Interview with John Wilkinson
Source: Elvis Australia
June 10, 2006
SJ : Hi John, and thank you for taking the time out to speak with us here in Australia. If we could start by you telling us where you were born and where you grew up?
JW : I was born in Washington DC on July 3, 1945, and I was adopted by my parents when I was two months old. They moved to Springfield Missouri after daddy finished his service in the navy, so I was raised from two months to the time I left home at 18 right here in Springfield, right in the centre of the United States.
SJ : How did you get into music in the first place, and why did you pick the guitar?
JW : Well, I was always surrounded by music. Springfield was - and still is - a big centre for country music, and I used to listen to a lot of country music on local radio here.
My father sang in the church. He was a bass singer, a darn good one too. There was always classical music and opera here in the house. As for the guitar, my parents weren't that musical, my father could play a few chords on the piano for church. My music teacher from kindergarten right through to the twelfth grade had an old guitar. A couple of guys from the classes above me played and sang folk songs. I thought it looked like fun. I'd seen a lot of country acts in town and on television and just thought I'd like to play the guitar. So I asked my teacher if I could play that old guitar and he said yes. I had a working knowledge of the piano. I'd hit chords on the piano and transpose them to the guitar. That's basically how I learned, by ear.
SJ : With all the music in your family growing up, was Elvis part of that at all?
JW : When he first came out, yes. My folks didn't think he was a real good role model for me. Some of the pictures that came out of him, he had on black leather jackets and was riding a motorcycle, and had the slick-backed hair. They thought he was something I probably shouldn't have been around.
When he first started making a name for himself in the South, there was another singer called Conway Twitty. He had a song out called It's Only Make Believe. That song would come on the radio and I always thought it was Elvis. That was when Conway was a rock'n'roller and not a country star. There was also a guy called Ral Donner. Frankly, there was nothing on there I liked apart from Ral, Conway and Elvis.
SJ : So how did you get to meet Elvis when you were only 11 years old?
The world's first Elvis Impersonator, little Johnny Wilkinson in 1956, age 11.
JW : I had seen some TV clips when he was on the Louisiana Hayride and he had a Martin D-18 guitar. And to have a Martin guitar is to have the ultimate in acoustic guitars. So I saw this kid up on stage and he was just beating on this guitar. All of us kids who played would have killed to have had a guitar like that. We certainly wouldn't have beat on it. It kinda hurt my feelings to beat a guitar like that. I made a decision that one day I was gonna meet this Hillbilly Cat and tell him 'You can't play guitar worth a damn'. I was 11 years old - or 10, one or the other - and he was second-billed to a country singer called Hank Snow. They were coming to Springfield (in 1956) for a concert downtown. I thought, 'Here's my chance'. That weekend - Elvis was performing on a Saturday - my parents decided to take the day and go down to the lake. On the radio, it said Elvis was coming to town and they were doing a soundcheck in the afternoon.
So with Mom and Dad gone, I got on my bicycle and went to where he was playing. I went up the back stairs and I started looking for Elvis. I went down the hallway looking right and left. Nobody. I could hear music from the stage, it was Hank Snow doing his soundcheck. Then, in the very last room on the left, I looked in there, and there he was. He had his feet up on the table sitting back in a chair. Had a bag of burgers on one side, and a six-pack of Cokes or Pepsi's on the other. I knocked on the door. He looked up and I said, 'You're Elvis Presley', and he said, 'I know'. I thought, 'Oh God. I'm 10, he's 20 or whatever and he's a smartass'. This wasn't what I wanted to confront. But he invited me in, stood up, shook my hand.
He got me a chair and we talked, it must have been the better part of an hour. He asked about my family, where I went to school, all sorts of stuff. And then my chance arrived. I said, 'Elvis, there's a reason I come looking for you'. And I said, 'I have to tell you, you can't play guitar worth a damn'. He looked at me with a grin and said, 'You think you can play better than me?' and I said, 'I know I can'.
There was an old beat-up Gibson J-45 leaning up against the wall and I asked to borrow it.
I took out a pick which I carried with me and I played him some music. I did a little of Foggy Mountain Breakdown bluegrass banjo picking on that guitar. And then I sang a couple of old folk songs. When I finished, he said, 'You're pretty good', and I said, 'I know'. And we both laughed. I got even. Then I heard what sounded like a herd of elephants running down the hall, and it turned out to be two of his bodyguards, and to this day I don't know who they were. They came in, looked at me and said, 'Hey kid, who are you, you don't belong here'. Elvis looked straight at them and said, 'Fellas, now just a minute. This is a friend of mine, his name is John Wilkinson and he just gave me a guitar lesson'. They said I had to leave anyway. As I headed for the door, Elvis called me back and gave me a big hug, and said,'Johnny, I know that one day we're gonna meet again'. I said that I hoped we would, and wished him luck on his show that night. He asked if I had tickets and I said no and that my Mom and Dad thought he wasn't the kind of guy I should have been hanging out with because they thought he was lewd and crude. He said, 'So do you think I'm lewd and crude?' and I said, 'No, you've been nothing but nice to me'. So I went downstairs, got on my bike and went home.
