Interview with Tony Brown
Source: Elvis Australia
November 3, 2019
Q: Tell us when you first met Elvis.
A: First time I met Elvis was in 1969, it was his return to Las Vegas. International Hotel. The opening night, I was playing piano for a group called the Stamps Quartet, JD Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. So, everyone had been invited to the opening night and JD was one of those people. We were a gospel group so he arranged our schedule so that our schedule ended up in Las Vegas so he could go to the show. Of course we were all bummed out that we couldn't go to the show, but he did do one thing. He said, 'After the show, we'll draw straws and one of you can go backstage and meet Elvis'. And I won. So, I went backstage and met Elvis after the show.
And, it was a moment I'll never forget. It was like seeing, I mean knowing he was the superstar celebrity that he was, back in those days I was basically playing in the church. He was bigger, bigger than life. And when I met him, it was like seeing the most beautiful human being. It was like he was the most perfect specimen of a human being I'd ever seen. I was totally just bowled over with his charisma and everything. I will never forget it. And it really stuck with me I think. To this day I will never forget that night. Walking in the door and actually seeing Elvis Presley standing there in front of me. It was like seeing Adonis or something, I don't know.
Q: So what did Elvis say to you?
A: You know I don't remember that. I probably said, 'How are you doing, Sir?' He was so polite, you know? But I was basically a wallflower sitting next to JD Sumner, cuz JD was a person that Elvis really loved. And so I didn't say very much?
Q: How was it backstage that night.
A: Well, you've got to understand, now that I've been in the business for years and years and been around stars and seen the whole deal. Been in, played with Elvis and seen how that whole backstage scene works. I don't think backstage now days is the same as it was back in those days. Backstage in those days, going backstage at the International Hotel to see Elvis Presley was like, probably going to see the President of the United States. Very serious security and of course me being so star struck, never had been around a star of that magnitude in my entire life, nobody had. Not many people had met Elvis Presley I guess. It was just very, the energy level was, I mean, can you imagine? It was like you're somewhere that you're not supposed to be unless invited and you feel like you're totally honored to be in the presence of the biggest star in the whole world. I mean, you tell me how I probably felt that night. Now that I look back on it, it was, it's the way you think backstage is nowadays. You go backstage at a Madonna concert, it's not the same thing. You know, she's not even there usually. And it's just not the same deal as it was back then.
Q: When was the next time you saw Elvis?
A: Next time I saw Elvis was, I still played in the gospel groups for about 13 years. He would come to the national quartet convention because of JD. I mean, JD was really one of Elvis heroes. Maybe his biggest hero. And he would come to the national quartet convention which is a convention where all the southern gospel quartets in America would gather once a year. And it was in Memphis. And word was spread that Elvis might come down one night. It was a three-night deal like Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And usually on a Saturday night, he would show up, and then he was showing up for JD. So it was very cool to be in the band that had the guy that Elvis came to see. So he would come into the quartet convention. And once again we're talking about people who are there to see gospel music. And as you know, Elvis loved gospel music and that's what he really loved to sing. But it was like surreal. He'd walk into the room with that big collar. You know Elvis always dressed 24 hours a day like Elvis Presley. I mean with the belts and the big collars and everything. So he'd walk in the room and everybody was levitating. I mean it was surreal. To this day I've never been around many stars, if any, that have that kind of effect when he walked into the room. It was beautiful.
Q: When was the first time you played with Elvis or for Elvis. Was it one of those gospel conventions?
A: No, the first time I played for Elvis was, I joined a group called Voice that Elvis had created, and I had got a friend of mine. Pete Helene from Sweden. And he started telling me about this gig I had gotten him with Elvis playing for Voice around the house. They were Elvis' house band as everyone called them. They were there basically to entertain Elvis when he was in Palm Springs or Graceland or Beverly Hills. And I was going, 'Man, I should have taken that job'. But Pete could not get his green card so he got sent back to Sweden. And so me being the ambitious young man that I was back then, I took that job. And so my first time to play with Elvis, I went to a session at RCA in Hollywood. He was recording the Today album. And I forget what the year was. It had to be probably 75. Right. And they were running a song then called 'Bringing It Back'. A song that had been written by a guy in Nashville. And so David Briggs said I'd played on the demo that Elvis was listening to. So when Elvis got ready to sing it, run it through, so David Briggs, I was sitting over in the corner. I was not on the session, I was just there because Voice was there to do backgrounds if Elvis wanted them to sing. So David Briggs said, 'Hey come over here and play this song'. And of course, I just freaked out. So I went over to the piano and I started playing, and I ended up playing on that record. So that was also, you know, the monumental experience playing in Hollywood at RCA Victor Studios with Elvis Presley for the first time.
