Gauging Elvis Presley’s Shakespearean destiny from an outsider’s perspective
“I’ve always tried to approach the Elvis Presley story from an outsider’s perspective with a lot of common sense and no excuses,” asserts ink slinger Marshall Terrill in a thorough, exclusive interview debuting below.
“Many people in the Elvis World come to the subject matter with their minds made up, lines drawn in the sand, and have pegged everyone as either a hero or villain. Everybody who was in Elvis’s life was there for a reason — because he allowed them there in the first place.”
Terrill was only nine years old when his family moved by green Ford LTD to Montgomery, Alabama, in the late summer of 1972. Coincidentally, “Burning Love” was shuttling up the charts on its way to criminally stalling at No. 2 — Elvis’s last Top Ten on Billboard.
During the excruciatingly long trek from central California, a Deep South deejay spun the record. Terrill’s father, a distinguished Airman, was spellbound. Instead of going to their home destination immediately upon arrival, the family was pretty much forced to visit a record store so the military officer could snag a copy of the propulsive single. The inquisitive kid never forgot that trip.
Elvis’s untimely downfall occurred five fleeting years later smack dab during the gaudy glam disco heat wave, but interest in the late icon’s life and career remains remarkably intense. The most multi-faceted entertainer of the 20th century, Elvis was a rare breed whose generosity and ability to connect with a lyric set him miles apart from would-be imitators.
Best known for the definitive Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, the early aughts finally triggered the manifestation of Terrill’s lifelong fascination for the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, yielding three books co-written with close friends and a ravishing former flame.
In The King, McQueen and the Love Machine, Barbara Leigh, incidentally the debut comic book vampire super heroine Vampirella, recounts mind-blowing anecdotes dating Elvis, Steve McQueen, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive James Aubrey simultaneously.
Sergeant Presley: Our Untold Story of Elvis’s Missing Years finds Rex Mansfield, inducted into the Army on the same day as his “I Got Stung” chart-topping buddy, and German secretary Elisabeth Stefaniak shedding light on a two-year period of the singer’s life rarely examined by vivid eyewitness accounts.
Sonny West’s Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, perhaps the most ambitious undertaking, covers 16 significant years [1960–1976] between the close confidants and took almost four years to write. From recording the excellent Elvis Is Back!, becoming the highest paid movie star of the ’60s, realizing his shattered dream of acting in a serious film, triumphantly recording at American Sound with genius producer Chips Moman, to the creatively draining touring cycle exacerbated by a deadly cocktail of downers and uppers, the book doesn’t disappoint.
Terrill is an objective Elvis fan who leaves no room for sugarcoating. Might a complete Elvis biography by the veteran hard-hitting journalist be in the works?
Stick around as Terrill scrutinizes how Elvis’s inspired performances often hinged on his level of instrumental commitment, why the artist didn’t compose more material, how lifestyle choices gradually diminished his recording career, the often pointless Elvis vs. Beatles debate, and the shocking degree of entanglement degenerate gambler Colonel Tom Parker became mired in with the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel to his client’s detriment.
The far-ranging consequences of Memphis Mafiosi Red West, Sonny West, and Dave Hebler’s tell-all Elvis: What Happened?, what temporarily derailed Fame & Fortune, the big screen adaptation of Sonny’s much better received 2007 memoir, how he became friends with spiritual teacher Larry Geller, who wasn’t portrayed in exactly the best light in Sonny’s tome, why he didn’t pen George Klein’s Elvis: My Best Man, and whether purchasing final Elvis girlfriend Ginger Alden’s autobiography merits consideration are all given ample investigation, too.
The Marshall Terrill — Elvis Interview
How did your fascination with Elvis Presley manifest itself?
Like Steve McQueen, I was introduced to him through my father. He liked rock and roll but loved Elvis Presley. My dad first heard Elvis while serving in Korea in 1956 and has been a fan ever since. So as a kid, I grew up listening to Elvis and other music of the ‘50s.