SJ : So tell us about your career from that time until 1969 when you played with Elvis.
What were you doing?
JW : I started out very deeply involved in folk music, following groups like The Kingston Trio. And Peter, Paul and Mary, the Journeymen. You name it. That was the kind of music I kept playing. I formed a folk group in high school called The Coachmen. Later on, I went out to California after travelling the country playing in every bar I could find. I got involved with some of the rock groups that were around at the time. I didn't like all of that music, but some if it. That was about 1964 I guess. I was still listening to Elvis, because I had everything that he put out. I got to have a real good reputation in Los Angeles as a studio musician. In the middle of '68 - I'd met Elvis again in '65 which is another story - Elvis by that time had decided to quit all the movies the Colonel had him doing. He wanted to get back on stage.
SJ : So how did '69 come about? You were approached by James Burton, is that right?
JW : Actually, Elvis approached me first. He'd seen me on local Los Angeles television. I used to perform on a program, sort of like American Bandstand but a local version hosted by a guy called Robert W. Morgan. Wonderful DJ who sadly has gone now. Elvis used to watch that show and heard see me on there singing and picking. Anyway, I was sitting at home one day in California. It was a Saturday afternoon and it was raining. My car was in the shop and I was half-drunk on red sangria watching old Ozzie and Harriet re-runs on and old black and white TV. The phone rang. All my buddies knew I was an Elvis fan, and sometimes they'd ring up and pretend to be him. Try to fool me. So it rings. I pick up the phone and this voice said, 'Hey John, this is Elvis Presley'. And I said, 'Yeah right!', and I hung up. Then I thought, 'Hey, that was an awful good impression. You don't suppose ?' The phone rings again, I picked it up and said, 'Yes sir?' And he said, 'Damn it, John, don't you hang up on me again, this is Elvis, I wanna talk to you!' I told him what used to happen with my buddies. He said that was all right, and said, 'You know I told you a while ago I was gonna quit the movies and go back out on the road and perform again'. He said he had a band put together, James Burton on lead, Jerry Scheff the bass player, Larry Muhoberac on piano, and Ronnie Tutt on drums. He asked if I knew them and I said I sure did. He said they were up at his house (in LA) and asked if I wanted to come up and jam with them. He said he'd send a car for me, be about 20 minutes. So this big, black limousine pulls up in my driveway and two big guys came up and said they were here to pick me up. They took me over to Elvis' house and he was there with all these other guys. We jammed together for maybe 30 or 45 minutes. We played, he sang, and it was a wonderful experience. At the end of that day, when he got tired, and as I was leaving he said, 'Hey, Johnny, I have one spot opening in the band, I need a rhythm guitarist. You're the man to fill the job. Will you play?' I said I'd love to, but that I was a folk picker, not a rock'n'roller. He said that he'd pay me x-amount to play guitar for him and be loyal. He said, 'So, now are you a rhythm guitar player for rock'n'roll?' and I said, 'You bet your ass'. After that, James called me and asked if Elvis offered me the job, and James confirmed the offer. James was pleased about me joining the group. He said we'd make a fine band. And we did. Pretty darn good band.
SJ : What about opening night in Vegas in '69.
Are there any words that can adequately describe what that night was like?
JW : Opening night. He was ready to go. He was nervous, but I think it was more nervous anxiety. He remembered 1956 when the Colonel put him into the New Frontier Hotel. Vegas wasn't ready for Elvis and Elvis wasn't ready for Vegas. So he was wondering if the people who had come to see him were coming to laugh at him or if they were going to take him as a serious performer. We told him, 'You got nothin to worry about, Elvis, we're behind you'. So when he came out on stage that first night, the audience - I mean, they just went wild, even before he sang a note. It was like grabbing hold of a live electrical wire for me. Just to see all these people, his fans, they still loved him and wanted to hear him sing.
It was the most magical night I think I've ever experienced.
SJ : Aside from James, you were the only musician never to miss a single show.
Are there any other shows that stand out for you?
