Crossing Paths: When Elvis met The Beatles Part 3

Elvis Presley

Plans are in the works to bring the story of the night Elvis met The Beatles to the big screen. Bruce Reid, Robert Stefanow and Bruce Walker have been working on the film. (The RCA Records Label)

Strange atmosphere

Despite the historic meeting, no lasting bond ever formed between the two acts. For all their admiration, The Beatles found the atmosphere around Elvis somewhat strange.

Starr described him as being surrounded by “sycophants.” And while Lennon said at the time, “It was nice meeting Elvis,” Tony Barrow quotes him as saying, on leaving Presley’s house, “It was more fun meeting Engelbert Humperdinck. I can’t decide who’s more full of shit, me or Elvis Presley.”

Clearly, some ambivalence remained, and on both sides as well. For while members of Presley’s entourage have spoken of the meeting, Presley remained silent about it.

Could these artists ever have worked together? Ironically, as The Beatles’ career was coming to an end in 1969, Elvis’ was being reborn. On Jan. 30, The Beatles gave their last ever public show, on the roof of their Apple HQ in London; on July 31, Elvis made his return to live performance at the International Hotel in Las Vegas — with a medley of “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” in the show. Future shows included other Beatles songs, like “Something,” while “Little Sister” would often segue into “Get Back.”

But all his interest in their music didn’t stop Presley from unexpectedly attacking The Beatles during his impromptu meeting with President Richard Nixon on Dec. 21, 1970. Presley had gone to D.C. in the hopes of securing a Federal Agent’s badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In a meeting with Nixon’s aide, Bud Krogh, Presley had said he’d like to help the administration in their anti-drug efforts. So Krogh was startled when, during the meeting with Nixon, Presley stated that The Beatles were “kind of anti-American,” having made money in the U.S. only to go back to the U.K. and make “anti-American” remarks.

“I didn’t have a clue what Elvis was referring to,” Krogh later wrote. And the comment is puzzling. For while members of The Beatles were publicly critical about America’s involvement in Vietnam and refused to play segregated venues in the U.S., they more often spoke of their love of American music, and, of course, Lennon would later settle in U.S. It may have been Lennon’s more radical protests that had been taking place in recent years that Presley was thinking of. The Beatles themselves had actually split the previous April. In any case, Presley didn’t elaborate further on his comment.

1970 was also the same year that Starr worked with Presley’s former sidemen, guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer DJ Fontana, when he recorded his Beaucoups of Blues album at Music City Recorders in Nashville, where Moore worked as an engineer.

“He was really easy to work with,” Moore recalls. “We thought we took a long time with Elvis; we might take three or four hours per song. And normal sessions here in Nashville, you cut four sides in three hours. The sessions went good. I was surprised, ’cause I’d never heard Ringo sing. And he was no Frank Sinatra by any means, but he jumped right in there and did what he was supposed to. It was more or less a party every night after we got through the sessions, people milling around and talking to each other kind of thing.”

Starr and Harrison also saw Presley in concert in the early ’70s, when Presley was riding high as a live performer. “He was still in his prime,” says Schilling. “He was still looking great, and it was still a challenge. He loved what he was doing. He was still thrilled to be back on stage. If you look at Elvis’ career, after a challenge he’s great, but then if it’s still repeating — like doing the movies or like playing Vegas all the time — he’s not as dynamic as he gets comfortable. At some point you’re going get used to playing the same place every night and selling it out, and then you’re going to get bored of it. And that’s why he wanted challenges, and he couldn’t get ’em. It was because we kept going to the same cities every year. He wanted to go overseas; he was desperate to go to Japan and England.”

This was the key difference in the managerial styles of Brian Epstein and Colonel Parker. When The Beatles wanted to stop touring and making movies, they simply did so; it was against Epstein’s wishes, but theirs was the final word. With Presley and his manager, the situation was reversed.

“I’ve had other entertainers of prominence ask me that same question,” says Schilling. “‘But he was Elvis Presley and he could do what he wanted!’ But what happened when he fired the Colonel [for a brief period in 1973] was no one would touch him. Because they felt in the long run the Colonel was going to win out. So he could not do what he wanted. It’s a combination of business and creativity if you want to have a career. And that’s the underlying theme of my book: We lost Elvis because of creative disappointments. The drugs were only the band-aids, and it’s as simple as that and it’s as complex as that.”

