Interview with singer/songwriter Mac Davis
Source: Elvis Australia
May 9, 2015
Elvis Articles, Elvis Interviews, By David Adams
Q : When did you first see Elvis?
A : Oh, first time I saw Elvis was actually I saw him at the Lubbock County fairgrounds in Lubbock, Texas. And in fact, that first time I saw him, he was on the back end of a truck at the Hub Motor Company I believe it was parking lot. And there was about fifteen hundred screaming kids and mostly girls hanging around there and that's when he first had 'That's All Right Mama' out. And about a year later he came back to the fairgrounds there and sold out the place. And that was a big deal.
Q : What was your impression on seeing Elvis perform?
A : Flabbergasted, jaw dropped. Hero, you know. All that stuff. All of the above. You know, he was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Of course, I was just a kid, you know. So was he.
Q : Did Elvis inspire you to write songs or be a performer?
A : Yeah, it was between him and Buddy Holly. It was a lifetime dream of mine to write a hit song because Buddy Holly had and, of course, Elvis had been my hero and I remember I wrote a song, in fact, called 'Hooked on Music' that was a number one country song about first verse told about hearing Elvis on the radio and it was all very true. It was written, you know, it was New Year's Eve, I was fourteen at the time and I was celebrating four A-M with them hoodlum friends of mine and I heard a boy named Elvis Presley singing 'That's All Right Mama' on the radio. And it turned me on and I've been hooked on music from that moment on. And that's basically true. And it's pretty amazing to me that some fourteen years later my first hit record was an Elvis Presley record.
Q : Tell us how you got the song to Elvis. Was it 'Memories'?
A : Well, 'Memories' was my first top ten record, but Elvis had cut some of my stuff for movies and a guy named Billy Strange, who used to work with Nancy Sinatra here in Los Angeles, used to come by my office. I worked for a publishing company over in Hollywood and he'd come by the office looking for material and we'd shoot the breeze and I'd play him songs that everybody else had written and then I'd play him some of my stuff, too. And eventually, he was scoring a movie for Elvis and they were looking for a song for it and I had a song I actually had written for Aretha Franklin and it was called 'A Little Less Conversation' but it fit right into the situation in the movie, you know. All Elvis' movies in those days was situation, you know. The situation led to the song and that's all the movies were written for the music, really. And the song fit in there so I just changed a couple of words around and that was my first record with him and it got in the top fifty or something, top forty. I'm not sure, but that was my breakthrough and after that they'd come to me once in a while for this or that.
And I think he got the hungries again, wanted to peform again. And so they set up the big TV special in 68, I guess it was, and there was a chance for me to write one song for the section where Elvis sat in his black leather outfit and sang the old hits from the Sun days. They asked me to write a song bookending that, you know, about looking back over the years. And I sat up that night at Billy Strange's house and started writing about six o'clock in the evening and at eight oclock the next morning I had written 'Memories'. And we had to run down and do a demo on it that morning and present it to the powers that be and it turned out that they cut it and used it in the TV special and that became my first top ten record.
Q : How'd that make you feel Elvis cutting your song?
A : Pretty good. Pretty good, man. Ride down the street, you know, the song playing on the radio, roll your windows down and bet you every songwriters done that. I'll tell you a funny story about that. I had always one of my dreams not only was to get Elvis to cut a song or whatever, become a hit songwriter, but one of my real goals was to hear someone whistling a song I'd written. You know, somebody that didn't know me, just walking around whistling it. And the first time it happened I was at the Palomino Club, the country club out here in Los Angeles. Now defunct, I believe. But I was back in the men's room and I heard a guy whistling the B side of 'Memories', which was a theme song I wrote for one of his movies called 'Charro' and I recognized the melody and I went, 'Hey, what are you whistling?' He says, 'Charro' or something like that. Oh, man, it was the B side. I bet nobody ever heard it but that guy and me. Anyway.
Q : When you wrote 'Charro' were you given a song title?
A : I was just given the script and Elvis was doing the movie and Billy Strange, I guess, was doing the music and said see if you can come up with something. So I came over, typical 1960s type of theme song for a movie. '[Singing] You left behind the eyes of other men, Da-da-da-da, Charro!' I can't even remember it now. I'm sure they had to pretty much hog tie Elvis to get him to cut it but that was the days when he did what the studio told him to do.
Q : When did you have your first meeting with Elvis?
