Chapter Excerpt From 'Elvis: My Best Man'

Reprinted from the book "Elvis: My Best Man" by George Klein with Chuck Crisafulli. Copyright © 2010 by George Klein with Chuck Crisafulli. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.

• Introduction: All the Way from Memphis

"GK, my man."

Elvis was in a good mood. And when Elvis was in a good mood, everybody around Elvis was in a good mood.

"Hey, Elvis. Hey, everybody," I answered.

"Get over here, GK," he said. "Sit down and stay a while."

He was looking relaxed, happy, and cool as could be sitting at the head of the table in the Graceland dining room. He gestured to the empty chair next to him on his right, so that's where I took my seat, saying my hellos to some of the other folks at the table: Priscilla, Joe Esposito, Charlie Hodge, Richard Davis. It was a couple of days into the new year of 1969, and Joe, Charlie, and Richard were all working for Elvis -- familiar members of our so-called "Memphis Mafia"—so it was no surprise to see them at this informal, post-holiday dinner. There were a few faces down at the other end of the table that weren't seen as often at Graceland, faces that represented more of the business side of Elvis's world: record producer Felton Jarvis, who'd become a trusted musical ally after working some of Elvis's Nashville sessions a few years before; Freddy Bienstock, liaison to the Hill and Range Publishing company that supplied and administered almost all of the songs Elvis recorded; and Tom Diskin, the right-hand man to Elvis's longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Elvis had been making me a welcome guest at Graceland since he'd bought the place back in 1957. In fact, I'd been with him when he looked at the property before he purchased it. I was comfortable enough at Graceland that, like most of us close to Elvis, I didn't really think of it as Graceland — it was simply "the house." But as many times as I'd been welcomed in, there was still something especially wonderful about being in Elvis's home during the holiday season.

This year, Elvis had gotten back to Memphis just before Christmas, having finished work on one of his Hollywood films, and I'd been happy to spend as much time with him as I could through the holidays. As always, Elvis and Priscilla had turned the Graceland grounds into a kind of winter wonderland, with sparkling lights strung up all through the property's magnificent oak trees, and a beautiful Christmas tree set up in the dining room. He loved the season, and this Christmas had been a particularly sweet one — it was his first as a father. On Christmas Eve a few of us had gathered at the house for a very warm and happy holiday party (with Elvis's father, Vernon, dressing up to play Santa Claus for the benefit of ten-month-old Lisa Marie). In the week between Christmas and New Year's we'd enjoyed several nights of private movie screenings at the Memphian Theater (Elvis liked the crazy comedy Candy with Marlon Brando), and we all rang in 1969 with a private party at the Thunderbird Lounge in midtown Memphis.

In the days after New Year's, Graceland returned to its natural rhythms — Elvis would come downstairs to have his dinner around ten p.m., and whoever was around was more than welcome to sit down and join him. This night, the table was laid out with some of his Southern favorites — meat loaf, greens, mashed potatoes, cornbread. I'd learned years before that midnight meat loaf did not sit very well with me, so I'd gotten in the habit of eating before I came over, and then just nursing a Pepsi or having a little dessert when I sat with Elvis for his late supper. This night, I wasn't thinking about the meal at all, though. When I'd heard that Felton and Tom and Freddy were coming over, I knew business was going to be discussed. And I wanted to be a part of that conversation. I wasn't sure yet how I was going to say what I wanted to say, but I knew it had to be said. Elvis was still feeling extremely proud and pleased with the Elvis TV special that had just aired on NBC at the beginning of December. After years of feeling stuck in mediocre films and stuck with mediocre material to sing, he had fought hard to make the kind of television show he'd wanted to make. He'd shaken off the advice of the not-so-easily-shaken Colonel Parker, who wanted his star client to make something along the lines of an hour of cozy Christmas carols.

Instead, Elvis had put together an incredibly exciting hour that paid tribute to his real rock 'n' roll roots while also showing himself to be an artist and entertainer still in his fighting prime: Elvis looking lean and mean in black leather. Elvis strapping on a guitar to jam with old bandmates Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana. Elvis looking dangerous and powerful and relevant all over again. Elvis putting his heart into his performances and truly enjoying himself. That's the Elvis that so many of us around him had wanted to see again for so long, and that's what he gave us in that TV special. Apparently a good portion of the country had been feeling the way we did about Elvis, because his show was watched by almost half the nation's TV viewers the night it aired and wound up with some of the year's highest ratings for any kind of program.

Click here to buy the book

Elvis had gotten some rave reviews in the press, too, and the only thing that bothered him about the response to the show was that some people referred to it as a "Comeback Special." He felt he'd never stopped working hard at what he was doing, and even if the movies and soundtrack albums he'd put his energies into weren't always inspired, he didn't consider that he'd gone anywhere that he had to "come back" from. Still, he knew he'd done some exceptional work, and I was thrilled that this good friend of mine, the most talented man I knew, had really put those talents to use again, rocking and rolling like only he could.

