Interview with Johnny Tillotson

By: David Adams
Source: Elvis Australia
November 26, 2022

Johnny Tillotson.
Johnny Tillotson.
Interview with singer, songwriter, Johnny Tillotson. Johnny wrote the song, It Keeps Right On A Hurtin' early in 1962 inspired by the terminal illness of his father. He recorded the song himself and it became one of his biggest hits, reaching # 3 in the US pop chart and becoming the first of his records to make the country music charts, where it peaked at # 4. It earned him his first Grammy nomination, for Best Country & Western Recording, and was later recorded by over 100 performers including Elvis Presley in 1969 at his legendary American Sound Studios Sessions
in Memphis.

Q: Johnny, tell us a little bit about your career, how you got started.

A: I'm originally from Jacksonville, Florida. And there was a schoolteacher that lived in Jacksonville, Florida, who wrote songs, Mae Axton, and she would later write, along with my steel guitar player Tommy Durden, a song called Heartbreak Hotel. I had a local television show, and I'd heard so much about how nice Mae was as far as lending a helping hand to singers that had dreams. And Mae said, 'You know what would be great? This television show is great that you're doing, but', she said, 'would you like to be the opening act on every big show that we bring to Jacksonville?

That would be every big country show, every big rock-n-roll show. There won't be any money in it, but I think you could learn a lot'. So I would open up the shows, and, sometimes there would be shows starring Faron Young or the Wilburn Brothers, and, some of the great rock-n-roll shows.

And Mae came to me one day and she said, 'Now Johnny, there's a big show coming to town, and unfortunately we won't be able to use you as the opening act'. I said, 'Well why is that, Mae?' And she said, 'Well, there's this new fellow, he's from Memphis, his name's Elvis Presley'. And I said, 'What kind of a name is that?' I'd never heard of a name quite like it. 'And so he's gonna be the opening act. And this tour, by the way, that's gonna come to Jacksonville is gonna start in Texas. So he's gonna open up, he's gonna do like, three or four songs, and so we won't need you. And... you gotta understand we're paying Elvis and the band. So we have to use him'. I said, 'Well, if you're paying him, sure'. And they were paying him 50 dollars. And that had to cover everything: the hamburgers, the Krystal hamburgers, the gas for the pink Cadillac and everything. But I did get to meet him. And from that very moment of meeting him, our friendship began. So I started, really wanting to do very much like Elvis. We both had country music backgrounds, and we both loved gospel music, and we were accepted by rock-n-roll and country audiences as well. So I started there and haven't stopped.

Q: Tell us about your first meeting with Elvis. What was it like?

A: The meeting that I like the most, I had a radio show, a high school radio show. In those days you would play songs for teenagers, okay. And then the other disc jockeys, they would play more adult songs, but these were our songs. And, um, so let's see, 'That's Alright Mama' had come out and 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' and 'I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine'. And Elvis was going to be in Jacksonville, so I, without thinking, told my audience that I'd get an interview with Elvis. By that time, 'Baby Let's Play House' had come out. And Elvis wasn't quite that accessible, because the press was all around him. So I was in a jam. And he knew me and I knew him, and I said 'How can I get his attention?' 'Cause I'd promised my audience an interview on tape. In those days you had a little tape machine. And so while he was doing his interview with the press, the journalists, I caught his eye and I went 'Whoop baby baby ba-ba-ba-babee, baby baby baby boom-boom-boom-boom'. And he said 'Ho-ho-ho-hold it. Johnny. Whaddaya need?' I said 'I need just a short interview', he said 'Lemme get finished here and we'll do it'. And, he was always that way to me. Courteous. Full of fun. That's one of the early meetings.

Johnny Tillotson.
Johnny Tillotson.

Q: When you recorded It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin', did you hear any feedback from Elvis about the song?

A: Well, I wrote It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin' and it was a very personal song and I really wasn't gonna record it. Maybe I was just a little too close to the song. But Archie Blyer, my producer and the Everly Brothers' producer, he heard me play the song and he said, 'Now that's a real song'. And so we cut in Nashville just like Elvis, and also, we used a lotta the same players. And it was always exciting cutting with the Jordanaires and Floyd Cramer and all those particular players because they were so enthusiastic and so supportive. And the way the song got to Elvis, Elvis was in Germany and he'd heard them play my version on the radio when he was shining up those tanks and all that stuff. And I met with George Klein, who's always been a buddy of mine, and I sent an album, over to George to send to Elvis. It had a song on there called 'Dreamy Eyes'. And as you know, Elvis liked the Ink Spots, especially Bill Kenny. For example, when Elvis sang 'Are You Lonesome Tonight', he would say, 'I wonder if you're lonesome--' Well that's kinda from 'If I Didn't Care'. Ya know? Everybody has heroes; Elvis was always my hero. And so, I had sent him 'Dreamy Eyes' because Priscilla had the prettiest eyes. I just thought, fall-down beautiful eyes. And he did too; he liked the song.

