Gary James' Interview With
Witness To A 1977 Fight That Elvis Broke Up
It was June of 1977 and Elvis Presley was on the road, out on tour, when something very strange happened.
His limo passed by a gas station where two men were in an all out brawl. Elvis... well, rather than spoil the story, we'll let an eyewitness to the event, Mr. Bruce Frey tell you what happened.
Q - This incident that happened was only the second time Elvis was involved in a gas station fight, wasn't it?
A - Well, there was one in Memphis. Then there's one that was alleged when he was out in California with his friends. Somebody I guess threw him a finger and he got into some kind of confrontation there I had heard about. And this is the last of his life time I believe.
Q - This incident you're going to tell me about happened in June of 1977?
A - Right.
Q - What were you doing at this gas station? Were you pumping gas?
A - No. I had gone out to the airport to see the plane come in with everybody else to see if you could spot him coming off his plane. There was a big crowd there. I left. He was way far away and they weren't letting anybody get close, so we just got out of there. I was on my way back home. The best I figure is they must've pulled out a side gate somewhere and got ahead of me, unbeknownst to me and I ended up at the intersection. I saw the fight starting where two guys were literally beating up this kid, knocking him down, throwing punches at him. Then I saw Elvis jump out of the limo and throw a karate kick and go over there and challenge them. I heard him say "I'll take you two on."
Q - What was Elvis wearing when you saw him jump out of the limo?
A - He was wearing his blue DEA jumpsuit. I know there's pictures of it. He's getting an award at his last concert. It's like a blue running suit, two-piece that zips up. It says "DEA Staff" on one side. It has the white stripes on the arms and the matching white stripes down both sides of the leg. So, he was wearing that. But he had, I noticed, like a giant concert belt on. He had just come from a concert appearance. I couldn't tell, but it looked like his concert outfit was underneath, actually.
Q - What time of day was this?
A - That was midnight, one o'clock in the morning.
Q - Had you been to that concert?
A - The next night I was. That night he flew in and stayed overnight and then appeared the next night in Madison.
Q - How did he look to you physically?
A - He wasn't like they portrayed him. He had a little belly on him, but he was about 220 lbs, but he didn't look at the time I saw him that bloated, that bad. His eyes looked pretty clear. He had on his aviator sunglasses of course and his hair was immaculate and all the rings and neckties and such. He looked good to me and seemed articulate.
Q - What did the two guys think when Elvis got out of the limo and approached them?
A - (laughs) They were beating up the kid and Elvis approached them from the back. Those two guys didn't see him and then he said "I'll take you on." They looked at him and looked around and I've never seen a look like that...they were just stunned. They were literally like looking at a ghost. They froze. They got up and basically apologized to him and said they were sorry and took off. I think they thought they were going to get in trouble.
Q - Were the police ever called in?
A - Not officially. He had a policeman with him in the limo, assigned to him and he had of course his security guards with him. But they didn't come out. He literally jumped out of that limo. I don't think they wanted him to get out and I think they were just gonna pass on by and what I heard later, they were trying to talk him out of getting out and he said "I gotta do something about this." When I saw him, that door came flying open and that limo had started to edge forward slightly, like they were gonna go, and as soon as he came out of course, the brake lights hit right away.
Q - When the two guys ran away, what did people do, ask Elvis for an autograph?
A - I went up and introduced myself and talked to him briefly. I told him I never expected to see him at a gas station in Madison at one in the morning. The attendant had run into his station and we all thought at the time he was afraid, but he was on the phone telling everybody Elvis Presley was in his gas station. I'd never seem this before 'cause back then, that many years ago, Madison was a sleepy town. Basically, after eleven o'clock, there's nobody out hardly other than your shift workers and such. There must've been people coming from the airport, but slowly within five to ten minutes, there was fifty to sixty people stopping...and more. People were pulling over wherever they could see, 'cause they saw him in the lot. When the crowd started getting big, his security guards said "Elvis, we gotta go." So, instead of just hanging around and creating a big, massive scene, he said I gotta get out of here. "I gotta be going" is what I think he said.
Q - Is that gas station still there?
