By Jon Waterhouse
When asked about the significance and appeal of Elvis, the great songwriter Mike Stoller recently told me that it was because the king’s “signal was strong.” As fans continue to flock to Memphis from all over the world, nowhere is that more apparent than Elvis Week 2012.
Speaking of signals, I started out day four of Elvis Week by settling in to one of the blue suede chairs inside the Elvis Radio studio located in Graceland Plaza. DJ Argo welcomed me on the Sirius-XM channel for an hour of guest DJ duties. Having access to all of the songs Elvis ever recorded was like giving a kid permission to tear into every package at a Toys“R”Us.
My first pick of the day was “Trouble,” the Leiber and Stoller barnburner from the 1958 flick “King Creole.” Like many Elvis devotees “King Creole” ranks at the top of my list. The opening sequence set amid the wrought iron balconies of Bourbon Street finds the King as Danny Fisher, a rebellious teen with a golden voice. Flashing a smile that practically burns through the celluloid, Elvis sings “Crawfish” with a little help from vocalist Kitty White. At that point he has the viewer bagged and tagged like a net full of the crustaceans he’s crooning about.
To my delight Argo dug out the version of “Crawfish” featuring White’s vocal accompaniment. We spent the next 60 minutes navigating our way through Elvis’s career. We chatted about the King’s love for gospel and had an impromptu revival with “Bosom of Abraham.” I chose “Edge of Reality” from the film “Live a Little, Love a Little,” because I always thought its mysterious vibe would be perfect as the main theme in a James Bond picture. Argo spun “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” a song I actually sang it to my wife, Andrea at our wedding reception all those years ago. Hey, I’m no Elvis, and thankfully there’s no recorded evidence. Talk about blackmail material.
One of my most anticipated events at Elvis Week 2012 takes place tonight in the Main Stage pavilion as the Memphis Boys revisit their musical catalog. I saw them perform on the Elvis Cruise 2010, and it rocked the boat. These ace hit makers struck gold performing on an exhaustive amount of high profile tunes including Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man.” Their studio magic was taken to the next level when they joined forces with Elvis on the American Sound Studio sessions that produced “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” “In the Ghetto” and more. Argo, who’s hosting the Memphis Boys gig, played one of my favorites from the sessions, the soul drenched “Wearin’ That Loved On Look.”
My DJ stint came to a close with my favorite Elvis tune of all time, “If I Can Dream.” A friend of mine once described it as a macho answer to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That “’68 Comeback Special” performance always elicits a wave of chills along the spine.
I exited the studio and was immediately greeted by several fans including a couple from Miami and a pair of ladies from Canada. Argo and I had just been talking about the instant bond among Elvis fans, that common thread that weaves its way past boundaries. You approach just about anyone at Elvis Week and drop some obscure Elvis-related reference, and they know exactly who or what you’re talking about. No matter our place of birth, we all speak the same language.
Everyone at Elvis Week has a story. One of my favorites thus far came from David, Mark and Dan Stiles from Cincinnati, Ohio. To their wives’ chagrin, the trio engaged in some brotherly bonding with a trip to Elvis Week 2012. They even went so far as to sign up for the 30th Annual Elvis Presley 5K Run only because they heard rumblings that Lisa Marie Presley might be in the race. Trouble is, the Stiles brothers aren’t runners.
“We finished second to last, because we’re so badly out of shape,” David said with a laugh.
At least they got the T-shirt.
Fans with a similar amount of enthusiasm packed the Main Stage pavilion yesterday for the Elvis Insiders Conference hosted by Tom Brown. Unfortunately I missed the beginning due to my DJ gig, but I caught a good chunk throughout the rest of the afternoon. The King’s personal hair stylist and confidant, Larry Gellar shared a beaucoup of stories as well as his enthusiasm for Elvis Week 2012.
“It’s unbelievable that we’re doing this 35 years later,” Gellar said. “I don’t know of any other entertainer who has a Candlelight Vigil. Elvis stands alone.”
Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, touched on her relationship with Elvis as well as her early career. When Brown asked her what it was that made Elvis so special, Jackson got a bit misty.
“God had his hand on him,” she said.
The 75-year-old Jackson was one of the first female rockabilly stars of her day. With the release of her 2011 disc “The Party Ain’t Over,” produced by Jack White, Jackson is gathering a new generation of fans. During the interview Brown was surprised to learn that Jackson’s most recent performance took place the night before at a Memphis club.