Lennon remained a fan of Presley but never saw him in concert, arguing that Elvis was not the same performer who had originally riveted him in the 1950s.

“I’m not interested in half shutting my eyes and pretending it was heaven to watch Elvis [in Vegas],” he said. After Presley’s death, he would use Elvis as a metaphor for the kind of rock ‘n’ roll excess that can prove to be lethal, saying his wife Yoko Ono had saved him from becoming “Elvis Beatle.” And he routinely referred to the era when he made “Help!” — the same year he met Presley — as his “Fat Elvis” period. “The king is always killed by his courtiers,” he said in one of his last interviews. “The king is over-fed, over-drugged, over-indulged, anything to keep the king tied to his throne.”

They were words that Schilling could relate to. He wasn’t working for Presley at the time of his death and had been devastated to see the result of his friend’s decline in the posthumously broadcast “Elvis In Concert” TV special.

“I had never seen him look like that,” he says. “I was shocked, horrified, just about everything else you can think of. I’d seen him have some bad times before — I’d seen him overweight before — but I had never seen him like that on stage. He was a proud man, and he just wasn’t himself. And I can’t believe that these studios and managers and all these people would let him do that. And that was the big argument I had with the Colonel. Of course, it was after the fact.”

Staying connected

The connections between the two acts didn’t die out with Elvis’ passing.

Starr recorded “Blue Christmas” on his 1999 set I Wanna Be Santa Claus. McCartney has recorded various Elvis-related songs over the years: “That’s All Right” and “Just Because” (1988’s Choba B CCCP), “It’s Now Or Never” (1990’s The Last  Temptation of Elvis), “All Shook Up,” “I Got Stung” and “Party” (1999’s Run Devil Run).

And in March 2000, he joined Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana in the studio to record “That’s All Right” for “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records,” a PBS documentary (released on CD and DVD). “It was fun,” says Moore of the session. “It was just like we’d been working together for 20 years. Just a hell of a nice guy.” “Everything just fell in place,” Fontana agrees. “He kinda directed the whole thing. And, of course, what Sir Paul wants, Sir Paul gets! The guy’s a great musician. and he’s a great producer. So we just kinda left it up to him.”

And the story of the night Elvis met the Beatles may one day make it to the big screen. Since 1999, Bruce Reid, Robert Stefanow, and Bruce Walker have been working on a film provisionally titled “The King and The Queen’s Men” about that historic night. Stefanow, who handled security at Graceland from 1978 to 1980 and has worked as an Elvis impersonator, had met Reid, a country musician who’d opened for the likes of Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and Roseanne Cash. One night in September 1999, Reid recalls, Stefanow called him up with a proposition.

“He said, ‘Do you know anything about the night Elvis and The Beatles met?’” he says. “I knew some things, and that was pretty much how we started with the project. Originally we thought about a miniseries, but we thought nah, doing three nights of that might be kind of tedious. And at that time there was talk in the air about the Cash movie [“Walk The Line”] and the Ray Charles movie, so we thought let’s write a film. Let’s write a screen play. So that’s how it started.” Walker, a longtime writer, was brought in to provide further help.

Reid says the script spans the years 1962 to 1969, from “Love Me Do” to Elvis’ return to performance in Vegas. Their standards for the movie are high.

“We want a real honest-to-God, well put together movie,” says Reid. “Like ‘The Doors,’ like ‘Ray,’ like ‘Walk the Line.’ You’re dealing with the two biggest icons in music to this day, and they need that respect given to them.”

To that end, they’ve done numerous interviews with Elvis associates like Jerry Schilling and Joe Esposito, causing Reid to come down firmly on the yes-they-did-jam-together side of the question. “Their chauffeur said he watched Elvis hand them the guitars!” says Reid. “And Larry Geller remembered it in great detail. ‘You’re My World’ by Cilla Black [a fellow Liverpudlian] was the first song they sang. It was a lot of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Everly Brothers.” The team is currently looking for investors; for more info, check www.elvisbeatlesmovie.com.

And the Elvis/Beatles story has come full circle in another way. Paul McCartney also owns one of the instruments that was played on the Elvis songs that first inspired him — Bill Black’s bass, a gift to him from his wife Linda in the ’70s. It was the same bass he used when the surviving Beatles recorded their reunion single, “Free As A Bird.” In a sense, one could say that Elvis and the Beatles had made a record together at last.

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