Gary James' Interview With Elvis Presley's Friend
Paul Lichter is an authority on the subject of Elvis Presley. He attended over 850 of his concerts, has written 16 best-selling books on Elvis which have sold over 20 million copies, and has made guest appearances on hundreds of TV shows. Colonel Parker was made honorary Godfather to Paul's son, Tristan Elvis.
Paul founded the Elvis Unique Record Club in 1970. It is one of the largest mail order businesses in the world and the only such organization ever licensed by the Estate of Elvis Presley. The Elvis Unique Record Club has sold everything from Elvis' first Sun record to his latest CD.
Paul Lichter talked with us about his life and Elvis.
Q - You were a Rock promoter? Who did you promote and when?
A - Well, first of all I managed Rock 'n' Roll groups, okay? I handled many of them. Probably the only ones you ever heard of would have been The Soul Survivors and Vanilla Fudge. Many of my other groups may not have achieved success, but as a particular group they did achieve success in the Rock world with different names and different factions. The group Bang, which was a similar three piece group to Grand Funk, had a couple of million selling albums for Capitol (Records). I started out managing groups, then I got into promoting and my promotion career ended with the Jimi Hendrix concert that everybody lost their pants on, believe it or not.
Q - That is hard to believe. What year would that have been?
A - That was 1969 at Temple Stadium. What happened was, well first, Hendrix was the headliner. We had The Grateful Dead there, Beck - Bogart and Appice, The Box Tops. Groups that were very big a the time. This was around the time of "Electric Ladyland". He died shortly thereafter. The main problem was it was an outdoor concert. People climbed the walls and got in. There were lots of counterfeit tickets. Also, we didn't take into consideration that Temple Stadium was in a residential area and the neighbors called the police. Believe me, it was a fiasco. Fortunately little of it was my money.
Q - And after that, you still kept going in Rock 'n' Roll. Now that is amazing.
A - Yeah. Actually, right around the time I got involved in the Elvis thing, I was here to promote the first Jethro Tull tour of the United States. I turned down managing Gary Puckett And The Union Gap. He sounded too much like Johnny Mathis. This was three months before he had the number one hit, "Woman, Woman".
Q - Were you there for Vanilla Fudge as a manager in the earliest of days?
A - Well, no. I was there early. I had The Soul Survivors. They were actually from New York City, but they re-located in Philadelphia. Back in those days, you had The Rascals, Goliath, The Vagrants, all New York groups like The Fudge. This guy Phil De Seo had owned a place out in Long Island called The Action House. He actually had The Vanilla Fudge. We worked a deal where he bought The Soul Survivors and I kept a piece of The Soul Survivors. I got a piece of The Fudge. This is right when The Fudge had "You Keep Me Hangin' On".
Q - How is it that you were able to meet Elvis when he was making that 1968 NBC TV Special? Were you friends with somebody at NBC?
A - No. Back in those days when you used to go on tour, there were Rock 'n' Roll caravans, with sort of like four or five headliners. Say The Soul Survivors, Jackie Wilson, Richie Havens, whatever group there was at the time. You pick other people that have hit singles at that point with that area. So, we were out in Burbank, California and Sid Bernstein was managing The Rascals. We were on tour with The Rascals as part of one of these package deals. This was with The Soul Survivors. We happened to be in Burbank at the same time Elvis was filming the '68 TV Special. The way my invitation came about and the actual meeting (of Elvis) was, it wasn't cool at that point to like Elvis. Sid Bernstein was friends with the Colonel. The Colonel invited him while we were in California. He had a few tickets and he asked "Does everybody want to go?" And nobody close wanted to go. I said "I love Elvis. I'd love to." So, I went there with him and we were there for the filming of one of the shows, actually for two of the shows that day. After one of them, Sid Bernstein went back and that's how I met Elvis. He brought me with him. The whole meeting actually took place and I don't think it took more than a minute and a half. Basically the only thing that happened was I said "Mr. Presley, I'm a great fan. I really enjoy your music." He said "Thank-you. Pleased to meet you." I said "Likewise." And that was my first meeting with Elvis. The second time I met him I was probably in the room for 45 minutes.
Q - That's better.
A - Well, the funny thing about that one was, he was holding my hand for about 15 minutes of it. We were posing for pictures. I didn't have more than 2 minutes of conversation during the entire period.