I continued ingesting anecdote after anecdote from the various guests. Highlights included Brown’s conversation with the bubbly Holladay Sisters, who shared their experience of recording back-up vocals for Elvis during those iconic American Sound Studios sessions.
Marlyn Mason, Elvis’s co-star in “The Trouble with Girls,” had her fellow females in the audience laughing and squealing when she revealed what she calls her “zipper story.” While shooting a particular scene, the film’s director asked her to do whatever it took to garner a specific reaction from Elvis. As Elvis stood in front of her, Mason, who was out of frame, sat in a chair in front of Elvis and loosened the King’s pants.
Elvis’s reaction? He was as cool as he ever was.
I slipped backstage for a quick chat with Jerry Schilling just before he stepped onstage for what proved to be the main event of the session. Moments later we were given the rare opportunity to see Schilling sitting next to Egil “Bud” Krogh, President Nixon’s former aide. With Brown guiding the conversation, Schilling and Krogh described the details surrounding that infamous and out-of-the-blue meeting between Nixon and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Brown pointed out that it had to be the quickest presidential meeting ever assembled. Krogh agreed.
“It hadn’t happened before or since,” said Krogh, who admitted he was a big Elvis fan himself. “But we were dealing with royalty.”
I left the session and buzzed over to the Elvis Lives exhibit where the stars of the Elvis Insiders Conference were beginning to sign autographs. The line stretched out the door and down the plaza walkway. Hordes of people clutching memorabilia stood in line to meet those Elvis-related luminaries.
Yep, Stoller was right. Elvis’s signal was strong. Although he may be gone, that same signal is still buzzing through the air with no sign of fading. And at Elvis Week 2012, it’s at full power.
CONVERSATION WITH JERRY SCHILLING
Q.: What’s it like coming home to Memphis, especially for an anniversary like this?
A.: It’s always great living in California and coming back to Memphis, because that’s where I grew up. I always take a little time and go out by myself and walk down the streets, and go down Beale Street, which I did a couple of nights ago. And then of course my greatest memory of Memphis is where I lived the most and that was at Graceland. It was the most fun, interesting and safest place I ever lived in my life. It was a great place. You know, you think about Elvis Presley, rock ‘n’ roll, ’57 and crazy parties. We had good parties, but daytime you would wake up and it would be calm and peaceful. You’d go into the kitchen and have breakfast with Elvis’s grandmother. It was just a great life. I was very fortunate that Elvis let me share that part with him.
Q.: Are there any other spots in Memphis that hold special memories that you’ll never forget?
A.: There are a lot of places in Memphis that bring back certain memories. Beale Street, of course, because it had the music that Elvis, myself and a lot of young guys were involved with. Rhythm and blues was the new dangerous music. We might have been the first underground fans. Of course Elvis had so many influences. I was in grade school, but I listened to music very early. To go down to Beale Street and see Roy Hamilton, The Platters and all of these new artists that we had never seen, and to see what Sam Phillips was doing with black artists, it was pretty exciting. That music, which Elvis started recording, changed the excitement of this city. I thought it was kind of boring before, and that changed pretty fast.
Q.: Here we are at Elvis Week 2012, and you’ve been involved with Elvis Week for many years. What do you think about its evolution?
A.: First of all I think it’s a wonderful thing that most of the events are going to be across the street from the mansion. I think the closer you are to Elvis’s home, grave site and everything else, I think it’s a good move. But these things don’t just happen. I get asked this question a lot: Why Elvis after all of these years? It’s about who he was and the body of work he left. But with that body of work you have to have an Elvis Presley Enterprises, you have to have a record company, you have to have film companies and people who are willing to make new juxtapositions of his body of work. And then you see the young kids that come. We’re kind of the first generation of Elvis people that are being interviewed and down here this year. But there are going to be others in the future. And I think the history has been preserved unbelievably. When you go through Graceland it still feels like it did when I lived there. So I’m just proud to be here.
Q.: What events are you looking forward to this year?
A.: Of course the big concert. I haven’t gone to a lot of the Candlelight Vigils. I’ve only gone to two. I don’t know why, but I’m really looking forward to being a part of that. I always have to say when I think of the Candlelight Vigil, I think of Todd Morgan. He used to kick it off, and he’s not with us. So his brother’s going to be here, a lot of people who were in Elvis’s life and a lot of international people. When I came back from walking down Beale Street, I saw French people, people from New Zealand, from Belgium, Germany and all over the world. I don’t know of another entertainer and maybe human being that’s been loved that much around the world as Elvis Presley.