Interview with Jerry Scheff
Source: Elvis Australia
December 30, 2023
A : First time I met him was at RCA recording studio in Los Angeles. And that was the first rehearsal that I had with him. James Burton called me and I had done an album with James and he remembered me, fortunately. So he called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. And I wasn't an Elvis fan. And I wasn't big on it. I wasn't gonna do it. But I wanted to go down and see what Elvis was like, you know. So, I told him, 'Yeah, I'll come down'. And so I went down there. And there was Elvis. And he was sittin' on a stool, and all the guys were around, you know. And he was just very personable. Very down to Earth. And smiling and stuff. And so we started to play, and he started to sing. And he had a way of -- he entertained anybody who was around him. He was a consummate entertainer. And if it was the musicians, then he'd do what we liked, you know. What he thought we liked. And so that's what he did. Cause it was just us, you know. James and myself and Larry Muhoberac, we were auditioning a couple of drummers, I think. And so we started to play. I went home that night and I told my wife, ex-wife, Vivian. I said, you oughta come hear this guy. And she said, 'Aw come on, you gotta be kidding'. I said 'No. Tomorrow night, you come down and hear this guy'. And so she came down. And we both became fans. Just like that.
Q : Was the reaction because of his movies and he was enjoying a lot of serious music at the time?
A : No, even in high school when, you know he was -- My background was a jazz background. I was a jazz string bass player. And I loved R&B too. Rhythm and Blues. During the fifties, I was a big fan of like the Midnighters and Annie, you know, like, there was a series of songs, 'Annie Had a Baby' and 'Work With Me Annie' and all the Annie songs. All that stuff. That was my kinda music. And plus I was playing bee bop, you know, jazz. So he didn't compute to me. Until I got face to face with him. And also I was a little more mature by that time. So it was like going to school for me.
Q : So it was like an audition for Elvis, wasn't it?
A : Well it was an audition. There weren't any other bass players there. I was the only bass player. But I mean if, you know, if he had said, 'Well that guy sucks', you know, I'd have been out of there. But fortunately, I had the R&B background. And I'd been playing some pop stuff here in L.A. in the studios too. But I'd never played country music. I knew nothing about country music. I knew nothing about rockabilly at all. And so it was an audition. But fortunately, it worked out good, you know.
The TCB Band - James Burton - Glen D Hardin - Jerry Scheff - Ronnie Tutt.
Q : So was this when he wanted to go back on the road on tour?
A : Yeah, this was just, like 1969. They were putting the band together for Las Vegas. For the Las Vegas opening. And that was gonna be his first in nine years, his first stage performance, or something like that.
Q : Did you start playing some of his old hits at the beginning, to warm up?
A : Oh, we did some blues things. I can't remember which ones. But, cause he knew everybody likes, all musicians like to play blues. And 'That's All Right, Mama', you know, which is sort of a blues bass kind of things, you know. Easy things. That he knew that, you know, we'd all be able to play and pick up on.
Q : All of you guys were so tight as Elvis band.
Do you have any stories about how you all came together?
A : Well, you know. There was a couple of drummers there, the first night that I played. And one of the drummers, he was a really fine drummer named Gene Pello. He was a L.A. studio musician. Originally from New York. And very, very, lot of chops, you know. Real flashy drummer. And he played on quite a few Motown records and things like that. But he wasn't a loose feeling drummer, you know. Which a lot of Elvis stuff required, you know. But anyhow, he played, and everybody was, all of the guys, Elvis guys, everybody was going, 'Oh yeah, this is it'. You know, cause he was flashy and had a lot of chops, and he was really good. And he thought he had the gig, too.
And then Larry Muhoberac, the piano player, said, Ronnie Tutt's sitting over there in the corner, and he just flew out here with his drums from Dallas. And of course Elvis immediately, being the kind of person he was, said, 'Oh well, Ronnie, come on man. Set your drums up and we'll wait for you and then we'll play'. And so Ronnie did. And the minute Ronnie started playing, you could see Gene's face, and you know, Ronnie was just perfect for it. And then Ronnie says that Elvis told him that one of the reasons why he liked him so much was because Ronnie watched Elvis. Watched what he did, paid attention to him, you know. Didn't play 'em like a show drummer, per se, like a, you know, like you would for strippers. But Ronnie just had that combination of where he could gear everything to what Elvis did without making it, you know, seem like a burlesque show, you know. And that's not easy to do, you know.
