Interview with George Klein

By: Scott Jenkins
Source: Elvis Australia
July 28, 2006

George Klein
George Klein
George Klein was one of Elvis' oldest friends, having first met him in high school way back in 1948. Over the years, he has championed Elvis' name and is still involved with the Elvis world. I spoke to George Klein from his home in Memphis.

SJ : Almost thirty years after his death, are you still amazed that we're talking about Elvis the way that we are?

GK : Yeah, I'm amazed. It's mindboggling. I thought that after five years or so it would dwindle down. It would be just an average thing, like Marilyn Monroe or Jimmy Dean or John Wayne. I realised I was wrong after ten years because then I realised it could go on forever because it was just unbelievable what was happening. I do a show every Friday from Graceland for Sirius radio - an all-Elvis channel, they play Elvis 24-7. When I'm at Graceland, I'm seeing more and more and more young people. I'm talking people from 21 to 35 or so. I ask them, how can you be an Elvis fan, you wouldn't be old enough to really know who he was. And what most of them tell me is that they're parents or whatever have the videos and movies in their homes and then they got interested.

SJ : When you're doing your Elvis program, what sort of music do you like to play?

Elvis & George Klein
Elvis & George Klein
GK : I like it all. I'm not trying to be a cheerleader, but I like it all. I think some of the Sun stuff is really good. I'm not freaked out on the Sun stuff like some people are. But I think Good Rockin' Tonight, Baby Let's Play House and That's All Right Mama are great. I would say that his fifties and sixties stuff is probably my favourite Elvis music. And I would have to say the stuff he cut with Chips Moman in '69 at the American Sound Studios was just unbelievably good.

SJ : Tell us about your first meeting with Elvis and what was your impression of him?

GK : Elvis and I met in 1948 at a music class in Humes High School. Co-incidentally, we were in the same classes at Humes. When he moved up from Tupelo to Memphis, luckily for me we were in the same classes. As we approached our senior year, I became class president so I had some political clout in the school and Elvis and I were buddies. We bonded in the eighth grade. I'll never forget the music teacher, Miss Marman. She said one time that next week, instead of studying music, we were going to have Christmas carols. So Elvis raised his hand and he asked if he could bring his guitar in and sing. There were a few laughs in the class because it just wasn't cool in 1948 to do that in front of anyone. So the next week, he got up and sang Old Shep and Cold, Cold Icy Fingers. At that moment, I was blown away because I'd never seen a kid get up in front of people and sing like that. Subconsciously, I knew there was something happening with this guy.

George Klein & Elvis
George Klein & Elvis
SJ : Is it true about him standing out in high school? There are stories of him being a square peg in a round hole with his clothing and mannerisms.

GK : He did stand out. He was like a velvet hammer, but he did it in a very nice, quiet way. Elvis would dress differently. He would wear those black pants with white stripes down the sides, or pink stripes. He would wear sport coats and turn the collar up. Nobody else dressed like that. He'd wear showbizzy-type stuff to school all the time. You'd see him occasionally with his guitar singing at lunchtime too. He'd sing at class functions, so yeah, he stood out. Some of the guys, some of the athletes especially, gave him a hard time about his hair and his clothes. He was very good-natured about it.

SJ : After you guys left high school, you went straight into radio didn't you?

