)
How did you start arranging material for him?
I did right from the start. He came in one day, and started singing 'Let It Be Me', the Everly Brothers song. The orchestra took a break, he started singing it and we started playing along with him. But he didn't know the words, he couldn't remember them. I didn't know them either. And then when the orchestra came back after the break, he said: 'Well, maybe we'll work on that tomorrow or sometime when I get the words'. So when the rehearsal was over that day, I went upstairs and called Los Angeles and got the words, and I sat down and arranged that. I put that together for him, and had it there the next day. Hired some people to copy the music and all that. And when he came in to rehearse, I had a security guard come and tell me that he was coming down the hallway. Just as he got to the door, I kicked it off with the orchestra, and then he'd know what it was. I handed him a big lyric sheet with all the words on it. He just loved it. And it's such a beautiful song, you know, it's just one of those that you can't miss. So that's how it got started.
Your first recording-session with him was in March 1972.
Was there a big difference between playing live and recording in the studio?
I would have thought we recorded before that, but I'm not sure. Was it in '72? Yes, March 1972 at RCA Hollywood. I would have thought we recorded before 1972.
Yes, but that was live.
Oh okay, I see. Yes, there is a difference between playing a live performance and playing on records. You have to be more careful when you're recording in the studio, but with live performance you can do things- You know, you'd be a little sloppier. It doesn't have to be as perfect as in the studio.
In June 1972 the Elvis Show went to New York City - That must've been special.
Are you talking about Madison Square Garden? Yeah, that was special. He was really singing great. Well, he always did sing great, but it seemed to me I never heard him sing better. I was disappointed when the record came out, because it didn't sound good to me. It sounded speeded up slightly. I think they remastered that later a lot better, I've heard.
Yes, that's right.
I was really disappointed back in '72. I think I probably played it one time.
Still, I think it sounded better than the Aloha album.
The mix on that sounds very flat.
I used to think that all of the Elvis mixes were terrible. But I've heard that they've remixed that. In fact, I've heard it and I think it's just wonderful, the remixed Aloha. But I was always disappointed with Elvis' albums, how they'd sound.
Did Elvis ever comment upon that?
No, I never heard him say much about that.
It seems odd to me that you guys sound much better on other albums from that era, like for instance Emmylou's releases.
Yes! I really don't know who was responsible for that, but I think it's the Colonel. It could have been a lot better.
Do you have any special memories of the Aloha show?
Yes, a lot of them. I really enjoyed that. We had a real good time.
Did you rehearse a lot for that show?
We went over to Hawaii and rehearsed some.
In February 1973, there was an incident onstage, where some people got one stage and a fight started.
I don't really know, it seemed like it was over before I think a couple of guys tried to get on the stage. Red and Sonny West grabbed them. The guys that tried to get on the stage has some friends there that wanted to get into the fight. But there was too much security around, and it got stopped real quick.
Did you socialize with Elvis?
A lot, yes. He was very easy to sit down and talk to, and we'd talk about just everything in the world. He was a very good listener. He loved to tell stories, he loved to hear stories, he just loved to hang out with the boys and have a real good time. He felt real comfortable once we'd get behind closed doors, lock the door, nobody's coming in. We were all lil' Southern boys, you know, so we could just be ourselves. Laugh and have a great time.
Did he talk about his early days?
Yes, he used to talk about the early days of his career.
He played in Lubbock, TX. several times in 1955.
Did you see him back then?
Yeah, I did. If my memory is correct, he was. All of a sudden they were playing him on the radio. The first time he came to Lubbock, it was for a car-dealer. They played on a flatbed trailer at a carlot. And I think he got $75 for that performance. Two or three months later he came back again, and I think he got $600 for a performance. That's a pretty good job. And then he came back sometime thereafter, and then he got $6000! So you can see how things just took off like a rocket for him.
There's a photo of Elvis being mobbed in Lubbock, and Buddy Holly is in that photo.
I was at an Elvis show one day, and Buddy was on that show.
Did you know Buddy?
I knew him, but I didn't know him well. I started playing with the Crickets after he died.
We were talking about Elvis in private earlier.
Did you notice a change in him after the divorce?
Yes. I think it hurt him very deeply. He couldn't handle rejection. I think he loved Priscilla very much, and I think he wished it hadn't happened.
Did that in your opinion affect his performances?
No, I don't think so. I think he became very careful of what songs he sang because he didn't want people to think he was singing to Priscilla, even though he was ...
There's a dialogue from a concert in September 1974 where he keeps saying that 'You Gave Me A Mountain' does not relate to his life. It's almost like he has to convince himself.
I'm going to play another dialogue from that concert for you (the 'drug dialogue' is played).
(pause) He was doing drugs when he said all that. He was into prescription drugs, you know. He was terribly mistaken about some things. He thought that drugs that you buy on the street are dangerous, but he thought, if you get them from your doctor, it's okay. We all know that's not the way that works. He was very high when he said all that. It's very sad. I hadn't thought about that for many years, but it's very real, and I feel sad about it.
