Monday, March 31, 2014

"Me and a Guy Named Elvis" by Jerry Schilling (2006)

Jerry Schilling was a member of Elvis Presley’s inner circle; known as the Memphis Mafia. He’s also the guy who accompanied Elvis on his trip to meet President Nixon in the White House, arriving unannounced in the early hours of the morning. That episode alone is reason enough to read this book.

Elvis has most often been portrayed as the drug addicted and aging singer who made a stupid deal with Colonel Tom Parker. Many people considered him to have “sold out” by making all those banal movies through the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. But he proved them all wrong when he did the 1968 Christmas special, which became known as the “Comeback Special.” And in many ways it was.

Mr. Schilling’s story of his time with Elvis begins with a game of touch football when Elvis was barely 19 and his first record had just been played on the air in Memphis. Elvis was older than Mr. Schilling and hung out with what was considered a “rough” crowd, including his friend Jerry West who would be at Elvis’ side for his entire career. They were one man short for a 6 man game of touch football and Jerry was selected by Elvis to fill the vacancy. A lifelong friendship was born that day.

Elvis books are a dime a dozen, but Mr. Schilling has a unique story; and perspective; which no other writer can possibly lay claim to. He lived with and worked alongside Elvis from 1954 until his death 23 years later. During that time he was there for all the main events of Elvis’ career. He was a member of the famed “Memphis Mafia” and lived at Graceland with Elvis and Priscilla for years.

The drugs, the excessive spending sprees, creative rages, and all the rest of the things which made Elvis who he was are explored here. And the other, more spiritual side of the man is also chronicled. Elvis was a big reader interested in all philosophies and religions. His grandmother was Jewish and he had Stars of David placed on the memorials for her, as well as in the meditation garden at Graceland. When he was asked why he used to reply, “To make you think man, to make you think.”

His relationship with Colonel Parker is a puzzle to most people, and Mr. Schilling is no exception. He does give him credit for helping to create the Elvis empire, but acknowledges that he was way short on having any respect for Elvis as an artist. He also writes about how good recording material was kept from him by the Colonel unless the songwriters were willing to forgo a portion; if not all of; their royalties.

In the early days it was an honor to have Elvis record something written by someone else, but as the industry changed most artists wrote their own material and songwriters became more reluctant to forgo their own royalties. This same manipulation was happening in relation to his film work, and was also a reason why Elvis was not performing in Europe or the Far East, much to his chagrin.

The book is a not only a very factual account of the remarkable career of Elvis Presley, but also a moving portrait of friendship between two boys from North Memphis. If you are an Elvis fan, or just a student of the music industry, this book will leave you the richer for having read it.

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