Q : How long was it from the time you began rehearsals with Elvis that you played The International?
A : Oh, I can't remember exactly how long. You know, it was, we'd rehearse here a couple of weeks, here in L.A. And then we moved up to Las Vegas. And I think we rehearsed for two weeks up there.
Q : What was it like working with Elvis on stage? That first night, performing with him.
A : Oh, well, the first night was amazing, because Elvis wasn't really quite sure how the fans were going to receive him, you know. And we were in his dressing room, hanging out. And everybody was laughing because his leg was going like, you know, his hands and stuff. It was really going a million miles an hour. And when the curtains opened and he came out, he had a certain look on his face, you know. And it reflected his concern. I remember I was watching him. And the crowd just went crazy. And you could just see his face, just transform, you know, from sort of this doubtful look to this, oh yeah, okay. I remember this. Then, from there it was just, that was one of my favorite moments of working for him. Was that moment, right there.
Q : What were the tours like with Elvis?
A : Did you have a specific date in mind? There were all different kinds of tours, you know.
Q : Madison Square Garden.
A : Madison Square Garden. It was, you know, you have to understand that people think of us doing those shows, and they think of us being like every one of 'em was like the end of the world. And it wasn't like that. It was work. It was work, you know. And we went, we were out to have as much fun as we could doing our work. And Elvis was too, you know. A lot of the time. And so we had fun. You could never count on him to do the same thing twice. Which also made things really interesting, it really did. He loved to play stump the band. He loved to see if he could fool us. He started songs that we'd never played before on stage. Just to fool us, you know.
Q : Any particular one come to mind?
A : Oh, no, I can't remember the names of any of 'em. Somebody always knew the songs. Glen Hardin was usually the one that remembered the songs. And so we would key on whoever knew the songs. Glen and James. And Ron and I would key on them. And then we'd drop into it, you know. Fortunately we were able to slip in pretty good, you know. So Elvis would, you know, he'd go, 'God damn'. Cause I don't think he'd fool us too many times, you know.
Q : He had fun with your name and Ronnie Tutt's name.
A : Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Well, you know, there's an old saying, it's tough shit. And so, he started to do, he says, 'Ronnie Tutt on drums, and this is Jerry Scheff on --', he'd always say Scheff so it would fit with his jokes, you know. He knew my name was Scheff, but it was Jerry Scheff on bass, that's Tutt Scheff any way you look at it. He loved to say that. So he'd say that, you know. Not every concert. But later on, when we started playing solos, I don't think he said that.
Q : Do you have any other memories of Elvis sense of humor?
A : His sense of humor. I know that he loved to play practical jokes, and he hated them to be played on him. He didn't like 'em. But especially on stage. Well, I'll tell you a story. And this was Elvis at his best. This was the Elvis that I loved, right. Okay. We were at Graceland. And this was in the later years. And we were sittin' downstairs and Elvis was up in his bedroom. And Charlie Hodge came over and said, 'Elvis wants to see you up in his bedroom'. So I went up to his bedroom, knocked on the door. He opened the door. I walked in and there policemen in uniforms sitting all over his room. On his bed. And he was standing there in a Denver police captains uniform. So he introduced me to all these policemen. And he took me in his closet. And he had these five suits in among jillions of other things. But they stuck out, because they were sort of bright colors. One was green, and one was like sort of a lavender color. And then there was a red one, and some, they had fur on the cuffs. And the hats had like rhinestone buckle on the front of 'em. They looked like Superfly outfits, you know. I said, 'Where in the hell did you get those at?' And he said, 'Oh, we were walkin by a store, I said, look at them suits. Next thing I know, they're hanging in my closet'. So anyhow, he said here -- he pulled the green one, I remember, he said, 'Try this on'. So I put it on. And it just swam on me, you know, it was too big. So he gave me a velvet jacket that he had and a ascot. And so I went back down. You gotta picture this.
