Gary James' Interview With
One Of Elvis' Oldest And Closest Friends
George Klein, or "G.K." as Elvis called him, first met Elvis in 1948 in Miss Marmann's eighth grade music appreciation class. He remained a friend of Elvis right up until the end in 1977.
George Klein shares his memories of Elvis in his book Elvis: My Best Man (Three Rivers Press). George Klein talked with us about his friendship with Elvis.
Q - George, when I did a Google search for George Klein interviews, I saw only one.
A - Yeah. I don't do too many.
Q - So, let's make this interview one of your best then. Was it hard for you to sit down and write a book about a guy who you knew so well? This had to be painful for you.
A - Yes, it was. You are exactly right. It was tough to do, because I didn't want to write the book because there's 50 books out on Elvis. But then the people that came to me, the publisher, said, this agent out of New York said, "Look, you're not getting any younger. You've got all these great stories. All the people there in the early years have passed away that were around Elvis. You and Red West are the only two that are left." He said, "You need to write this book." I said "There's a lot of books." He said, "You can bring your own career in. You can mention your radio and TV shows and how you are very instrumental in getting Black singers on the radio and TV in Memphis." I said "Okay. Now you got my interest." So, we did it, and took me and my co-writer, Chuck Crisafull, about two full years to write it.
Q - You have the radio show on the Sirius network?
A - Yes. I'm on for 8 1/2 years, every Friday, on The Elvis Channel. That's 'live'. They record that show and play it back Monday night, 7 PM to 11 PM Central Standard Time. Early Wednesday morning they play that same show back to grab the East Coast, because they play it from about four in the morning until about eight in the morning. Then I do a special show for them called The Elvis Hour. That's played on a Sunday morning at six, Sunday night at 8 o'clock. It's a one hour show. So, I do about 14 hours a week on Sirius XM Satellite Network. Then I do a local Elvis Hour for an FM Classic Rock station and they play it back on Sunday morning at seven. And I have a TV show in Memphis that's going on nine years. I've done over 100 shows. It's called Memphis Sounds Of George Klein. It's a 30 minute show about Memphis music. We bring back the stars from the Memphis area, bring up the new stars. Show some video of people performing. I interview a lot of the stars. The show has been very good for me.
Q - George, I have to admit, I've never heard your radio show, but how much can you say about Elvis?
A - Well, I have a pretty good recall on most of my Elvis stories. I probably haven't told about half of them. Today I was recording the show and some stuff popped into my mind about Elvis that I hadn't used before and I just used it. I have about 200 stories about Elvis, about me where somehow Elvis is involved.
Q - You saw and heard Elvis play "Old Shep" when you were in the eighth grade.
A - That's right.
Q - You write "There was shocked silence, then a smattering of applause." Did this school teacher, Miss Marmann encourage Elvis to continue singing based on that performance?
A - No.
Q - How good of a voice did Elvis have back in the eighth grade?
A - It's hard to tell. He had a passable voice, you know, like a 12-year-old would sound like. But he was very good for a 12-year-old. That's what impressed me. I had never seen a 12-year-old bring a guitar to school and sing. He sang "Cold, Cold Icy Fingers", which I think was an old Teresa Brewer song and then he did "Old Shep", which he later recorded. So, he had worked on "Old Shep" quite a bit 'cause that's the song he sang in the Tupelo Amateur Show, Tupelo State Fair in Mississippi. He came in fifth. So, he knew that song pretty well. He pulls it off pretty good. I'd been around listening to radio and disc jockeys and even though I was 12 years old, I still liked him. I thought he was pretty good.
Q - As we move along the Elvis story, you write "Elvis looked extremely like he sounded, strong, sexy, cool and a little crazy. He had the Brando mystique, the James Dean intensity and he could sing like nobody else. He was the total rock 'n' roll package." George, you mean to tell me there was no other singer in Memphis at the time singing this type of material who was as good as Elvis?
A - Well, there was nobody 'til Elvis. He opened the door. John Lennon said there was nobody 'til Elvis came along. I mentioned it to The Everly Brothers once and they said "No. He didn't open the door, he kicked it down and we all walked through." Before Elvis, there was nothing, as John Lennon said. But now after he opened the door and everybody else walked through, here comes Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley And The Comets. So, he opened the door.
Q - You write "The Colonel was the ultimate old-school showman, a great promoter, negotiator and conniver." You go on to say, "He had no artistic talent what-so-ever and he couldn't spot a hit act or a hit song himself, but he knew what would sell tickets and records and he knew how to call attention to the things he wanted to do." He couldn't spot a hit act? How did he spot Elvis then?
