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Jerry Schilling shares his life with 'Elvis on tour'

The last film done on Elvis Presley during his lifetime, "Elvis On Tour" is an electrifying document of Elvis onstage during the early ‘70s. Jerry Schilling was there to witness it all.
Jerry Schilling with Elvis. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling

Jerry Schilling with Elvis. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling

By Ken Sharp

The last film done on Elvis Presley during his lifetime, the Golden Globe award winning Elvis On Tour is an electrifying document of Elvis onstage during the early ‘70s. Never before available on DVD, the 1972 concert film, long sought after by Elvis fans, has just been issued in both standard and Blu-ray formats by Warner Home Video.

Filmmakers Pierre Adidge and Bob Abel weave an insightful and exciting document of Elvis on and off stage, combining incendiary live footage with introspective footage of “The King” backstage and in the recording studio.
Newly remastered and restored, the footage is pristine and deftly captures the anticipation and excitement of an Elvis Presley live show. The live footage, culled from four shows--Hampton Roads, Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, Greensboro, South Carolina and San Antonio, Texas--chronicle a string of strong Elvis performances, notably his playful rendition of then smash hit, “Burning Love,” which was a welcome return to rock for the Memphis sensation, “Big Hunk O’ Love”, the Tony Joe Williams penned “Polk Salad Annie” and “An American Trilogy.” It’s also a kick to see Elvis take a stab at CCR’s “Proud Mary and tackle Simon & Garfunkel’s show stopper, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with impeccable phrasing and power. Elvis’ love of gospel is documented in moving rehearsal footage; Elvis and gospel quartet, J.D. Sumner and The Stamps run through exuberant versions of “Bosom of Abraham”, “I, John” and “Lead Me, Guide Me”.”

Particularly revealing is the footage capturing Elvis the studio running through a take of “Separate Ways”, a somber tune which touches upon the personal drama Elvis was going through in the wake of divorcing his wife, Priscilla. A little known Elvis On Tour fact: then up and coming director Martin Scorcese worked on the film crafting a series of impactful montage sequences.

Ken Sharp spoke with Jerry Schilling, close Elvis confidante, Memphis Mafia member and apprentice editor on Elvis On Tour, to discuss the inner workings of this rock and roll classic.
Elvis On Tour was the last film Elvis ever made, discuss the importance of that film for his career.
Jerry Schilling:
I think Elvis On Tour was extremely important for Elvis‘career in a lot of ways. Number one, it was a great advertisement that he was on tour and it told what his tour was all about. Elvis’ prior film, That’s The Way It Is, was that type of film for his Vegas engagements but this was about him being on tour. As the ’68 Comeback Special, this being a feature film there was a great team of filmmakers involved, from Bob Abel and Pierre Adidge, who were the director/producers. They were these young guys who were doing some leading edge films at the time, like Mad Dogs & Englishmen and Let the Good Times Roll. There was a different type of environment of people we were used to working with. We’d be doing these movies with kind of the old Hollywood system and this gave Elvis an opportunity to be himself and he really was in this film, more so than any recording or taped time in his life, he was more open during this film.

That brings up the point that Elvis rarely gave interviews but for this film he consented to speak openly about this career. How did that happen?
Jerry Schilling:
I played a role in that. After we finished filming the tour, I went to work for the production company as an apprentice film editor. Bob and Pierre were reluctant to hire me because I worked for Elvis. They thought I could have been going back to Elvis and The Colonel telling them everything that was going on. Filmmakers like to make their film and show it when it’s finished. I think I was able to gain their trust because when we met I was intuitive to pick up what was happening in the room as far as me asking them for a job. I knew they were doing Mad Dogs & Englishmen and the making of Lady Sings the Blues. I told them. If this doesn’t work for you because of my relationship with Elvis I would be honored if you’d consider me on a future project.” At that point the mood changed and they said, “You can come to work tomorrow morning.”