Q - Well, he was after all, Elvis and everybody wanted a piece of him.
A - The way my actual involvement came about with him was shortly thereafter, that was in '68, the Special, he went out to Vegas in '69. I actually got lucky because RCA asked if I'd like to present a few Gold records to him. It was certainly good for my career, and not only that, I'd never been to Las Vegas before. So, they flew me out there and I was informed I had to go to my room and wait 'til the Colonel contacted me. If I missed the call, that was the end of the meeting. Actually it took him about a day and a half. Here I was in Vegas and couldn't leave the room. That's the meeting where we posed for pictures for Billboard and Cashbox. At the end of that, when I was leaving after 45 minutes, there were a lot of other people in there. I realized that: (A) I didn't have a picture with me and (B) I never got him to sign anything. I really did want his autograph. So, when I was being led out, which was through the kitchen, under the stage, by this guy Artie Newman who was the showroom manager at the time, I happened to mention I got so excited, is it possible you can get Elvis to sign something for me? He said "Well, yeah. I'll try to do what I can. Come see him tomorrow." The next day I went to his office, which is right outside the showroom. He told me "Elvis isn't up yet. Come back later." I came back at 5 o'clock and he told me Elvis wanted to see me. So, I got up to the suite and during that period of time there was this big conference table, and to make a long story short, he was a great guy. It just so happened I was from Philadelphia at the time and he was involved with a girl from Roxboro, Pennsylvania. We started talking about that and the next thing you know we got into football. All of a sudden he asked how long I was staying and when did I have to leave? He picked up the bill and I stayed for the next 2 weeks.
Q - You are one lucky guy!
A - Very lucky.
Q - You also became friends with the Colonel. What kind of guy was Colonel Parker?
A - First of all, Colonel Parker is my son's godfather. My son, Tristen Elvis. In the beginning he did everything he possibly could to stand in my way. I wasn't his biggest fan, OK? As time went on I began to realize that everything he did was for my good and to shut my mouth and listen to him. He was the smartest person I ever met. In the end, I can tell you he is, in my opinion, the most intelligent and the greatest person I've ever come in contact with. Unlike his image, unlike the things you hear, he was a big pussycat. He loved children. Generous to a fault and just a great, great guy. He's certainly the most magnificent manager in history. Keep in mind that all the bullshit you hear after Elvis passed away regarding the Colonel, Graceland paid him 6 or 7 million dollars when they sued him. They wound up, he was a consultant with them 'til the day he died. Quite frankly he was offered millions, like I said; "There was never enough money for him to write dirt about his boy." The people that ripped him were the media that knew nothing and the morons, the so called "Memphis Mafia" that hung around. Because the Colonel was around, he stopped them from taking even more advantage of Elvis. If Elvis was guilty of anything in his life, it was being the worst judge of character in the world 'cause he certainly surrounded himself with less then intelligent people.
Q - I've interviewed three of the Memphis Mafia guys and they all profess their love and respect for Elvis.
A - You know what I say? If you're my best friend, then there's not any amount of money in the world that's gonna get you to write "I need a diaper and chew my toenails." Either you were lying about being my best friend or lying about what you're saying. You can't have it both ways. Quite frankly, other than a handful of people such as Jerry Schilling, George Klein, a couple of others, Red West, obviously talented in his own right. Most of these guys never worked a day in their lives, have the I.Q. of a peanut and are just bitter that Elvis stopped taking care of them after he died. How many books can they write over and over again? John Lennon had a lot of faults. But one of the faults he didn't have was surrounding himself with the same kind of people Elvis did. Most of these guys would choke Elvis of his last ounce of dignity if there was 50 cents involved in it.
Q - You saw Elvis perform 850 times? Is that correct?
A - Yeah, between 800 and 900 times.
Q - When was the last time you saw him perform?
A - His final concert in Indianapolis on June 26th of 1977.
Q - Was that the concert broadcast on the CBS Special?
A - No. That's more mis-information. Vernon always says "This is my son Elvis' last concert." Those shows that you see on TV were taken from Rapid City and they were days before. You don't actually see any footage from the last concert in that TV special.
Q - When was that shown? Do you remember?