A : First time I actually met him, it was the day I met the Colonel when Elvis was recording some song I'd written for one of his movies. I'm not sure if it was probably 'A Little Less Conversation'. And I went over to the studio to watch him record it and went along with Billy Strange and Colonel Parker was there and Elvis was just having fun with the gang and all the Memphis boys and Colonel Parker was sitting over here in a, like a theater seat. They had a row of chairs there. It was like a row out of a theater. And Colonel Parker had the only cushion. And somebody said 'The Colonel wants to meet you'. And I said, 'You're kidding'. You know, I said, 'Okay'. And I ran over there and he says, 'You the boy that wrote this song?' And I said, 'Yes, sir'. He goes, 'What's your name?' And I said, 'Mac Davis'. He says, 'Bend over here and let the Colonel rub that curly head of yours'. And I said, 'Excuse me?' And all the Memphis boys says, 'Hey, let him do it'. So I did it and he rubbed my head and he said, 'Now you can tell anybody that Colonel Parker rubbed your head. You're gonna be a star'.
And I still have an old painting that the Colonel gave me long after Elvis dies. He came to see me at the Hilton when I had gone in there and it was the first time the Colonel had been back to the Hilton since Elvis had passed away. And he brought me this old painting and he had signed on the bottom of it, 'To Mac Davis whose curly head I once rubbed and told him he was gonna be a star. Signed, Colonel Parker'. And it was a copy of a painting. I thought it was typical of the Colonel. He says, 'This is my favorite painting of Elvis and I took the paper off of it'. It was a copy like on cardboard or something and it had a plastic frame on it and still had one of those little fluorescent lights attached to it at the top with the cord hanging off. So I've got it up in the attic somewhere.
Q : What was your inspiration for writing 'In the Ghetto'?
A : 'In the Ghetto', I'd been trying to write for years. I grew up with a little boy who lived in the ghetto and in Lubbock, Texas. We didn't have what is commonly known now as a ghetto, but there was problems worse. It was a dirt street ghetto. And it was a part of town I could never understand why my little buddy had to live over there and I lived where I lived. And his dad did construction work with my dad and then a little boy named Al Smith really kind of grew up together. And I'd always wanted to write a song about it and really the word ghetto didn't even come into prominence until the late sixties, other than referring to Jewish ghettos in Poland and as such. And I had always wanted to write a song called 'The Vicious Circle'. I always thought it was like, you know, the kids are born there, they grow up there, they die there, another kids born to replace them and just one day I started thinking about the ghetto as a title for the song. And the same day, a friend of mine named Freddy Weller showed me a lick on the guitar that he was playing and I thought it seemed like, and I took it home that night and I wrote this song. And that's where it came from, basically.
Q : Were you pitching it to Elvis? How did Elvis find it?
A : Elvis, I didn't, actually nobody even dreamed of pitching it to him in the beginning. Anything, if they asked me if I had a song and Elvis was cutting, I mean, I gave them everything I had. And that's what they were after the special did so well, I went on down to Memphis to do an album and Chips Moman was producing it and they called and asked if I had anything, you know, for Elvis and I said, "Sure." So I sent them a tape. They had nineteen songs on it and they recorded the first three songs on there. 'In the Ghetto', 'Don't Cry, Daddy' and another song called 'Poor Man's Gold', which they never did release. But 'Don't Cry Daddy', Elvis had told me that the first time I went over to his house he was gonna record that. I played it to him over there. I'll never forget him. They got real quiet, you know. 'Don't Cry Daddy' is a pretty sad song. He got to the end of it and it was just real quiet and Elvis says, 'I'm gonna cut that someday for my daddy'. And, by god, he did. He lived up to his word.
Q : Did Elvis ever tell you about 'In the Ghetto'?
A : We never talked about 'In the Ghetto' that I know of. I don't remember having a conversation with him about it. Next time I saw Elvis after that was at the Memphian Theater and at that time I was finally getting some notoriety as a performer. I'd done the Johnny Carson show some and this and that and I was doing a college concert in West Memphis, Arkansas and Joe Esposito or somebody called me and said Elvis wants you to come to the Memphian Theater and see a movie with us and so I went over there after my concert and found the place. I got me some popcorn and a glass of beer and walked down through the aisle. Then I see Elvis sitting in the middle of the theater. He was with Linda Thompson. And I just went down to that row and stepped across the fellow that was sitting on the end of the row and went down there and sat down next to Linda on the other side of him and said, 'Hi'. And we sat and talked and laughed throughout the whole movie and we never did talk about music. It was the first time I'd really sat down with Elvis and got to know Elvis as a person. And he was just like a big old kid, you know. It was like he never got past nineteen, I don't think, in a lotta ways.
