Chris Morris / Special to the Sun
Friday, Jan. 8, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
Some have been fired, more than once, by a boss who often enlisted his father to deal the bad news.
They’ve had their dates yanked right from their arms, left helpless to protest. One has been cheated on, publicly, the transgressions splayed across tabloid newspapers.
They’ve witnessed random gunplay, blown-out TVs, shattered chandeliers and shot-through hotel ceilings. They revived their friend from certain death and risked their livelihood to vainly talk sense into their superstar employer/soul mate/companion who was spiraling to an inevitable demise at age 42.
They have also been players in one of the greatest sagas in entertainment history, humbled recipients of cars and cash, motorcycles and mortgage payments, loyalty and love. And to a person, they love Elvis Presley.
Even today, on the anniversary of Elvis’ 75th birthday and more than three decades after his death, they speak reverentially of the undisputed King of Rock ’n’ Roll as if he is still actually alive.
Some are members of the storied “Memphis Mafia,” the posse of loyal badasses and shrewd practitioners who built a shield that protected Elvis from everyone but himself. One is an ex-girlfriend; another, a trusted journalist; another, a veteran comedian who warmed up audiences in Las Vegas and across the country for the King.
As the January 8 birth date of Elvis is upon us, they talked once more about the man who forever changed popular culture, beginning in the mid-1950s with his great Sun Records recordings until his sloppy death in a Graceland bathroom on Aug. 16, 1977.
The lineup for this story:
•Linda Thompson, Elvis’ live-in girlfriend from 1972-1976. The former Miss Tennessee USA later married Olympic decathlon gold medalist and reality show star Bruce Jenner, and, later, renowned music producer David Foster.
•Joe Esposito, an unlikely Memphis Mafian (he’s the lone non-Southerner, coming from Chicago) who met Elvis in 1958 while both were Army enlistees stationed in Germany. Esposito was best man at Presley’s marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu in 1967 (he paid for the marriage license). He also drove Priscilla to the hospital when she delivered Lisa Marie and was with Presley for 17 years, present at Graceland when Elvis died. He has written the books Remember Elvis and Elvis Straight Up, Vol. 1, and travels internationally speaking about the Presley legacy and his years with the King.
•Jerry Schilling, who met Elvis when Schilling was just 12 and Presley was 19, during a pickup football game in North Memphis. Schilling, who has grown into an accomplished music-industry executive, authored the book Me and a Guy Named Elvis, released in 2007. The book was endorsed by Lisa Marie Presley, whom Schilling once managed. He has also worked with the Beach Boys and Billy Joel.
•Sonny West, cousin of fellow Elvis confidant Red West, whose relationship with Elvis dates to 1960. The Wests were embedded in Elvis’ inner circle until they were fired, along with fellow Memphis Mafian Dave Hebler, on July 13, 1976, a little more than a year before Presley’s death. Financial reasons were the stated reasons Elvis enlisted his father, Vernon, to perform the messy dismissals. The trio, bitter that Elvis banished them from his employ rather than tend to his deteriorating health, wrote a stunning book exposing Elvis’ unraveling personal life, Elvis: What Happened?, released 10 days before Presley died. Later, West wrote a second book about his time with Elvis, Elvis: Still Taking Care of Business.
•Sam Thompson, a former deputy sheriff in Memphis and older brother of Linda Thompson. Thompson was brought on as a member of Presley’s security team in 1972 and took over its operations in 1976. Today, Thompson is the chairman of the Nevada Public Utilities Commission.
•Sammy Shore, Elvis’ opening act at the International and Las Vegas Hilton from 1969-’72. Shore co-founded The Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip in L.A. in 1972 and is the father of comic actor Pauly Shore.
•Frank Lieberman, a longtime Las Vegas entertainment journalist and PR rep who worked for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when Elvis opened at the International and secured a rare interview with the star for a story that appeared on Feb. 8, 1970. Lieberman still wears an authentic “TCB” (Taking Care of Business) necklace given to him by Elvis himself in the early ’70s. His wife, Karen, was given a “TLC” (Tender Loving Care) piece that same night.