My dad bought every Elvis and Cruisin’ in the ’50s albums, which were popular in the early 1970s. American Graffiti was a big film at the time and Happy Days and Sha Na Na were on television, which I watched with my dad. He loved the ’50s and got a kick out of seeing it portrayed in movies and television.
When I was 10, I discovered the Beatles in 1973 on my own and that was basically it for me — they literally changed my life and outlook. What I’m about to state is rather obvious, and that is without Elvis, the Beatles would have never existed. Elvis blazed the path for everyone that followed in his footsteps and was the one who started it all.
Was there a particular Elvis movie, album, or song from your dad’s collection that impacted you?
Yes, it is a very vivid memory. Our family was moving from Sacramento, California, to Montgomery, Alabama, in the summer of 1972. We were all piled into a green Ford LTD and as soon as we got to the outskirts of Montgomery, the deejay played “Burning Love.”
Anyway, Dad was instantly energized when he heard “Burning Love,” snapping his fingers, singing along to the song, and pounding the steering wheel. The song just took over his whole being.
The first place he drove to when we got to Montgomery was a record store to pick up the single. Didn’t even go to our house; he went right to the record store. The funny thing is — that’s exactly the way I am today. When something takes hold of me, I immediately go right to the source.
What are some of your favorite Elvis music and movies?
My favorite song is definitely the remix of “A Little Less Conversation.” I think Elvis would have been blown away by that version. I still crank it up on my iPod when I work out. I’d love to see more remixes come our way.
“Suspicious Minds” is my second favorite and “Burning Love” is third. My wife listens to Blue Hawaii, so by default that has to be my favorite album.
Strangely, my favorite movie is Frankie and Johnny . I saw it so much growing up as a kid that I fell in love with Donna Douglas and hardly noticed Elvis! But I must admit I haven’t seen a lot of Elvis’s movies.
While I’m sure they are fun to watch, I’ve always been a heavy action and drama fan. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin — those were the guys I watched growing up.
Did you really know much about Elvis before you began researching him?
I certainly remember the day he died, August 16, 1977. I was shooting pool in the basement of my best friend’s house when sometime in the afternoon, his sister came downstairs and said, “Guess what I just heard?”
That night I remember watching all the news reports, and the last one ended with a famous portrait of Elvis in the ’50s while “Love Me Tender” played in the background. It was haunting and very sad. I was 13 at the time, but I knew it was a historic day.
A few years later, I read a used copy of Elvis: What Happened while on a cross-country trip with my brother. It was the summer of 1982, and we left Washington, D.C., for Arizona so I could attend my first year of college.
It was also the first year Graceland was open for business, and we made sure to drive through Memphis on one of our stops. I was reading the book and visiting Graceland at the same time.
I know a lot of people have problems with Elvis: What Happened, but I certainly didn’t. It had the ring of truth and I found it fascinating. I’ve always been drawn to complex characters, and Elvis is right up there with some of the most complex icons of the 20th century.
Do you consider yourself to be an expert regarding Elvis’s music?
I’m not an expert but I have some pretty strong opinions regarding his music and career, and I’m sure not all Elvis fans will agree with me. Most Elvis fans hate it when anything negative is said about him, but I’m strictly saying this in the most objective manner I can as an admitted lifelong Beatles fan but who has written three books on Elvis.
I think Elvis was a product of his time and like many artists of that era, cut great singles, but maybe wasn’t necessarily thinking in terms of packaging the album as a whole.
The Beatles, to me, were the first to think of an album as having its own personality and identity, and it starts with Rubber Soul. From there you go to Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Abbey Road and Let It Be. All of those albums have a strong vibe and personality. The Stones also cut a lot of strong albums in that period as well as did that whole generation of artists from the ’60s and ‘70s.
So where do you stand when it comes to Elvis vs. the Beatles?
I don’t see why the Beatles and Elvis are compared unless it’s just because both are at the top and are cultural icons of pretty much equal stature. The Beatles were the greatest artists of all-time, but Elvis was the greatest entertainer of all-time.