And one by one he brought everybody up and dressed them, put a costume on 'em. Cause he was gonna wear that police captains uniform and he decided he was gonna dress everybody else up. So when he got to the J.D. Sumner and Stamps Quartet, the Superfly outfits fit them. And so here they are, they come downstairs. We were just dying laughing. It took us a half hour just to get started recording, because you'd start recording something, and you'd look at Elvis, and Elvis would look at you, and you'd just break up, you know. So anyhow, we recorded about 6:00 in the morning like that. All dressed in our costumes and that was it. We got all the tracks done. And Elvis said, 'Well, we'd better get the jets to take the guys out to L.A. Get the Stamps back to Nashville'. He says, 'Charlie, go get the white stretch limousine'. So Charlie goes around and brings out this white stretch limousine. And Elvis gave it to the Stamps. He had the keys, he says, 'Here, this is for you boys'. So we went out on the porch. The suns coming up. And we're standing on the porch of Graceland. Charlie brings the stretch limousine out. And here's the Stamps in the Superfly outfits, getting into this white stretch limousine. And Elvis was on the ground laughing. We were all just cracking up. That's the Elvis I loved. That's one of my favorite stories about him, you know. He just, he loved to have fun, you know.
Q : David Briggs pulled a fast one on you at one of the recording sessions too, didn't he?
A : Oh, yeah. I had flown to Graceland from Los Angeles. I had worked in the studio all day here. Recording with somebody else. And got to Graceland, and I was just bushed. It was in the middle of the night when I got there. And David Briggs was sittin' there. And I said to David, I said, 'You know, I am so tired. I don't know if I'm gonna get through this'. I said, 'You got any uppers?' He said, 'Oh, sure, just like this'. And he reached in his pocket and handed me a pill. And I popped it down. So then we were cutting, it was during the take on one of the songs we were cutting that night. I was sitting there, and I couldn't hold my hands on the bass. My hands kept falling off. And I kept nodding. And what had happened was, is that he had given me a Quaalude. Which I had never taken before. Never taken one. I never liked the downers. And he gave me a Quaalude. And then he went and told Elvis and everybody else in the room, 'Watch Scheff. Watch Scheff', you know. So they were all sittin' there, and when I started just nodding out, they were cracking up laughing. So I had to redo the bass part on that song after they got me sobered up, you know. Oh, God. Yeah. That was that one.
Q : How about the night you played Wagner, and you were going to have David Briggs and yourself pull a fast on Elvis, and David didn't come through?
A : Oh, yeah. Well, you know. Elvis got to where he wanted us to take solos when he introduced us. And how the hells a bass player take a solo after a drummer, you know. I mean, it's impossible. I said, 'I'm gonna play a slow blues'. You know, I'll go the opposite direction, and Ronnie can play the razzle-dazzle and all. So every night Elvis would come on, he'd say, 'Jerry Scheff on bass. Play the blues, Jerry'. So I'd play a slow blues thing. And one time we were in Louisiana, and I was sick of playing the blues. And so we were in Louisiana, you know, and I said to the guys in the dressing room, I said, 'Listen, I'm gonna play sort of a Cajun thing about this tempo, and I'm gonna play something else, you know, key of D'. So we got out there, and Elvis came over and he said, 'Jerry Scheff on bass. Play the blues, Jerry'. And I started in this other thing. And he looked at me like, what the hell you doing, man? So anyhow, the next night, he would never say anything, though, you know, but the next night I came out and he said, 'This is Jerry Scheff on bass. What are you gonna play for us, Jerry?' So I said, 'I'm gonna play this Cajun thing'. So the next night he asked me that, and I said, 'Well I'm gonna'. He said, 'What are you gonna play, Jerry?' and I said, 'I'm gonna play a little Wagner'. So I played da da da daaaa, you know, laughing and stuff. And so anyhow, then the next night he came out and looked at me, and, I knew he was gonna say 'What are you gonna play'. And so I was gonna say, 'I'm gonna play the piano'. And I know, he knew that I didn't know how to play the piano. So I, with David Briggs before the show, I set it up with him. I said, 'Okay, you get under the piano and put your fingers on the electric piano. And I'm gonna come over and stand, and you play, and it'll look like I'm playing'. Briggs, just like he did with the Quaalude, went to Elvis and told him the whole thing, right? So Elvis came out that night, he said, 'Jerry Scheff on bass. What are you gonna play, Jerry?' And I said, 'Oh, I think I'll play the piano'. And he looked at me, and he said, 'Why don't you play the blues, Jerry?' And that was it. And I found out after that Briggs had tipped him, you know.
