Jerry Schilling On His Lifelong Relationship With Elvis Presley
April 15, 2023
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Jerry Schilling, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship and business relationship with Elvis Presley - and has worked as a manager of other pillars of American music, like the Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jerry Schilling holds a rare distinction in the music business, and in the human race writ large: he's possibly the one living person closest to Elvis Presley without being bonded by blood.
But as compelling as that story is - as Schilling lovingly detailed in his 2006 memoir, 'Me and a Guy Named Elvis' - it's just as fascinating to wonder what Schilling would be doing had he never met the King, or if Elvis had never existed.
Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling, Hawaii.
By the time he was quarterbacked by Presley at a 1954 touch-football game, Schilling had been throttled by circumstance. His mother died when he was a baby. A succession of illnesses stymied him at school. But he got physically and educationally back on track, with dreams of being a football coach and a history teacher.
All the while, the sounds of rhythm and blues inspired and galvanized him, charting the course for a life in music that would provide deliverance from his circumstances.
In other words, Schilling was made of stern stuff - which the perceptive Presley arguably picked up on early. That quality is partly what made Schilling a compelling character in his own right, rising from very little to work so closely with a foundational American figure. And after Elvis passed in 1977, he continued to carve out his unique place in music history.
Schilling went on to have fruitful business relationships with Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys and Lisa Marie Presley, and was depicted by Luke Bracey in Baz Luhrmann's 2022 film Elvis. (Note: this interview took place prior to the film's release.) But if you're curious about what it was really like to be around the King at pivotal points in his career, pick up 'Me and a Guy Named Elvis', which provides an exquisite glimpse into the King at his most human and vulnerable.
For a crystallized version of that story, read on for an interview with Schilling about his hard-knock origins, what it felt like to meet Presley and how he continues to carry the King around in his heart and mind.
Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling, Hawaii.
This interview was edited for clarity.
The Original and Full Interview
Meeting Elvis was a fundamental pivot point in your life. But I'm curious: if you'd never met him, or if he never existed, where do you think your life would have gone?
My early childhood was so bad. Not having a mother, being sick all the time, missing so much school in the first grade that I had to repeat it, which was embarrassing. My grandparents were poor, just very poor - lower class, white, but just wonderful human beings.
I met Elvis about the time that my older brother had kind of forced me into football. I was playing grade-school football and I made the team in the fourth grade - fourth to eighth grade. And I don't know what's the chicken or the egg, but it's about the same time as when I met Elvis.
All of this is when I was 12 years old, between getting into sports, getting healthy, and becoming a friend of Elvis, before he was Elvis. Which, I guess, gave me a lot of confidence, too. That this guy took off immediately - the week that we met was the same week he recorded his first record.
So, if I hadn't met Elvis, to answer your question, I think because I became good at football through school, my scholastic [career got] better. I was president of the class for all four years of high school. I always wanted to go work for Elvis back in the '50s, but I was in grade school and high school. He went on the road and we kept a relationship.
When he came back to Memphis, we'd hang at the movie theater at night. When he bought Graceland, I was always welcome at Graceland at nighttime. I kind of went on with my own life. Forgot about working for Elvis. I got a football scholarship at Arkansas State University and majored in history. I was planning to be - hopefully - a football coach and history teacher.
You know, nothing wrong with that life either.
No, no, but I think I made the right choice. I got hurt in my junior year playing football, so I came back to Memphis and went to the University of Memphis for about a year and a half to finish my education.
I was chosen to practice teaching. They take one student out of education, and you practice teaching the last semester, a grade-school class. So, I was chosen to do that. I was loading trucks at night. I worked at the airport at the ticket counter in the daytime because my family didn't have money to send me to college.
So, when I would go home from the trucking company - which was 9:00 at night, or whenever - I would pass by the Memphian Theater. If Elvis and the guys were in town, I would go to a service station, change [out of] my trucking clothes, and act like I just showed up for the movie.
One night, Elvis was at the screening. He just looked really tired. He was down in front of the screen - these private showings at night. I walked in and thought, 'You know what? I'll see them tomorrow. I'll come back tomorrow night'. I didn't want to bother him.