Linda Thompson: “[His appeal] was a combination of things. It was an amalgamation of qualities. He was just insanely gorgeous, charismatic, warm, generous, legendary, innovative. He redefined music, fashion, sexual mores. It’s interesting, he never toured Europe, Japan, anywhere outside the United States, but he’s still one of the most recognizable entities on Earth.”
Jerry Schilling: “Elvis was dangerous back then. He didn’t realize it, and he wasn’t trying to make a statement. He just stuck to what he did. But we grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s, and for a white boy from Humes High to be doing R&B, it wrecked the whole social system. It was a very boring time in a lot of ways, and Elvis was right at the crux of that. He came from that.”
Joe Esposito: “Elvis was a very smart person, a very well-read person. He loved to read about religion and science especially. He was no dumb country boy. That’s one of the biggest Elvis myths, that he was dumb and being led around by The Colonel. That’s one of the great myths, that one and the one where he’s still alive. Elvis is not alive.”
Linda Thompson: “He was certainly a well-read, intelligent grown-up. Colonel Tom Parker was more behind-the-scenes and acquiesced to Elvis’ needs. It was very much a business partnership, not a close relationship. The Colonel was a brusque, brash man. He showed up to [Elvis’] funeral wearing an opened-collared shirt and baseball cap. Elvis had much more decorum. He was the antithesis of Colonel Tom.”
Joe Esposito: “I go all over the world talking about Elvis, and I always I tell how good a man Tom Parker was. He made mistakes, but Parker was a good man. We had some fights, but overall we got along great. I think he knew how to handle Elvis, and he made deals nobody ever even thought of before.”
Sammy Shore: “He had a hell of a sense of humor. I used to do a Brother Sam preacher bit, ‘Gimme an amen! Gimme a hallelujah!’ Elvis loved that. He would come up early to make sure he saw that bit every night.”
Sam Thompson: “Nothing happened if Elvis didn’t want it to happen, but he hid behind his father when tough decisions had to be made. There was talk of lawsuits when these fellows [Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler] were fired by Vernon, but it was just a case of too many people on the payroll. Red West in particular was so close to Elvis, and Sonny was Red’s cousin, and Dave was a nice guy. I think that Red and Sonny, if Elvis had lived through that period, would have been hired back, even after (Elvis: What Happened?) book came out.”
Jerry Schilling: “I think the biggest weakness with Elvis was he hated confrontation. By hating the confrontation, he did not win or make the artistic choices—some of the artistic choices—he wanted to. And I’ve never seen anybody with a worse temper. He was James Dean, a rebel with a real temper. But he chose to be a nice guy, maybe to his detriment. All of us around him were glad it was a characteristic, you know? We didn’t want to see the guy who flew off the handle. But when he did, you knew there was a reason.”
Sam Thompson: “Elvis fired me while he was holding a vial of pills. ‘I need this, and I don’t need you,’ is how he said it. There was some confusion about whether or not I was actually fired, and I went home thinking I was fired, but that’s the way he could be. Whoever you talk to, they’ll tell you Elvis had a quick temper, he could be violent in a flash and then regret it. There was some question whether I was fired. I said, ‘I was there, and I was fired.’ But this was part of the climate. We were working for a strong-willed, larger-than-life person, we were damn lucky to be there and we knew it.”
Sammy Shore: “I was with him for a lot of years. He just couldn’t have been nicer to me. He was that kind of person. If he wasn’t Elvis the superstar, he would have been a nice country boy. He would have been no different. But it was hard for him to handle the success that he did have.”
Frank Lieberman: “He was just awesome onstage. There has been nobody better. The adrenaline from him and the audience was incredible. The feeling of the audience, the excitement when they were waiting in line, was so different. You buy a ticket now, 90 days in advance, and you’re going to go on this date, and it sits there until the night of the show when you go to see whoever it is, Barry Manilow or whoever. But in those days, you’d stand in line with a couple thousand people to get seated, and the energy of the people around you to see a legend—everybody was talking about it. There was just an adrenaline building and building and building. You’d go in, and once Sammy [Shore] came on, there was a little bit more building, then an explosion when Elvis walked onstage.”