Q : Was it fun for Elvis to find good rock material to record?
A : Yeah. Yeah. There were two facets to that. And one of them was, is that, it was hard for him to find good rock songs to record. Because rock songs were getting to parodies of themselves. You know what I'm talking about? I mean, every singer that I've ever worked with has gone through this. And if people want you to, they love the old stuff you did, and they want you to do that kind of stuff. But you become a parody of yourself when you start doing it too much. And I personally believe that Elvis really knew that, and really didn't want to do that kind of rock and roll anymore. And so, we were on the Lisa Marie one night, flying somewhere. And I said, 'How come you're not doing any good rock and roll songs, Elvis?' And he said, 'Oh, I can't find any that I like'.
And so I went home. And I wrote a rock and roll song. And premeditated, you know. And I played it for Felton Jarvis. Actually, it was a ballad, too. And Felton loved the ballad. He loved both the songs for Elvis, but the ballad, believe it or not, he thought was a little risque for Elvis at the time. So, but the song 'Fire Down Below' was, we went to record it. And we worked on it for about two hours at Graceland. And this was late 1976. And all of us together, you know. And then Elvis excused himself and went upstairs. A little while later he called me up and he said, 'Jerry, I just can't go on anymore. I'm gonna send everybody home'. But he said, 'I promise I'll get my vocal on it'. And he never did.
So I have a CD out now, of that song, 'Fire Down Below'. And well, what happened was, is that this album was put out by BMG called 'The Jungle Room Sessions', which was all of the stuff cut at Graceland. And without asking my permission, they put the track 'Fire Down Below' on it. So here I'd sat on that song all these years, and then they put out the track, and people started emailing me and saying you gotta do it. So finally I just said okay. So Ronnie and James and Glen D. and I went in the studio and cut it and a couple other songs. And so it's out now. And even at that, you know, it was my song, the whole deal. I don't think he wanted to do it. I really don't, you know.
Q : Why do you think he didn't want to do it?
A : I didn't think he wanted to do that rock and roll anymore. I mean it was like I say, it was that macho strutting kind of rock and roll thing, you know. He was in his middle age. I think he wanted to do songs that reflected that he can use his voice on more. Like, that's why he loved doing 'The Impossible Dream' and all that, you know, Vegas kind of stuff. It's cause he was a great singer, you know, and he could show off his voice. So that's my opinion.
Q : What are your memories of Elvis during Aloha from Hawaii?
A : Well, Aloha From Hawaii was another concert. It was for me. I think it was for the rest of the guys. It was another concert. And, big one, but you know, another one, yeah. I didn't particularly notice that Elvis had any nervousness, other than normal. He just went out and did the show, you know.
Q : How about the last tour, when CBS did the special?
A : The last tour? You know, I don't even remember that. I don't remember anything, you know. During that time, it wasn't that I was in the best condition, you know, myself. I was pretty wiped out and during a lot of that time, myself. And to me it was all just going out and whatever happened was fine, you know. I mean, people say they were shocked at this or shocked at that. I wasn't shocked at anything. I would say, hey, you know, get it on. Just get down. Do the show. He would go, and we did it. You know.
And I have to tell you that I missed two years right in the middle of the thing. From 73 right after 'Aloha from Hawaii', I quit for two years. And maybe a bunch of stuff went down in that two years that was shocking, but on stage, I'm talking about, but as far as I'm concerned, that was the last, after I came back, 75, on that last couple of years. I never noticed anything that shocking. People loved him. He'd come out on the stage, the guy comes out and sings, you know, and you listen to some of the tapes of some of those shows, which there are a jillion of 'em all over the place. And I'll tell you something. Some of those songs some of the best versions, I ever heard soulful versions I ever heard him sing are on those tapes, you know. And I think that all of the critics and all of the people that used to make remarks about his weight and about this and that. I'd like to see what they look like now, you know. The way I look at it, man -- here's a guy, man, he's a free American male, he can do whatever the hell he wants to do. People don't have to buy the tickets. They don't have to go see him. But they did. So get off it, you know. Forget about that shit, you know. Just take the guy for what he was and that's it. He was a human being, just like all of us.
