Interview with Joe Guercio
Source: Elvis Australia
July 5, 2020
Q : Tell us about your first meeting with Elvis.
A : Well, my first meeting with Elvis was the pre-production meeting. I got a call from Tom Diskin who was Colonel Parkers associate, and he said they were thinking about me conducting the show for Elvis Presley. And someone had preceded me there for the first show. He asked me what I'd done and bla-bla. And by the time I told them what I'd done, they had checked me out thoroughly. They knew I'd been with Eydie Gormet and Steve Lawrence and did some Broadway shows and that whole background, did television. And I went into L.A. and met with them. And then they called me and told me they were going to have me work with Elvis on this engagement. And the first thing was That's the Way It Is, the motion picture.
And we just hit it off. I never had met Elvis. They had been rehearsing in another room for three days. And was in there sorting music for three days. The string parts and what was going to happen? Because the arrangement had been written. They were all brought in. Glen wrote a lot of them and a couple of other writers, but Glen did most of it. And then Joe Esposito said, Elvis had come down, and he started singing. And I just sat there trying to get hooked into it. Then on the first break, Joe Esposito comes and said, 'You should meet Elvis'. So, I don't know. I was never an Elvis fan. That's the difficult part. I came out of a whole nother of music. I was not a rock and roller at all. And from I said hello to him, the charisma was just over powering.
And by the time I got through the first rehearsal, because I think on that show we did 'Just Pretend' and a couple of things for the time, I never realized he sang that good. He was a great singer. My wife loved him, but I was really never an Elvis fan. But that day it started. We hooked up, and that's what happened.
Q : What was it about Elvis that first struck you?
A : He was real. There was nothing false about the man. He was just real. This is what it is and wow.
Q : Tell us about when you first went on the road with him.
A : Well, the relationship was never, 'Hey, pal', a lot of people like to think it was 'Hey, pal'. But it wasn't 'Hey, pal'. I've said this before, there were different real... When he was into his show vein, that was his group. But he had a respect for us on stage. But he was surrounded by the best. He had Ronnie Tutt, none better. Jerry Scheff was none better. The whole front line, James Burton, Glen Hardin. He just appreciated what they were. And he knew what they could. It was a different kid of a... Does that make sense? It does to me. It was a different vibe. Then he'd be talking to these other groups, another one of his immediate group, and there a was a whole nother different vibe there. Because they worked for him.
Q : We were talking about Elvis' band being the best.
A : Well, look what they came out of. Look where they all came from. They all came from places that were, you know, we were all involved in the music business. They weren't just players. They were more than players. They were with the best. And touring with those people is, you know, we'd just get it going. It would really happen every night.
Elvis Presley & Joe Guercio on stage. You'll recognise James Burton and Ronnie Tutt - but the 'main man' in the picture is Maestro Joe Guercio. The picture was taken in Tuscaloosa, AL show on November 14, 1971.
Q : Tell us of any funny incidents between you and Elvis.
A : Oh, the marble story. That goes back to the first two days of the gig. You know, it was never a set show in those days. He would just want to pull a tune out and sing it. And it was great, because everybody behind him was immediate group. And that was Ronnie and the rhythm section. He'd say, so and so, and they'd turn around, and they'd start. Well, you can say that to five guys. I'm sitting up there with 32. You know, when am I going to start. So, it was always a scuffle. Let's do this and bam. And I'd stop and... Or they would start his orchestra and the introduction and show, and suddenly I'd say, 'Here we go, guys. Bar 12'. And I'd bring him in on bar 12, and we'd be locked in. And first couple of times I did that, he really turned around and acknowledged it because, you know, we didn't leave him on the desert. We just jumped in the pool, a little late, but we jumped in the pool.
And somebody came to me and asked me how I enjoyed working, conducting for Elvis Presley. I said, 'It's like a marble rolling down concrete steps, you know, dinkle, dinkle, dinkle'. You know, one of those kind of things. So, that was it. And next day, I'd come in and open my dressing room door. And I hear all this strange noise. I turn the lights on. It's marbles all over the floor. There's marbles in every one of my pockets. There's marbles in the sink loaded. I could see he had all his slaves go out the night before and buy all the marbles in the world. And the sign on the mirror said, 'Follow the marble. E.P'.
