Las Vegas News Bureau
Published Friday, Jan. 8, 2010 | 12:36 p.m.
Updated Monday, Feb. 22, 2010 | 11:50 a.m.
Jerry Schilling had but one request.
"I just want people to know that Colonel Tom Parker was a good man, at his heart," said Schilling, who met Elvis Presley during a pickup football game in a downtrodden section of North Memphis in 1956, when Schilling was 12 and Presley 19.
"The Colonel was colorful and was brusque, but he took no B.S. and I think he was good for Elvis. That seems to be lost in the retelling of (Elvis') story," Schilling said.
Schilling was a central figure in the famed "Memphis Mafia" of Presley friends and insiders who were enlisted by Elvis to serve a variety of needs. Over the years, Schilling, Joe Esposito, Sonny West and Sam Thompson were such confidants. Joining them for a story I wrote for the cover of this week's Las Vegas Weekly magazine were Elvis' ex-girlfriend Linda Thompson, longtime standup comic and Elvis' opening act Sammy Shore, and veteran Vegas journalist and PR man (and my very close friend) Frank Lieberman.
I entered this story not certain where it would lead — originally I'd thought it would draw me into the Cult of Elvis culture of quasi-disturbing fan worship. But after reaching those who actually knew Elvis, who saw him at his best and worst — and Linda Thompson cracked up when it was suggested she was one of the few people on the planet who had seen Elvis clip his toenails — I reached a satisfying understanding of this man.
What I found most interesting, unexpectedly, was how universal Elvis' appeal has been over the past 50-plus years. As Esposito and I talked about Elvis' fame, I had one of these repressed-memory things. "I remember doodling Elvis when I was in second and third grade, on the margins of notepaper," I told Esposito. That's when Joe noted, "He was a like superhero, when you think of it, onstage, when he sang and wore the jumpsuits with the capes."
A lot of long-held Presley myths and misconceptions unwound as talked to this group. One is that Colonel Tom Parker fairly led a naive Elvis around by his checkbook, shoving the young entertainer into a largely regretful film career at the risk of artistic integrity. While it was true Elvis' films were pretty dopey, on balance, Presley gladly shifted to movies after he returned from the Army because those many film contracts showed he was still coveted by fans. At a time Elizabeth Taylor was making headlines in entertainment trade publications for her $1 million payout to play "Cleopatra," Elvis had signed for four times that much to star in four films with MGM Grand.
Elvis yearned to be a great dramatic actor — his favorite film, and the favorite of most of those around him, was "King Creole," written for James Dean with songs added so a hot-selling Elvis soundtrack could be recorded. He never matched that performance.
Tragedies abound in Presley's story, and one is that he never did play opposite Barbra Streisand in "A Star is Born." To take that role would have meant Elvis would have had to fairly torture himself back into shape, the same way he trimmed down for his 1968 network TV comeback special, and again for the worldwide satellite concert, "Aloha From Hawaii" five years later. To take that role would have meant he would not, as Schilling later said, have succumbed to "creative disappointment."
So many dichotomies surface in Presley's life. He dove into karate, a physical discipline, but was an undisciplined, sloppy figure at the end of his life. He detested street drugs but famously became addicted to prescription pills. He demanded loyalty but was a relentless philanderer — subordinates went out to the line of fans at the International/Hilton, or along the beach in Hawaii, to find "the pick of the litter." He had a terrible temper, shooting inanimate objects (TVs and chandeliers included) and even punching West in the face once. But when it came time to distribute bad news, such as firing Memphis Mafians Sonny and Red West and Dave Hebler — Elvis' father, Vernon, made the call because Elvis shied from that level of confrontation.
Much of our conversations centered on what would have happened to Elvis had he lived to today to celebrate his 75th birthday. West brought up the film "Lonely Street," in which Jay Mohr plays a private investigator assigned to protect one "Mr. Aaron," who is in fact a comeback-plotting Elvis Presley.
Making Elvis at 75
Elvis is played by Robert Patrick, who in real life looks nothing like Elvis, but during an arduous daily process his face was reconstructed to resemble an elderly Elvis. West talked of the clip, which accompanies the blog, of what Elvis would have looked like. I love it. Maybe this is how an old Elvis Presley can be remembered, if only ...
More on 'Elvis: What Happened?'
That's the title of the warts-and-all Elvis book written by the West and Dave Hebler, with the help of Steve Dunleavy, that was released just weeks before Presley died. An uncovered piece of information during the reporting of the Weekly story was that Lieberman wrote the first three chapters, which were turned back because they were too kind to the subject. Presley was said to be deeply hurt by the book, which was made public just 10 days before he died.
Elvis birthday events
So, this morning I was invited by the crew at KTNV Channel 13 to talk about Presley, and who do I see — donning a remarkable gold-and-white, rhinestone-splattered jumpsuit, but Dennis Wise. Wise, who was doing a sample of his act, is among the longest-running Elvis impressionists in the country, dating to 1977, the year Elvis died. He's performing Saturday night at Santa Fe's Chrome Lounge (click here for the where, when and what-for on that show). Those in the Elvis Empire are fond of impressionists as long as they don't go wingnut and wear the jumpsuit to grocery store, and Wise is one of the good guys in that culture.
Tonight and Saturday at the Cannery — the original Cannery in North Las Vegas — Johnny Fortuno and the Stamps Quartet headline "Celebration of the King's Life. West, Shore, Cynthia Pepper from "Kissin' Cousins," and Darlene Tompkins from "Blue Hawaii" will be on hand, too. Expect Shore to uncork his "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" parody, featuring the lyric: "Are you lonesome tonight? Does your tummy feel tight? Do you take Mylanta all day? Does your memory stray? To that bright, sunny day, when you had all your teeth and gums." When he sings it, you laugh at the pure absurdity. Sammy's 82, and he's still nuts.
Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.