Around that time, there seemed to be some differences in the band. Many were not too happy with the male vocal group 'Voice', while Elvis was picking on bass-player Duke Bardwell on stage-
Well, me and Ronnie, Jerry, James and all of us have always gotten along very well and I don't think we would, then or now, let anything come between us. So we didn't let it affect us. It might have affected some people. Those guys at Voice, I don't know why they were there. I didn't think they were very good. I think maybe they were good separately, I think their piano-player Pete Hallin from Sweden was exceptionally talented, but when you put all of that together it just wasn't that interesting to me. So I don't know why they were there, but it didn't last long. 'cause I don't think the audience cared a thing about it.
On the same recording from September 1974, Elvis makes them do three or four songs, and they just bore the pants offa me!
According to Peter Guralnick's new book Careless love, Elvis started making sarcastic remarks about you on stage after Duke Bardwell left, particularly in December 1975.
No, I don't remember that. No, I don't think he ever did that to me. That's incorrect. If he'd been unkind to me, I would have left. I did leave shortly after that 'cause I was tired of it all. I had done it for six years and I wanted to go work with Emmylou Harris.
It's been said that most of the TCB band members wanted to leave Elvis in early 1976, because you guys couldn't stand to see Elvis deteriorate.
(nods) Yeah, I did leave. I had already been working with Emmylou anyway in 1975. She booked all of her concert-dates around Elvis' schedule so she could have us, so I worked way too hard that year. Did all of her shows, and Elvis' too. I had to drop one of them, and I didn't want to drop Emmylou. And the situation with Elvis was getting kinda sad.
The last recording-session you did with him was at Graceland in February 1976.
It kinda went nowhere. We were there a long time before he ever got started. I had told him I had to leave for England on Friday or Saturday, finished or not, and Elvis didn't start recording until Thursday. So I left and David Briggs or somebody else came in.
There's been some rumours about songs being recorded during that session, like 'Feelings' and 'America The Beautiful'.
I don't remember 'Feelings', and I actually don't remember 'America The Beautiful'. I keep hearing about that.
There's a few seconds of that song on one of the session-tapes, but the rest of it was erased.
Somebody was asking me if maybe he had said something terrible about America. I don't think he would have done that. If he did, I'm glad Felton erased it. 'cause I don't think Elvis meant it, he was very patriotic.
Do you remember the 'blue' version of 'Hurt'?
Is it a reflection of his state of mind at the time?
I think it is, isn't it. A lot of people think that's wonderfully funny, but to me it's terribly sad. I think it's drugs.
This was the last you saw of him, and he died about a year later. Was that a surprise?
How did you hear the news?
I happened to be in Memphis, I happened to be working with Emmylou. We opened a show for Willie Nelson. I went up in the early afternoon, got down to the coffee shop to have something to eat, and it was Emmylou's drummer John Ware who told me. I didn't want to call anybody, there was nothing I could do about it anyway. I was sorry to hear it, of course, but I didn't go to the funeral or anything.
We've been talking about some of the bad things, but ...
Oh, I only remember the good parts. There were so many good times. I think I've told you more here today than I've ever told anybody, especially on a tape-recorder. I don't really like to talk about it, and I may not ever talk about it again. But you know, there's not anything I can add to what's already been told about the drugs and that sort of thing. I know a lot of things about Elvis that I would never tell anybody. It's nobody's business, you know. Things that I wouldn't want anybody to tell about me. I don't mind talking about him with you and fans who are interested to know, 'cause they feel like I do about him. They love him dearly and deserve to know the truth.
I think many fans still wonder about what happened to Elvis in the final years.
I think a lot of Elvis' problems were Colonel Tom Parker's fault. Elvis should have flown around the world, have a good time playing for his fans all over the world. The sad thing is that me and the rest of the boys are now playing all over the world for all kinds of people. It's wonderful, you know, to travel the world, have a good time, have some different food, see how others live, enjoy your hospitality in your beautiful country and all that. It's just a damn shame that Elvis didn't get to do that. He wanted to, I know for sure he wanted to. It would have been exhilerating for him.
It would have presented him with a new challenge.
Oh certainly, no doubt about it. I think he would have done some of the greatest shows he ever did, if he'd done that. When we got together and came to Europe to do the big screen show, we suddenly felt sad about the fact that, here we are doing it all these many years later, and he never got to do it. And that's a shame.
Coming back to the Colonel, I got the impression that you're not too wild about him-
Well, I hardly knew him. I had no dealings with him at all. None of us in the band. We made our deals with Elvis. I think Elvis wanted it that way, he didn't want the Colonel to interfere with the music side of it. The Colonel was very tight with money, of course. He went CRAZY when he found out how much Elvis was paying us. But I didn't like him. He spoke to me twice in six years!
And what about his relationship with Elvis?
I think Elvis should have dropped him years ago. He wanted to. Strangely, he had some kind of fear that- When he first started, he was on the radio and everything and people were crazy about him, but he wasn't making any money. And I think he had the feeling that they'd been together so long, and the Colonel had gotten so many deals for him, that if he would ever dissolve that partnership, then it might suddenly be all over.
You mean almost like a good luck charm, something that brings you good luck, and bad luck if you throw it out?
Bad luck if you throw it out, yes. Near the end he didn't like the Colonel at all, and spoke terrible about him.
And yet he never really stood up against him.
For some reason or other he didn't. Maybe the drugs had to do with that, I don't know.
Thank you for the interview.
Well, you're welcome. I enjoyed doing it.
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