GK : Yeah, I started hanging out around radio stations. I didn't have the money to go to radio school. So I enrolled in Memphis State University, I had a scholarship. I'd go down to the radio stations and just stare in the windows watching the guys do their stuff. I became what you'd call a gopher, butler, whatever. Eventually, I got my way in as a helper for Dewey Phillips. They wanted me to baby-sit Dewey because he was bizarre. I was like an intern, answering phones, letting people in to watch the show, and making sure he didn't tear up the radio station. He was pretty rough on the equipment. So that was my first introduction to big-time radio. And I learned to use the tape machines and practise my art because that's what I really wanted to do. I got into radio part-time, then full-time and it went from there. I remember Elvis called me one time; his second album had come out and he hadn't seen it. He asked me if I had a copy. I said yes, and he asked me to bring it out to the house. There are some pictures, and you'll see them in my forthcoming book, which should be out in about 18 months or so. A lot of times, Elvis would drop by the station and it would be just me, Dewey and Elvis partying. We'd goof around all night long because Memphis pretty much shut down around midnight. I was fired by one station because they said that rock'n'roll wouldn't last, and I was playing it a lot. So I was up at Dewey's house one time and I told Elvis this, and he said, you're not fired because I'm hiring you. I asked what was I going to do, and he said, you'll travel with me, be one of my travelling companions. We're going to Canada, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit. Then Hawaii. Then we're going to do the movie Jailhouse Rock. So you're coming to Hollywood with me. So I told my Mama, and she said yeah, go for it. I worked for Elvis for the year before he went into the army. After he got out, he asked me to come work for him again. I was back into radio then and I said I couldn't do both. So he said that whenever he went on tour, there was an open invitation for me to come with him. I could come with him on my vacations or weekends or whatever.

SJ : What was your relationship like with the other members of the Memphis Mafia?

GK : We had a pretty good relationship. Elvis wouldn't bring anyone aboard unless they fit in with the group. In the early years, we didn't have that many in the entourage. There was me, his cousin Gene and Cliff Gleaves. And a guy named Arthur Hooten from the neighbourhood. But that was pretty much it. After the army, he picked up about 10 or 12 guys.

SJ : How were the sixties and movie years for you and Elvis?

GK : About halfway through the movie years, some of the guys - myself included - asked the Colonel why he didn't get Elvis better scripts or at least better songs. And he said something to the effect that there were actors who had Oscars who could walk down Hollywood Boulevarde and not get arrested. Hollywood didn't care about Oscars and awards. All they care about is money. And to a degree, he was right. He said, we don't care what the scripts are like. If we have to read a script, that's another million dollars. My boy is getting a million dollars and fifty percent of the profits. Nobody else gets that. If the picture bombs, then we'll get the blame. The Colonel was exaggerating a little bit. We asked him about being artistic and the 'big picture' and he said all you needed to worry about in Hollywood was today, not tomorrow. But a superstar like Elvis could have overridden all that and become a great actor. So I think the Colonel was wrong in that regard.

SJ : So overall, do you think the Colonel was good for Elvis?

GK : I think 90% of what the Colonel did for Elvis was good, ten percent was wrong. The ten percent wrong was the money thing. The 90% was that he got Elvis tremendous deals with RCA, got him on the road, sell-out crowds. His promotion ideas were terrific. He did a real smart thing in that he didn't over-expose Elvis, I thought that was brilliant of the Colonel. But the artistic side of things is where I think the Colonel fell down. He couldn't hear a hit song. He started getting into the publishing side of things, which is why some of the songs weren't very good in the later years like they should have been. The Colonel offended Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, and ran them away from Elvis. Elvis asked them to write a good ballad one day, and by that night, they came up with it. They came to Elvis' hotel, the Beverly Wilshire and played it for us, and it was great. It was Don't, a really beautiful song. So Elvis was recording it soon after. The Colonel came in and asked where did it come from, and someone said from Jerry and Mike. The Colonel started yelling about procedure and all that, he thought people had gone behind his back. So Jerry and Mike said to hell with the Colonel. They did some songs after that, but they never forgave him.

SJ : What are your memories of Elvis' wedding? Was he forced into it, do you think?

GK : I was one of only 14 people at the wedding. He got married in Milton Prell's suite at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. During the whole thing, I'd never heard any mention that he was pushed into it at all. I think Elvis felt it was his time to get married.

SJ : And were you there at opening night in Vegas in '69?

GK : No, he asked me and many others to come and see him on the second night after the first-night jitters. Opening night was invitation-only for the media and a lot of the big stars. Elvis was probably the greatest entertainer I've ever seen on stage. He really put on a show. He was dynamic, he was electric, he had charisma. He related to the audience, you just couldn't keep your eyes off him. He always said you've got to give the audience a show, you just can't stand there like a statue. He got that from black entertainers like Jackie Wilson and James Brown.

