Interview with George Klein

By: Scott Jenkins
Source: Elvis Australia
February 16, 2023

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.

George Klein was interviewed by Scott Jenkins in 2007.

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.

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Interview with George Klein

The Commercial Appeal / Spin Magazine

The story is that a national TV crew once started interviewing George Klein and told him to use his regular voice, not his radio voice.

Klein was baffled.

'This is my regular voice', he announced in those full, rounded tones that carry so crisply over the airwaves.

In fact, Klein is always behind the microphone, even if there isn't one. Whether broadcasting his Elvis Hour on radio, emceeing an event or in a one-on-one chat, he's 'on'.

It's an easy confidence he's possessed since being out front at Humes High School. 'I became class president, editor of the yearbook and newspaper'.

There, in 1948, he met Elvis Presley which, putting it mildly, set the course of his life. 'He was a good but not a great friend. He said I was nice to him'. After high school, when Klein went into broadcasting and Elvis started performing, their interests converged and their friendship deepened.

The number of longtime friends and associates of Elvis is dwindling. Klein is still in Memphis, still accessible, and remains steadfast to Elvis' memory. Klein is also among the few insiders who haven't written a book.

And why not?

'I held off because so many books were out there. Jerry Schilling, Richard Davis and me are the only ones with no book yet'.

Klein lives a comfortable suburban existence in Cordova. On the walls of his small office are proclamations, awards and appreciations from the Epilepsy Foundation of West Tennessee, the Arthritis Foundation, March of Dimes and United Cerebral Palsy of the Mid-South.

The numerous books on his shelves include The Idiot's Guide to Football and Memphis 1948-1958 from Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. He also has Careless Love by Peter Guralnick, which does not imply approval of the Elvis biography although it's widely regarded as one of the best. 'It's boring. He quoted me too much', declared Klein. 'I gave him too much information'. (For the record, Klein likes Elvis, a 1971 biography by Jerry Hopkins, 'the best writer on Elvis'.)

At age 68 -- he and Elvis were both born in 1935 -- he's working a full load. His main job is as executive host at Horseshoe Casino, where he's been for more than eight years. He tends to the high rollers and handles presentations for the casino. He also keeps busy with Elvis-related duties. He's close to Elvis Presley Enterprises and Priscilla Presley, and works with them on occasional events. He'll even lead a personal tour of Graceland if pressed. He did it once for singer Tom Jones. 'But my price is high. When I go to Graceland now, about twice a year, I don't really like it because I get nostalgic and sentimental'.

Klein started in the radio business in 1957 with WHBQ. He's been in it ever since. Even now he's host of the syndicated George Klein's Original Elvis Hour, a program of Elvis tunes and anecdotes. Locally it's heard Sunday nights on KTRQ-FM 102.3 out of Wynne, Ark.

Thanks to that show, Klein says, 'I probably listen to more Elvis than anybody'.

His durability and popularity are reflected in what people say about him.

Kang Rhee, karate master who taught Elvis for four years, was a big fan of Klein's Talent Party TV show, which aired during the 1960s and '70s. When Klein first brought Elvis to the karate studio, Rhee said, 'I was more excited to see George than Elvis'.

D. J. Fontana, drummer for Elvis for 14 years: 'He's always on the ball and gets things done. A nice guy to be around'.

Elvis intimate Jerry Schilling: 'There are no barriers to the love for GK in this city'.

Red West, another Elvis friend and associate: 'His Talent Party did a lot for local musicians and made it possible for local bands to be exposed. He helped a lot of people'.

Gordon Stoker, tenor with the Jordanaires: 'A true friend to the music business and Elvis'.

It's not a complete lovefest. Probably nobody could be in the public eye as long as Klein and have known as many people as he has without some mutterings. Marty Lacker, a friend and associate of Elvis, says a feature story on Klein is 'a waste of print'. But he refuses further comment and says any issues he has with Klein are irrelevant to Elvis. Who is, always, the main event.

As Klein puts it: 'There never has been and never will be another man like Elvis Presley'.

Interview with George Klein - Spin Magazine

What are you up to these days?