JW : Well, of course the Aloha From Hawaii shows. I believe these were the pinnacle of his career. That was just an incredible show. The dress rehearsal, which they now call The Alternate Aloha, was just as good. In fact, some would say better than the live telecast. Originally it was planned just to be a dress rehearsal, make sure everyone to get their ducks in a row, sound connections and all that. But they decided to film it was well.
Elvis Presley and John Wilkinson in the 1970s.
SJ : There were reports years ago that the rehearsal show was also beamed out live, but only to Hawaii.
Do you know if that's true?
JW : No, I don't think they broadcast that one, only taped it. The show room was packed. There was like 2000 fans who'd flown all the way from Japan just to see the dress rehearsal. And they stayed over and saw the other show. He looked good, he never looked better. His voice was strong, he was still having fun with the music. He was enjoying getting on stage and entertaining his fans. The other show that stands out is the night they first started filming That's The Way It Is (August 10, 1970). He was slender, he was happy, he was tanned, he was excited. And it showed in his music. The energy he expended that night could have powered six cities across Australia. Those are the ones that really stand out. The Madison Square Garden shows too, because that was a real challenge for him to conquer New York. New Yorkers, traditionally, are not really warm people. Some thought they wouldn't like him. But they sure did.
SJ : So what were some of your favourite songs to play with Elvis on stage?
JW : I always liked his old rock'n'roll things like Teddy Bear, Mystery Train, Johnny B.Goode, All Shook Up. But I also liked the ones that had the big orchestra behind them like Can't Help Falling In Love, An American Trilogy, My Boy, My Way. I also liked the Perry Como thing, It's Impossible. A real nice song.
SJ : What about when he'd throw you a curveball on stage with something you'd never rehearsed before.
Was that scary at all?
JW : Well, the thing is - and he didn't know it - but we had rehearsed almost every single song he'd ever done. He wasn't aware of that. And we didn't tell him. But there wasn't a single song that he could pull out of his hat that we didn't know. Even ones he hadn't recorded before. We'd learn them. Because he had a reputation of practical jokes, and he would love to pull what he called Stump The Band.
So sometimes he'd stop in the middle of a song and say, 'I don't wanna do that song, Let's do Broken Heart" or some other obscure thing. It always amazed him. He'd say, 'How'd you guys know that song?' And we'd say, 'You know boss, we're ready for ya. You can't fool us'.
SJ : What were you doing between gigs with Elvis in those days?
JW : I worked a few times with The Kingston Trio. I was a member of that group for a while early on. When Elvis was sick and had to be hospitalised one time, one of the boys in the trio got sick too and they asked me if I could fill in. Or I'd work as a banjo player for The Chad Mitchell Trio. Or I'd do studio sessions.
SJ : Speaking of which, what was it like working with Elvis in the studio?
JW : It was always an all-night thing. If the session was supposed to start at 7pm, he wouldn't get there until 10 or so. And after he got through listening to demos of songs he might want to record - that Felton Jarvis usually got for him - we'd start playing them. If he found a song he liked, he'd go over it and over it until he got it exactly the way he wanted it. Sometimes we wouldn't get out of that studio until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. And he always took care of us, he always had food catered so we wouldn't die of hunger.
He worked us pretty hard, and he was a perfectionist.
It was never just one take of a song.
He wanted to have several takes and pick the best one.
SJ : What was it like recording at Graceland in '76?
JW : The Jungle Room sessions. Wonderful.
SJ : And was that the only time you went to Graceland?
JW : Oh, no. There'd be times he'd call me at 3 o'clock in the morning and say, 'Johnny, can you get on a plane and come down to Memphis? I've got no one to play with'. The rest of the crew would already be back in Los Angeles. I remember those times because there'd be nobody else around. No bodyguards, no wives, no friends, no nothing. Just him and me. And I'd take my acoustic guitar down there and we'd sing and play, watch old John Wayne movies, go riding motorbikes or whatever. So I was at Graceland quite a lot.
SJ : Over the years as the touring went on, as Elvis' physical decline became apparent, what were your thoughts?
JW : Well, we could all see that Elvis was not well at all. It started about 1974. I forget the exact date, but we were in College Park, Maryland. He walked on stage and he was terribly bloated. And his eyes didn't look right. He was having trouble walking and he forgot lyrics a lot. I remember looking at Kathy Westmoreland and saying, 'What happened?' and she said, 'I don't know'. It was obvious at that time something was seriously wrong, but we didn't know what. One night he'd be like that, and then the next night everything was fine, he'd be perfectly well. We found out that a lot of it was water retention.