Sammy Shore: “One night Joe Esposito told me he heard there was a sniper out there, in the audience. ‘Do some more time!’ he says. Holy crap! Jesus Christ! So I’m pacing back and forth, even running a little bit, doing my act and we have police walking through the audience because we got word somebody was going to shoot Elvis. Joe finally said it was clear, ‘Okay, you’re off,’ and Elvis comes out, nervous as hell. He gets caught up in the mic cable. He’s really moving a lot, he’s moving more than usual. When he joked to the crowd, the rim shots were coming fast as hell and they sounded like gunshots. Ronnie Tutt, the drummer, was kind of kidding and laughing about it, but Elvis was really nervous. It was a crazy night.”
Sonny West: “We had some guys start running at him onstage one night. We got to them before they got to Elvis and we just pushed them off and away from the stage. The boss of all of them had a sword cane with him, and they had long rap sheets—stuff involving topless bars, drugs, concealed weapons. But Elvis, he was ready to go, doing his karate movements. ‘Lemme at ’em! Lemme at ’em!’ He had to be restrained.”
Sonny West: “My cousin Red had a role in Rainmaker years ago, which Francis Ford Coppola directed and had Matt Damon and Jon Voight. Big stars. But during the breaks in filming, all they wanted to do was ask Red about Elvis. Coppola, Damon, all these guys couldn’t get enough of these stories. I told Red, ‘No matter what you achieve anywhere else in your life, you’ll always be remembered as one of the guys who took care of Elvis.’”
Jerry Schilling: “He touches so many people, still, in his honesty, in persona and in voice. It’s a personal thing. He’s singing to them. I don’t know anybody who cuts through all continents and across the country—from India and China to Mississippi. He had a human quality that was honest in his music.”
Frank Lieberman: “Noboby had the aura of Elvis. He had a certain charm, a look. You go back to the 1968 comeback special—the black leather that he wore. The baby face, the black hair. He was naïve, there was a warmth. It’s just unbelievable—he’s the No. 1 seller of merchandise in death, too. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows, ‘Why Elvis?’ Maybe it’s this: It was his humanity. He’s saying ‘For the amount of time I am onstage, I am with you.’”
Sonny West: “I wasn’t sure what show it was, but Robert Goulet was on … It seemed to me it was because Goulet had forgotten the words to the national anthem, and Elvis said, ‘Learn the damn words! That is THE song, and you don’t forget the words to that song!’ And he shot the TV. This was the first time I’d known him to shoot at a TV, and it might have been while Goulet was on The Mike Douglas Show, it was probably around the early-’70s, late-’60s, so that show was on TV then. It’s a blur now, a lot of it, but I also remember him saying, ‘[Goulet’s] got a great voice, but he’s plastic as hell.’ Lisa Marie asked him why he did it, and he said, ‘Because Daddy wanted to change the channel.’ He’d shot stuff before. He shot chandeliers at the ceiling of the suite at the Hilton, made holes in it. Nobody even knew those holes would go all the way to the sky until we got the first rain and it leaked into the living room. We had about six buckets in there to catch the rain dripping through the ceiling.”
Sam Thompson: “Elvis was armed every time I was with him. He had two .45s on him, at all times, and I saw him pull them out, yes. You bet your life I was armed, too.”
Sonny West: “When Elvis was in the Army, he heard people saying he was a flash in the pan, they would not remember him when he came back to the States, stuff like that. He said, ‘I’m worried. Will they still want me, will they still buy my music?’ So Parker had done these multiple-picture deals, signed him up with all these movie companies. He’d signed with Paramount already. MGM, Fox, United Artists, Allied Artists ... He had a deal with MGM for four pictures, $1 million apiece, plus I think it was 50 percent of the sales and $75,000 in expenses. This was when Elizabeth Taylor was making news because she’d been paid $1 million for Cleopatra, and Elvis had a $4 million deal. But Parker never told the trade publications about it. When you look at Elvis’ decision to go into the movies, it was a no-brainer.”
Sam Thompson: “We were paid handsomely by him. He’d compensate me with jewelry and cars—a couple of Caddies, a Lincoln. I had rings. He gave me a check for $5,000 to furnish my house.”