The two are so entirely different in every way that I think it simply boils down to a matter of taste. Their music brings great happiness to millions, and that’s what is really important.
What happened to Elvis’s music during the movie years?
My personal opinion is that Elvis didn’t take control of his destiny when it came to his music during the movie years, and it hurt him badly. He cut quite a harvest of hits for Elvis Is Back in 1960 and picked up right where he left off before he went into the Army.
Up until that moment, he had some of the best songwriters in history, such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, giving him great material. But when Colonel Parker set up a publishing arrangement with Hill and Range, they insisted that all writers — including Leiber and Stoller — should share their publishing rights with Elvis.
This was clearly an unfair position to all songwriters working with Elvis, and it’s very clear this is when the quality of his music suffered. The role of Colonel Parker played no small part in all of this.
He pretty much isolated Presley to the point where not only did he not have outside counsel when it came to the deals he entered into with Parker, but I’ll bet he didn’t even know or understand what the deals were.
So when it came to songwriting and song quality, it is a safe bet that Parker made deals to suit his bank account, and not the bank account, nor the best interests, of his client. Parker’s approach to the music might be compared to his approach to the movies and soundtrack material, and that is, he was only looking at the money.
Parker kept Elvis so far away from the business side of things, and so isolated professionally, that NO ONE outside of Parker, Elvis, and Vernon even knew about the deals.
Vernon was a guy with a grade school education and his advice was, “Listen to the Colonel, son.” So while Vernon was clued in, he shouldn’t have been counseling Elvis in his dealings. Everything was a result of Parker’s 100 percent control of Elvis and their “partnership.”
Why didn’t Elvis write his own songs?
I’ve heard it said by many of his associates that Elvis couldn’t sit still or had too much nervous energy, but the truth is he was a different kind of artist. He was a phenomenal vocalist-singer who was a singer of songs and an interpreter; he was able to recognize the melody in other’s work and then was able to make them his own.
There are a couple of artists like this that come to mind: Three Dog Night, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, Faith Hill and Mariah Carey. The other cool thing was he was a fan of other artists and applauded them when they did well. He loved Tom Jones’ “Green, Green Grass of Home,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and the Beatles’ “Something.”
I remember Sonny West once told me that Elvis was quite charitable and said, “There’s room at the top for everybody.” I think Elvis knew he was the greatest and wasn’t threatened by anyone. Well, maybe he was threatened by the Beatles there for a while.
What was Elvis’s work ethic like in the studio?
From what I understand through people like Sonny West and Barbara Leigh, Elvis was a workhorse. He was pretty much his own producer. Elvis was self-motivated as evidenced by the between-song comments he made on recordings, which prove him to be fully engaged.
Barbara said when she was in the recording studio for “Rags to Riches” — September 22, 1970, inside Nashville’s RCA Studio B — he’d listen to a playback over and over again until he was satisfied. I’d say later on, especially post-Aloha from Hawaii in January 1973, is when things started going downhill across the board. I think he began “phoning it in” from this time forward.
When Elvis was truly inspired in the recording studio — virtually all of the ’50s material, Elvis Is Back, His Hand in Mine, the unplugged sitdown segments of the ’68 Comeback Special, the Memphis 1969 collaboration with producer Chips Moman, Elvis Country, and the three May 1971 Nashville solo piano songs — he took an active instrumental role with the band, playing either rhythm guitar or piano. Does this theory hold water?
Absolutely it does. Whenever Elvis was inspired, it showed in his work…the problem was keeping him inspired and preventing boredom from setting in. He appeared to me to be a person of patterns and habits, and whatever he did he sort of ran into the ground.
This wasn’t just Elvis’s problem alone, I’ve seen it with many celebrities. When you experience so many things at a certain level, everything else has to top that last experience. Then the bar eventually gets set so high that getting to the next level can be a problem.
I can think of no greater example than 1973’s Aloha from Hawaii. After that, you can literally see and chart the descent of his professional and personal life. He was looking for that next challenge to rise to the occasion, but sadly, that never happened.