A - October 13th, 1978. There was only about 45 minutes of the show with commercials and out of that, about 10 minutes with interviews with fans. CBS only used about a half hour of the footage. What happened with me is, once I started my Elvis career and started the Elvis Unique Record Club, while I wrote my first book, Elvis In Hollywood, Geraldo Rivera was writing his first book for Simon and Schuster and we hung out quite a bit together. When he had Good Morning America and was still doing local news in New York, he gave me my first network shot. He actually came to our offices and museum. He came out wearing one of the jumpsuits Elvis had given me. Quite frankly, at that point in time he wasn't going to make a big deal out of how much money I was making. I was so naive. He said "How much are you making?" And I said "I'd rather keep that to myself." It was so little it was embarrassing. He said "Would it be safe to assume that it's in six figures?" And I said "Yeah." He went on the air and said "Hi. This is Geraldo Rivera reporting from the offices of the Elvis Unique Record Club. Lichter, who earns $100,000 a month." Once he said that, all of a sudden I went from being the ultimate Elvis groupie to a world-renowned Elvis-oligist and we started making lots of money. All the interviews picked up, the newspapers, Playboy. Ultimately it led to my first book. Prior to that we were doing the Record Club and we started the first Elvis fan magazine in the United States, which was The Memphis Flash. At its peak there were 88,000 subscribers to it, a self-published magazine. Of course my first book Elvis In Hollywood came out. Again, you talk about luck and fortune. I didn't even know you needed an agent. Simon and Schuster bought it before it was done. It sold about 7 million copies. It spent 8 weeks on the Best Sellers (List). Of course, it was helped along by the tragedy of Elvis' passing. At that point it had sold maybe a million and a half. Since he died, they pumped it out everywhere. So I was a best selling author. Twenty-five books later, I'm working on a new book right now that will be published by a major publisher in 2010, if I ever turn it in. (laughs) I'm really way behind on it.
Q - To get this Unique Record Club going, you needed Colonel Parker's permission, didn't you?
A - You did, but I didn't know it.
Q - That could have been a problem.
A - It was. In the beginning there were no problems. After that first meeting with him, I decided this is great, I got to get close again. How can I do this? That's how the Record Club started. Elvis started touring again. The Colonel was charging a dollar for pictures of Elvis. We figured out all we had to do was print a nicer photo than he was charging a dollar for and fold it in half. Make a 6 x 9 fold-out and give away free pictures of Elvis with every concert. Inside was a plug to join the Elvis Unique Record Club and later for The Memphis Flash. What happened was nobody ever threw those things away. Even if they weren't interested in joining the record club, they wanted the picture of Elvis. I'd hire like Manpower and we'd get paper bags. If Elvis appeared before 20,000 people, we'd try to give out 20,000 of 'em. Eventually it got easier because the Colonel allowed us to put them on the seats at the concerts. But before that, as we got bigger, he did everything he could to stop us. Roger Davies, who was their attorney and representative from the William Morris Agency, we kept getting letters. Cease and Desist. Nobody has a right to make any money off Elvis except Mr. Parker and Elvis himself. Elvis thought it was comical. He told me he hoped I kick the old bastard's ass. So, it just kept going. Plus, I was making too much money to stop. There were definitely adventures. At one point I went back to Vegas and my idea was we'd have fake ten dollar bills printed up and when you unfolded the ten dollar bill, there was an ad for us. So, my idea wound up getting me thrown out of the casino. My idea was to bring in a half dozen of your friends with me and throw these things up in the air in the casino. It worked great, but we were thrown off the property. If we went somewhere and gave out 15,000 flyers, the next week we were doing $8,000. Then $5,000, $3,000. I thought if we do this in 20 cities, look at the money we'll make. The Colonel called me up to his room and said "I can't stop you from starting, but I'll stop you from finishing." He told me I was costing them $10,000 on every tour 'cause people weren't buying his pictures. So, I suggested to him, "pay me $10,000 every time Elvis tours and I'll stay home. Look at all the money you'll make!" What happened eventually and I didn't even know it, his second wife told me after he passed away, both myself and son were pallbearers at the funeral, that he kept a scrapbook on me. He said that if he wasn't on the inside, he would've been me on the outside.
Q - Two Presidents have your books in their personal libraries? Who would that be?
A - President Reagan and President Nixon. Actually, I can't swear to it, that Clinton has 'em in his library, but he's got my books.
Q - When you saw Elvis perform that last time, how did he look? How did he sound to you? Could you tell his performances were going downhill?