Q : That's good.
A : It's different.
Q : I could imagine leading an orchestra that way.
A : I should have said, like hundred dollar bills blowing out a window. Wouldn't that have been cool? I should have thought about that one.
Q : Do you remember a lot of the different celebrities Elvis would introduce in the audiences?
A : Oh, yeah. There are funny stories. But Sammy Davis Jr would be in the audience. Opening nights were just something, people like Cary Grant, which always amazed me, because they were movie actors. But a lot of beautiful women were in the audience. Sammy was a big fan. Tom Jones was a big fan. He really respected Tom Jones. Redd Foxx. When Elvis was in town, it was never a show. It was a happening. You know, it's a theatrical experience. But a fun thing. And when he got into it, he could twist thousands of people around his little finger.
Q : Was there a special moment with Elvis that stands out in your mind?
A : No, there's a couple of moments, but I'd rather talk about the moments on stage. Two of the highlights ever were the first night we did 'American Trilogy' in Atlanta, Georgia. We had done it at the Hilton. And it went over very well. Because we had recorded it and put it in an album. But being in the heart of the Confederacy, I mean, Atlanta, Georgia, we go into the Omni. We were supposed to work two shows. We wound up doing four shows. And they sold every one out. It's an 18,000-seater, you know. Today, an act goes out. They do one show they're tired. They have rest four days. We would do four in two days and sometimes five in three. But he came out, and we got to 'American Trilogy' which we did toward the end of the show. And James started with the intro and Elvis said, 'Oh, I wish I was in dixie'. I want to tell you something. Those calls started to go up. You know, they started with those calls and the people and they stood and screaming. And every hair, I mean, just unbeliev-- I mean, you know, we stood 30 seconds which can be like a year till they stopped, slowed down, and we continued on with the song.
The other night that I remember very well was Madison Square Garden. When he came out, there were so many flash bulbs went off that the arena, there was moments when the arena was lit. And we came out in a black out. And New York brought him in. And when New York wants you, they want you. You know, New York has got... It's another world.
And the other highlight of my life with him was when we the did Aloha From Hawaii. I said to the band before we started, I said, 'This is the first time any show has gone on television all over the world'. I said, 'We're all first on it'. That was a great moment.
Q : Any other moments you remember from 'Aloha From Hawaii'?
A : Oh, 'Aloha From Hawaii' was just... Well the Hawaiian people... I guess, he had done a couple of motion pictures there. They were just phenomenal. But the thrill of being the first, you know, I'd drop a down beat, and it's the first time you drop a down beat. And it's going all over the world on television. You know, that's a first. I mean, that's a big time first, you know.
We had a couple of humorous moments on stage. He would love to sing 'It's Now Or Never'. And I said to him one night, 'It's an Italian song, man. Why don't you do it in the right lyrics? And you know, it's 'O Solo Mio'. It's not 'It's Now Or Never'. So, we had a little humor with that. Every time he'd call, 'It's Now Or Never', I'd kind of get that little look away. Now say, 'It's Now Or Never'. You know, it's heh-heh, you know, one of those numbers. One night I took an empty pot cause... And I'd put on a chefs hat. I had a pot, and I was sitting behind Ronnie Tutt, and I was storing a pot. A little bandstand humor.
Q : Were there any moments in the show with Sean Nielsen over 'O Solo Mio'?
A : No, I was too busy looking at the way Sean was dressed in those days. But if anybody ever told me that it was going to continue and like it's been. You know, this is years later, and we're sitting here talking about Elvis Presley. You know, it's just amazing. And I'd got out with 'Elvis the Concert' now which is amazing. We're out there. His audience in Europe, 15, 20 percent of the audience is under 30 years old. There's a whole nother thing building out there.
Q : It's almost like Elvis is on the road with you again.
A : Well, we're on the road with him. Yeah. It's a hot show. Have you seen it? It really is.
Q : Do you have any particular memories of the CBS TV special?