A - That's a good question. What happened was, he was booking some Country shows throughout the Mid-South area. He'd heard about this kid, Presley. He just had one record out. He was making some noise around the Memphis area. The guy who was managing Elvis at the time was a Memphis disc jockey named Bob Neal. Bob had been booking some of his acts. So, Bob talked Col. Parker into letting Elvis open up the show. A new opening act, a new singing sensation, whatever you want to call it. And so Elvis would do that. When Elvis would do that, all of a sudden he starts stealing the show from the headliners like Hank Snow. Here comes Elvis and the kids are saying "We want more of Elvis!" So Col. Parker knew something was happening, but he didn't know what it was. So he kept watching and booking Elvis on some of his packaged shows, where you have four or five acts on the show and travel around. He knew something was happening, but he didn't know exactly what. Then when he saw the girls going crazy over Elvis and they weren't doing that for his other acts and they were 'stars', he knew something was happening. So he did his homework. He found out who this guy was and that the same thing was happening in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana. So he said "I better check into this kid. I don't know what he's got, but he's got something."
Q - Did you like Col. Parker?
A - Well, yes and no. I liked Col. Parker because he was probably the smartest manager I ever ran into, but he made some big mistakes in Elvis' career. See, Elvis was the exception. The other acts he'd been managing like Eddie Arnold and Hank Snow were doing well in the Country field, but Elvis was a different animal type thing. There was nothing like Elvis. So early on it was easy to manage Elvis because the kids were going nuts over him. Then, he found out his contract was up, his record contract, and he went to RCA Victor, which was gonna be Elvis' music company, and said "Look, I can get this guy away from Sam Phillips. He wants $40,000", so I think he got the record company and the publisher to put up the money. The publisher put up the money because they knew they would get part publishing of some of the songs. The record company was looking for a new act anyway. So, Col. Parker got Sam Phillips to sell him for 40 grand. Sam kept $35,000. Elvis got an advance on records of $5000. That's the way it was. Then Col. Parker got RCA behind him and they started promoting this young kid out of Memphis that was sweeping the South. Col. Parker knew Elvis was big in the South, but he had to get him nationwide. So, somehow or another, I don't know how he did it, he got it done. Do you remember Jackie Gleason?
Q - I sure do.
A - In the summertime, your big stars would take a vacation off of television, but they'd have what they call a summer replacement show. And Jackie Gleason had one. It was called Jackie Gleason Presents The Jimmy And Tommy Dorsey Variety Show. So they were his summer replacement. Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, especially Tommy, were Big Band guys. Very popular during their day. They were having variety acts on the show. Col. Parker had Elvis on and it was all over. Television is powerful and it was even powerful then. You only had three channels, ABC, CBS and NBC. You didn't have all this cable stuff. So if you got on TV, you reached a lot of people, man. So he got Elvis on there. One appearance came out being six appearances. Kids just went crazy. When Elvis came out with his first RCA record, "Heartbreak Hotel", it was a smash right out of the box. It was a combination of the TV and the first record was a 'hit'. Then he could back it up, back it up with other good songs and records. So, Col. Parker got him that deal. Then Col. Parker got him in the movies. You'd ask Elvis, "Elvis what do you really want to do?" "I want to be a singer, but other than that, I'd like to be a movie star." So, Col. Parker got Hal Wallis interested in Elvis. He gave him a screen test and he passed. They signed him up for a movie deal. So, Col. Parker was very good in that aspect. He was good at promoting Elvis. He knew all the promotion tricks. He knew all the tricks on the road, but he didn't know anything about movies. So he brought in Abe Lastfoegel from William Morris to help them with the movie deals. So, they started doing his movies and the damn movies were making a tremendous amount of money. He was getting Elvis $1 million up front and 50% of the picture. At that time, Elizabeth Taylor didn't get that. John Wayne didn't get that. Marlon Brando didn't get that, but Elvis did. So, he did a lot of good things. Elvis outgrew Col. Parker toward the end. Elvis wanted to tour Europe and he never toured Europe. Col. Parker wouldn't let him. Col. Parker would always have jive answers why Elvis couldn't tour Europe. We later found out that Col. Parker wasn't his real name. He was an illegal alien that slipped in from Holland. I forget his real name.* He was a stowaway on a ship. He wound up in Florida. Well, Florida is where the circus is in winter. In Tampa, Florida, a lot of circuses, they don't go on the road in wintertime because people can't get to them. So, they go to Tampa, Florida and the surrounding area. They winterize there. They stay there. Well, Col. Parker hooked up with those guys and started going on the road with circuses and carnivals. That's how he got in show business. He really was a Carney. Really a good con man. But having said that, in addition to being a good con man, he was a great promoter. He could really promote good, and he was promoting Elvis. So, Col. Parker messed up by not taking Elvis to Europe. Then he messed up by not changing Elvis' movie scripts and the type of movies about halfway through. I got into a heavy argument with him. I said "Colonel, Elvis is doing the same type formula movie." I'd ask Elvis, "What's the new movie about?" When he came home. "Well, G.K. it's about a guy who beats up a guy, gets a girl, sings 12 songs and goes on, (laughs), same story, different location." Elvis in Hawaii. Elvis in New Orleans. Elvis here. Elvis there. We were doing all that. It was Hal Wallis. Col. Parker said, "George, if we change and he doesn't do well, Hollywood is gonna blame us. If he keeps going and they keep the same formula, then it's going to be their fault." Well, to a degree that was pretty smart. Then he also said, "George, there's people walking around Hollywood Boulevard with Academy Awards in their hands. They can't get arrested. In Hollywood you're only as big as your last movie," which was true. "My boy is heavy box office. He sells movies. They do great. We got it made." I said, "What about the overall picture?" He said "Don't worry about the overall picture." Well, he should have. That was a mistake he made in not getting Elvis better scripts and better songs in his movies. Then the other mistake Col. Parker made was not taking Elvis to Europe.