Sonny West: “We got post-tour bonuses, between $2,500 and $10,000, depending on how long you’d been with him. We were making $450 a week and all of our expenses were paid, but we had bills and expenses at home. Elvis paid me a bonus one year and also took care of the down payment on the house, too. I thanked Vernon for this, too, and he just said, ‘It was Elvis’ idea.’”
Linda Thompson: “Looking back on that period, I was such a young innocent. I was in it for all the right reasons, but now I look back on the value of Elvis memorabilia—personal items like toothbrushes. I never exploited that part of his life, but I look back and kind of laugh. I had access to every bit of him.”
Jerry Schilling: “When you have a genius artist, a lot of times to regular people around him, his aspirations and thoughts look too far-out. Elvis was about 20 years ahead of everybody else. I’ll give you an example of this: We’re playing Vegas, and Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters are in the audience, and she wanted to talk to him about something. Elvis, Barbra, Joe Esposito, Jon and myself, went off into a half-dressing room and half-closet backstage at the Hilton. It was there she offered him the role in A Star is Born. Elvis saw the original, and he wanted to play the washed-up drunk, not the boy next door. If he gets half-billing and half the money, he’s fine. He’s just excited about doing something like this. But it all got taken away. I don’t think Elvis had second thoughts, but I think he was just given too many obstacles and the opportunity just died.”
Jerry Schilling: “One thing Elvis wanted to do was go overseas. He really wanted to do this, and I asked the Colonel about it. I asked, ‘Couldn’t Concerts West [the company that booked Elvis’ tours] take him to London, secure the place? Can we ask [then-Concerts West execs] Jerry Weintraub and Tom Hewlett if we could do it?’ And Colonel says, ‘Go ahead and ask Tom if that’s possible.’ So I did. My motive was purely to make this happen because it would have been great for Elvis, and I talked to Tom and he did say it could be done. The next day I told Colonel this, and he says, ‘You talked to Tom Hewlett?’ and threw his cane on the floor. I guess if you’re Colonel Parker, you don’t expect that I’m going to actually talk to Tom, but I did. It was like calling his bluff, I guess. It never happened, Elvis never went overseas.”
GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS
Linda Thompson: “He was my first love in every respect. In the beginning, the first year, we were together 365 days a year 24/7, all the time. That broke his record for fidelity from the time he became famous. After that, we were apart a few days here and there, and it was welcome for me, honestly. It was very tiring for me to be attuned to his needs for time and attention. But I realized there were a few other women involved. First he denied it. Then he’d say, ‘Honey, if I’m ever with someone else, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.’ He made me feel like it was okay. He was always sequestered with the same 13 people. Once in a while, he just needed a little outside interaction. It wasn’t so much about sex as it was just to talk to someone outside the circle. I struggled with it, but it is Elvis. I never felt more loved or more valued in my life. No one had a stronger sense of loyalty than he did, in his own way. He was unique and you made allowances for who he was, his needs for companionship and insecurities about getting older. When you have a face-lift when you’re 40, you’re pretty insecure about getting older.”
Sammy Shore: “He used to have security watch his dressing room because they were afraid of all the women who might try to get at him. I said, ‘If you want a dressing room where there are no women, send him to mine!’”
Sam Thompson: “When Linda told me she was dating Elvis, I thought it was a joke. I said, ‘Wow, how did you meet him?’ Then it sort of sunk in. Where was this going? Is it a relationship? Then I got past that big brother thing and let my guard down. But I was a hard sell, I was a deputy sheriff at that time. I sort of went in not trusting him, but he did win me over.”
Joe Esposito: “It’s very, very true that he loved women. He related very much to women. He just loved to meet them, talk to them, and I’m telling you, Elvis would never, ever stop seeing other women. It was tough on Priscilla. All these women, Ann-Margret, all of them, just loved him. He didn’t conceal his love for them, either.”