Q: How did it feel the first time you heard it on the radio?
A: Well that record wasn't that big of a hit. But the first time I heard it, by the time it got to the radio, I'd already been getting off on hearing it on the records, you know. Just, even hearing it on a pressed record and then hearing it on the radio was another trip. But that was an exciting experience for me.
Q: What were recording sessions like with Elvis?
A: Well, I was only around since the Today album, and then I was involved in the Moody Blue record which was, a lot of it was recorded up at Graceland in the jungle room. I played on, I think, five or six cuts on that. But just observing these Hollywood sessions and, cuz we were there for quite a few days. A lot of waiting. You know, musicians getting there at seven or eight o'clock. Whenever they were called. And then Elvis finally showing up hours later, but it doesn't matter because he's Elvis Presley. And just the excitement in the room when he finally is in the building. You know, the cool thing about Elvis was not that he's in the room. You hear this, He's in the building. And you start like getting these chill bumps. He's in the building. He's coming into the room. He's in the room, there he is. And, I mean, I'm not exaggerating. It's really something. I've always been a bit star-struck. Even to this day, being the president of MCA records, I am still awestruck by a star. You know, actors and, politicians and recording artists and such. So, but back then, the awestruck was at such a high level that I would almost faint when I would see someone like him walk into the room. But, I will never regret saying that I felt that way about seeing Elvis Presley because I bet if you ask anyone who worked with him, even close to him, probably still felt that way every day when they worked around him.
Q: You seem to feel him, even if you didn't see him.
A: Right. Right. In fact, that's exactly right. And I think sometimes he even would let you know that, you know, he was a sort of a, I think he was on a different plane than we were. I think he was a higher, a higher plane. He was an interesting man. I will say that.
Q: I noticed a couple of books that were gifts from Elvis.
A: Yeah we were with Voice, we would go to Palm Springs a lot. That's where we seemed to spend most of our time with him and we'd go to the house and he'd want to sing some gospel songs and we'd get around the piano and sing. And then, he'd want to read the Bible and we'd read the Bible and, one night he was reading from The Impersonal Life back here. And he asked did anyone have one of those. And of course nobody had one of those. I didn't know what it was. So we all jumped in the car and we, let's see there were maybe 15 people. So got our little entourage of cars and drove down to a store in Palm Springs until we found a bookstore that actually had 15 copies of The Impersonal Life so we could buy them. And also there was another book he wanted us to get called The Way Out. So we all bought those books that night we came back to the house and was reading those things.
Q And that was one of his favorite books and he signed it?
A: He sure did. He signed it and, inside the first page he made us write, I deny. We were sitting on the floor in Palm Springs reading, I think The Impersonal Life or The Way Out. And he asked us to, he said, 'Everyone put a piece of jade, paste it to your forehead. I want you to see your aura'. Well, once again, nobody owned any jade. In the cars. Down to the jewelry store. And, I mean, he was just, getting around Elvis Presley was an exciting time. Do you know? I mean interesting, exciting, surreal, but, I must admit, it was inspiring, you know?
Q: He wanted you to write I deny. Can you explain that?
