Gary James' Interview With Terry Blackwood of
Elvis Presley's Vocal Backing Group
As a member of The Imperials, Terry Blackwood performed and toured with Elvis Presley. Terry Blackwood shared his memories of that time in music history with us.
Q - Before you joined Elvis onstage at the Las Vegas Hilton International on July 31st, 1969, what were you doing with your life?
A - Well, The Imperials had been touring around the country as a Gospel group, but also we were working with Jimmy Dean on some of his shows, rodeos and things like that. So we had a very active schedule of Gospel concerts around the country and then supplementing that with Jimmy Dean dates that were really good because Jimmy had just come off of a very popular, hour-long, weekly television show.
Q - Did Colonel Parker offer you the Elvis gig?
A - No. We never talked to the Colonel. The Colonel never spoke one word to us, ever. We talked through friends and his producer was a good friend of ours, Felton Jarvis. We had a lot of mutual friends. Actually, he called The Jordanaires first, but they were in the studio working a lot and felt they might lose all those contacts and Elvis wouldn't be singing that long, so they turned him down. He had been following us and our music. So we were his natural second choice. So we gladly accepted.
Q - You spent three years with Elvis, until 1972. Did you get tired of that gig, or is there another reason?
A - If you worked with Elvis, you pretty much had to put the rest of your life on hold. That meant if you weren't working with him, you would just be sitting around, waiting on him. We were also in the Gospel industry where we had to deal with contracts and commitments, written contracts that said you be in such and such a place at a certain time. Sometimes the Colonel would book something at the last minute and say give you a months notice that they needed you at such and such a place. We found it was extremely difficult. We just couldn't get out of contracts because Elvis wanted to work. So, we found we had some conflicting dates, so we had to decide which way to go. Of course, time has proven we made a mistake. We should have stayed. Elvis was not unhappy with us and we were not unhappy with him. We loved working with Elvis, but the schedule conflicts were affecting our ability to work with him.
Q - Before working with Elvis, were you an Elvis fan?
A - You know, I was not a huge Elvis fan, even though I grew up in the same hometown with him. He actually attended my hometown church when he was just beginning to have hits, actually before he had some hits, during the first few hits he had. He was attending First Assembly Of God, Memphis and that's where I was attending.
Q - Do you remember him from then?
A - Oh, yeah. I remember him coming in, slipping in the back row of the church, after church starts, slipping into the back row so he wouldn't disturb. Of course, the choir could see that he had come in with his entourage. So they were looking in the back. Of course, all the congregation would turn around to see who everybody in the choir was looking at. (laughs)
Q - Did Elvis ever join in the choir to sing?
A - Can you imagine Elvis Presley in the tenor section of a typical church choir? It would never have happened. He wasn't much into choirs, more into quartets. He liked Rev. Hammill and he came to our church because my family, The Blackwood Brothers Quartet, attended there when not on the road. He was a real fan of the Quartet. My father was an original founding member of the Quartet and was a deacon in the church, sang in a church quartet and sang in the choir.
Q - Did there ever come a time when performing or recording with Elvis seemed routine?
A - Oh, no. It's never routine with Elvis. Every audience was on the edge of their seats, just excited. Of course there were nights when everyone was tired. You do two shows a night for a month without any nights off, so I don't think routine would be a good word. Fatigue might be a better word, from just doing the same show essentially every night for a month. Two shows a night. First show is at 8 o'clock. Second show is at midnight. You get off at 2:30. You get to bed at 3, 3:30 at night...in the mooring I mean. So, after awhile, it got a little tough on the body, but we managed. It just wasn't as easy the longer you stayed. Of course we were still working with Jimmy Dean. So that meant that there were times when we would have to turn right around and go to another club across town to start another show, a month long, with Jimmy Dean. One year, I think it was 1970, we were in Vegas four solid months.
Q - I don't know how your vocal chords would have stood up to so much stress.
A - Your vocals chords are a muscle. If you don't injure it, it just gets stronger, the more you use it.
Q - In 1972, did you begin to notice a change in Elvis' behavior? Did you start to see his health decline?