And we sat and laughed and had a great time and just about the end, the movie was just about over. I went out to use the bathroom and one of the gang around him came back and says, you know, 'I hate to tell you this, Mr. Davis, but you're not supposed to be sitting next to Elvis'. And I said, 'What do you mean?' He says, 'Well, nobody sits next to Elvis'. I said, 'Well, I had, you know, tell me if I'm wrong but was it Elvis that invited me to come down and go to the movie?' He said, 'Yeah, but nobody sits'. He says, 'You notice Red and Sonny West don't even sit with him. Joe sits behind him. Everybody sits back in the back'. I said, 'Well, where was I supposed to sit?' And he said, 'Well, with the invited guests back in the...' There was a row back in the back for all the local people. Boy, I got hot. I really got hot under the collar and I told that guy, I said, 'You just tell me how to get back to my hotel'. He said, 'No, no, don't get upset'. I said, 'I am upset. I am thoroughly upset'. And that was a big deal about it. Later, I was still arguing with him, but I was still mad when we came out and the movie was letting out and Elvis came up and said, 'Where'd you go?' And I said, 'I was in the bathroom'. He knew I was mad. He says, 'What's the matter?' He says, 'You look upset'. And I told him what had happened. And he says, 'Who said that?' And I said, 'I don't wanna get anybody in trouble'. I just said, 'You know, I just think you oughta know that this goes on around you all the time. I don't see how you can have a life'. He said, 'Who told you that, man?' I said, 'I'm not looking to get anybody in trouble'. That's just the deal. And, you know, he says, 'What can I do to make it right?' I'll never forget 'What can I do to make it right, man?' And I said, 'Let me have your home phone number'. And he kinda went, 'Okay'. He says, 'Charlie'. Called Charlie Hodge. 'What's my home phone number?' Charlie looked like somebody'd hit him in the face with a bucket of water. He went, 'Huh?' He goes, 'What home phone number?' He says, 'The one, you know, my home phone number'. And Charlie says, 'The one you answer at home?' And he says, 'Yeah, the one me and Priscilla answer when people call the house'. 'You mean the one that we call and Joe calls and I call?' And he says, 'Yeah, that one'.
Charlie has a big conference back there and Charlie finally comes walking on and he wrote the number down on a matchbook cover, handed it to Elvis and Elvis says, 'Okay. So there you go'. And I said, 'That makes everything okay'. And I said, 'You know, I write three top ten records, you'd think that, you know, I oughta be able to just at least call you up and say, hey, I think I got a hit for you or something, you know'. I never called it. And I knew I wouldn't when I asked for it but it was like a matter of principle to me and I kept it in my phone book for probably fifteen years after he passed away. I still had Elvis' number in my book and I never called it.
Q : Did Elvis ever tell you how happy he was for your success?
A : No, he never did. I didn't have a lot of communication with Elvis. It was, I've told people this before. You know, you had to go through a barricade to get to Elvis. It was people hanging on every word and I felt very uncomfortable a lot of times. You know, if it was just me and Elvis one on one, which only happened once or twice in the times that I did see him, it was a really comfortable. He was a cool guy. He was a great guy. Laughed, you know, easy laugh, nice guy. But you always felt intimidated to be around him because everybody was hanging, you know, everybody was afraid you was gonna say the wrong thing to him and they was gonna have to deck you. At least you felt that way. So we really never talked much about music or anything. And I'm sure that Elvis was happy for me. I think he was the kind of guy that enjoyed other peoples success, especially if he had something to do with it. And, you know, I never tried to ride his coattails or anything but I've always given him credit for all the good things that have happened in my life.
Q : Where were you when you learned of Elvis passing?
A : I was out on the golf course, 1977, a guy came riding out in a golf cart and said, 'Did you know that Elvis died?' And I just said, 'Well, there you go'. You know, it was like I had kinda been expecting it and but it was still, it was like a shock. I remember just sitting there in the golf cart for a long time and right out in the middle of the fairway and just going, wow, what a waste. But, life goes on.
Q : What type of impact did Elvis have on your career?
A : Well, you know, if you look at my early pictures, performing on stage in Vegas, you'll see I've got on one of those Bill Belew suits with the sequins and stuff. And, of course, it was never as nice as Elvis' because Bill Belew would have lost his gig if he'd have made me one as nice as Elvis'. But I had two or three of those things made. And he made a huge impact. Every performer who ever performed in rock and roll or even close to it is lying if they tell you that they weren't influenced in some way or another by Elvis Presley. He turned the world around. I mean, he turned music around singlehandedly.
Q : Why do you think Elvis is still so popular?
A : This I don't know. If I knew that, I'd probably be the president of a great big record company but I'm not. And I think it was just that Elvis came along at a time he made it okay for white guys to sing black music. He made it okay for, I don't know. He really just changed the face of music when he came out. You know, he made it all right to wiggle and shake your hips and be sexual and sensual with music and still be a nice clean cut fellow and, you know, someway and another, he made that all come together and pulled it off.
Q : I had a lot of fun interviewing you. Thanks a lot.
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.
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'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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