A: He was saying that you can have anything you want if you will it to yourself. And the ability in, I've always heard, I never heard that before. Elvis told me that, the ability to will things to yourself. If you have the ability to do it, you can do it. You know, if there's a job, or something that you want and you have that ability, you actually can will it to yourself. And you know, I've always thought that. And everything that I've ever wanted has happened to me. Not, not everything, but I mean a lot of things that were dreams have come true. Producing records that win gold and platinum and multi-platinum and playing with artists that I wanted to play with, meeting people I wanted to meet. You know, just things. And I never forgot that. Now whether you say, Well that's crazy or whatever. I, to this day still hear, I've heard that people believe that and Elvis was the first person who told me that. So I took him seriously and he said, 'You know why you're here'. One night he would pick somebody out of the room and go. And you would feel like you were the chosen one for a second. Because there were several people in the room. And one night, he had never really spoken to me much. I was definitely one of the lower rung. And he asked me, Did I know why I was sitting there with him. I said, 'No'. He said, 'Cuz you wanted to be here'. He said, 'That's why you're here. And that's what I deny means. No one can deny you of what you're meant to have if you want it really bad enough'.
Q: So there was really a spiritual side to Elvis?
A: Big time. That's the reason, that's the strangest thing about me, where I sit today because I was raised in the church, my dad was an evangelist. I never even, I thought I would end up being in the biggest gospel group and that would be my entertainment kind of a job. And never intended to get into this secular style of music. But working for Elvis which came through being in gospel groups and being associated with DJ Sumner, got me into the secular side of music. And being with Elvis opened the doors to playing with after Elvis, other artists like Emmylou Harris, which led me to meet people that got me a job with RCA Victor after Elvis passed. And now with MCA for 17 years, but it all started back there. It was a spiritual kind of beginning and Elvis was an Assembly of God guy. That's where he went to church. I was raised Baptist, but he was raised Assembly of God. But he was very spiritual and he took it very seriously, you know. And I totally related to him and, I think that's the thing that people, the masses, got from him. He communicated to the masses not only because he was a sexy rocking kind of guy, but he really communicated with his spirituality. They connected with him.
In fact I want to tell you a funny story. We're in Notre Dame one night and right in the middle of the show, this is when I was playing for Elvis by then. It was when the last year I guess. Right in the middle of the area, a bunch of women had bought seats like center about midways back and had a banner. And they found their moment when Elvis finished a song and they just jumped up with this banner that said, 'Elvis, you're the king', stretching all the way across the middle section. And Elvis said, 'No, Jesus Christ is the king'. And they just went like quietly down and they were on to the next song. But there was a poignant moment I think. Elvis was serious.
Q: But I'm sure he had his comical moments, did he ever play any jokes on you guys?
A: Oh, well, one night he introduced me as Monty Rock the Third. And I just stood up and took a bow. And he said You're not Monty Rock the third. One night we were playing and the guy that played the electric piano, David Briggs, was playing the main part of the keyboard song and Elvis walked by as he was singing it and just jerked the plug out in the middle of the song. So what do you do? Just funny things.
Q: Throw water on you?
A: He never threw water on me. I can't think of some of the funny things he's done. But he did a lot of funny things. I mean, he picked on some people more than others. I mean, I wasn't one of the ones that were singled out. I was more in the background. But there were some people he always was playing tricks on.
Q: What was it like to tour with Elvis.
A: Well, you know most bands today may have like, lots of busses and semis and then the artist may travel in a jet and the band travels in a bus. A lot of country artists tour in busses, but, Elvis was like an Air Force who had four planes. The Colonel had a plane. Elvis had a plane. The band had a plane, and the crew had a plane. And then, all the sound guys and all the concession guys were in semi trucks and busses and stuff. So when we hit a town, it was like, you know that Elvis had become the town because the Air Force has landed. You know.
So it was a big moment. I mean, I was telling Joe Esposito early that being with Elvis, of all the things I've done to this day, and all the records I've made, playing with Elvis defines who I am I think. Because they can talk about Reba McIntire, or George Straight, or Vince Gill, or Wynonna Judd or Trisha Yearwood about the latest record and then they'll always say, 'Do you mind if I ask you a couple of Elvis questions?' So I think being on tour with Elvis is the one thing that defined who I am today, I think. And I wouldn't have missed being a part of that. I do remember one funny thing. You know, Elvis always got there just before we would play the opening. 2001. Usually, just before that happened most of the time. One night, as a decoy, they put Elvis in a police car. I think it was in Tulsa, Oklahoma or something. And I was backstage when the little police car pulled up like a Ford or something. In the front seat was Elvis in his jumpsuit. A policeman and Elvis Presley. It was a moment that kind of moment, you know.