A - When we left him, he was the picture of health. I've never done drugs, so I don't know how a person acts. Elvis seemed to act like he always did, jittery, but he was always, he used the word squirrelly, because he was just nervous. He always wanted to do his best. But I never sensed a man who was out of control at anytime, out of control of his situation. So if he was ever on something, it was probably something to get him up for a show because he had to expend so much energy to do a show. All we had to do is stand there and sing. For him, I think it probably evolved into something to get him up for a show and then something to bring him down after the show so he could go to sleep. But as far as behavioral, I never saw any change in his behavior, any noticeable change at all. He got a little bit older. I noticed he was wearing his glasses more when he was offstage. But boy, he was sharp as long as we were there.
Q - What was it like to be in the studio with him? You did record with him, didn't you?
A - Yeah, we did several songs. We did "Kentucky Rain". On one session I think we did four or five hits.
Q - Was he well-disciplined in the studio? When he walked through the door, was it right to work?
A - No. He was disciplined in that regard. He was serious about his music. He liked to hold the mic in his hand. Most recording studios you have the mic situated. You just stand there in front of it. If it was a rhythm song, he liked to hold the microphone in his hand and get into the music. It was just funny to watch him jumping around there with the microphone in his hand. Sometimes we wouldn't start a session until 10:00 PM. Sometimes we would stand around for two hours waiting for him to get there. Then, when he'd finally show up, we'd make small talk and maybe he'd tell a few jokes and he would get into the music. Very seldom did he say I'm not in the mood tonight. He would usually try to get something done. He really enjoyed making music. Just sometimes he was in a different mood. He was very serious about his songs. He wanted to do his best.
Q - So you were there at 10:00 PM in the studio. Was Elvis supposed to be there at 10:00 PM?
A - Yeah, we had a 10:00 PM call for a session and we would be there and sometimes we would wait an hour before he would show up.
Q - Did he ever give an explanation why he was late?
A - Yeah. You just knew it was Elvis. You just have to understand that sometimes he got distracted or something else came up. He always paid you for being there at 10 o'clock.
Q - I guess that you were being compensated for your time is the most important thing.
A - If he asked you to be there at 10, then he was always man enough to say, or RCA was, "The session singers and players were here, so you need to pay 'em." And he was always good about doing that.
Q - When was the last time you saw or spoke to Elvis?
A - Well, he came over to see us after we had left him. It was the following year. I think it was '72 or '73. I can't recall which month it was. He came over to see us one night when we were with Jimmy Dean at The Detroit Inn. He slipped in. He had on his trench coat and glasses and was all decked out. He slipped in during the show. After the show he came backstage. We had another picture made with him. He was great. He was friendly, laughing. He was in a good mood. I guess that was the last time I really spoke to him because after that our paths took different directions.
Q - You still give concerts all over the world today. What type of venues are you performing in? And how do you bill yourselves?
A - We're going as Elvis' Imperials right now, just to kind of keep it not so confused because there is Little Anthon And The Imperials. We're doing venues like Wembley Stadium in London this month. (February 2010) We're going to do a three week tour of Elvis In Concert in Europe and half the dates are in England. Huge auditoriums with Elvis on the screen and us and all the musicians 'live'. That begins on around February 19th. So it's a big three week tour that's coming up. Most of the venues are sold out I think.
Q - That's really amazing after all these years.
A - After all these years and be able to command that kind of audience and in this economy, because Europe is struggling like we are.
Q - These days you will sing with an Elvis Tribute artist. That's great for the Tribute artist, but isn't that a step down for you?
A - Well, it is a step down in the sense that they can never be as good as Elvis. However, they are paying tribute to Elvis. Many of them say "I'm only here because I'm here by the name of Elvis Presley, who started it all and we pay due diligence and due honor to him tonight." So, in that respect, we do too. We pick and choose some of the guys we work with. There's some of 'em we would prefer not to work with. Sometimes they begin to think they're Elvis. But most of them have a really good attitude about who they are and how they got there, so that makes it easier to make that transition.