A - No, it's not. It had been abandoned and left that way for the longest time and now just recently, in the past year, it was taken over by an auto dealership. They were made aware of what had occurred on this lot and they do have a plaque, a little marble memorial at the corner, when you walk by on the sidewalk that says: On this date and time, Elvis Presley stopped here and broke up a gas station fight.
Q - Did anybody ever find out what that fight was all about?
A - I had heard that it was probably some kind of drug deal thing, over money. But, that was never verified, but it was some ex-employee that was disgruntled and unhappy and had come over to confront this kid about money issues and it didn't go well and of course there's two of 'em beating him up. The attendant was like, sixteen years old.
Q - The other guys were how old?
A - Eighteen...nineteen.
Q - Did they have any weapons on them?
A - No weapons, but they were beating the heck out of him pretty good. It wasn't just a push around...it was a pretty serious physical attack on this kid. It would be your standard mugging. For Elvis to jump out and see that; he didn't know Madison. He didn't know if he was on a bad side of town. He ended up jumping out there. I think his security took a little longer than they probably should've, scurrying to him. They weren't out there right away.
Q - His appearance in Madison, Wisconsin must've been close to his last, wasn't it?
A - That was in June '77. He lived 'til August of '77. After Madison, he went to Cincinnati and then he did his final (show) in Indianapolis. He died before he ended up going on tour again. I gotta believe, and this is kind of significant, that this is his last kind of public interaction where he actually got out and did something like that. I don't think he was out in public much after this. He holed up in Graceland for the duration there.
Q - Did you go to Elvis' concert in Madison?
A - Yeah.
Q - What did you think of the performance?
A - It wasn't the best. He wasn't in top form. He looked a lot more bloated to me, in the concert and from the photos I've seen than how I saw him. That was a stark reality. I was face to face with him. I was shaking his hand and talking to him and I could look right at him. He wasn't slurring. He wasn't stumbling. He didn't look bloated, but then the next night he didn't look that great. He was kind of mumbling a little bit. I'd seen him in Green Bay (Wisconsin) earlier in '77, about four or five months before that and he was a mess at that concert. I mean, he was complaining that he hurt his ankle and his tooth was bothering him and he was alleging he was on medicine. He was slurring a lot of stuff. He didn't look good that night. But, the night I saw him at the gas station, he was ready to go.
Q - Did he sing well that night?
A - It wasn't bad. It was OK. I wouldn't say it was the best. He started "One Night With You" and had to re-start that. He didn't like the way it started. He stopped the band. He got a little upset, which is kind of unprofessional and he said "Let's try that again," and he started over again. At one point, and this is kind of funny, he asked the audience "Do you have any suggestion? What do you want to hear?" Everybody's yelling out their favorites. Some old lady in the front row yelled "Old Shep", which was his very first song that he had ever performed as a kid. He won a talent show (with that song). He did record it in his early days on RCA I think. He was so startled by that lady bringing up that song. He just froze almost. He said "I haven't done that song in a million years, lady." So, it was an OK concert. They literally had to dress him and get him up there onstage. They were real close to canceling the whole thing because of medical reasons. He was pretty sick that night they said.
Q - I take it you were an Elvis fan all along.
A - You know, I have been. I'm not a fanatic. I collected some of his records and I love his music. I knew that he was getting towards the end of his career. I thought if he ever comes to Wisconsin, I'm gonna go see him. I wish I could've seen him at his height in Vegas. He happened to come here three times through '76 - '77. So, I got a chance to see him three different times. In the '76 one, he was really good in Madison. He was on the thin side. It was pretty stark to how his weight had changed in only one year.
Q - I'd like to go back to what Elvis was wearing that night at the gas station. I've been told that Elvis was working for the DEA and that he was breaking the rules by wearing that blue, jogging outfit.
A - Graceland has that outfit displayed that he was wearing that night. They never knew where he had gotten it. I called up the DEA archivist guy who was like in charge of the museum and I said "Here's what he was wearing that night. Where would someone get something like that?" He said that was given to staff people that worked for the DEA and were members of the DEA. The public couldn't buy outfits like that. He either had to have known somebody with the organization personally and ordered it through and employee. You just couldn't get that. He's in that outfit in the last picture ever taken of him in his lifetime when he came through the gates (of Graceland).