Q - I interviewed someone who told me Col. Parker did advance work for LBJ and if he wanted US citizenship, LBJ could have arranged that for him. So, as smart as he was, he wasn't that smart.
A - The reason he didn't do it is because he would have had to divulge his real name and the fact he was an illegal alien, and he would've gotten bad publicity on that.
Q - Would he have been afraid Elvis would've said "I'm going to change management."
A - I don't know. It's a good question.
Q - Elvis stayed loyal to Col. Parker, RCA and William Morris. You don't have too many artists who do that.
A - I know. You're exactly right. Also another big mistake Col. Parker made was when Barbra Streisand came to him and she wanted Elvis to play opposite her in a remake of the movie A Star Is Born. The Col. wouldn't let Elvis do it. Elvis hadn't made a movie in eight or nine years. He was looking for the right script and the right come back. That was it. Him and Barbra Streisand together in a movie where he played an over the hill singer. It would've been a great part. He probably would've been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. And Col. Parker wouldn't let him do it.
Q - Elvis could have done a better job than Kris Kristofferson.
A - Oh, sure he would.
Q - I don't think Kris Kristofferson did that good a job.
A - No, he didn't. See, there would've been a lot of electricity between Elvis and Barbra. Elvis was out there rockin' and rollin', sure of himself. She's very sure of herself. It would've been a lot of electricity. Kris just played it down a little bit, you know. He's a good guy. I like Kris. I don't want to put him down because he's a great guy. But I think Elvis would've played it much better.
Q - You say that after Elvis's mother passed away, you talked to Elvis and he said "You know G.K., all this Graceland stuff, the movies, the records, it's all been for my mom." You write "I've come to believe that if Mrs. Presley had lived a full life, Elvis would be with us today." So really, after Mrs. Presley passed, there was no one who, for the lack of a better word, could control Elvis or who Elvis respected. Would that be a fair statement?
A - Well, it would be, but Col. Parker had a stronghold on Elvis at that time and we couldn't break through that. He had Joe Esposito with him and Jerry Schilling, who told him they weren't yes-men. They told him exactly like it was. Dr. Nick told him the truth. And I told him the truth. The first story in the book, I get up and speak at his dinner table at night at Graceland. He'd just done a '68 TV special for NBC and he was red-hot again. He's hot in Vegas. He's hot on TV, but his music was weak and that's because Col. Parker was demanding part publisher, part writer. I told Elvis that's why he was getting bad material. That's what I said at the dinner table that night. I took a heck of a chance, man, by doing that because with a superstar you don't say something like that in front of six, seven, or eight people. You get them by themselves, in private, then you say something to them. But I just took a chance because I don't know what came over me that night at the dinner table. I was sitting at Elvis' right. Priscilla was on his left. Everybody was in a good mood. That's when I said "Elvis, you are back. You got the TV thing happening." I don't know the exact words I used, but I insinuated to him that the material he was getting was B-side material. He was the biggest star in the world and he deserved more than that. Then, there was that pause and it seemed like forever, but he only paused for about 15, 20, or 30 seconds and look up at the ceiling and said "Hey, G.K. is right. I don't want no publishing. I don't want writing, I just want great songs. And I want to record at American Studios." I told him about American. It's only 10 miles North the Graceland it's over there by the old high school. I said, "Elvis, they cut over a hundred Top 10 records, man. They cut all these great songs." Then it was over. But I took a heck of a chance on that.
Q - Col. Parker wasn't at that dinner table.
A - No, but his guys were. Immediately they called Col. Parker and told him.
Q - Who called the Col.?