By 1976 he was in such bad shape he wouldn’t even leave his home to go to the studio. Look at how he recorded his last studio album Moody Blue — the RCA mobile recording studio had to come to Memphis and park behind Graceland. Sonny described those sessions as lackluster and uninspired, and I wholeheartedly concur.
Did Elvis’s lifestyle impact his recording career?
Absolutely. Look at the pattern of Elvis’s behavior and you see a direct correlation between his lifestyle and the quality of his work. During the movie years [1960–1969], he was focused on becoming a film star and building his fortune.
It didn’t take long for Elvis to discover the movies weren’t very good, and as a result, he spent money to relieve his boredom. He bought cars, motorcycles, homes, a ranch, horses, every toy known to man. He spent so much money that he eventually became a slave to the movie grind.
I’ve always contended Elvis should have emulated Dean Martin or Glen Campbell by working simultaneously in movies, television, music, and touring. He could have had it all.
Then fast forward to the concert years [1970–1977], and you see the same spending pattern reemerge. Elvis was performing concerts to fuel his lifestyle and out of control spending, which now included fleets of cars, airplanes, and showering people with gifts.
The more money he spent, the more he seemed depressed. It was as if he was trying to throw money at his problems, which as we know, didn’t work.
And this is the point where his drug habit must be mentioned as it played a much larger role in the end for his increasingly bizarre lifestyle. Also, Elvis may have been touring not only to support his own reckless spending, but that of the Colonel and his gambling habit. But that’s another story.
Just how serious was Colonel Parker’s gambling addiction at the International Hilton?
According to Patrick Lacy, a foremost expert on Elvis Presley, Parker seems to have run up gambling tabs in Las Vegas into the tens of millions of dollars, but his gambling at the International Hilton is where things gets dicey.
Barron Hilton had an arrangement with Parker for services that Parker would provide to the hotel, and for those services Hilton paid Parker $50,000 annually.
As attorney Blanchard Tual points out in his Amended Guardian ad litem’s report in 1981, this fee was for services rendered to the hotel, not to Elvis, so in fact Parker had his own business arrangement with the very hotel that he was supposed to negotiate with on Elvis’s behalf.
[The Guardian ad litem report was the result of Tual’s research and analysis into Parker’s business deals with Elvis and with the estate after Elvis’s death, which was initiated on behalf of Lisa Marie Presley as the sole heir to Elvis’s estate].
Tual writes in the report that Parker became “notorious as one of the most reckless gamblers in the history of [the Hilton].”
The agreements between the Hilton and Parker were actually written up by none other than Barron Hilton himself, presented more as typical correspondence than legal contracts or official documents of any kind, and there were little if any specifics outlined in the agreements illustrating what exactly Parker was expected to do for the hotel.
To wit, the agreements read loosely as Barron Hilton saying, “We will pay you $50,000 a year to do things for us.” Only Hilton and Parker knew what those “things” entailed.
Alex Shoofey, the general manager of the International Hotel in the early 1970s, is quoted as saying that Parker “was one of the best customers we had…he was good for a million dollars a year.”
Again, Parker was working for Elvis at this time and should have been negotiating in good faith on Elvis’s behalf. Instead, not only was he contractually obligated to carry out services of some kind for the hotel, but he was also gambling in the Hilton’s casino and losing huge sums of money.
One has to wonder how much leverage Barron Hilton had with Parker given that Shoofey once described the deal between Elvis and the Hilton as, “The best deal ever made in this town.” But he wasn’t saying Elvis — through Parker — had made the best deal, he was saying that the Hilton — through Parker — had made the best deal. So, who was Parker really working for?
The Guardian ad litem report seems to infer that Parker was so deep in the hole in terms of money owed to the Hilton that he was no longer serving Elvis at all, and in fact was working against Elvis’s best interests.
Further, a few questions should be asked here: Did Hilton low-ball Parker’s annual fee because of Parker’s gambling debts? Or did Hilton pay Parker these fees knowing that the money would come right back into the Hilton’s casinos? And most important, did Hilton low-ball Elvis’s fees because he had the Colonel in a tight spot?
