Motorcycles and Mississippi mamas: The unlikely camaraderie of Elvis Presley and John Phillips
None other than Elvis Presley rode motorcycles with Mamas and Papas mastermind John Phillips in Palm Springs, heard a demo of solo debut John Phillips [John, the Wolfking of L.A.] before its April 1970 distribution on Dunhill Records, and wanted to record the Top 40 country rock hit “Mississippi.” Colonel Tom Parker vetoed the notion, indignant that his sole client would wanna associate with a damn hippie. The long-buried anecdotes originally emerged in Phillips’ best-selling 1986 memoir Papa John and were recollected in the liner notes of the expanded Varèse Sarabande reissue of Wolfking.
An unlikely teaming upon first glance, but the counterculture folk rocker also hailed from the South and was born a mere eight months after Presley. Phillips was introduced from the audience during the “Kentucky Rain” narrator’s February 22, 1970, and August 25, 1974, concerts at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Wolfking session contributors James Burton [guitar and dobro, 1969–1977 TCB Band leader], Hal Blaine [drums on Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls, Fun in Acapulco, Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Easy Come, Easy Go, Live a Little, Love a Little, and the ’68 Comeback Special], Larry Knechtel [keyboards and bass on Speedway, Live a Little, Love a Little, and the ’68 Comeback Special], Gordon Terry [fiddle, Stay Away, Joe], engineer Chuck Britz [Live a Little, Love a Little], and Darlene Love and the Blossoms [’68 Comeback Special, The Trouble with Girls, and Change of Habit] had all worked with Presley in the studio. Mamas and Papas producer Lou Adler was married to three-time Presley costar Shelley Fabares.
In 1990, two years after co-writing the Beach Boys’ out of the blue “Kokomo” comeback, Phillips emerged for a rare late night summit on NBC’s Later with Bob Costas. At the tail end of his 19-minute interview, the veteran sports announcer casually asked, “What about Elvis?” Phillips suddenly lit up and relayed, “Elvis — what a guy. There was a real natural guy. I have two great memories of Elvis. One was when we were living in Palm Springs. We had houses that were in close proximity to each other [starting on April 14, 1970, Elvis and Priscilla Beaulieu lived at 845 West Chino Canyon Road; of course, Graceland was his primary residence in Memphis]. Colonel Parker used to call Geneviève [Waïte, Phillips’ third wife] and I ‘the hippies.’ Elvis and I had identical Harley’s [motorcycles]. We met on the desert trails, except he had 20 guys with him and I just had myself [laughs]. Elvis used to tease me. He knew I was a Southern hippie so it was okay [Phillips came of age in Alexandria, Virginia, while Presley was a Tupelo, Mississippi, flash]. He took me outside to his pool and said, ‘I wanna show you something, John. Look at this.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s great.’ It was a kidney-shaped pool, and you could see them in Palm Springs everywhere. Elvis said, ‘The grass! The grass!’ I said [even more unenthusiastically], ‘Yeah, the grass.’ ‘You never have to cut it. It’s called AstroTurf. It don’t even grow!’ Only a Southern boy would think about having to cut the grass” [laughs].
Losing touch by the mid-’70s, Phillips was severely addicted to heroin and cocaine when he and fellow junkie Keith Richards tracked Pay Pack & Follow. On the afternoon of August 16, 1977, coincidentally the first day of sessions at Manhattan’s Mediasound Studios [half the LP was cut the previous summer at Olympic Sound in London with heavy involvement from Mick Jagger, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones], Phillips was awakened by engineer Harvey Goldberg with the stunning news of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s demise. “It was impossible to picture Elvis dead,” Phillips poignantly wrote. “Elvis was always so handsome and full of life…his death would cast a pall over the sessions” [Pay Pack & Follow, also known as Pussycat, remained shelved for nearly 25 years].
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