So as we needed different things after the filming, the producers came to me to help. See, I wasn’t working for Elvis, I wasn’t working for The Colonel. I left working for Elvis to do editing on this particular project. One of the first things I did was code all the footage that was shot and put numbers on them for the editors. It’s a special project for me because it was the start of the most important part of my professional relationship with my friend. We’d been friends since 1954 but not working for him and working for the producers and MGM, the filmmakers gained confidence and trust in me. I spent a lot of time creatively with Elvis. Maybe Red (West) and Charlie (Hodge) had some input with Elvis regarding his music but typically getting involved with Elvis on a creative level was off limits. The producers had gone to The Colonel about their desire to interview Elvis on camera. But that didn’t go well.

You fought for it?
Jerry Schilling:
Well, I fought for Elvis giving an audio interview because I knew there were a lot of places in the film that they could put Elvis’ voice. See, he had such a great narrative voice and his voice would work to tie in certain things in the film. So we went to his dressing room at MGM, the former Clark Gable dressing room, a fairly small dressing room. I was there with the director and producer, Elvis, (Memphis Mafia member) Joe Esposito, (Memphis Mafia member) Charlie Hodge and myself. Not a lot was going on and nobody knew where to start. I thought, well, maybe I can break the ice? So I said, “Well, Elvis, what was that your dad said about a guitar player?” And that’s where he laughed and said, “My father said he never saw a guitar player worth a damn!” And that kind of broke the ice. Then Bob Abel and Pierre Adidge started showing him pictures of his life. I think Elvis got into a very pensive, thoughtful mood, even more so than what we needed for the film but I loved it because I knew it was important. It was in his own voice and it’s the only time where his true feelings were ever recorded about his position in Hollywood, music and all kinds of things. I think it’s priceless.

Wasn’t there a famous filmmaker who did some hands-on editing in the film?
Jerry Schilling:
Absolutely. His name is Martin Scorcese. Marty had just come of working on the Woodstock film as an editor. Like I said, MGM’s idea was to do a film like that, an Elvis Woodstock if you will. Marty worked on Elvis On Tour as a supervising editor. He was mainly in charge of montages. There’s that kissing montage he was involved in. Then there’s another very important and wonderful montage he worked on which featured a lot of stills, Alfred Wertheimer photographs. When The Colonel had seen a little rough cut he said, “You have to take that out because Elvis doesn’t want you to use any old pictures of him.” Well, I’m in the screening room taking notes with the assistant editor and I knew what The Colonel was talking about. Elvis had been complaining for years that a new album would come out and it would have an old picture on it. I felt I knew what Elvis meant by that and thought I could talk to him about this very important sequence. We were editing in L.A, and Elvis was here in L.A. at the time. So I went to Elvis’ house here in L.A. just to catch up and talk. During that visit I said to him, “You know, Elvis there’s this editor who worked on the Woodstock film and he did this great montage of your life that has some really nice old pictures of you. The Colonel, on your behalf, said we could not use them.” Elvis said to me, “Well, tell me about the montage.” So I explained the montage to him as it was very fresh on my mind and he said, “Well, I don’t have any problem with that.” And I said, “Great!” So I went back to the producers and that photo montage was put back into the film and it’s really great. Marty was a very intense young man. Besides working on Elvis On Tour he was also editing his film Mean Streets at the same time, the first (Robert) DeNiro film. So as I said Marty was pretty intense and we had worked a lot of late hours on this film. People were locking up the editorial offices and basically sleeping on the floor until we got the film done. First thing Marty ever said to me was, “Jerry, do you know what I’ve got?” And I said, “No.” He said, “I’ve got ‘That’s All Right, Mama” on a Sun 78.” When you watch Marty’s movies the music is very subtle in the background. It was a real honor to work with him. Here I was trying to become a film editor and here I’m working with someone who would become one of the great filmmakers of all-time.