Did you ever entertain the idea of doing a straight up Elvis bio?
No, Peter Guralnick’s two books are the most definitive and exactly how I would have written Elvis’s story. When somebody does as good as job as Guralnick did, it’s useless to try and top him.
With that said, Alana Nash’s book, Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations of the Memphis Mafia is, to me, the best book ever on Elvis, bar none. That book sparkles and is the most realistic and honest portrait of Elvis Presley, and gives great insight into the man. And, Alana is flat out a great writer.
Patrick Lacy’s Elvis Decoded is another great piece of work. He is an amazing researcher and does excellent work. I see him emerging as one of the top authorities in years to come.
I think Sergeant Presley is the most definitive book on Elvis in the Army because Rex Mansfield was with Elvis every step of the way during his time in the military.
And Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business is somewhere in the top five or ten of Elvis books. Sonny West saw a lot of things in his 16 years with Elvis and he had a keen eye for details. He could put you in the room when telling a story.
When did you finally decide to write a book on Elvis?
It was always in the back of my mind, but I wanted to do a project that focused on a portion of his life because Elvis’s life was so epic. And it’s no secret that Elvis fans scrutinize every detail, so that’s a bit intimidating for an author to take on.
I remember reading about actress-model Barbara Leigh in Memphis Mafia member Joe Esposito’s book, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and how she juggled Elvis, Steve McQueen and Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio executive Jim Aubrey all at the same time beginning in August 1970. I said to myself, “That’s the Elvis story I want to do,” because it focused on a two-year period, and I didn’t have to write about his entire history.
So I contacted Barbara and told her what I wanted to do and she wrote me back and said, “I’ve been thinking about doing my life story, so the timing is great.” I had a great title even before I wrote one word: The King, McQueen and the Love Machine.
Exactly how friendly were Elvis and Steve McQueen?
Sonny told me a story of how the two met one day on the way to the studio in the mid–’60s. Elvis was in a limousine when McQueen pulled up on a motorcycle. They were pleasant to each other but the exchange was brief.
The two legends really collided when they were competing for Barbara’s affections. Before she met McQueen, Barbara was dating Elvis and Aubrey. She then won the role of “Charmagne” for McQueen’s modern-day rodeo Western, Junior Bonner, and she and McQueen started seeing each other during filming…even after the movie was completed.
Barbara, Steve, and Elvis had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the people they were dating. I have a sneaking suspicion Steve knew she was still seeing Elvis and that Elvis knew she was seeing Steve.
So when Elvis would call, he’d ask, “How’s that motorcycle hick”? And Steve would ask, “Was that the guitar hick?” It wasn’t often that McQueen or Elvis had to compete for a woman, but Barbara Leigh, who was a stunner, was quite worth the chase. She’s a very sweet lady and still as sexy as ever.
When you got down to it, Barbara was really in love with Aubrey. She knew Elvis would never give up other women and realized she and Steve weren’t a great match. I don’t know of Elvis and Steve meeting again after their relationships with Barbara ended.
Did your debut book, Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel , help get Elvis projects to your door?
Absolutely. Portrait opened many doors for me in every genre I’ve tackled. It helps when you have a best-selling book to your name. When I approached Barbara Leigh and Sonny about writing their memoirs, I had instant credibility.
Barbara gave me insight into Elvis’s personality, his lifestyle, his likes and dislikes, and his routines. She’s a sweet and wonderful lady and we’re still very close. I just adore her because she is a beautiful person inside and out.
What led to your second Elvis-themed book, Sergeant Presley?
That story is pretty remarkable. At the time I was living in Mesa, Arizona, and my wife said she’d like to write a book with me. I’m a big fan of city libraries, and I was doing my homework for the Barbara Leigh book and came across this little book called Elvis the Soldier.
I had never seen it before. It was a special library copy — the kind that had no cover but had this library-style binding. I flipped through it, saw some interesting photos and then read the book.