Q: So, did you rehearse with Elvis a lot?
A: No rehearsals. My first show with Elvis was in Kansas City at Kemper Arena. We went to Memphis to rehearse. Because after Voice disbanded, I really wanted to play with Elvis. So, I told Glen Hardin if he ever left, I wanted to replace him because I knew the show backward and forwards. I was on the stage, on the set every night. I watched every movement. I knew that show. And sure enough, Glen Hardin left to go play with Emmylou Harris. And Felton Jarvis called me and said that if I wanted to have the job, Glen Hardin suggested I take the job, I could have it. So, went to Memphis to rehearse. We waited three days, never rehearsed. So, we go to Kansas for the first show. And Felton Jarvis said, 'Okay, the second tune is 'Teddy Bear'. Elvis will do this. You go 'da-da-da-da'. Burton has the rest of it till the very end. 'I Can't Help Falling In Love', you do that intro. Easy gig. Just pay attention'. And so I knew I could do it. But I must tell you, after 'Mystery Train', and then Elvis went, I was very, very nervous. And trying to play triplets when you're nervous is hard. But in the 'Can't Help Falling In Love', that intro. is like, it seemed like it lasts for an hour, you know. But, wow, what a moment. That's really a moment.
Q: So, did Elvis throw you a lot of curves?
A: He would. One night he called out 'Blueberry Hill'. And so, I looked at Joe Guercio, I said, 'What key?' He said, 'We don't do that'. And so he said try a C or something. And I was trying to remember what Fats Dominos intro to that record was. I couldn't remember. So, I just started playing the rhythm of the song, you know. And this is in front of like 20,000 people. I'm sweating. I mean, you can feel the water rolling. And Burton and Ronnie Tutt, they're all looking at me, Joe Guercio and Elvis says, 'That's not the way it goes', walks over to the piano, sits down, and plays something. And then the band kicks in, you know, they just, Tutt and those guys, they were so good, Jerry Sheff, they just kicked into it. And he started singing it and got up and left and went out in front and did the next song. But for a couple of songs, I was like worthless. I mean, total embarrassment, you know. And we didn't do that song ever again.
One night he did play 'Unchained Melody'. He came over and asked, would I move over. And then he took his big TCB ring off and laid it on the bench, and he played 'Unchained Melody'. And there was one chord he didn't know. And when he got to that chord, he just pointed at David Briggs on the electric piano, and David grabbed it. And that song stayed in the show for quite a few nights. But the first night he did that, there was a big, loud banging at my door because we were in this town two nights in a row when that happened. Usually, he left after the show. We always stayed after the show. Everybody wanted to know where the ring was. And I said, 'I don't have the ring'. What happened somebody picked it up thinking it might fall, but they didn't tell Ricky Stanley or David Stanley where it was at. So, I think they thought I'd picked it up as a souvenir. I said, 'I wouldn't have touched that ring for nothing in the world'. Because it was like a huge, huge, TCB ring. Who knows what it was worth, not just because of the diamonds, but because it was Elvis Presley's. That was a hands-off kind of a deal for me, wouldn't touch it. But that was another interesting moment.
You know, some nights, he would take a hat out front, not many nights, but a couple of nights and get requests of songs from movies and stuff. And it was interesting, usually the person that knew those songs was James Burton or Jerry Scheff. But, you know, he threw a few curves. But, you know what? That's what I love about Elvis was his shows were like they were arena shows. But in a sense, you were in his living room. You know, you were there, right there with him. He didn't go out there. He did it. He entertains you, but I think he felt like you were just part of, you know, sitting in his living room. Because some nights, he'D just stare the crowd down to see what they would do. And, you know, you're sitting there ready for the next song. And it maybe five minutes. And he goes, 'You'd better hit it'. And, of course, Tutt and all those guys were. They knew the drill. And when you got a drummer like Ronnie Tutt and base player like Jerry Schiff, which is like having a locomotive behind you, you just hang on and play. It's fun.