There was more good rockin' to come in the new year, too. The Colonel had just worked out a tremendous deal for Elvis to make his return to live concert performances, with a month's run of shows at Las Vegas's brand new International Hotel scheduled for the summer. Elvis was excited about getting in front of audiences again, and he liked to joke that the hotel and its showroom were being built just for him. For the first time in a long time, Elvis was feeling energized and optimistic about the path his career was taking.

On this particular night, when the group in the Graceland dining room had just about finished eating, Elvis pulled a small Hav-a-Tampa cigarillo from his shirt pocket. He'd become very fond of the thin, sweet, wooden-tipped cigars, though more often than not he'd just hold a cigar without lighting it up. The conversation slowly shifted from talk of the TV special to talk about the recent movies we'd seen and then toward some actual business. Felton mentioned that it was about time to start putting together Elvis's next recording session for an RCA album.

"Yeah, I know it," said Elvis, rolling the cigar through his fingers. "We'll get it worked out."

The session was supposed to happen soon at the RCA studios in either Nashville or Los Angeles, and Felton started going over which session players would be available in the upcoming weeks. Elvis always wanted to work with a strong rhythm section, and there was a bit of concern that L.A.'s top session drummer, Hal Blaine, was booked up and wouldn't be available for the recording dates. Felton had a few suggestions about suitable replacements, and went on to discuss other players who were or weren't available. Freddy Bienstock said that Hill and Range had plenty of new material to present to Elvis.

I sensed a dip in Elvis's happy mood. For all that had been going well recently, it'd been a long time since he'd had a real hit record, and at that point the thought of going to work in a recording studio probably seemed like just that — going to work. The more the session plans were discussed, the more that happy holiday mood seemed to be slipping away. Elvis had done so well with the TV special and was so excited about the upcoming concerts, it just seemed a crying shame that making great records couldn't be a part of his newfound satisfaction as well.

To me, it was not a question of ability or desire. Elvis had just shown us he was in top form, and though we didn't talk about it much, I knew he'd like nothing more than to be at the top of the charts again. I'd come to believe that getting there was simply a matter of where he recorded and what he recorded. He could certainly make any studio his own—he'd done that right from the start, cutting his first Sun records with Sam Phillips at the small, cozy Memphis Recording Service studio. But he'd never really enjoyed the bigger, fancier studios he'd worked in. It didn't matter how new the recording gear was or how expensive-looking the facilities were, Elvis worked by feel, and it'd been a while since he'd recorded in a place that had the right feel. On top of that, Elvis had a terrific ear for selecting great material to perform, but there'd been too many sessions lately where there just wasn't anything great for him to pick from what Freddy Bienstock and Hill and Range presented him with.

I knew exactly where he could find the feel and the material he was after. But I also knew very well that it wasn't wise to come at him with some big career-related suggestion in front of a lot of other people, especially a mix of business associates and Memphis Mafia guys. As open and generous as Elvis was, he had a strong sense of pride, and you didn't ever want to do anything to embarrass him. That was a surefire way to find yourself permanently standing on the wrong side of the Graceland gates. If you had something important to say to him, especially about his work, the smart thing to do was to ask him if you could speak in private, and then soft-sell him on whatever suggestion you were making. You had to keep things subtle enough so that he could feel he was making his own decisions. He never tried to make the rest of us feel small, but the fact was that he was the superstar, not us.

You had to keep in mind that as much as Elvis loved and respected his friends, he didn't want to be pushed around by them either. I knew all that, but maybe I was feeling a little cocky at the table that night because my own career was bringing me everything I'd ever wanted from a life in broadcasting. I was the red-hot, number-one rock 'n' roll disc jockey in Memphis, and I had a popular TV show called Talent Party that was Memphis's answer to American Bandstand and Shindig! I made my living maintaining a feel for the pulse of what was going on in music, and I knew that Elvis appreciated that. When it came to rock 'n' roll, I had a damn good ear for what was hot and what wasn't.

Now I was sitting as close to Elvis as I could possibly be, with our chairs just about six inches apart. As Felton and Tom and Freddy talked up the plans for the upcoming session, I watched Elvis flip his cigar around in his fingers with nervous energy, his face tighter and his expression darker than it had been before. I knew the smart way to approach Elvis, but I decided not to be so smart.

I raised my hand and said softly, "Elvis, can I say something?"

The table quieted. Elvis looked over at me with a slightly puzzled expression. "Yeah, GK. Say whatever you want."

So I said it.

"Elvis, you are the greatest star who ever lived. You define what a superstar is. Your popularity is worldwide and you've got more star power and more talent than anybody. You're the most versatile singer I've ever heard. You can sing anything."

Just out of the corner of my eye I saw Elvis raise his eyebrow a bit, wondering what I was getting at. He was smart enough to know I didn't raise my hand just to tell him how great he was.

"Elvis, you know you can sing anything. But it just makes me sick that you are getting nothing but B-side material to work with. You're the greatest singer in the world, you could have the greatest writers writing for you, but you're only getting lousy B-side crap material because writers are being told they have to give up a part of the publishing and ownership of the songs to get anything through to you. The top writers today aren't going to go for that anymore, Elvis. They won't give it up, and they shouldn't. Elvis, you can't be at your greatest if you're not getting great material. And it's a shame, because if you got your hands on some great songs, you'd have number-one records."