Q : Were you in Portland when you found out Elvis had passed away?
A : No, we were on the way to Portland. We were in the plane. And we landed in Pueblo, Colorado and called, and there was a message to call Memphis. And it was pretty, pretty, it was a moving time for us, you know. And so we flew back into L.A., and it was funny enough, you know, L.A. doesn't have a whole lot of thunderstorms. But we landed in Burbank airport in the middle of a thunderstorm, lightning and flashing all over the place. And we just landed and everybody just sort of got off the plane and walked away. I don't even remember everybody saying. I think we were all in shock, and we just were like, you know, kinda everybody was just sorta thinking about the unthinkable, which it was. It just unthinkable to us that he could be dead. So we all just sorta walked away. And some of the people from the show, I didn't see until we started doing this, this big Elvis show that we been touring with the last few years, you know.
Q : You played bass on 'L.A. Woman' for the Doors.
A : On the album, yeah.
Q : Did you have any conversations with Jim Morrison about Elvis, 'cause he was a big Elvis fan.
A : You know, I didn't. I don't even know whether he knew. I'm doing a documentary right now on and Ray Manzarek, the keyboard player is gonna come over. Now I understand and work on my documentary, you know, and I understand from what he told, has told people that he thought that I went from doing the L.A. Woman album and the Doors to Elvis, but I was already working with Elvis. But if Ray Manzarek didn't know that I was working with Elvis then I don't even know whether Jim Morrison did, but we never talked about it. I don't think they met because of my studio work. I don't think they called me because I was working with Elvis, 'cause I was Elvis' bass player. I don't even think they knew.
Q : What are your memories of Colonel Parker?
A : Of Colonel Parker? Well, my mom told me if you can't say somethin' good. Colonel, I'll tell you one story about the Colonel and let it go, you know. Let me say first of all that all of the people that I've talked to that worked with the Colonel on a business level really loved him. You know, he was really good to them. That said, now we went up to Las Vegas. I had met the Colonel just briefly here in Los Angeles. I was playing a quarter progressive slot machine at the Hilton and the Colonel walked over and he had two of his RCA buddies with him, you know? And he said, 'Boys, I'd like you to meet Elvis' new bass player. This is Elvis' new bass player, Jerry Scheff'. You know, and so I said, 'How do you do? How do you do? How do you do?' And they're all standin' there holdin' these big paper cups full of quarters, you know? And so when they left they dumped all their quarters into my machine. It was about five, six hundred dollars worth of quarters there and I'm thinkin' to myself, 'Boy, this is gonna be the best gig there ever was in the history of music', you know? 'Cause it was already lookin' good, you know?
And so anyhow, the next morning I was down in the dressing rooms, it was that long hallway, and the Colonel, we were the only two down there and the Colonel was walking this way and I'm walking this way and he did one of these numbers. Just passed me like this -- didn't even acknowledge I was alive, you know. I thought, 'God, what did I do? What did I say', you know? Kept reliving the conversation with him at the slot machine and stuff. So I asked, I think it was Red West. I asked somebody, I told 'em what happened and Red started laughin'. He said, 'Oh', he said, 'had a meeting last night and the Colonel found out how much you were making and he told Elvis, he said, 'Boy, I could put chimpanzees on the stage with you and the people'd still love ya'.'. And as far as I know, I know he didn't say a word to me for five years, and to Glen D. either. But the people who worked with him on a business level really loved him, you know.
Q : How many shows would you do in Vegas?
A : Two shows a night. Yeah. Two shows a night. First, no nights off. Seven nights a week, two shows a night. Elvis had iron chops, you know, I mean he'd sing. He'd never hardly ever hear his voice crack. You know, he just had iron chops. You know, his voice would just do those two shows. Then when we'd go on the road we'd do about the same length of show, about an hour, 45 minutes to an hour and they'd have the comedian and The Sweets would do a song, you know, and stuff. And we never did sound checks 'cause Elvis never did sound checks. So the Sweet Inspirations band did, so on the road or in Las Vegas we'd show up 15 minutes before Elvis was due to go on, do the hour, sometimes only 40, never an encore, go on do the hour and pooh, we were gone. It was great.