Q: Did you get down and play piano with Elvis anytime?
A: When I was with Voice, those were moments when I was actually in there. You sit on the couch around in the house with Elvis. And he'd come and we'd gather around the piano. We'd sing old spirituals and stuff. And he'd play -- he loved to play the piano. And he actually played pretty good. He played guitar good too. But, you know, he was just basically to me, I learned from being in Voice what kind of a guy he really was which is basically just a good southern guy who happened to be really handsome and really could rock the world, you know. He was just a regular guy in my opinion who grew up being a superstar. And his life was not real. It was a surreal life he lived. But at the heart of it all was a person who -- that everyone that worships Elvis wishes that he was that person. He was that guy from Tupelo that was a southerner true at heart, loved the church, loved his mom, loved his fans and was totally fascinated by being Elvis Presley himself. I think it blew him away he was Elvis Presley, you know. And I think it was -- he lived a fantasy life and enjoyed sharing with his friends, you know, the cars and the rings and the watches and all that stuff. That's all true.
Another good story. I was at Voice. One night, they called and said, 'Hey, listen. Some of the guys are coming over to Graceland tonight. Why don't you guys come over, catch a plane and come over tonight'. And one of the guys in Voice said, 'Oh, man. Can we come tomorrow?' They said, 'Well, you can come tomorrow if you want to, but come tonight. Be a good thing'. And they said, 'We'll come tomorrow'. And I said, 'Let's go tonight'. We went the next day. We pulled up to Graceland. It was the year that the Cadillac Seville had just come out. There were about ten of them lined up. And everybody said, 'You all should have come last night'. And then everybody got a Seville except Lamar Fike. I think he got a Mark III or something completely different. But anyway, you had those kind of things. And I look back, and Elvis would pull out the greediness in all of you. You know, I think of some people definitely took advantage of it. But, you know, he loved doing that.
Q: So Elvis gave gifts for your friendship.
A: Oh, yeah. I mean, I got a ring which I keep. I gave it to my son. And it's called my Elvis ring. I even had a picture made with it. He gave it to me in Greensboro, North Carolina. I mean, you know, he didn't just give everybody gifts all the time. I mean, there had to be a reason he gave it, you know, he gave gifts. I mean, you've heard stories about he was in a dealership and a lady who walked in, and he would think that you know -- see that maybe she couldn't afford the Cadillac. And he would give her the Cadillac. You know, I'd love to do that. That would be so cool.
Q: Did you ever see him give things to the audience?
A: Absolutely. I saw one night in Ashville, North Carolina. He had this guitar that was so cool. It had a karate emblem on it. And it had the Elvis in pearl up at the head. It was a Gibson, I think. And he played it every night. It was a black pearl Gibson. And I was thinking, that guitar is going to be in the rock and roll hall of fame one day, sure as the world, what a cool guitar, you know. One night in Ashville, at the end of 'Mystery Train', he does that back and forth and throws it and Charlie Hodge will catch it and put it down. And that night he threw it in the audience. And I saw a hand reach up and grab that thing. And, of course, I think some of Elvis' people went out to try to get it back. And Elvis meant for it to go. So, they had to call Nashville and get several more Gibsons brought in. But that one was gone. And I wonder to this day where that guitar ended up. The next night we were in Ashville, two nights in a row. Next night, did it again. But it wasn't that guitar. I saw he gave somebody a ring in the audience. And, once again, you know, some of Elvis' entourage went just to make sure Elvis wanted that person to keep the ring. So, he was a very compassionate person. I mean, he really... I think when he died, he never regretted giving away anything he gave away, you know. And he gave it away, not to be, garish. He gave it away because he felt good. It's like, you know, some people take. And some people gave. I think Elvis gave.
Q: Did Elvis tell you anything in particular that sticks in your mind?