I paused a moment to get my breath. Elvis was still and quiet, and there was dead silence at the table. I figured I might as well go all the way now.

"Elvis, getting good material is just half of it. You're sitting here, a superstar, being told which musicians you can or can't get and being told when and where you should record. Elvis, just ten miles north of here is American Sound Studios, where they're cutting the greatest hits in the world right now. It's in North Memphis, a mile and a half from our old Humes High, near the corner of Thomas and Chelsea. It's a small funky studio with the kind of feeling I know you like. It's not fancy, it's not state-of-the-art, but they're cutting fantastic records there. 'The Letter' by the Box Tops. B. J. Thomas's 'Hooked on a Feeling.' 'Angel of the Morning' by Merrilee Rush. All hits. Wilson Pickett's recorded there, so has Neil Diamond. Dusty Springfield just cut 'Son of a Preacher Man' at American — she came all the way from England to record right there in North Memphis, Elvis. And it would be a dream come true for the guys at American if you'd record over there. With some great songs to work with at American, I know you'd have yourself some hit records, Elvis. It's what you deserve."

I don't know if it's possible to get deader than dead silence, but it was awful quiet around that table.

For the first time, I got real nervous. I'd seen people get close to Elvis and then get shut out because they crossed a line with him. It would be so easy for him now to pretend that nothing had just happened, to make some kind of joke to the rest of the table and then shut me out. The thought of not being welcome in Elvis's home was terrifying. I loved this guy more than any friend I'd ever had, and I couldn't imagine anything much worse than losing my friendship with him. But it truly felt worth the gamble to try to do everything I could to help him get back on top.

There still wasn't a damn sound at the table, though I was sure everyone could hear my heart pounding through my chest.

Elvis slowly flipped that little cigar around in his fingers, then his eyes went up and he kind of squinted like he was looking at something beyond the ceiling. He turned to me, looked at me hard, and pointed an index finger right at me.

"GK's right," he said. He turned to the others at the table. "George is right."

Those sounded like just about the sweetest words I'd ever heard, and I was overcome by such a mixture of happiness and relief that it took me a moment to register another sound I was hearing: Priscilla and the guys around the table were cheering. Charlie Hodge reached over to high-five me, and Felton jumped out of his seat with a whoop. "I can get you into American, Elvis. I can get you songs by Jerry Reed, Mac Davis — whatever
you want. We can make it happen."
"I've got a line to Neil Diamond," I told Elvis. "I know for a fact he'd be honored to write something for you."

Elvis nodded, then put the cigar in his mouth and bit hard on it. "I don't give a damn where the material comes from," he said. "I don't care about publishing or percentages or what the writers get or what we have to pay for. I just want some great goddamn songs."

Everyone around the table whooped again. Well, almost everyone. While I'd been speaking my piece I'd been very careful not to make any eye contact with Tom Diskin or Freddy Bienstock. I didn't dislike either of them personally, but both of them represented a way of doing business that treated Elvis like a product rather than a true entertainer — like an act to be hyped rather than an artist to be supported. Now, with a couple glances in their direction, I could tell from their tight smiles that they were not happy with the turn the evening had taken. And I knew they'd be reporting every word that had been said back to the Colonel just as soon as they could get to a hotel phone.

I knew it wasn't smart to get on the wrong side of the Colonel, but this night I didn't care. I felt I had done right by my friend Elvis. I got a nudge from Elvis's elbow and turned to look at him. He looked back at me for just a beat and then gave me a wink. That said everything I needed to hear.

We all got up from the table and started to move to the back den off the kitchen, everyone still talking excitedly about what might happen when Elvis got his hands on some great songs. Marty Lacker, another Memphis Mafia member, was in the den, and he was equally excited by the news. He'd done some work for American Studios and also thought it would be a perfect spot for Elvis. Felton Jarvis came up to me with a huge smile on his face and before I could say a word he grabbed me and gave me a bear hug. "George, I've been thinking exactly what you were saying, but I could never say it. I always feel I'm between a rock and a hard place trying to please Elvis and the Colonel and RCA. I always figured if I spoke up, I'd lose my job. But you said it, man, you said it."

I barely had time to thank him for the support when he called over my shoulder. "Elvis, I can call American right now. We can really make this happen."

"Well, make the call," said Elvis. "The sooner the better."

Felton left to use the phone in the kitchen, and I went over to stand by Elvis. He looked at me, with that hint of smile creeping on his face again.

"Shoot, GK — you look a mess. You got your nerves in the dirt."

"Phew, Elvis. I took a hell of a chance. But you know it was from the heart."

"I know it, George," he said. "You were right, though. And when you're right, you're right."

I stood there, breathing a little easier now, as the rest of the guys talked and kidded with each other. Then Felton stepped back into the room.

"Hey, Elvis. We're booked into American Studios. Next Monday night."

Another cheer went up. Elvis was heading back to North Memphis.

Back to our old neighborhood. Back to where it all began ...

Reprinted from the book "Elvis: My Best Man" by George Klein with Chuck Crisafulli. Copyright © 2010 by George Klein with Chuck Crisafulli. Published by Crown, a division of Random House, Inc.