George Klein: In addition to some freelance radio and TV work, my full time job is as the host and public relations guy with a casino down here in Mississippi.

Have you done many interviews about Elvis?

Klein: Quite a few. Mainly in August, when Elvis passed away, and in January, his birthday. I do anywhere from 7 or 8 to 20 of them a year.

How does it feel to be so close to such a legend?

Klein: It feels great. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. If I had it to do over again, I'd do everything the same.

Where did you first meet Elvis?

Klein: Elvis and I went to school together. [Starting] in the 8th grade [when] he moved to Memphis. We were in the exact same class all the way through high school. And I wanted to be a disc jockey and he wanted to be a singer so we had something in common.

What was your first impression of him?

Klein: We had a music class together. Elvis asked if it would be all right to bring his guitar to class and sing. Of course there were some raised eyebrows because it wasn't fashionable to do that. To bring a guitar to class and sing. It was really an uncool thing to do. And so, the teacher said yes and Elvis brought his guitar the next week and she let him get up in front of the class and sing two country songs. I was really taken aback because nobody in the class could sing and nobody could play a guitar for sure, and here was this guy coming out of nowhere, 12 years old, getting in front of the class and singing. So he left a lasting impression. I was in awe of him because of his talent.

Elvis was quoted as saying that you were one of the few people in school that were nice to him. Why were others mean?

Klein: That's true. He had long hair in high school, and it wasn't fashionable to have long hair because the 'in' thing was the athletes who wore the shorter hair. He took some rough kidding about his hair. He was like a velvet hammer. He would wear unusual clothing to school. Where we were all wearing jeans and t-shirts or sport shirts he would wear a pair of black trousers with a white stripe down the side. Or he would wear a jacket with the collar turned up, and he just kind of stood out. He had his own style which I think was very important to his career later on. So he took quite a bit a kidding because of that, but he was good-natured about it and he didn't want to fight or argue back. He just laughed and smiled and went about his way. But I never kidded him and he never forgot that. He never held a grudge but at the same token he never forgot who wasn't friendly to him.

Did you know right then when he got up and sang those two country songs that he was going to be someone special?

Klein: Not really. But he was kind of something special in my eyes because, like I said, I was impressed that he could play a guitar sing and I couldn't do either.

What's been the highlight of your professional career?

Klein: It was when I first got my first TV show. That was a personal thing. But, when they started the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the CEO at Graceland and Priscilla Presley asked me to go to New York and accept Elvis' [induction] award and make a speech for him. It was at the Waldorf Astoria, 12 years ago, and these were the first 10 inductees. It was Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino. Elvis was the last one to receive the award and I went up in that big ballroom at the Waldorf and Julian Lennon and Sean Lennon presented me Elvis' award. And then I made a speech. That was quite an honor.

What was the highlight of Elvis' career?

Klein: I would say probably making it on to The Ed Sullivan Show. That was a big deal. And also making his first movie. A dream come true for him. Elvis wanted to be an actor in addition to being a singer. He thought he could take it to another level. And back in those days TV wasn't [like] it is now, and the big wide movie screen was bigger than life. Elvis felt that if he could make it into the motion pictures it would really shoot him to the top, which it did.

What do you think in the end it was that destoyed him?

Klein: The fact that he was bored. He didn't take care of himself health-wise. His weight would fluctuate. And the fact that he let the prescription medication get out of hand. A combination of all that. He had achieved almost everything except an Academy Award and I think, if Colonel Parker had let him take that role in A Star Is Born, that he would have lost weight, he would have gotten back in shape and would have gotten excited about movies again.

Was Colonel Parker really the only other person that had any control over Elvis?

Klein: He had a lot of control. Elvis was very disappointed but he didn't want to show it. He said, 'Colonel Parker has been my manager all of these years and he's done a pretty good job on my career, so I gotta go with his advice'. But it was a mistake. Colonel Parker made a lot of mistakes. One of the big mistakes was not letting Elvis make A Star Is Born.

Have you had any visits from Elvis lately?

Klein: Everyday.

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