Sonny West: “Elvis hit me once, after I was with him for one year. He had a problem with me over this girl that was with Tuesday Weld, who Elvis was dating at the time. I was with her friend, and Elvis leaned in and kissed her on the cheek, right in front of me. Later, I looked at over her across the room and he had really started kissing her, her arms are going up his back and everything. I asked Tuesday, ‘Doesn’t this bother you?’ and she said, ‘No, me and Elvis just have fun together.’ I went over to Elvis’ cousin, Gene Smith, and I said, ‘I’m burnt! To a crisp! Shot down! That Elvis, he’s smooth as silk!’ Then I say, ‘Gene, if you had to pick between Tuesday and that girl, who would you pick?’ He says, ‘I’d pick Tuesday.’ And I say, ‘I’d pick Tuesday, too.’ Well, Elvis was watching me and he said, ‘What’d you say about me, Sonny?’ I told him I’d just said something to Gene, ‘It wasn’t about you, Elvis.’ But he came after me and he had a bottle in his hand and he says, ‘I’m going to break this GD bottle’—I’m not going to say what GD meant, but you get the meaning—‘over your head.’ I told him he wasn’t hitting me over the head with any bottle. I told him, ‘You’re starting to act like a Gestapo officer! I quit!’ He says, ‘You can’t quit, you’re fired!’ ‘Whatever you want to call it, I’m leaving!’ I said, and started to leave. He stopped me from leaving and hauled off and hit me in the jaw and then squared off, like he was ready to go. It brought tears to my eyes, and I stalked off to the bedroom—this was in Bel Air—and started packing my suitcase. He was working on Blue Hawaii at the time, and I just couldn’t hit him. I loved Elvis to death. It would have been like hitting your own father. It was the only time anyone ever hit me and I didn’t hit back. Later, a reviewer said that Elvis can be happy that Sonny didn’t hit him back.”
Frank Lieberman: “The girls and guys who came up to see Elvis were always surprised that he was so shy. You’d go into the bedroom, he’d be sitting with his back against the wall so no one could stand behind him. He’d be reading from the Bible with five, six, seven girls in the room with him. Just reading the Bible, and these were all beautiful women.”
Sammy Shore: “We used to look for girls we thought Elvis would like and take them up to the suite. We’d do this, and he’d do karate chops until 4 a.m. But there was always someone with him in the suite. He didn’t like being alone, ever.”
Frank Lieberman: “When I sat in the audience, he would dangle scarves over my head so women would flock over to me. I wasn’t married at the time, so I’d walk that long line leading into the theater and ask if anyone wanted to come with me to see Elvis. I’m not that great a looking guy, and I’d get two or three other girls, and the discussion would be who would be stuck sitting with me. When Elvis walked out, the first thing he would do was see who would be sitting with me.”
Joe Esposito: “We all talked to him [about his abuse of prescription drugs], in groups, individually. He would sit there, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ Then he’d get mad and tell us, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ The Colonel, Priscilla, his father, we cared about him. It drives me nuts when people say we were all hanging around him just to get money. It’s not true. We all did jobs for him. But he was very proud and we couldn’t do any more for him. You can’t tell a 42-year-old man how to live.”
Linda Thompson: “I would find him in a position where essentially he had overdosed. His breathing was labored. It was like dealing with a newborn baby, when you hear him having trouble breathing, you attend to him. He had to be monitored, watched, in case he stopped breathing. When he wasn’t responsive, we took him to the hospital. Later, Vernon (Presley, Elvis’ father) came to my house and sat at the floor, and told me that for many years I kept him alive.”
Sonny West: “There was nowhere for an addict like Elvis to go in those days, no celebrity treatment centers to speak of. There was the Mayo Clinic. There was a place in Minnesota [Hazelden] that had opened. Betty Ford would have been able to help him, I really believe it. For the first lady to come out and admit that she had these problems, that would have resonated with him, someone of her stature offering help. It’s a shame. He could have helped millions of people. Even now, I get people saying that they’ve stopped using drugs because they saw what happened to Elvis, a guy who definitely had it all and died young.”