Ask any girl over 12 you know about water retention, they'll tell you all about it. We were all terribly worried about him. In fact, several of us went and talked to him and said, 'What's the matter with you?' and he said, 'I just don't feel that good right now'. We come to find out later he had glaucoma, he could barely see. And he had a horrible twisted colon, which sometimes didn't allow him to go to the bathroom for six days at a time. He was taking a lot of pain medicine. He was self-prescribing. Or getting his doctors to do it. What he needed to do was get some real help, take some rest. But he said, 'Fellas, I can't do that. My fans won't let me'. We said yeah, they will, they'd understand, but he wouldn't see it like that. We said that the Colonel was putting him out on the road too much, and we discussed firing the Colonel. He said, 'I can't do that. I shook hands with that man when I was 19 years old and my handshake is as good as gold, you boys know that'. But we said the concerts were killing him, that he wasn't getting enough rest. So we could see by '74 that he was not in good shape. But none of us were going to leave him.
John Wilkinson and Elvis Presley 1977.
SJ : So what did you think of the Colonel overall?
JW : All right Scott, I'll level with you. There was no love lost between me and the Colonel. I'll give credit where credit's due. He was probably the shrewdest businessman I ever met but he was also the most dishonest and unethical. He was a miserable ol' sonovabitch. Tom Diskin, the Colonel's right-hand man, could have taken over Elvis' career and I think things might have turned out a little different.
But the Colonel overall was a miserable old prick. I didn't like him, and he didn't like me.
SJ : Where were you when you heard that Elvis had died?
JW : We were all on a plane on its way to Portland, Maine where Elvis was due to perform next to open the new tour. We were taking off from Los Angeles, and we set down in Las Vegas to pick up Joe Guercio and the orchestra. We took off again. We were right over Pueblo, Colorado and the pilot comes on the intercom and said we had to set the plane down and take on some fuel. We thought that was odd because this plane could have made it coast to coast without refuelling. Anyway, we set down and a couple of officers - I think probably Colorado State Highway Patrol - were waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the plane. They came up the stairs and asked for Marty Harrell, who was the trombonist in the orchestra.
There was a phone call for him. We thought there was something wrong maybe with Marty's parents, or his sister, whatever. So we got off the plane and stretched our legs. We were all standing around there at the bottom of the stairs and Marty comes back. His head's down, obviously in great distress. He said, 'Gather round boys and girls'. And he said, 'I got bad news, It's all over. Elvis died this morning'. And we were like, 'What?! What do you mean, Elvis died?' You know, because Elvis Presley doesn't die. He might cancel a few shows here and there, but he doesn't die. We were all very broken up. We got back on the plane to head back to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. As you can imagine, the mood on the plane was very sombre, everybody was crying because there was nothing we could do, you know.
SJ : And your life after Elvis, we heard you had a few health problems a while back.
How are you doing today?
JW : Oh, I'm still alive Scott. I did have a stroke back on April 15, 1989.
It paralysed my left side so I can't play my guitars anymore. But I still sing and I do that for a lot of the fan clubs over in Europe. Other than that, my health is really very good.
SJ : And what about family life, did you raise a family over the years?
JW : I got married in '83. My wife and I now live in my old family home in Springfield Missouri. It's wonderful here. Unfortunately my wife was unable to have kids, so I have no two-legged children, at least none that I'm paying for. But we have two four-legged kids, our dogs.
SJ : When you look back at footage from That's The Way It Is, On Tour, Aloha, and so forth, and seeing yourselves all so young, is it all happiness for you or is there a touch of sadness as well?
JW : The majority of it is happiness. We were a part of world music history. I remember the good times, the music, the excitement. But every once in a while I get a tear in my eye knowing that it could have gone further, but sadly it didn't. I still like to watch Way It Is and On Tour and Aloha a lot.
SJ : Does it seem like almost 40 years since Way It Is?
JW : Isn't that amazing? Sometimes, Scott, is seems like it was just yesterday.
As a matter of fact, only last night, I was sitting here watching That's the Way It Is and enjoying it, singing along with it and having a great time. I'm sorry he's gone.
SJ : Finally, is there anything you'd like to say to the Australian Elvis fans reading this?
JW : Yes. I live for Elvis' fans. In one of my last conversations with Elvis, he said, 'Johnny, if it wasn't for the fans, I'd be just another damn lounge singer and you'd be sitting behind me on a barstool playing Love Me Tender'. And then he said, 'You take care of the fans, and the fans will take care of you'. It's true, all over the world, wherever I've been, the fans are just terrific. I consider the fans part of my extended family. I've never been to Australia, but I've heard nothing but good things. So maybe I'll see you down there someday.
SJ : John, once again, thank you for speaking with us.
JW : My pleasure Scott, thank you.
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