Q : Has Elvis changed your life?
A : Oh, absolutely. I mean it was like going to school for me to go to work with him. You know, I mean for one thing it opened my mind musically to a whole area of music that I had poo pooed and, you know, really didn't know anything about and it opened my mind. It was like going to school, working with him. And, you have to understand, he didn't change our lives as far as, in any way except musically, you know? I mean the band, he really loved musicians and he was very polite. And I mean he would laugh and scratch and he'd do things and stuff, but I mean, he never was nasty or never, I don't remember him ever shouting at anybody. I don't remember him ever saying anything to me onstage, you know, about anything, you know, one time when I had been gone for two years, I came back, no rehearsal, no sound check, stepped onstage with him just like I'd never been gone, right? And I started to play and I was used to just hoppin' on it, you know, like we had. And in that two years things had sorta settled, probably where they shoulda been all along, you know? But he turned around and go, 'Whoah, whoah, whoah!' like that, you know? And then I listened and I thought, 'Oh, shit, this is in a different place', so I sorta hung back and tried to pick up on where it was, you know? That's the only thing I think he ever said to me onstage, or even in a rehearsal, you know?
Q : Can you talk about the audience and Elvis?
Elvis really loved his fans, didn't he?
A : He absolutely loved the people, you know. It was that thing. You know, his singing, he had a knack of, when he sang where the words of the song that he was singing would go, it was like they'd go through his brain and then into his heart and then out his mouth to the people, you know, and that's what people loved about him so much. And there not a whole lotta singers that are like that, you know? People claim that Frank Sinatra's was like that, but I think Elvis is much more like that than Sinatra. And that's where the contact came, you know, was that, I mean forget what he looked like and all that. That was one thing. But when he sang a song he wasn't sittin' there goin', 'Oh, boy, how do my nails look tonight?' you know, or anything like that. He is, that song was computing, you know, and he was puttin' it out there and that was part of his love for the audience, you know? He'd say, 'Here's this song. Check this out. Listen to this', you know? 'See if this gets ya', you know? That was his love for his audience.
Q : Why is he so popular now? What is there about Elvis?
A : Oh, I think he'd be amazed 'cause underneath it all Elvis was a, you know, that kid truck driver, you know? Underneath all of that. I think he always was amazed at what had happened, you know? But I think this would even amaze him more, you know? You know, we go especially in Europe, not so much in the United States. In Europe we play these concerts. You know, like we played Zurich for instance last year. Well, all of the concerts were like this, but Zurich was the biggest one we played and about a third of the audience are kids, like 25 and down. And at the end of the show they're up there. You'd think it was some modern, you know, you'd think it was a Madonna concert or something and there are all these kids screamin' and yellin' and jumpin' around and a buncha old farts standin' up there, you know. But what's comin' out to those kids is the power. Elvis, his voice carries all the way over all these years, you know? And the band, the show, we're rockin' it, you know? I mean we're doin' it as close as you'll ever get, and I think it's ever better in some ways than it was back when it was live from just sheer power. But the power that comes off, you can tell, the kids, they're goin' nuts, man. They know the drum licks, they know the bass licks and they know all of Elvis' songs and it just gets 'em, you know? And I think that power coming over through the years from him is, it's all there on tape, you know? And it doesn't lose anything 25 years later, yeah.
Q : Well, thanks for your memories Jerry.
A : Yeah, my pleasure.
Originally Published April 2008
Another Interview with Jerry Scheff
Interview with Larry Muhoberac
Interview with John Wilkinson
Interview with Michael Jarrett, songwriter, I'm Leavin'
Interview with James Burton
Interview with James Burton Sydney Australia 2006
James Burton : First Call For The Royalty Of Rockabilly
Interview with Ronnie Tutt
Interview with Ronnie Tutt #2
Interview with Glen D. Hardin
Interview with Sherrill Nielsen
Interview with Terry Blackwood & Jim Murray
Interview with Tony Brown
Interview with Scotty Moore
Interview with D.J. Fontana
Interview with Charlie Hodge
Interview with Ernst Jorgensen
Elvis Presley & the TCB Band
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