Interview with Ben Weisman
Source: Elvis Australia
July 19, 2020
Can you tell us a little background about what happened there?
A: Well, Elvis and I took a picture together, because we wrote a song called 'I'll Be Back', which was voted in the top ten in the motion picture category. The first time a rock and roll picture was up for a possible Oscar. So It was done as a promo, where we stood there. And we got pretty close. We were voted to top ten. Didn't quite make the five. But there's one song that that Elvis got in the top ten in the motion picture academy.
So we posed. That was the picture we posed for. Promo.
Elvis Presley and Ben Weisman.
Q: Is there a certain category for that?
A: It was for the best song in a motion picture.
Q: When did you first start writing songs for Elvis?
A: I was under contract to a gentleman name of Jean Aberbach. And Hill and Range publishing company. I was in New York at the time. And he said, 'Ben, we have a new talent, we want to be publishing his work. We want you to listen to him'. So in 1956, I watched the Tommy Dorsey show where Elvis performed for the first time. And it was fantastic. And then I went back to the publisher and he said, 'Okay Ben, now I want you to write for him.' He wanted me to write different styles. So I was able to write for any style. So when I studied Elvis, I knew just how to approach it. And so in 56 I wrote a thing called 'First in Line' which he recorded.
And I was very pleased about that.
Q: Tell us about your first meeting with Elvis.
A: I first met Elvis in Hollywood.
I flew from New York to Hollywood, and they were doing a movie called 'Loving You'. And I wanted to meet him. So we sat in the control room. Aaron Schroeder, who was my co-writer, and we just sat there and waiting for him. So he was recording, he wasn't doing my song, called 'Got a Lot of Living to Do', so I got scared. So what happened was, in between the takes, I ran out. He was playing his guitar next to the piano. And we sat down and started playing the blues with him. And he looked up and said, 'Who are you?' I said my name is Ben Weisman. He said, 'Wait a minute, didn't you write a song called 'Got a Lot of Living to Do'?' He says, 'Hold it, Ben'. And he got his musicians together, and they recorded the song right on the spot.
Q: When Elvis did 'Loving You', did you meet his mother?
A: No, I didn't meet his mother. But in the movie of 'Loving You', you see her in the scene at the end, where he does 'Got a Lot of Living to Do', you see her, stamping his feet.
And he comes down the aisle, he'd look around, he was looking at her. It was a kick.
Q: You wrote quite a few songs for each picture. How did that come about?
A: Well, what happened is that living in New York, they would mail the scripts to myself, Lieber & Stoller, a lot of writers. And we all had to fight for each song in the movie. So we'd all make our demos, and then a gentleman named Freddy Beanstock would take all these demos and go to Hollywood. And they would play for the producers. And the producers picked maybe seven or eight songs for each scene. And then they would present them to Elvis, Elvis would pick maybe two or three and decide which one he would try first.
So it was really a scramble. It was really wild times in those years.
A: You wrote 'Don't Leave Me Now'. Did you take inspirations from everyday life, or was it always towards the type of thing Elvis would be doing in the movie?
A: Well, each scene called for a certain type of song. And I would try to fit the song to fit the scene. That's why Elvis did 50 of my tunes. I'd look at the scene, and I would study in the script. And I would produce it in such a way where it would fit that scene. And so I had a good chance to get the song in.
And 'Don't Leave Me Now' was in 'Jailhouse Rock'. He did that.
Q: Did Elvis tell you what type of songs he really liked to sing?
A: No, what I did was I studied his albums.
And I kind of got into his head and what he wanted to hear. And so, also the songs I wrote -- I tried to stretch him a little bit. Instead of the typical rock and roll things. He loved ballads. He loved singers like Perry Como and Dean Martin. So I wrote songs that would fit in that style. And he wanted them. He recorded most of them.
Q: You also wrote some title songs, such as 'Follow That Dream'. Could you touch on those?
A: Yes, well, let me see. I wrote 'Frankie and Johnny', it was an old folk song which we adapted for the movie. And matter of fact, that was a funny story. Because the conductor didn't show up for the session the day Elvis was supposed to cut that song. Elvis says, you better come in here. So I actually directed the band so Elvis could do 'Frankie and Johnny'. It was one of the few times that I actually got in the studio and conducted the band. And then he has a funny story, which became 'King Creole'. 'King Creole' was called 'Danny'. It was an Elvis cover song I wrote called 'Danny'. They decided to change the picture to 'King Creole'.
So 'Danny' was left out. It was released many years later in an album.
Q: When did you get the chance to see Elvis? Was it quite frequently?
A: Well, I usually saw Elvis in the studios. Because in case something didn't go right, you know, it didn't go right, I'd have to come and help out. The demos in the studio. And they listened to them. And they would actually emulate what they heard. And so I made sure that the demos were pretty good.
Q: How was Elvis to work with?
A: Elvis, well he had different moods. He'd kid around sometimes. Sometimes very serious. Many times he would cut as much as 32 takes just to get the right feel for it. He was very serious. But he also kidded around.