Rex Mansfield, the author, admittedly was not a professional writer. But I recognized the intense story that existed between Elvis, Rex and Elisabeth. I was fascinated that someone would risk losing his friendship with Elvis over a woman.
So when I called Rex, who is a stellar human being, I told him that I’d like to give his book a professional makeover. He said, “I’ve been waiting for this phone call for 20 years.”
That was a fun book to write because we connected immediately with Rex and Elisabeth, and they’re like second parents to me and my wife Zoe. I can’t say enough about them — they are such good people. Zoe and I would spend our weekends together writing. It was fun. She wrote Elisabeth’s part and I wrote Rex’s part. It took about a year to put it all together.
How did you meet Sonny West and ultimately become his co-writer?
Barbara Leigh introduced us after I wrote The King, McQueen and the Love Machine. I knew who Sonny was, so I was intrigued. I had read Elvis: What Happened? in college, and I certainly didn’t hold anything against the bodyguards for writing it. I thought it was a very frank and truthful book.
At the time I met Sonny in 2002, he didn’t have much going for him. Frankly, I took a big chance doing the book because his reputation in the Elvis world wasn’t good.
But I liked the story based on the fact that Sonny seemed he was remorseful for what he did and was seeking redemption. I thought that made for an interesting story. And, of course, I wanted to know the scoop on Elvis: What Happened? and its aftermath. Did it take a toll on the men who wrote the book, and did they have any regrets?
Sonny stated the biggest mistake he made regarding Elvis: What Happened? was that he was remiss in not mentioning how much he loved Elvis. I think this comes through very strong in Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business. There’s no doubt in my mind Sonny loved Elvis Presley. He talked about him every day, and he did so with great love and respect.
Do you sympathize with Sonny’s lifelong loyalty to Colonel Parker?
I don’t think it was my role to agree or disagree with Sonny. My job as Sonny’s co-writer was to convey what he told me and best represent what he said for the book.
That said, my opinion is that Sonny had a very close working relationship with Colonel Parker and if that’s how Sonny saw it, then there’s really no discussion or debate. Everybody wants to make Colonel Parker this villain and Elvis a victim and it’s not that simple or black and white. It’s all shades of grey.
Elvis had the wherewithal to change the balance of power if he wanted to, so if he disagreed or didn’t approve of what Colonel Parker was doing with his career, he could have/should have fired him. Managers get fired and replaced all the time in show business.
What prevented Elvis from doing so if he was unhappy with Colonel Parker’s performance? This is a question that every single member of the Memphis Mafia will answer differently, so my opinion really doesn’t matter. They were there; I was not.
Was Elvis: What Happened? written out of revenge, bitterness, and/or money, or were Red, Sonny, and Dave Hebler truly concerned about Elvis getting better?
I think it was written for all the reasons you just listed. They were certainly bitter for being fired, so that can’t be denied. They were dismissed with a few days’ pay and had to start over, so yes, they also did it for the money.
And I really do believe they were concerned about Elvis’s health and thought public embarrassment might force him to seek help. In hindsight, they regret what they did simply because of Elvis’s untimely death and how it coincided with the book’s release. Sonny said he regretted it didn’t come out a year earlier when it really could have done some good.
You also have to realize there was a big price Sonny paid for doing the book. He lived with a “Judas” stigma for 40 years until his 2017 passing from lung cancer. Sonny may not have ever admitted it, but I think he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for Elvis: What Happened? I think had Elvis lived and gotten clean, he would have forgiven Sonny.
What derailed Fame & Fortune, the feature film version of your book with Sonny West?
The project is in limbo and has been put on a shelf for now. Writer-director John Scheinfeld was hired in 2011 and was not paid by producers Ricki and Cindy Friedlander [RLF Victor Productions] for rewriting the Fame & Fortune script.
The Writers Guild of America took the Friedlanders to mandatory and binding arbitration. As of this writing, the Friedlanders refuse to honor their contractual obligation to Mr. Scheinfeld and still owe him more than $47,000 with interest accruing at 1.5 percent per month. That case is actually a few years old now.
