Waylon Jennings Remembers Elvis Presley
Source: Elvis Australia
September 15, 2006
On a fall morning in 1954, listening to KVOW's Hillbilly Hit parade, I heard that something. I was taking my brother to school. It was about 8.20, and the reason I remember is that the program was only on for fifteen minutes each day, from 8.15 to 8.30 am. Elvis was singing That's All Right and Blue Moon Of Kentucky.
The sound went straight up your spine. The way he sang, the singer sounded black. Maybe it was the flapping of the big doghouse bass, all wood thump, and the slapback echo of the guitars wailin' and frailin' away.
It just climbed right through you. I had grown up hearing Bill Monroe sing Blue Moon Of Kentucky but this was something entirely different. I thought, what a wild, strange sound. Up at the station (Waylon worked as a DJ in Littlefield) I looked at the yelow Sun label from Memphis as if it was from Mars. I started listening for it. They didn't know what to call Elvis yet on radio, though they thought of him as a country artist. 'That's one of our boys there', they'd say, just to let their listeners know.
Bill Black, Elvis' bass player, called Dave to set up some details of the date. He was kind of acting as a manager then. Now Bill Black sounded black; he had that Memphis drawl, and we hadn't heard many Memphis people. Dave didn't know what he had gotten himself into; he was talking around it, and finally came out with it. 'Bill, are you black?' 'Hell, no, we're white', said Bill. That was how it was then, back when black people could write songs but nobody wanted them to sing them.
I didn't get to see Elvis the first time he came through town. I heard about it up in Littlefield, how he performed at the Fair Park Coliseum with Hank Snow and Martha Carson and stole the show in his red britches, orange sport coat, and white buck shoes.
I got to meet Elvis in Lubbock. Even then, he was about the hottest thing to hit West Texas. They invited me backstage, gave me free tickets, and the whole show was there. He and Scotty Moore were standing over by the stage, and Elvis was just jumping around everywhere, bouncing and bubbling over with enthusiasm, full of more energy than anybody I ever saw. He was talking to me like he'd known me a thousand years.
'I'll sing you me next thing I'm going to record', he said. It was Tweedle Dee, the LaVern Baker song. 'My next single', though I don't think he ever recorded it. He did it on the show that night.
I was crazy about Elvis. I loved that churning rhythm on the bottom. He didn't even have drums yet, but the rock 'n' roll part was unmistakable. You'd think it was overnight, but he'd been plugging away a long time. He had a hard way to go, because they were fighting him from every corner in the south, calling him names - white trash bebop nigger stuff; though he could pretty well handle himself.
We had met formally only a couple of times, mostly in Las Vegas at the tail end of the sixties. RCA invited me to see his show, and he asked me back to visit him. He knew who I was; he called me hillbilly.
I had a wristband on my arm because I had slipped on the pavement and fractured it. They had given me pain pills, but the original cast had turned the wrist in such an odd way that it still hurt all the time. I was on my way to L.A. when I had the bright idea of getting a leather wristband made that would hold the arm tight and keep the elbow from moving. I cut the cast off and through it out the window, and went into the first leather shop I saw.
To make it look like something, I had a metal peace sign put in the middle of it. Elvis really like that wristband; I think he wanted it. He keep admiring it - 'you hillbillies sure know how to dress' - and calling attention to it, though I wound up keeping it. We talked for a while but I didn't hang round much.
Red west may have been one of the best friends he ever had, and Sonny West, because they cared about him, watched over him, trying to keep him alive. Elvis may have been the most beautiful man in the world. His face was carved like a stone, chiseled out of rock, he was just that good looking, and his voice was unbelievable.
He was a phenomenon, and he arrived fully formed. From the first notes of That's All Right Mama, as otherworldly as they were, he never improved, or even developed. He hardly changed from start to finish, and Colonel Parker didn't help. I think a monkey could have managed Elvis, and maybe done a better job. Colonel Tom wanted to manage me once but said I was uncontrollable. He was probably right.
Felton Jarvis at RCA, really cared about Elvis. He produced Suspicious Minds, which may be the best record Elvis ever cut, and one time he called me up to see if I could help. 'He likes you'. Felton said to me. 'Do you think you could get him interested in music again?' I told him I didn't know, and that the only way you could find out was by getting all those yes people away from him and letting him go somewhere and hang out and play music. He might get interested, because I truly believed Elvis liked to sing.
Elvis had changed the world and now he was gone. Maybe he didn't have as much impact on me as Hank Williams or George Jones or Buddy, but most of us marked time Before Elvis and After Elvis.
Though he (buddy) may have been inspired by Elvis, he new there was an Elvis already, Buddy sounded like himself.
He did one of my songs once, Just Because You Asked Me Too, imitating my voice. After he died, RCA wanted to put out a duet album with artists who had worked with Elvis, and asked me to sing along on his finished track. I couldn't handle that. 'Call Elvis', I told them. 'If it's okay with Elvis, it's okay with me'.