A : The CBS special? That was not one of his better specials. That was Dwight and Gary did that show, and they're phenomenal directors and producers. No, I didn't really like that show at all. It was like the end. You know, we were coming to the end of the whole thing.
Q : Remember when he came over and patted you on the head.
A : Well, you know, in those days, there was something to pat.
Q : What are your impressions of Colonel Parker?
A : I never had a problem with the Colonel. In fact, I really was not involved with the Colonel a lot. And I never had a problem with him. I got to know the Colonel better after Elvis passed away than before. I lived in Buffalo, New York. And my parents did, and when we were working Buffalo, and the Colonel would always go to... If that was the first thing on the tour, the Colonel would say, 'You're going to be leaving with us two days early'. I said, 'Oh, that's fantastic you know, to start the tour'. They would go out and get me. I was musical director for the Hilton. That's how this all came about. I was working for Hilton. And the Colonel left it so I could still be working for Hilton, but I'd be out doing what they wanted to do in those days. Whatever the Colonel wanted, the Colonel got. Because Elvis was doing it. He made the hotel a lot of money in those days.
Q : You just said you learned a lot from the Colonel.
A : Well, just the way he did things. He'd sell out shows. He'd have three shows booked, but he never let the people know there were three shows booked. One would sell out, and then he would sell a second on and sell a third one.
He knew how to move product. You know, merchandising in those days was a lot... There were not T-shirts at that time, to sell T-shirts. Then when they started to sell them. I remember an incident, there were a lot of bootleggers that were following us, you know. And so everybody wanted, well, let's get them arrested and put them in... But they were selling more shirts than we were and the merchandise. So, the Colonel brought all his guys in. They were all from New York from Long Island. The Colonel brought all his guys in, and he put them on his payroll, and he made them part of the thing, and they just started selling merchandise like you wouldn't believe.
We were in Atlanta. And I know they'd run out of hound dogs, and it was a Sunday. And the next thing I knew, they had found a Walgreens warehouse or something, and those guys were putting pins on those things, you know, 'Elvis bows' or whatever they put on them. And there were no more hound dogs. They just got a bunch of stuffed bears. And they were selling stuffed bears. So we put Teddy Bear in the show.
Q : Elvis super souvenirs.
A : 'Elvis super souvenirs'. Have you talked to Al Dvorin at all? But Al's something else. I would always come in. He's always come in shuffling at the end, because he'd sell them at the box office, where ever they'd sell them. And he walked in, and he's a vegetarian. And Elvis drinks apple juice, apple juice, apple juice, I mean, to a point that, my God Al, how much apple juice. Every time he'd walk in a restaurant, it would be with Glen. We were always up late, later than the rest of them. And he'd come walking in late. And we'd say, 'Squeeze an orchard', because Al Dvorin just walked in. 'Ladies and gentlemen, squeeze an orchard'.
Q : Personally, what does Elvis mean to you?
A : What does he mean to me? Let's see. Personally, he means to me great memories. All right. He means to me, personally, he brought me in touch with people I would never had met, because they're from all walks of life. He brought people like the Sweet Inspirations, the Stamps, you know, I mean, we were family. He was away from it when we were with him. But he brought me on stage with 20 of the most professional people I've ever worked with. And the memories and the fun we had. I would never had understood the South without Elvis Presley in my life. You know, I grew up in a whole nother world. It's the memories. It really is the memories. And he opened me up to a lot of music. You know, here I am at my age. And I'm making a living in rock and roll. I know a lot of friends that are waiting for the big bands to come back. And it turned me around.
Q : He changed your life in certain ways then.
A : Oh, yes, he's changed my life in a lot of ways.
Q : You said the Sweet Inspirations used to rehearse here?
A : Oh, yeah. Well, it's the room upstairs in the music room. And they'd come in. We'd sit down. We'd put medleys together. They opened the show here in Vegas. The girls, they would just stop it. We did a thing. One show we did a Billie Holiday medley when that movie was happening. We did a Stevie Wonder medley up there. We did an Elvis. Yeah, we did.
Q : So, how is it really working with everybody again?
