While working for The London Evening Standard, Ray Connolly interviewed many of the 1960s and 1970s Rock stars, including The Beatles and Elvis. In fact, he was supposed to interview John Lennon on December 8th, 1980, but fate intervened and John Lennon was shot dead. Ray Connolly is the author of a new book on Elvis titled Being Elvis: A Lonely Life. (Liveright Publishing Corporation, A Division Of W.W. Norton And Co.)
We spoke to Ray Connolly about Elvis and The Beatles.
Q - Ray, you attended John Lennon's 31st birthday party at Hotel Syracuse in Syracuse, New York on October 9th, 1971?
A - Yeah. I'd been on holiday and I got a call when I got home from John's office in England saying "Where were you? John and Yoko wanted you to fly over with them." They kindly sent me a ticket, first class, and I joined them in New York and stayed there a couple of nights and then we flew up to Syracuse with Phil Spector and other people. I think a couple of days later I went back to New York.
Q - You saw their art exhibit, This Is Not Here at the Everson Museum in downtown Syracuse?
A - Yeah. We all had to contribute something to the exhibit. So, I went down to the local shop in England before I got on the plane in London and got a box of paints and wrote "Imagine I'm an artist, it's easy if you try" and just stuck it in.
Q - Was that part of the exhibit?
A - Yeah. It was like a free for all. If you were there you could've done one too. It was no big deal. (laughs)
Q - I was there.
A - Oh, you were there, were you?
Q - I was there twice. I saw the Volkswagen that Frank Zappa contributed and the big guitar against the wall.
A - The VW, yeah. It was all rusted or something.
Q - Do you remember seeing a pedestal with a pair of John Lennon's old shoes on it?
A - I'd forgotten that. It would be a bigger deal for you. I was just interested to get to New York to be honest. Yeah, well, that's nice.
Q - Did you interview all The Beatles as their career was on the upswing in England?
A - No. I never really interviewed George. George I think thought I was too close to John and Paul and he was right. That was my loss. That was my mistake, but I didn't really get involved with them until 1967. They were already monsters, you know? The reason was, I was a journalist. I met them through being a journalist. While my first journalism was in Liverpool, by the time I left (the) University they had already left. I caught up with them when I got to The London Evening Standard. Then I became friends very quickly. It was great because I knew Paul's father from Liverpool. I know his brother. I went on Magical Mystery Tour, following them around in my little car all around, in Cornwall, all those places on the West coast of England. I met Paul one night. He sat next to me and I thought what shall I say to him? So, I said, "I know your dad." From that moment on Paul took me on and passed me on to John and Ringo. That's how it went.
Q - But, George thought you were just too close to the others?
A - Yeah. I did Paul a lot and then John and Ringo. There was an open interview thing going on with George in the newspapers. I thought I don't want to do this. I went in there and sort of hung around a little bit, mainly by myself. I think he noticed I got out again. I think he thought oh well, blow this. If he doesn't want to listen to me... When "All Things Must Pass" came out I was dead keen to see him and I gave him a huge review. Full page in the paper. But he still wouldn't see me. Later on he was very nice to me. We knew each other, but I was very friendly with John and Paul. Ringo was in a film I wrote, but George was always a bit more reserved. George wasn't that keen on journalists to be honest.
Q - What kind of a man was Paul's father?
A - Oh, he was lovely. Jim McCartney was a terrific guy. He was a really nice man. When The Beatles were sort of at their peak, Jim got married again. Paul's mom died and Jim got married again. He'd come into the theatre in London and I had little children at the time, like three and four years old. He'd always give some money to them when he came. He wouldn't go until he'd given them some silver. That old fashion thing, you always give little children some silver. He was a very, very nice man. You couldn't meet a nicer person actually.
Q - Did he ever comment on his son's success?