What did you edit specifically for Elvis On Tour?
Jerry Schilling:
There’s a whole process you have to go through as an editor. You have to be an apprentice for four years and then you have to be an assistant editor for four years before you’re even eligible to edit. Pierre Adidge, who was really a leading edge sound guy as well as producer/director told me he needed me to bring him three or four songs that would be appropriate to use for the end credits of the film. And it immediately dawned on me. I said, “I’ve got one.” And he said, “No, just bring me three or four so I can choose.” I didn’t bring him three or four songs; I just brought him the song “Memories.” Pierre said, “Jerry, I’m gonna put a diamond in your TCB. If you want to come in on Sunday by yourself and cut the visual sequence for the end credit with “Memories”, we’ll give you a shot at it.” That was a huge thing. I went in there Sunday afternoon by myself and I just played the music. As the lyrics came up I knew every piece of footage that was shot for Elvis On Tour because I coded most of the footage. Put the little numbers on it for the editors. So I just picked up the moment that reflected to the song. I’m very proud of that. They never changed one frame of that. That was my first editorial debut.

Looking at the songs featured in Elvis On Tour there’s preponderance of ballads and down beat material.
Jerry Schilling:
That was a direct reflection of his state of mind and how he was feeling in his life and what he was going through. That’s why he leaned toward songs like “Separate Ways.”

Speaking of that song, another impactful moment in the film is the in-studio footage of Elvis recording that track.
Jerry Schilling:
I was there in the studio what that was filmed. For the premiere feature screening of Elvis On Tour, there’s a 20 minute intro documentary and I interviewed Priscilla (Presley) for it. In that documentary she talks about how that was a difficult time for them as they were going through a divorce. If you look at the discography of the film, it shows a lot of what Elvis feeling. When he recorded “Separate Ways,” me and (Memphis Mafia member) Joe (Esposito) and Elvis were all going through a divorce at the same time ironically. After he finished recording it that night he said, “Guys come on in here”. So we go in the control booth and he must have played it back ten times. It was a really heavy time for all of us because we had all lost wonderful people and we knew it was our entire fault. It was the lifestyle, life change, from a 9 to 5 job doing movies to traveling on the road, and staying up all night. It’s hard to take family on the road. We all had wonderful wives and we weren’t as responsible back then as we should have been. Watching Elvis sing “Separate Ways” in the film is a really emotional moment; you can feel the hurt watching Elvis sing it.

What’s your favorite scene in Elvis On Tour?
Jerry Schilling:
It’s funny, back when I was working on the film I thought this scene was a throwaway but I’ve changed my mind. Watching it more recently it’s one of my favorite parts of the film, the scene where Elvis doesn’t sing but watches The Stamps sing “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.” Just the look on his face. If you just look at his face you’ll see how much he loved music. And not just gospel but all kinds of music. I was telling somebody recently that history tends to get the overview but a lot of nuances are missed, certainly when it comes to Elvis. When Elvis would sing at nighttime, a lot of times it started with rhythm and blues, he’d sing a country song, a lot of Hawaiian songs, it wasn’t just gospel. It’s true, much of Elvis’ private time or when we were on tour he would sing gospel music with The Stamps and Charlie Hodge around the piano but he didn’t sing that exclusively. He loved music. He loved blues. He loved country, He loved pop. He loved folk. He loved it all, great singers do. If you look at the discographies of great singers they don’t just sing songs exclusively from one genre. They’ll pick a country tune, a rock tune, a blues tune. They just know what good music is.

Do you recall if Elvis ever saw the film?
Jerry Schilling:
I don’t think that he did and I certainly wasn’t there to witness it.