As a result, they have been placed on the WGA Strike/Unfair List. What that means is no WGA member is allowed to work for them on this or any other project. When I discovered all of this, Sonny and I elected not to renew the option.
Since Scheinfeld has not been paid for writing the Fame & Fortune script, what will happen to his writing contributions?
It’s a chicken and egg situation: no movie means nothing will happen to John’s writing contributions. Obviously, nothing from his script can be used until he is paid by the Friedlanders.
I liked John’s script because it was faithful to the book, meaning, he didn’t feel the need to embellish a situation or relationship, or create a scenario that didn’t happen. John was also very interested in Elvis’s music, his role in the studio as unofficial producer and the relationship between Sonny, Elvis and the Memphis Mafia.
What I like most is that John’s portrayal of Elvis Presley is fair and balanced. You see all aspects of his personality and the script takes you on this incredible 16-year journey starting with the time Elvis got out of the Army to near the end of his life. A lot of milestones happened in those 16 years.
Is it true you were originally going to write Memphis rock ’n’ roll deejay George Klein’s memoir?
We talked on the phone a few times so that I could write a proposal for him. He wanted to call it Elvis Presley’s Best Friend. I thought he was overreaching. He later amended the title to Elvis: My Best Man. It was a play on words because Elvis served as George’s best man at George’s wedding. But in the beginning, he was trying to infer that he was Elvis’s best friend.
There’s no doubt George had a friendship with Elvis — they met in the eighth grade at Humes High School — but I thought he was trying to overstate the level of that friendship. No one person was Elvis Presley’s best friend. How could they be? No one could possibly understand what it was like to walk in Elvis’s shoes — not even other celebrities.
I also knew from the outset that George had a long-standing relationship with Elvis Presley Enterprises [EPE], which meant he wasn’t going to be forthcoming about some of the more controversial aspects of Elvis’s life. When you’re in EPE’s pocket, they own you.
What broke the deal for me was when George asked what my fee and percentage would be a few days before I finished the proposal. When I told him, he thought I was asking for too much.
I explained to him that he was going to give me a week of his life, and I was probably going to give him two to three years in return, holed away at my desk. I was a best-selling author with a track record, so I wasn’t going to sign a standard contract with the sort of terms he wanted. I brought some cachet as well.
People don’t understand what a pain in the ass writing a book is. It’s a very intense process, but I’m very happy with the turn of events because I ended up doing Sonny’s book instead, and his story was much more interesting than George’s. A lot more interesting.
By the way, I did read Elvis: My Best Man, and it’s exactly what I thought it would be — a very vanilla book. I don’t think it has or will be considered a great book on Elvis [dementia and pneumonia felled Klein at age 83 in 2019].
How did you become friends with Larry Geller, Elvis’s spiritual adviser and hairstylist?
That’s a very interesting story. I first met Larry during Elvis Week 2002 — the 25th anniversary of Elvis’s death — when I was promoting Sergeant Presley with Rex and Elisabeth Mansfield. Larry was a guest speaker along with Rex at one of the many events held that week.
Larry spoke about how he worked for hairstylist Jay Sebring, who happened to be a good friend of Steve McQueen’s. Afterward, I went up to him, introduced myself, and we started talking about McQueen.
Larry was very warm and generous with his time. That same year is when I started writing the book with Sonny West, and it’s no secret that Sonny didn’t like him for reasons I could never understand. Obviously, Sonny had hard feelings towards Larry and as his co-writer, I had to put down what he said.
Sonny blasted him pretty good in Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, and I felt horrible about it because I really liked Larry. Everybody likes Larry. Not one person in the Elvis World has a cross word to say about the man.
Well, fast forward to 2009. I was in the process of writing Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, and I tucked my tail between my legs and asked Larry if he would grant me an interview about McQueen.