A - The short answer is yes. I probably first became aware of the problem in like '75, early '75. You have to realize I was not as close to him. I was lucky if I got in his company, even when I was there. A lot of what was going on, I saw first hand from the so called Memphis Mafia characters. For example, if we were in Vegas, they couldn't wait for him to zonk out, 'cause that meant they could go downstairs, pick somebody up and get laid. They did everything but protect him. As a young man, I don't think you think your heroes are ever gonna die. Superman can't die. Elvis is sick, but he'll get better. Elvis isn't fat. He's just bloated. Elvis is stoned. So is everybody else. It's a two-fold thing. I know that he didn't look good, but you're picking up on the crowd. Elvis couldn't come out there on saddle stage and humped and not even sing a song and the people still would have screamed. It was the event. The magnitude. The charisma; it was still there. The songs had long ceased to be exciting to me. But that was also repetition. After seeing 800 shows, there was no ad-libs anymore. I knew everything that was coming before he said it. Also, keep in mind that while he may not have looked good, he certainly did perform like the Elvis we know and loved. His voice seemed to get stronger. That transparency that only he had, meaning that you thought he was singing to you. There was so much emotion and feeling in everything he did. He's sing "Hurt" or some other song or "How Great Thou Art". There were moments that were so transcending that you forgot the rest of the show. No, I didn't believe he was going to die.
Q - Why did Elvis work so much in the last few years of his life? Do you know why?
A - Yeah. I really do know why; because he spent the money faster than he earned it. That's the short answer. The other reason is at that stage, he was never leaving the house. His only contact with reality or so called reality was touring. He got to see people.
Q - I've saved the most controversial question for last. Did a mail truck come up the driveway at Graceland on the morning of August 16th, 1977 to deliver a Special Delivery letter which Elvis signed for you and it came from you? Did you send a Special Delivery letter to Elvis?
A - Yup. That's all true.
Q - Elvis did sign for it mid-morning?
A - First of all, you're the first person to ask, other than a Gail Brewer-Giorgio... those people believe he's still alive. First of all, the letter was not an accident. The letter was supposed to refute the book that was coming out by Sonny and Red West and Dave Hebler (Elvis: What Happened?) So, the letter itself and it's contents were refuting all that. It was sent to RCA, to the Columbia office, everywhere there would be a possibility that he would get it, including Graceland. Here's the odd thing...he got it. First of all, I'm not saying that I believe Elvis is alive. What I am saying is that the events didn't happened exactly the way the time frame that's been released. For reasons left unsaid, there was a lot going on there before they called the hospital. I'm sure if you read The Death Of Elvis, you know what's going on. It was a cover-up, OK? I'm not saying that he's still alive. What I'm saying is, he didn't die at the time they said he did. Ultimately he signed for the letter. Here's the history: after it happened, I was asked not to discuss it by RCA and the Colonel. After those initial interviews in the days after, I never did. What happened was, the green card, the Post Office gets a card, you get a card back when it's certified, registered. I got the card back. It was signed by him (Elvis) and it's the time they say in all these conspiracy things. A marketing company bought my name, image and likeness for a lot of money in the days following Elvis' death. In those few weeks, they sold close to 11 million products through TV. One of the commercials they were showing, the letter was part of a give-away they were giving with The Elvis Legend Lives On book. While they were filming the commercials, the actual green card was stolen, which actually would have had Elvis' last autograph, if you believe he really signed for it.
Q - Do you believe he really signed for it?
A - If you've seen pictures of the receipt, the original receipt was stolen, but we were able to get a copy from the Memphis Post Office and it certainly looks just like Elvis' signature to me and anyone else that's ever seen it. The odd thing is, about 10 years ago, whoever stole the green card and wherever it wound up, actually put it up at auction. They contacted me, but they wouldn't tell me who was offering it to them and they refused it because it was stolen.
Q - When I interviewed Elvis' stepbrother, David Stanley, some years ago, he told me Elvis would never walk down the driveway to get mail.
A - Well, first of all, he didn't walk down the driveway. All he did was walk to the front door. The truck drove right up Graceland's gates 'cause they were let in. Quite frankly, I was just as happy for people to forget the letter, because even though it's a part of history and it happened, the bottom line is, it involved me with everyone of these conspiracy lunatics who believe he's alive.
Q - Did the green card show the time he signed for the letter?