Linda Thompson: “This was pre-Betty Ford, pre-Promises in Malibu rehab centers, and before all the TV shows about recovery that surround us today. And I was thrust into an atmosphere I couldn’t control. It was such a stigma for him to ask for help, especially when you have this all-American, apple-pie image, and he was really concerned about what people thought of him. He was so averse to street drugs, and would do nothing illegal. What he was in trouble with were prescribed by a physician, but because they were prescribed he felt they were safe and it was all above-board. But on some level he had to know he was in trouble with them.”
Joe Esposito: “I had to tell some of the people close to Elvis that he had died. It was naturally, at the time, what I needed to do. You do the things you have to do. I didn’t want them to hear it on the news, so I called and told Priscilla about it. Parker, too. It was a tough situation. I will always remember that day as just being very, very tough. Question at the funeral was, how are we going to handle it? Like it was his final performance, that’s how.”
Sonny West: “If Linda Thompson had been at Graceland [when Elvis died], she could have saved him, there’s no question in my mind. She did not take sleeping pills because she never wanted to fall asleep before he did. She took an apple core out of his mouth one night because he’d been choking on it—the pills kicked in while he was eating this apple. There were times she found him passed out on the bathroom floor while reading. He’d be in there and she’d call out every five minutes, ‘Elvis! You okay?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah! I hear you!’ There were times she had to give him oxygen. He was just taking too much stuff.”
Linda Thompson: “When he died, it was Lisa Marie who called me. I said, “Honey, are you sure he’s not just having trouble breathing like a couple of years ago?” She’s only 9, but she called long distance and told me who she was, and I said, ‘I know who you are, you little goobernickel.’ We start talking and she says, ‘Daddy’s dead, they just told me.’ And I threw the phone across the room.”
Sonny West: “The last time I visited Graceland was in 1996, when they had the candlelight service on August 15 (the night before the 19th anniversary of Elvis’ death). I saw his headstone and I just broke down. I said, ‘I gotta get outta here.’ I had tears in my eyes and just walked away. I won’t go back there.”
Jerry Schilling: “There are so many times I wish he were still around. He was such an influence on my life. The house I am in right now is the one he bought me in 1974. I met him as a young boy the same week he recorded his first record [“That’s All Right,” in July 1954], he was seven years older than me. I thought he was cool before he was popular. When we met, it was at a pickup game in a really rough playground in North Memphis. He couldn’t get six kids his own age to play, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll play with the older kids,’ one of whom was becoming Elvis Presley.”
Linda Thompson: “I miss him once in a while if I’m feeling a loss. I lost my father [Dodger Sanford Abel Thompson] three months ago. He lived with me for the last 10 years. When Dad passed away, I glanced up at the sky and said, ‘Look out for him’ to Elvis. Christmas, too, is a time. It was his favorite holiday—he was Santa Claus all year long. When I hear, “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the speaking part, it’s daunting to me.”
Joe Esposito: “I definitely miss him, oh yes. We were close. He was my best friend. I’m always reminded of him, whenever I hear a song or his name or the title of a show somewhere. It amazes me, still. I’ve had a hell of a life because of him.”
WHAT HE’D BE DOING NOW
Linda Thompson: “Brody [Jenner, Thompson’s son] says, ‘He’s the original mac-daddy! He’s the original pimp-daddy!’ I’m sure, had he lived, he would not have changed the integrity of what he does, but still be like Tom Jones, aged in a way that has been graceful. He sings his butt off, but he’s nurtured his voice. I’m sure he would have restored his health, and he did take care of his voice, that glorious and angelic voice. I think maybe with all of the knowledge we’re privy to now with health and diet, he would have had success in getting healthy. I’m optimistic that he would have looked and sounded great, and been a great and doting grandfather.”
Sonny West: “I’d like to think that he’d have gotten himself together. He could not have lived that way and be alive today. But if he’d have taken care of himself, he would have looked good, better-looking than most 75-year-olds, and maybe be making a movie or two a year and doing special engagements, not playing extended gigs but maybe do a week of shows and make movies. His potential as dramatic actor was mostly untapped. His comedic timing was wonderful.”
