By Anand Holla
Only a precious few could ever dream of, let alone actually get to be as privy to The King’s life and times as Jerry Schilling did. As the veteran music industry professional flew down to Doha for a walk-down-the-memory-lane talk, last week, fans of Elvis Presley hung onto every word he spoke, reviving the lasting legacy of one of 20thcentury’s most influential music icons in great detail.
As part of the just-concluded Discover America Week – Qatar 2016, the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club of Qatar in co-ordination with the Grand Hyatt Doha brought down Schilling who took the audience through the choicest of personal stories and special memories related to his times with Elvis.
From 1955 to Elvis’ passing in 1977, Schilling was a trusted friend and confidant of Elvis and part of the famous “Memphis Mafia”. He has also managed The Beach Boys, Jerry lee Lewis and Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie, and wrote the much-admired book Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley. Community sat Schilling down for a long chat:
After all these years, every time you talk about Elvis and keep revisiting those days, what really happens inside of you? Are those memories still fresh?
What I try to do is not do a lot. If you do a lot, you start just hearing yourself talk and there’s no emotion into it. I really want to feel as close as I can to what I am talking about. That’s how I wrote my book. I woke up every morning at 3am. Everything was quiet. I would just jot down my thoughts, hand-written on a legal pad. Then, I would go into my office in the morning and my co-writer Chuck Crisafulli and I we would work on it. I would give him my notes and he would type it up. It’s been 40 or 50 years since some of the situations. So I try to get as close to those times as it’s possible. Somehow, the older I get, the memory of that time is more vivid. Sometimes, I can really still feel the emotion.
You first saw Elvis perform on stage on your 13th birthday, on February 6, 1955, in Memphis. What are your earliest memories of him?
In the beginning, I totally saw him as a rebel. He was extremely controversial. I don’t think he was trying to be a rebel, but the fact that he liked rhythm and blues music, and the first thing he recorded was very controversial, made him. He got criticised by the politicians and the church leaders. But Elvis was never a guy to get up on a platform and say — Yes, I did this. He just quietly kept on it and it took a strong personality to do that. The day I first met him — I call it my 7/11 day — was July 11, 1954. That same week he had recorded, and the night before they had played his song on the radio for the first time and I ran into him the next day by chance. He was 19, I was 12. I was listening to the radio ever since I was 10. I was half an orphan — my mother died when I was a child and I lived with different families. I didn’t have friends. So music was my friend. I was very sickly, very weak. I failed at first grade from lack of classes. I was a pretty pitiful kid actually. Anyway, life made up for it later (smiles). So I was really into James Dean and early Marlon Brando, and I remember Elvis’s first interview with Dewey Philips. The way he talked reminded me of James Dean.
How did you start working with Elvis?
I was close friends with him for 10 years — from 1954 to 1964. As a kid, I really wanted to travel and work like those guys but then I started planning my own life and forgot about that. I was selected to be a history teacher and a football coach. And then I got a phone call real late one night, and Elvis wanted to see me. He told me he wants me to work for him. I met him, and it maybe took three seconds to say yes to him, quit two jobs, quit school and go to California. I became part of this close-knit group he had, called the Memphis Mafia. It was basically people who he trusted, who lived with him and who did various things; took care of cars, travel arrangements, introductions, studio schedules. Elvis couldn’t do a lot of these things by himself because he became so famous so fast.
Elvis was a very private person. How did you figure in his zone and how long did it take to really become friends with him?
It took a long time. Elvis wasn’t the type of guy you immediately became friends with — he just had that thing about him. He wasn’t the guy you came up and slapped on the back. Later on, I hung around with him for years. We would go to all-night movies and would even rent the carnival and do rides all night. When he bought Graceland in 1957, he would have parties. I was in high school still. Sometimes he would ask me to come up, sometimes he wouldn’t (smiles). Over a progression, I knew we were friends and that he liked me. This is 10 years I’m speaking of — that’s a lot of time. It was when he hired me and we got on that bus that he drove every single mile of those 2,000 miles from Memphis to Los Angeles, and we listened to music, stopped at truck stops at 2am and played football, talked about girls, philosophy, life, that I got to really know him. By the time I got to California, I knew him in that week way more than I had known him in 10 years. So it took that. There’s this TV series called Entourage. But we were the original Entourage.
Elvis went through a difficult time in his later years, when he didn’t have a hit record for seven years and his movies weren’t doing well. What was he going through?
I think he was going through a lot of self-doubt. I think he wondered whether there was something more that he would be productive with in his life. We got very interested in Eastern Buddhism, a wonderful organisation he joined and some of us did — it was called the Self-Realisation Fellowship, started by Paramahansa Yogananda, and the person who took over for him, a very spiritual person named Sri Daya Mata, who Elvis became very close with. At one point, he really wanted us to go into a spiritual path. I think we all go through these phases. We can’t maybe survive our lifestyles, but when you are Elvis Presley, you can actually do that (laughs). He got to a point where he didn’t listen to music because he was hearing hit songs out there and couldn’t wonder what was going on because he had a great year. Again, that’s the monetary business — they had people writing Elvis’s songs so as to save money and own the publishing. That was not with his knowledge and that was a big frustration. He didn’t know the specifics but innately, he knew everything. He had anger in him. People look at his films and think he was the boy next door, smiling and singing songs. He was James Dean, he was a nice guy, he was the yin and yang, and that’s why I loved him so much. He wasn’t predictable. He was a true rebel who liked that audience but that was limited. Elvis wanted everybody to love him.
Elvis has such a massive fan following and you must have encountered thousands of them. Have you ever been surprised by something one of his fans said or did?
When I was doing my book tour eight years ago, Penguin had me in England for the European promotions. CNN, then, did an hour’s special for me. There was an Indian guy, who stars in a hit TV series there, and he asked me a very interesting question. He said, Jerry, do you think Elvis was aware of people like me who are so different and so far away, that loved him? I thought wow. I, of course, can’t speak of every thought of Elvis. But I do feel that Elvis was aware.
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