But he had, he'd always heard It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin'. So when he went to Memphis to do 'From Elvis In Memphis', he just decided he wanted to do it. And 112 people recorded the song, and I love every one of them, but when I got the news that Elvis had recorded It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin', I was ecstatic. And one of the nice things, when I'd be appearing in Las Vegas, for example, Joe Esposito, his right-hand man, and sometimes Colonel Parker and all the guys, they would extend every courtesy to me and they would always tell Elvis 'Johnny's in the audience'. And Elvis would be nice enough to introduce me some time, he'd go 'Well it-- James. Well it keeps right on hurtin', as you gone..'. And, so, that meant a lot.

Another thing about Elvis Presley is. I never saw anyone that had such joy and passion for music, and had such a good time, and didn't take himself terribly serious on stage. I think that's why so many of the men could relate to him as well, you know, as well as all the ladies. But he was also always so courteous. I would take friends up and he would all say, and I don't think this every goes outta style, 'Yes ma'am, no ma'am'. He gave my daughter, Kelly, gave her one of the teddy bears. And, one of my favorite treasures from Elvis is a signed picture that says 'To Johnny with love and respect, Elvis Presley'. And, so it was just a great thing.

Q: So with Elvis, did you talk mainly about music when you would get together?

Do you remember any funny things that Elvis did?

A: Well, Elvis always took time in the dressing room, I usually let him just talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. Sometime he would talk about karate. Sometime he'd talk about his stage clothes. One time we were sitting next to each other, I think in the dressing room, and he had a great sense of humor and I accidentally kept hitting his leg. And he thought that was funny. I was embarrassed. But he was just the nicest person. He's everything you'd want your hero to be.

Q: Do you have any memories of the Singer '68 special with Elvis?

Q: When was the first time you saw Elvis on television?

A: The first time I saw him on television was on the Dorsey Brothers show. And I wanted the sound to be better because I was used to the Scotty and Bill sound. I loved the original Sun sound, and then I loved the Nashville sound. I'll never forget my bass player, Ken Hodges and we had seen Elvis and we were curious how Scotty and Bill, well actually how Bill Black got that hums tune because most people played bass hums tune. And Elvis and Scotty and Bill had already put the bass up on the pink Cadillac and strapped it down, and we, Ken and I, we went over to talk to them and we asked 'em how it was done and this is how people did things in those days. They took the bass down, unzipped it, and Bill said, 'Well, you slap it with the back of your hand'. He said, 'Now real purists will probably say that that's not the way to play bass, but that's how we get Elvis' sound'. And I liked the excitement of Elvis when he'd break strings, and, he had a good time. And of course Scotty Moore. And then after that, I've been a James Burton fan forever.

Q: What were your favorite Elvis films?

A: Now see if I say I liked them all, nobody's gonna believe that. But I liked a lotta the fun musical ones. I liked 'Blue Hawaii'. I liked 'Viva Las Vegas', 'G.I. Blues', I liked 'King Creole'. I liked his very first movie, which was critical, 'Love Me Tender', because up until that point people weren't convinced that, it's weird, they didn't think he could sing ballads, remember? I mean they knew he could do all the other stuff. But he could.

Q: The last meeting that you had with Elvis, anything that was really special about that?

A: The last meeting I had with Elvis was in the suite upstairs. He invited me to come up after the show and, hang out, and Get Low was there. I loved Get Low. Get Low was Elvis' chow dog. I don't know who created the most attention, Elvis or Get Low, but when you put 'em together it was really something. But Get Low was great and Elvis and I had a chance to talk about music and just it was very relaxed. It was always fun.

Q: What do you think there is about Elvis that made him so unique?

A: The fact that he was unique. He was just himself. And God gave him a very rare gift. And, not only was he talented, he was great looking. Y'know. You never saw anyone that looked like Elvis. I liked a lot of his movies because they make you feel good. And sometime today some of the movies don't always make you feel good.

Q: What is it about Elvis that you'd like to tell his fans? Do you have a message?

A: I never know exactly what I'm gonna say about him. But his fans, and I am one of his fans, very loyal. And his music never ever is outdated. Because he was an innovator on so many levels. Whether it be 'Crying in the Chapel', a gospel song, some of the big gospel songs that he used to do on stage, 'How Great Thou Art', or 'That's Alright Mama', or the thing about Elvis Presley that communicates with his fans is his longevity and the way he impacted all of our lives on every level. I can remember at a New Year's Eve party, there was a girl I wanted to dance with and it'd have to be a slow dance. Matter of fact, I sent away to Arthur Murray to get these little steps, you'd put 'em on the floor. And they didn't arrive until the day, before the dance. So I couldn't do any fast dancing or anything fancy. But the slow ones I kinda got, so I loved dancing to 'I Was the One'. And so I think he impacted our lives on all kinds of levels. And that's why we all love Elvis.

Q: I know Elvis' fans love you too, and thanks a lot for being here and sharing your memories about Elvis.

A: It's my pleasure.

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