Frank Lieberman: “I think if he’d lived he would like to have been, No. 1, a dramatic actor. He wanted a legitimate acting role and never got to do that. There’s no question in my mind about that. I think he would have stopped performing if he didn’t think he was good enough to perform. If he wasn’t at the level he set for himself, I don’t think he still would be performing. He would have set a high standard he would have had to live by.”
Jerry Schilling: “I feel very strongly about what he’d be doing today. I think he’d want to be a real producer of film. He had a great sensibility and timing of film. If he’d have gotten through that bad spell, we’d been working on a documentary about a karate team that went to England and France. He wanted to do this feature documentary on karate. He wanted to be seen as the producer in the screening room. He wanted to do the shots. Well, there was a lot of resistance about that. If he had gotten support, he had the sensibility and knowledge to have his own production company. He wanted to experiment a lot more than Hollywood would allow. Creatively, outside and inside the studio, he was one of the most underrated music producers in history. He could hear where the voices belong, he’d say, ‘I want the bass line here,’ and have it timed perfectly, and that was never brought out much. There’s some footage captured in [the 1970 documentary] That’s The Way It Is. It’s not the predominant footage, but you do see him in action.”
Joe Esposito: “I still see Elvis singing onstage today. He loved that more than anything in the world. He’d say, ‘The energy makes you feel so damn good.’ A lot of people don’t realize, it’s just addictive. Sad thing is when he talked about getting older, ‘When I turn 50, will they love me? What about 60?’ But he’d still be singing, strong songs, ballads, gospel.”
Sam Thompson: “I think he would always want to be onstage to some extent. He fed off the audience. In saying that, it’s somehow to reconcile him going from a jumpsuit onstage to a white-haired entertainer in a tux, crooning ... He might be producing other artists. That’s just on the musical side. He was interested in producing movies. He might have written a book, maybe, on the religions of the world. I think he would have evolved past that point playing of playing 10,000-seat arenas in small towns.”
Sonny West: “These Elvis impressionists, I think it’s in the heart of the person if they are actually doing a tribute to a person and his art. Most of them are genuinely interested in paying tribute. I see Pete Vallee over there in Vegas [at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall & Saloon], Big Elvis, he does a very good show and he’s losing a lot of weight, like 500 pounds. He’s inspired by Elvis. He’s a nice guy whose heart is in the right place.”
Linda Thompson: “Most of the [Elvis impressionists] I’ve met are genuinely trying to pay homage, they genuinely admire him and are trying to emulate him. Even back when he was alive, he took note of the guy in the second booth in the back who was dressed as Elvis. He thought imitation really was the sincerest form of flattery. But there are a few who are tacky to the nth degree. You always have those, too.”
Sam Thompson: “There are all these types of Elvises, and he might be appalled at some and see them in poor taste. But keeping his music and image alive would have pleased him. It’s part of artistic expression.”
Joe Esposito: “The impressionists, if it’s a tribute to Elvis, keeping people reminded about him, I think they’re great. But when you walk off stage, you’re not Elvis anymore. Wearing jumpsuits around town? He wouldn’t have liked that. I mean, get a life. You’re not him.”
Sam Thompson: “Why Elvis? I can’t tell you how many nights we asked that question ourselves. It was the question of his life, why he was touched by the hand of God. He had no formal musical training whatsoever. He was a kid driving a delivery truck. At a time when Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash were rising stars, it was Elvis. The timing was right, he had the right look, the right sound, the right name. It gave him a great sense of responsibility, a great sense of duty. He had a great obligation to fans, and he succumbed to it.”
Joe Esposito: “That’s the mystery that he always wondered: ‘Why me?’ He couldn’t understand it. ‘Why did God pick me?’ he’d say, all the time. It was such a mystery to him. But he appreciated it. That’s one reason he was such a religious person. He was just a kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, and could not explain to anybody why he was chosen for this life. But once you met him, you felt an energy and an aura, and people just loved him. People are just thrilled to meet me, you know? Kids say, ‘I can’t believe you’re Elvis’ friend.’ He was a like a superhero, when you think of it, onstage, when he sang and wore the jumpsuits with the capes. He didn’t sing just for the sake of singing, either. When you see the recordings of him onstage, it’s different than other performers. You can feel the energy. There will never be another Elvis.”