A: I mean, I think just those times in Palm Springs we were doing those books and reading the Bible and stuff, just the things he would say about, you know, just being spiritual and believing in God and... I don't know, you know, I didn't have the moments to sit around with Elvis and talk about him giving me advice about my career or anything like that, you know. Because there were so many people around Elvis. I was merely a small peon around many great people who were around him. So, I was just honored to have been. Actually, the best job was playing with the TCB band needless to say. That was a brass ring I had hoped to reach for and actually grabbed it. But I wouldn't have missed Voice, even though I don't think Voice was what I consider a milestone creatively, musically or anything. I just think it was put there for a reason. As Elvis said, it was put there for all of the guys to be able to be around Elvis Presley and ever how it turned out after that. But I wouldn't have missed that, because I got to talk to him as a person and sit on the couch with him just he and -- you know, talk about karate or religion or cars, you know, things like that.
Q: When was the last time you saw Elvis?
A: Well, it would be June 26th in Indianapolis, Indiana. That was the last time. On that tour, something happened that I will never forget. We were, it was about three nights before somewhere. I don't know what the city was. But we were walking together to the stage, Elvis is pulling in, whatever. And as we walked out of the dressing room, the band, the back-up singers, the horn players, big crew of people, a lot of people, I'm just one of them, Elvis walks in the back door. Of course, I don't turn around, because we, you know -- we just got to -- we keep going, and Elvis called my name. And I stopped and turned around. And he said, 'Tony'. So, I walked back to him. And he said, 'Ah, forget it'. But that was a moment for me too, you know. He chose me. And, you know, so, that was the last tour. So, that was the last personal moment I had with him, you know. I really think probably had he lived, we would have become good friends.
Q: Where were you when you found out he had passed away?
A: At the airport. We were at the airport waiting for the show plane to arrive from... It started from Los Angeles, picked up the horn players in Las Vegas. They would stop in Nashville and pick up the rest of us, Bobby Ogden, myself and the Stamps Quartet and several other people. We were at the airport at a private terminal waiting for the show plane to arrive. And it was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, just gorgeous, chatting. And all of a sudden, this storm came up, I mean, out of nowhere. We're talking like gale-force winds. And the planes were shaking. And in walks these about four or five guys from the National Guard, which the National Guard terminal was next door if you've been to the Nashville Airport. These guys walk into the same terminal that we were in. So, the rain starts pounding the runway. And the winds blowing, and it's kind of weird. And I overhear this guy -- this National Guard guy on the phone. Before we had cellular phones, they had mobile phones, you know. And I heard him say, 'How did it happen? Are you sure it was Mr. Presley?' And then Felton Jarvis came over and said, 'Tours off. Go home. We'll call you. We'll give you an update'. And my first thought was that Vernon Presley had passed away. So, needless to say, I'm puzzled. So, I go get in my car. The storm has sort of subsided by then. I get in my car, and I'm driving down Riley Parkway. And on the news, it says that Elvis had been found in his home. They think he's dead. And he's on the way to the hospital. So, by the time I got home, they said they verified that he had passed away. That's how I found out. And I went to Julienne's Restaurant and got drunk. Just blew my mind, you know. So, it was a strange ending. But it is kind of weird, you hear those stories about supernatural powers that, it was this beautiful day. And this storm came up, and I heard that. It's like it's kind of a strange thing, surreal kind of deal. But I'm not surprised. After being around Elvis for all those years, that when he entered heavens gates that maybe it shook the town up there.
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Never before have we seen an Elvis Presley concert from the 1950's with sound. Until Now! The DVD Contains recently discovered unreleased film of Elvis performing 6 songs, including Heartbreak Hotel and Don't Be Cruel, live in Tupelo Mississippi 1956. Included we see a live performance of the elusive Long Tall Sally seen here for the first time ever. + Plus Bonus DVD Audio.
This is an excellent release no fan should be without it.
The 'parade' footage is good to see as it puts you in the right context with color and b&w footage. The interviews of Elvis' Parents are well worth hearing too. The afternoon show footage is wonderful and electrifying : Here is Elvis in his prime rocking and rolling in front of 11.000 people. Highly recommended.
Tupelo's Own Elvis Presley DVD Video with Sound.