So it was -- he had different moods to him, in the studio.
Q: Were you ever privy to any of Elvis practical jokes?
A: He used to call me the mad professor. And a few times he'd tickle me when we were in the studio, fool around a little bit. Terrific guy. I really miss him a lot.
Q: Why did he call you the mad professor?
A: Well, I don't look like a rock and roll guy. Typically you know, with the looks. Actually, my background was actually classical music. Which helped me to write a lot of songs. 'Cause Elvis liked the classics. He used to play 'Clair de Lune' on the piano. And he loved the classics, which helped me a lot.
Q: He liked upbeat songs like 'Pocket Full of Rainbows'?
A: Yes. 'Pocket Full of Rainbows'. And he liked it. And it was in a cable car with Juliet Prowse. And I tried to get him to do some high notes, some falsetto notes. And I tried different things with him. And he went along with it. He seemed to like it. And so it was really one song he didn't like, called 'A Dog's Life'. He couldn't stand that song. But they needed it for the movie or the scene. And he would try to sing it, he'd be cracking up. He couldn't sing it. Finally got through, he was laughing through half the song.
Q: One of the most beloved Elvis songs is 'Wooden Heart'. Can you tell us a little about that?
A: Well, there's a scene in 'G.I. Blues' where Elvis with Juliet Prowse watching a puppet scene. They needed a song to fit it. So we had the idea of wooden heart, which is a puppet. And so it was based on an old German folk song, which is what they wanted. So it worked out great. As a matter of fact, when I was in Gstad in Switzerland, I did an Elvis concert thing there. And we did that song, and it actually tore down the house.
They just wouldn't let me off the stage. They loved that song.
Q: Did you get to see Elvis perform live?
A: Well, it was mostly when he did Vegas.
He was fantastic, kidded around a lot, and he was a terrific talent. I really miss him a lot.
Q: How was Elvis with his audience?
A: Well, Elvis loved his audience. You could tell. It was like a romance. You know, when he went onstage, he seemed to just -- he could relate to them. That's why people loved him. He, he just could relate. It was like a love affair between him and the audience. So you could feel it when he sang.
He had a very great contact with the people.
Q: How did the audience respond to Elvis in Las Vegas?
A: They loved him.
Matter of fact, the women used to throw keys on the stage of their rooms, you know. The key to their rooms at the Hilton. And they just loved him. And I've never seen such a love between women and Elvis.
Q: How was the mood in Las Vegas? Was there an electricity?
A: He'd walk into a room and people, you could feel it when he walked in. He had that, that charisma. He just had a charisma people could just feel when he walked into the room.
Q: What set Elvis apart from other performers?
A: Well, first of all, Elvis never forgot his roots. You know, he was a truck driver as a kid. And he worked in different jobs and things. And he never changed. He never forgot his roots. Matter of fact, his friends that worked with him, half of them I think were from that area where he lived. And he wanted to keep that part of it around with him so he could still have the feeling of being at home.
So great relations to people and people just loved him.
Q: Could you talk about Elvis friends from Memphis?
A: Well, one of my favorite guys was Joe Esposito. He was the right hand man. He protected him. I think he was one of my favorites among his friends. And a few others, but Joe was actually my favorite.
Q: Did you get to see Elvis between takes on the movie set?
A: The movie sets? Yeah, I saw him in between the takes.
He was very kind to me. Very, very warm and, like I said, we had a great rapport.
Q: You wrote 57 songs for Elvis. Which ones are you the proudest of?
A: Well, there's a movie called 'King Creole' was my favorite movie. And I wrote a song called 'Crawfish', 'As Long As I Have You', 'don't Ask Me Why'. Those are my favorite songs. I think one of the best pictures he ever did. You know, he could've been a fantastic -- he could've done much more, acting-wise. But they wanted to keep him kind of lightweight, you know. People would criticize his movies, but they shouldn't, because he did what he was asked to do. And besides that, all his movies were big sellers. They sold very, very big. And, and very successful. So I think his movies are very, very clean. They were wholesome. No cursing or anything. They were really very inspiring movies, as far as I'm concerned.
Q: Did Elvis ever talk to you about films he was making?
A: Not too much, no. He was -- you know like I say, there was a lot of time in the studio.
I met him at the Hilton years ago. After one of the shows. A year before he passed away. I was invited to go upstairs into the suite. I went upstairs and I sat down. And one of his friends. And a lot of celebrities were there. And I sat there, and I didn't have too much to say. He noticed me, and he called me over, and he said, Ben, how many records did I record of yours? And I said, 57. Fifty-seven, come here, and he pulled me in front of the crowd, says, Ben wrote 57 of my songs and I'm gonna -- let's hear it for him. And he picked me up and had a lot of fun with me. He was very good-natured.
Q: Could you talk about Elvis spiritual side and the songs you wrote for him in that vein?
A: Elvis was a very spiritual gentleman. And he had a great love for God. Very spiritual.