A : Wouldn't you like to come back in 25 years and do exactly what you were doing 25 years ago with the same people? It's as though, you know, I talk to a gentleman today from a newspaper in Zurich. Because we're going to Europe with this thing. And he asked me, 'Well, what does it feel like?' I said, 'What does it feel like?' He says, 'To come back. Did you have to readjust?' I said, 'We got on the stage after being gone for 20 some odd years. By the second tune, it felt like we closed three nights ago in Indianapolis'. We just fell into it, and it started over again.
Q : What about the show at the Hilton? Was there any tension felt or anything?
A : The night that happened? Well, I guess I'm very happy I wasn't wearing the white jumpsuit. I can tell you that. But it gave all the body guards something to do. They could stand there and be do what they had to do. And it's like bomb scares, you know. A lot of them are all maybes. But they said there was a death threat. But I just never took all of that. Didn't affect me at all.
Q : When Elvis was on stage, were you ever able to zero in on what songs he was going to do?
A : It would start the same, and was zeroed in. But every once in a while, he'd call in one tune. So, what I would do is I would have the show laid out. And then one side of the... I had plywood extensions put on the, especially the violin stands, so it would be this wide and instead of putting the music this way to find it. Because you wouldn't have a number of charts on a show. If you were doing a dance gig, all the charts are numbered, 42. We're going to do 63. But at that point, it would be that would be the way. We would be doing our show, and if he would call it, I'd have these 12 extra tunes stacked on the sides. And he'd call something that wasn't on the show, and they'd pull it our and here we go boy. Bar 12, and we'd pop in.
Q : Where were you when you found out Elvis had passed away?
A : Oh, that was a strange day. Marty, my bass and drum player was like the assistant conductor you know. He would do the show. We used to take a set band out. So, I did all the shows with Ann-Margret here in those days. And she was coming in, and she was opening the day he was opening in Portland, Maine. So, I worked, being with him, I used to do Ann-Margret. So, I would work Ann-Margrets opening night and two days and then join Elvis two days later. And once we got her show set, and I'd run out, because the band came out of Vegas. They would fly in from L.A. The L.A. people would fly in. And we had an airplane that was chartered by Holiday Airlines. And I put on, horns and percussion player. So, I put the band on. And I started to go back, and Ann-Margret opened that night. I was with my wife. And we went down to the Boulevard Mall, because I wanted to get a bow tie. And I walked into the shop. And one girl said to the other. They were talking about Elvis being dead. I said, 'What do you mean, Elvis being dead?' She said, 'Oh, yeah. It just came on the radio. He was found dead na-na'. So, I tried to call the Hilton. And I finally reached Bruce Bankey, and I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'Yeah. Come on over, and I'll fill you in on what went down'. So, I went to the Hilton, found out what had gone down. And that -- doing that rehearsal for Ann that was... Because Ann and Elvis were close. They had done a couple of movies together. And I flew down to... I went to the funeral.
Jackie met me in L.A. We jumped on an airplane and went to Memphis. And then Ann-Margret flew in, and she took the day off. And one night off. And that was it. We came back. She had chartered an airplane. I came back with her. But people say, 'What do you feel, what do you feel, what do you feel?' And my theory, if there is such a thing, is that some people cannot live to be old, you know. And I've said this before. I can't see Marilyn Monroe an old woman. And I can't see Elvis an old man or James Dean or Rudolph Valentino or whoever else you want to put in that category. I think that's what it is. That's what it had to be, and that's what it was.
Q : Didn't you conduct some at Elvis' funeral?
A : Oh, yeah. I, the Blackwood Brothers and JD and the Stamps behind the casket, 'How Great Thou Art'. And it was very sad, you know, really sad. Because you had the feeling it was really a country boy. That's what it was.
Q : After all these years hes been gone, what do you think it is that's unique about Elvis that's different from all other performers?
A : I think, he was the original cast of Elvis Presley. There was nothing off Broadway about Elvis. He was what it was. He was real. He was a pace maker. He took us to a place. He gave us a new pace how to walk in the business. Does that make sense to you? He started a whole nother thing. Everybody does Elvis. Elvis is doing nobody. He took something from over the fence and brought it so other people could understand it.
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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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