A - Tom Diskin and Freddy Bienstock. Tom Diskin was Colonel Parker's Assistant Manager and Freddy Bienstock was the liason from Hill And Range Music to Elvis.
Q - In the early days, Elvis seemed as shocked about his success as everyone else. He seemed to laugh a lot more.
A - That's very true. He was enjoying what was happening. He was beside himself. He always said,"G.K. enjoy the moment, it could be over any time. You never know." And so we rocked and rolled real hard, man. Had a lot of fun in those days. Had more fun in the early days than we did in the later days. Vegas was great. A lot of fun out in Vegas, but man, out on the road with Elvis was just something else. In Vegas it was something else too. My point is, in the early days he had more parties and we got around easy. More chicks around.
Q - That leads perfectly into my next question. Page 210 of your book you write about the girl-on-girl show Elvis was directing in the hotel room where the Memphis Mafia guys watched and you and Elvis' father watched when you came into the room. This doesn't seem to fit Elvis' image. Elvis' favorite thing to say was TCB - Taking Care of Business.
A - Right.
Q - How was that taking care of business?
A - Well, that was a private man thing. It was nobody but them there. Nobody but his close people, his inner circle and his father. That's where he got mad at me for bringing his daddy. I didn't bring him. He followed me down there. It was like a stag party. When you get married, you have a stag party. Crazy things happen. But it was just a one in a million thing that happened. It was just a crazy thing. We were on the road and he was traveling. We were in Florida I think when it happened. He was so happy to be back on stage again. That was his first love, being on stage.
Q - What went through your mind when you saw Elvis doing this? What did Vernon think?
A - I didn't pay no attention, probably 'cause I was watching the girls, man. (Laughs) There were two girls putting on a show. To be truthful with you, I've been around a little bit, but I'd never seen that. It was just fun to watch. A fun thing. After it was over we didn't make no big deal over it. Nobody talked about it. Elvis asked me why I brought his dad down. I said, "Elvis, I didn't bring him. He asked me where you were and I told him. I didn't know it wasn't cool to bring him." Anyway, it was a man thing. A lot of times if you get married and you are in show business and you're hip and you get around a lot, you'll have these wild stag parties. It was like that. Elvis was directing these two girls, but it wasn't a major deal really. We just laughed about it after it was over.
Q - When was the last time you saw Elvis?
A - I saw him, he was going on tour, about two days before he was leaving on tour.
Q - In 1977?
A - Yeah, up at Graceland. I went up in his room and we talked.
Q - How was he? How did he seem to you?
A - He seemed pretty good. He seemed in pretty good spirits. He was getting ready to go back on the road and he loved to do that. That was his favorite thing. He seemed okay to me. No problem what-so-ever. He was in very good form when I was up there.
Q - He had gained a lot of weight. Maybe 50 pounds worth.
A - Well, he was a little heavier, yes. See, what happened was, he had a bad colon and a bad intestine. If you have a large colon, you put your weight on and you can't get rid of it. He was doing racquetball. He was going on diets. He couldn't lose it, the weight. Back in those days, I did my homework, I researched it, the doctors were scared to operate on him because he was such a big superstar. They didn't have that operation perfected about going in and cutting part of your colon out. If something happened, man, they would have themselves in a bad situation. So, they were scared to operate on him. Later on, we found out what was happening and not until the autopsy did we realize he had a bad intestine, a twisted colon. A colon can make you look like you're overweight.
Q - I interviewed a woman by the name of
Linda hood Sigman. Have you ever heard of her?
A - No, I never heard of her.
Q - I interviewed her in May 2011 and she told me she has been talking to Elvis, receiving letters from Elvis since 1992 and that he is very much alive. Would it be in Elvis' character to fake his death?
A - No, it would not. Joe Esposito, Jerry Schilling and I talked about that. He wouldn't do that. How about his daughter? He's just gonna abandon his daughter? He wouldn't do that. He loved show business. He wouldn't fake his death. That lady is crazy.
Q - She tells me that people who surrounded Elvis are covering for him. They know he's alive.
A - She's crazy.
Q - I interviewed Gail Brewer Giorgio when this whole "Is Elvis Alive?" story first broke.
A - She's crazy too.
Q - She told me she was 98% certain Elvis was alive. When I interviewed Jerry Schilling and told him what Gail Brewer Giorgio said, he blew up on me. He said "I'm 100% certain she's crazy. He's dead."
A - Jerry Schilling is right. What they do is call attention to themselves. They like the focus and the spotlight being on them for a while. I was a pallbearer at his funeral, Larry Geller and Charlie Hodge. They knew Elvis real well.
Q - I just had to tell you what this woman was saying.
* Colonel Tom Parker was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. *
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