He was gonna do a movie called 'Change of Habit'. And it was about three nuns, and he was a doctor. So I wanted to make sure that I got the right songs for him. So there was a church in Westwood called St. Pauls Church. And I went there with my wife and I listened to songs, and to how they would pray. And they would say -- one of the ministers would say let us pray. I said, what a wonderful title. So I used that as one of the songs. And also 'Change of Habit'. And 'Let Us Pray' was, I think, one of my favorite gospel songs I wrote for Elvis. It was terrific. And 'We Call On Him' was another song which he did a beautiful job on.
And I was able to capture what he wanted to hear.
Q: Were you ever privy to when Elvis would do little gospel sings here and there?
A: No, I wasn't with him when he did 'Change of Habit'. But I would listen to his albums of his different songs he sang. And was so thrilled, because he loved spiritual music. And 'Let Us Pray' was one of my favorites. And 'We Call On Him', he did a beautiful job on that. Very spiritual gentleman. And people don't realize what a good heart he had. You know, there's too many things about him. Not the right things.
And he was just a good-natured man and loved God. A very, very spiritual man.
Q: Why is Elvis still so popular?
A: You know, Elvis is a phenomenon. We don't have many singers like that anymore. I mean, they're wonderful singers today, but I don't think they reach the statue of Elvis. Because he had that certain magic about him, that comes once in a lifetime. Like you have Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple, you know. Very few come along. He had that certain magic about him that you won't find nowadays. He'll probably live forever.
Q: How has Elvis affected your life?
A: Well, actually, I keep him locked downstairs :-)
No, he actually has been supporting me all these years. All of his records have been doing so well. He's been wonderful. And I've been happy that he's done so many of my songs. And I have a lot to thank him for.
Q: You must be happy that so many people continue to love your songs.
A: Well, through Elvis singing of my songs, it's been all through Europe.
And, like I say, I went to, I went to Switzerland and to Germany. And they rolled out the red carpet. Because they're very happy to see me. And I was so thrilled. You know, also I was in Italy. And all, all different parts of the world. And when they heard I worked for Elvis, like wow, they rolled out the red carpet. I was -- opened up many doors for me. And made me worldwide, which I really appreciate.
Q: Could you describe Elvis in one word?
A: I would say a phenomenon.
Phenomenon. And, and just love for people, and people loved him. You can't find that very often nowadays.
Q: Where were you when you found out he passed away?
A: I was doing a TV show called 'The Young and the Restless', believe it or not. No one even knew I was a songwriter. And I was -- I had a few lines to do. And I was playing. And then in between the takes, one of the cameramen said, Ben, we've got news for you. You'd better sit down. I said, why? They said, well, Elvis is gone. He passed. I was, come on, that's enough. And he says, he's gone. I said, I can't believe it. So I ran to the phone. And my wife says it's on all the TV stations. And I actually broke down. And it was hard for me to play. They had to do me a few times over to I could play my part of the role.
It was pretty -- it was a pretty bad time for me.
Q: Do you have anything to say to Elvis fans?
A: I would tell them thanks for everything.
Thanks for recording my songs. And made me friends throughout the world. I really miss him a lot too.
Q: What are your memories of Colonel Parker?
A: Well I also have a couple of funny stories about the Colonel.
At that time he was in MGM studios. We had a hangar there. We had his different publicity people. And I always wanted to be friends with him. He was kind of hard to get to. So I walked over to the office, and I said, Colonel, you don't like me, do you? He says, what? Cause very few people were afraid of him. I wasn't afraid, cause he didn't pick the songs. I wanted to be his friend. So I said, Colonel, I said I wanna be your friend. I mean, Elvis has cut so many -- he says, I'm a businessman. And he said, tell you what I'm gonna do with you. He took out big paper, and he put -- circled ten percent. And he said, what's this? He said, Ben, I have an idea for you. I said, what? He says, dogs. I say, dogs? Yeah, he says, well run an album about dogs. Different names of dogs. And people are gonna buy it. If you do, I want ten percent, right? I say, right.
But somehow I got to him, and he took me out to lunch once. Which was unusual, because he wouldn't take you out to lunch. And I took him out to lunch, and he was very warm and friendly. And actually I signed him a thank you plaque, thanking him for working with Elvis, and being such a big success.
Q: Tell us how Colonel Parker actually was.
A: Well, actually, the Colonel Parker, to me, was like, without him, there might not have been an Elvis. That's how I feel about it. He was such a great promoter. He had great vision. And I think without the Colonel, Elvis -- I don't know if he would've made it. He might have made it in time, but it was a perfect team between the Colonel and Elvis. It was a perfect, perfect team.
Q: What impressed you about Colonel Parker?
A: Well, he was a terrific businessman. He was a great businessman, and he had vision. He can -- he could see where Elvis was gonna go. And he kind of planned all the things that Elvis did. So he was really very important to Elvis life. I think like I say, without the Colonel, I don't know how far Elvis would've gone.
Q: He was managing Elvis all the time, wasn't he?
A: Like I say, without the Colonels promotion and vision, I don't know if Elvis could've made it. That's how important he was. And that's pretty important.
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.
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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. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.
This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.
The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.