He not only granted me the interview, but he said, “Don’t worry about Sonny’s book.” He was as warm and open to me as the day we met in 2002. Larry has a lot of class and is above all the pettiness that goes on between the factions of Elvis’s old friends who will bicker and fight to their dying breath. Larry refuses to get in the middle of that because he’s smart.
If there’s one thing I regret about Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business, it’s how Larry was treated in the book. I still feel a lot of guilt about that, but Larry is such an outstanding individual that it’s not an issue with him. But it will always be an issue for me.
I have no greater respect for an individual than I do for Larry Geller. I can definitely see why Elvis needed his company and that they had a very deep and profound friendship. They don’t get any classier than Larry Geller, and I’m proud to call him my friend.
Are you finished writing on Elvis?
The Sonny West book took me four years to write, and I gave that book all I had. I was exhausted by the end of the process.
In my mind, the only book that has yet to be published is Red West’s memoir. I’d heard a rumor from someone close to Red that he was working on one at least five years before his unexpected death from an aortic aneurysm in July 2017, just two months after Sonny passed. A Hell of A Ride: Red West — Recollections of a Remarkable Life Before, During and After Elvis & The Memphis Mafia, written by Red and Pat West with Jon W. Sparks, was completed in 2018 but has sadly failed to materialize on bookshelves.
I think the fans now understand why Elvis: What Happened? was written and how Red felt in the aftermath. Red knew Elvis better than anyone and it would only be fitting if he had the final word. I know it would be written out of love and respect.
What did you think of Elvis and Ginger, a memoir written by Elvis’s final girlfriend, Ginger Alden?
I saw it as a missed opportunity. When people are asked to write their memoirs, they get one chance to set the record straight. She could have written a very important book on Elvis and closed the chapter on a lot of things.
She seems like a nice lady but I personally thought it was bad form to list every single item that Elvis ever gave her. In her mind I think she wanted to convey how generous he was but she came off looking like she was in it for the money. That’s the opinion I formed when I read it.
I also believe she downplayed Elvis’s drug habit. That book was teed up to be a home run, but she whiffed, and that’s a real shame. One of the great missed opportunities.
And the same question in regards to Linda Thompson’s 2016 memoir, A Little Thing Called Life: On Loving Elvis Presley, Bruce Jenner and Songs in Between?
Now Linda’s book was a home-run shot to the bleachers. She proves you can write an honest, intimate and insightful book about someone and still remain classy. And that’s all I’ve ever heard about Linda — smart, funny, talented and classy. There are only a handful of people in this world I’d actually like to meet and she is one of them. Linda is deserving of respect and I’d love to shake her hand.
Decades after Elvis’s passing, what is his legacy?
Objectively speaking as a journalist, he is both the symbol of the American dream and also a cautionary tale.
His music, films, timeless talent, spirit and legendary acts of kindness should never be forgotten but neither should his downward slide into prescription drug abuse. Those two ends of the spectrum form the basis of the Elvis Presley story. It’s a story of staggering achievement and searing pain and frustration.
I could say, yes, his legacy should be one of hope and inspiration for generations to come, but then why don’t we give the same lament to Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse?
They all died unnecessarily young, and drugs robbed them of their lives and prevented their loved ones from spending more time with them. How do you turn that into a happy ending? If someone you loved suddenly died at a young age with drugs as the contributing factor, how does that get spun into a fairytale ending?
And to be completely objective, I know why EPE doesn’t want to market that story. They want to market the dream. Ever notice they will never carry a photo or picture of him post–1973? They can’t market Elvis from 1974 to 1977 and I find that plain dumb.
How do you ignore the last few years of his life? How do you not tell that story? Trust me, the fans know the story, but why ignore it and pretend like it didn’t happen? Elvis died at age 42, and he should be with us here today for all to enjoy him.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. So he should be viewed with great admiration for the things he was able to accomplish in his lifetime, but then he should also be scrutinized for allowing himself to spiral out of control.
There’s only one person who was in charge of Elvis’s destiny, and that was Elvis. His life was very Shakespearean, and he lived life at both ends of the spectrum. I suspect he would have had it no other way.
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