One of the guys that worked for him said, 'Jerry, do you want to go back to the film exchange with me, and then we'll have an early breakfast?' Elvis had access to the mid-South film exchange, and he could pick movies.
We got to the film exchange, and Elvis called Richard and said, 'You know where I can find Jerry?' He says, 'Well, he's here with me'. He said, 'Would you ask him if he'd come out to the house?' We never called it Graceland. It was always 'the house'. I go out there; Rich is living at Graceland. He goes to bed, and Elvis and his father walk down from upstairs.
His father leaves, and Elvis and I are out on the front porch. He said, 'I need you to come work for me'.
Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling.
Yeah. I said, 'When?' He said, 'Well, now'. I thought for about 10 seconds, and said, 'Well, can I go home and get some clothes?' He said, 'Sure'.
The next day, I had to quit two jobs. I had to tell the university that I wasn't going to practice to teach. I had to tell my father, respectfully, and he was so proud that I worked my way through college - because he only got through grade school.
He said, 'Well, I've always trusted your judgment. You sure this is what you want to do? What are you going to do with them?' I said, 'I don't know'.
That night, I rush back to Graceland. Everybody's sleeping all day because they're very nocturnal - and what's now called the Jungle Room was a screened-in porch. I stood out there all day, and then people started loading up this little bus that Elvis drove. A Winnebago, believe it or not. And we set out for the 2,000-mile journey from Memphis to L.A.
That pretty much changed my life. We stopped at truck stops at nighttime. And when there were lights, Elvis would throw football passes to me, and we slept at the motels in the daytime. I went from the poor section of Memphis, and when we got to L.A., I was living in Bel-Air.
I couldn't go to sleep when we got there. There was a pool in the backyard There was this indirect lighting, and stuff I'd never seen in my life - not even at Graceland. That was the start.
And to flash back to that first football game, it seems like Elvis's personality and drive were immediately on display. The guy you would know for the rest of his life was right there.
Absolutely. I was unconsciously looking for a role model. I was a big fan of James Dean and [Marlon] Brando. When I went to the park by myself on a Sunday afternoon, the park was nothing but dirt, a little wading pool, and horses. A very poor part of Memphis.
I was there by myself, and one of the older guys, Red West, I knew was a big high-school football player. He said, 'Hey, Jerry, do you want to play?' They only had five guys and needed a sixth player. They were all six or seven years older than me. So, I said 'Yeah'. It was three-on-three, go into the huddle.
I had been listening to Dewey Phillips' 'Red, Hot and Blue' since I was 10 years old, because he played rhythm and blues records - which was exciting. It was dangerous in the '50s, in the South, [and this was] Black music.
That night, before this day, Dewey played this record from a boy from Humes High, where my cousins went and my mother had gone. From my grade school, you could physically see Humes High, and vice versa. Dewey said 'A boy from Humes High' when he played the record, to distinguish that Elvis wasn't Black.
The record kept getting requested, so Dewey got in touch with Sam Phillips, and they made a connection with the Presley family. Elvis knew they were playing the record that night. He was very nervous, so he went to this little movie theater in north Memphis. When this fellow went to interview him - that people liked his record - he just kind of stuttered, which was cool.
When I went into the huddle - me, Red and Elvis - I went, 'Wow, that's the boy from Humes High. He had the rebel-ness of James Dean. If I remember correctly, he was in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. There weren't the rhinestones or anything. He didn't have a hit record.
Elvis didn't even have a hit record in Memphis. But he was somebody that I went, 'Wow, I want to be like that guy'. He would laugh if he heard me say that today. He had Dean, Brando, and a quiet little smile that was on the warm side, so you could like him. 'OK, I know you're the young kid. Can you catch the ball?'
He made me feel comfortable. That was my first impression, and over the years, I got to meet, work with, be friends with a lot of well-known entertainers and actors and whatever. Elvis was the only one without credentials.