SJ : Into the seventies, you were apart from the Memphis Mafia or were you still working with them sometimes?

GK : I never left the Mafia, but I was working in radio and TV. I was the hottest thing in Memphis media back then.

SJ : So did you go out on tour with Elvis at all then?

GK : Well, I had carte blanche to go to Graceland and I was there probably three or four times a week, so I never lost touch with Elvis. I'd occasionally go out on the road with him on the weekends or whatever.

SJ : As the seventies wore on, what were the first signs of physical decline? When did you first become concerned about Elvis' health?

GK : Good question. I never got worried until after he went in and out of hospital two or three times. The first time he went in, he came out okay. There's some stuff about the hospital I can't tell you about right now, it will be in my book. But for him to pass away when he did, it was quite a shock.

SJ : Where were you when you heard that Elvis had died?

GK : I got a call from WHBQ radio station. Someone said that it came over the wires that Elvis had passed away. I said, don't believe it, we've heard that before. But it seemed serious, because all these other radio stations started calling me for a comment. So I finally called Graceland, and Vernon's girlfriend Sandy answered. I asked if it was true, and she said, yeah, you need to get out here real soon. I felt like someone had just stabbed me with a red-hot knife. So I got in my car and I drove real fast to Graceland. I went into the den, and Mr Presley grabbed me. He was crying uncontrollably. He said, "George, we've lost him. I've lost my son." I'll never forget it. Everyone hugged each other, we were all crying, praying for some miracle. After about an hour, Dr. Nick walked in and he confirmed it.

SJ : The funeral a couple of days later, you were one of the pallbearers. Can you describe what the service itself was like?

GK : By the time of the burial, reality had set in but we still didn't want to believe it. The funeral itself took place at Graceland in the living room. There may have been 30 people in that room. Ann-Margret was there, George Hamilton. And of course Priscilla, Ginger Alden and Linda Thompson. It was a very serious, quiet, emotional-type funeral. So we eventually made our way to the cemetery. I was in limousine number 6 with Charlie Hodge and Alan Fortas. As we were driving along, the people were four or five deep in the streets for miles and miles. We were crying, laughing. We were trying to psych ourselves up not to get uncontrollable. We go to the mausoleum, and the preacher did a 15-minute service and then we carried the casket in. I was the last guy to touch it when it went in. I remember I kissed it. So they closed it up, and you just felt strange and weak. It was over. There was all kinds of emotions involved. A while later, some kids were caught trying to steal the casket. That really upset everybody, especially Elvis' father. So Elvis was later moved to Graceland along with his mother. Vernon got special permission to do it.

SJ : You're writing a book. What can you tell us about that?

GK : The book is called Elvis, My Best Man. He was best man at my wedding. That's the working title. It will be from day one, like I told you about that first meeting in 1948 until today. There are a lot of things that have happened since Elvis passed away that I'm involved in. It will have inside stories that people don't know and pictures people have never seen. You'll hear the whole, true story. I waited because there were so many books and stories that came out about Elvis after he died and into the eighties and I just didn't want to get caught up in that circus.

SJ : Finally, George, any message to the Australian fans who'll be reading this?

GK : My association with the Australian fans has been awesome. They've continued to support him with tremendous energy. Australia was one of the first countries to be right there when he died and to carry on the legacy. Australia did that TV special from Graceland back when it was about to open. Don Lane was the host I think. The boss of the TV channel involved was a huge Elvis fan and really pushed for it.

SJ : Yeah, that was Kerry Packer. He only passed away just after Christmas last year.

GK : Oh, I don't know that. That was a great special, really well done.

SJ : George Klein, thank you for your time.

GK : My pleasure Scott, thank you.

This Interview with George Klein Copyright � 2006 Scott Jenkins, Ganymede Services Pty Ltd & Elvis Australia.

Buy Elvis: My Best Man: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley by George Klein
Buy Elvis Presley : The Family Album (Hardcover) Book [Author George Klein]

Buy Elvis Memories By George Klein DVD
Buy The Elvis I Knew by Charlie Hodge DVD (Guest appearances include George Klein)

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