A - Yeah. It was either 9:30 or 10:30 in the morning. The story was, the mailman went to the door. To further the conspiracy crap these people talk about, again, I wasn't there, they claim the regular mail guy wasn't on. Whoever it was, a sub or a temporary guy came. In my book, Elvis: The Legend Lives On, there's a picture of it there for anybody to see. Did Elvis sign it? I believe he did. Can I swear to it? No. I wasn't there. I have nothing to gain by telling you this 30 something years later.
Q - When I interviewed Nancy Rooks, Elvis' cook and maid, she said she heard a loud noise in Elvis' bedroom on August 16th, 1977, between 9:30 and 10 o'clock in the morning. Now, you can't have Elvis signing a green card for a special delivery letter between 9:30 and 10:30 in the morning on August 16th, 1977 and dying of a heart attack upstairs in his bedroom between 9:30 and 10 in the morning. Something is not right here.
A - I'll add something to the mystery. If you get a hold of the official death report from the police station, you'll see they have the drawing of the body and the hours are missing, as to what time they found the body and the whole deal of what went on. Keep in mind, it was 2:30, 3:30 in the afternoon when the EMTs arrived. It also took so many hours to clean the place up before they called 'em. It's not really an important thing simply because whether he died at 6 in the morning or 9:30 in the morning or 12 o'clock in the afternoon, the first fact of the matter is that he passed away. And the fact of the matter is they tried to clean up the place before they reported it. Obviously Joe Esposito (Elvis' road manager) couldn't give mouth-to-mouth to a body that had rigor mortis. And they've changed their stories time and time again. That's because it didn't happen they way it allegedly happened. It doesn't mean it didn't happen. If you want to be a conspiracy guy, how did RCA have ready all those millions of records ready to ship to every store within an hour? How did the Colonel have all the memorial posters and t-shirts they were selling at the gate before the body was returned to the house?
Q - Did you see Elvis in the casket?
A - Yup.
Q - Did it look like Elvis?
A - Well, first of all, let me say this to you, it's the only dead body I've ever seen, thank God. Did it look like Elvis? It didn't look anything like Elvis looked the day before when he was alive. But, did it look like Elvis? Yeah. You have to keep in mind that he was dead and these stories you hear that he was perspiring and it was a wax figure; to me his hair wasn't combed the way he would have combed it, but he was dead. But, I have no doubt that was Elvis. I'd love for it to be otherwise. I'd love to be proven wrong. But, I have no doubt that he's gone. People loved him so much that they didn't want to let go. The one person that knows most of what went on that day (August 16th, 1977) is Al Strada. He's the one person who never comes to Memphis. He's never written a book, never given an interview, and most people don't know if he's dead or alive. He's been rumored to be dead for years. Don't you find it strange that the guy who actually came in and saw the body first has never said a word? And how about that Ginger Alden?
Q - I heard she's writing a book.
A - She's been writing that book for the last 15 years.
Q - She's another one who has never said anything.
A - Yeah. Don't you wonder why?
Q - I do.
A - How about confidentiality clauses. How about pay-offs. I don't know that for a fact. I think Ginger is a wonderful, sweet person. Her family is very nice. But keep this in mind, everybody loved Linda Thompson and they all hated a poor girl who was 18 years old. The bottom line is, at the end of the day, could anybody have saved Elvis? And if they could have, what would have happened the next day?
Q - It would've been a repeat of the previous day.
A - Exactly. And remember Linda left, OK? I think she's a great person, but the fact of the matter is, history paints whatever picture these lunatics want to say. If you wrote a book like Elvis: What Happened? and you claim that you wrote this book because you wanted to help him...
Q - Which is what Sonny West told me.
A - OK. Well, Sonny is a good guy. He tells a great story. I'm sure he saw the timing of the book, but the bottom line is, they were unhappy ex-employees that didn't have a paycheck coming in. They sold the book to anyone that would buy it, which was The Star. They revealed those stories and they hurt Elvis and that certainly didn't help him. It hastened what happened. So if you take a wounded animal and you rub salt in the wounds, you're not helping him. The bottom line to the story here is, what happens in the future? Can you imagine that Elvis fans pay to have those guys come talk at their conventions? It's like asking Judas to come to a Jesus convention. Unfortunately, Elvis spirit died long before 1977. Only somebody whose appeal and magnetism was unbelievable could survive the desecration of his memory to where it really doesn't make a difference anymore, no matter what they say.
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