As a figure, Elvis has been unfortunately been flattened with time, but I think that's changing. Can you talk about how he was an absorber and fuser of disparate styles?
He was so eclectic. He got stuff from everybody, and then he made it his own. He was the most eclectic human being I ever met in my life.
He could see somebody walking and go, 'Hey, Jerry, look at that guy!' It might have been on a movie set. Now, I'm remembering this specifically. He said, 'I'm getting ready to do the '68 special. I'm going to use that guy's walk'. It was a good actor named Billy Murphy, who was quite a character.
By the way, Elvis loved characters to be around sometimes. You can think of a person that would get something from a famous person, right? But, a person that gets something from somebody that's not famous and puts it into his whole makeup? That was Elvis.
What about him would you like to correct? What do we get wrong about him today?
I think, most importantly, his genius in music. He was a very smart guy. I think what he didn't get were the opportunities to fully be the entertainer and actor he could have been.I've said this before - and I don't like to say the same thing twice - but I think I lost my friend at an early age because of creative disappointments.
I'm not blaming Colonel Parker. Being a manager is a big part of my career. If somebody can come in and make a deal with your artist, you're not going to be a manager for very long.
[Elvis] wasn't in good shape before the '68 special. Nobody would know that, but with that special, he went into training like Muhammad Ali and he looked great. Lost 25 pounds, got a suntan. Obviously, there were other problems, but they were caused by his embarrassment by some of the stuff he was doing.
He was 19 years old when all of this started to happen. By the time he was 21, he was the biggest star in the world. When he came back from the army and wanted to do meaningful stuff, the machinery was set up. He really didn't have an attorney; the attorney was controlled by the Colonel. The film companies, RCA, and the publishing companies were all controlled by the Colonel, who was doing what he thought was best.
The Colonel's going to get trashed, and has been. He was controlling, he was manipulative, but he was honest and hardworking and he had a lot of polish. No doubt about it.
Colonel Parker gets painted as the source of these disappointments and angst, but the more I read, I realize he was a genius who had the lion's share of the responsibility for all this success in the first place.
You're one of the few people that get that, Morgan, and you're right on it. I'm hoping everybody's going to get that at some point. I hope Peter Guralnick can do a book on the Colonel someday, since he got to know the Colonel quite well.
The Colonel's wife said that I was the closest person to him for the last 20 years of his life. The Colonel felt he could talk to me because I was the manager later on. Yeah, I miss the old guy very much.
You're reading my book, and it was one of the things that I'm so glad somewhat worked out. Loanne, his wife, had a problem with the book. I flew to Vegas just to meet with her, and she was a really good, smart lady. She said, 'Jerry, I love your book, but when you talk about the creative disappointments, the fans will tend to think that the Colonel killed him'. I said, 'That was not my intent. That's not how I want it. We spent a whole day, and that was a really rough one'.
I've spent a lot of time more recently with Tom Hanks, who played the Colonel. [The film] explains the other side of the Colonel. He was a good friend. If it was your birthday, he'd call and sing 'Happy Birthday'. Remember the answering-machine days? It was the Colonel singing 'Happy Birthday' to you.
I was a loan-out to the Colonel one day a week, which I used to dread. It was just so different from my life with Elvis. He got up early and there were meetings. But every time I did that, I realized I really enjoyed it. It was really interesting.
I probably got a lot of who I am from Elvis, and from the Colonel - and a little bit from Sam Phillips, as well, who was the original genius.
Ernst Jorgensen Interviewed by Ken Sharp
Jerry Schilling - Elvis' meeting with President Richard Nixon
Friends Remember Elvis Presley (With Jerry Schilling and others)
Why I Wrote Me And A Guy Named Elvis by Jerry Schilling
Egil 'Bud' Krog - Tell me about Elvis' visit to the White House
The Day Elvis Met Nixon (Elvis' Letter to Nixon and more)
Interview with Jerry Schilling 2006 by Leslie S. Smith
Photos : December 21, 1970 : The Day Elvis Met Nixon
Elvis Presley Touch Football : December 27, 1956
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 Jerry Scheff
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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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.
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