Why wouldn’t he have wanted to see it?
Jerry Schilling:
It involves a lot of stuff. There were times he enjoyed seeing himself on camera. He loved seeing the ’68 Comeback Special; I was with him when he saw both of those for the first time. Elvis On Tour was a more introspective film; it was being filmed at a very difficult time in his life with songs like “Separate Ways” and “Always On My Mind”, very personal songs. I just don’t think he could sit down and enjoy seeing that film and I don’t think that he did. Being on tour with him and working on the film, he never mentioned Elvis On Tour to me but that was kind of normal. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would sit back and evaluate what his last project was. He just wasn’t that guy. There would be the occasion where there was a song he was proud of and he would boast but that was very rare. But that’s another good quality about Elvis, the fact that he knows he’s more vulnerable and more open to the camera and to the people and to his thoughts. He didn’t hold back. Maybe he just didn’t need to see it because he had a photographic memory. He knew what was going on.

What would cite as the great artistic/technical challenge that the team faced while working on Elvis On Tour?
Jerry Schilling:
I think to get accessibility to Elvis, whether it be personal thoughts. Just accessibility was the challenge. I tried to help in that process. The real heroes were the filmmakers. The backstage filling was all orchestrated by the directors. I don’t want to take credit where I didn’t help. They had a good sense of it all. After working with their company for months I had a good relationship with the filmmakers and I obviously had a good relationship with Elvis Presley so I could talk to either one of them very honestly and openly and that helped the process. There was a great researcher on the film, a dear friend of mine named Andrew Solt, who produced a lot of projects about Elvis. He was a big help too. Since then, he’s done a lot to perpetuate the career of Elvis Presley on film. Pierre Adidge became a really really good friend of mine. I fact, I later brought him to Elvis’ house one night and the three of us sat up and talked until real late. Pierre died a few months after that, he had a terrible spinal disorder. He looked like the picture of health, he was a body builder, and a great guy who took of his family and helped raise his sister and took care of his elderly parents. It was a real tragedy. He died within a couple of years making Elvis On Tour.

There’s compelling candid footage in the film of Elvis backstage before a show. Bring us through what would go on backstage before an Elvis performance.
Jerry Schilling:
Before Elvis would get dressed for a concert when we were on the road and in Vegas too, I’d go up to his room and we would exercise a little bit to get his blood flowing. We’d do sit ups. I’d holed his fete and he’d do a few (laughs) and he’d so the same for me. I think that kind of energy and movement spilled over to backstage. You’d pick up on his energy before the show. Elvis did not like to get to the venue early. The way he explained it was it’d be like the boxer Muhammad Ali. The last thing they do before he goes into the ring is wrap their hands and boy, when a fighter’s hands are wrapped and they start that walk down the hall they’re burning up adrenaline and they are focused. When Elvis put his wardrobe on the same thing happened to him. He started burning up adrenaline. So if he gets to the venue, 30, 45 minutes earlier, that’s a lot of wasted energy. He liked to be there 10, no more than 15 minutes before showtime.

Despite the mania that surrounded him on tour, in the film you catch glimpses of Elvis briefly interacting with his fans, you can tell that it’s a connection that was pure and genuine.
Jerry Schilling:
Oh, absolutely. Elvis liked meeting the fans and talking with them. He wanted their feedback. I think his deep connection to his fans is why he’s remained so popular and so loved. He was the most honest artist I ever met. He loved being Elvis Presley. He worked very hard to become Elvis Presley the entertainer. That was not a burden to him, that was a love to him. I think the burden and it’s at the heart of my book (Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley) was the creative disappointments. If he was gonna do films he wanted to do A Star Is Born. If he wanted to tour, he wanted to tour in different countries. He needed a challenge. You can’t give a genius the same mediocre thing over and over again. One of the things we talked about at MGM as we sat in the room doing the audio interview Elvis spoke about how he didn’t think anybody was pout to hurt him but Hollywood never got who he was. He said that it hurt him so bad that he’d get physically sick. I witnessed him say that and that was very powerful. All the prescription medication was band-aids, not the problem. The problem was he didn’t want to be the boy next door in every film. There was a part of him that wanted to be James Dean and he could do it. That’s the tragedy. He had a wonderful career but he’s not here and that’s the bittersweet nature of the whole thing.

For a highly readable account of Elvis’ life, the author recommends that fans seek out Jerry Schilling’s book, Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley.

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