Waylon recorded Suspicious Minds (With wife, Jessi Colter) and That's All Right / My Baby Left Me as 'A Medley of Elvis Hits'
'He was great when he started, and he was still great when he died - Man, he was something!' - Waylon Jennings
In his song, Nobody Knows, Waylon sang, 'Nobody knows I'm Elvis, nobody knows this is me. After all of my tries, I've got the perfect disguise'.
About - Waylon Jennings
Born in the hardscrabble West Texas town of Littlefield on June 15, 1937, Waylon Jennings learned to play guitar and snagged a disc jockey job at a Littlefield station while still a boy. In 1958 he moved to Lubbock, where he worked as a DJ and met rising star Buddy Holly, with whom he toured and played electric bass during 1958 and 1959. It was Jennings who gave up his seat to the Big Bopper (J. P. Richardson) on the doomed 1959 plane flight that took the lives of Holly, Richardson, and singer Ritchie Valens.
Above, Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Tommy Allsup - Jan 31, 1959
The disaster stunned Jennings, and it took him several years to regain his momentum. But his time with Holly had been pivotal: 'Mainly what I learned from Buddy', Jennings recalled, 'was an attitude. He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it'. After working West Texas radio again, Jennings began performing at a bar called J.D.'s in Phoenix, Ariz. There he began to craft a sound that combined his aggressive Telecaster electric guitar style, his rough-edged vocals, and an eclectic repertoire that often borrowed from rockabilly, rock and folk.
And it was there that Nashville-based Bobby Bare, then a country hitmaker for RCA Records, heard Jennings and immediately called RCA producer Chet Atkins. Although Jennings had already recorded some country-folk sides for A&M Records in Los Angeles, A&M agreed to let Atkins sign him, and his first RCA session took place in March 1965. Over the next five years, Jennings won mainstream country stardom with hits like Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line, Brown Eyed Handsome Man and The Taker. Though it wasn't typical of his work, his rendition of MacArthur Park (recorded with the Kimberlys), won a 1969 Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group.
Despite his achievements, the high-spirited Jennings chafed under Nashville's typical production process, in which salaried staff producers chose song material and session musicians and recorded artists in company studios. Gradually he won the right to choose his own songs, producers, and sidemen (often his road band), in the process turning out albums like 1973's Lonesome, On'ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes, which showcased the hard-hitting, stripped-down music he much preferred to pop-tinged Nashville Sound productions. Hit singles such as I'm a Ramblin' Man and Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way also exemplified his hard-charging, rock-influenced style. In 1975 he won CMA's male vocalist of the year award.
By this time Jennings was extending his audience to embrace hordes of college-age fans, who flocked to see him at venues including Willie Nelson's free-wheeling outdoor music festivals at Dripping Springs, Texas. In 1976, both artists soared to even more dizzying heights with the RCA release Wanted! The Outlaws. Featuring Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jennings's wife, Jessi Colter, it became the first country album to be certified platinum. By the turn of the 21st century, 13 additional Jennings albums (including duet projects) had sold half a million copies or more.
As the '70s progressed, Jennings and Nelson recorded duet albums and crossover hits like Luckenbach, Texas and Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys, which won a 1978 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Jennings himself rode high on the charts into the late 1980s, chalking up No. 1 singles including I've Always Been Crazy, Amanda, I Ain't Living Long Like This and Lucille (You Won't Do Your Daddy's Will). During many of these same years, the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard --- for which Jennings wrote and sang the theme song and served as offscreen narrator --- further popularized his sound and the trademark image of his leather-covered guitar.
While Jennings was selling albums in numbers previously associated with rock stars, his excessive lifestyle also resembled those of many rock icons. Substance abuse eroded his career for a time, but he eventually beat this problem and stabilized his personal life. He set an example for others by completing his high school equivalency diploma, and has spoken to schoolchildren about the importance of staying in school.
The singer continued a scaled-down but no less creative career, recording for MCA and Epic during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and touring into 1997. With Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, Jennings gained another No. 1 smash with 1985's Highwayman, title cut for a gold-selling Columbia album. (The foursome recorded two follow-up albums and also made limited concert tours.) In addition to important albums reissued by RCA and by Buddha Records, he recorded new albums for RCA, Ark 21 Records, and a children's album titled Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals, and Dirt (Sony Wonder, 1993). Other achievements include motion picture and TV movie roles and a televised documentary on cowboys aired on TNN.
Jennings won election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and died on February 13, 2002. He is survived by his wife, Jessi Colter, and their son, Waylon Albright 'Shooter' Jennings; Colter's daughter, Jennifer; and five children from Jennings' previous marriages: Terry, Tomi Lynn, Julie, Deana and Buddy. Jennings' rugged individualism and musical vision continue to inspire both seasoned veterans and young, aspiring artists.
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