A - He was amazed. I remember him talking about going to the Cavern early on. He said, "Oh, God, it's terrible." Paul would come home and he'd say, "I'd have to wring his shirt out. It was soaking wet with sweat. Place was a death trap." (laughs) He'd say the electric must've been terrible. All the humidity. All the kids in there. But he was thrilled to bits. He couldn't believe it. I'll tell you one really nice thing about him, when The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour went out in England, on television, on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas in '67, it was a disaster. People just hated it. The press loathed it. My job was to write a piece the next day for the Evening Standard. I thought, God, how am I going to do this? I'll ring Paul. I had his phone number. I don't know how. I just had it. And his dad was there. I said, "Hello, Mr. McCartney. It's Ray Connolly." He said, "Paul is asleep Ray." He said, "Ring back a bit later," and I rang back three times. By now it was twelve o'clock. For an evening paper you've to to get your stuff in early. He finally said, "Listen Ray. I'm going to wake him up for you." He climbed upstairs and got Paul out of bed to talk about his failed film. It wouldn't happen these days. You wouldn't get so close to the stars.
Q - You are right about that! When you were growing up you must have seen all the reports in the papers and TV on Beatlemania. Did you think this was just a fad or did you sense something big was about to happen?
A - My girlfriend, who became my wife, wrote to me when I was at (the) university in London and said, "I've just been to see The Beatles in a little club in Southport." It's near Liverpool. "They're fantastic." I thought c'mon. Nothing can be fantastic from Liverpool. It's got to be Memphis or New Orleans, something like that. Then I heard "Please Please Me" and I thought Oh, my God, they're so much better than I could possibly have imagined. They were just that good. So, I was a huge fan all of the time obviously. It was the music. All the hysteria, we'd seen it before with Elvis. That was sort of what kids did. It was fantastic! It was the breadth of their music and how fantastic it was. That second album with "All My Loving" was just a great album. They were just so good.
Q - Elvis never performed in England. So, you then must have seen The Beatles in concert.
A - I didn't actually. I never went. I never saw The Beatles. I never got involved until they stopped touring. I was working nights. I must have been out of my mind. But, at the same time I was never that bothered about not seeing people onstage. John Lennon said the same thing to me. "I didn't like either much." I always liked the finished record when they got it right and perfect. I'd like to have gone and seen the hysteria just because my wife went and all my friends went. I don't know why I didn't. There must have been a time when I could've gone. But, I'd always hear the same stories. It was just hysteria, which is not what I wanted to hear. I just liked the songs. It was just so clever.
Q - How about The Stones? Did you ever run into them?
A - Mick was a good year behind me (at the London School Of Economics). I was very aware of him. I was told this guy has this band called The Rolling Stones. I just looked and said he doesn't look like a Rock 'n' Roll star. (laughs) How wrong can you be?
Q - It's good he studied business. But as much business as he studied The Rolling Stones still got ripped off!
A - By Allen Klein, yeah. He was always a very clever person. Allen Klein would rip off anybody I imagine. I never liked him, to be honest.
Q - You probably met him?
A - Yeah, yeah. I interviewed him a couple of times.
Q - Did you meet Brian Epstein?
A - I didn't meet Brian 'cause when I got to the job, I tried to interview him and he died a week after, August, 1967. Very sad.
Q - How about Brian Jones?
A - I didn't know him.
Q - I always like to tell people without Brian Jones there would never have been a Rolling Stones.
A - Yeah. I think you're right about that.
Q - Okay, let's talk about your book Being Elvis. That's a pretty interesting title. How can anyone outside of Elvis himself know what it was like to be Elvis Presley?
A - Yeah, well you really can't, but what you can do is imagine what it's like to be Elvis Presley. I was thinking of all the books I've read, dozens of them, I always thought there's a bit missing here. It's his side of the story. I wondered whether you could do it. In England you can do it. You can write a sort of autobiography pretending that you're Elvis or Princess Diana or whoever. You couldn't do that in the States. It wouldn't get published in the States. So, with that in mind I'm thinking all the time, what would he be thinking? Why did he do these terrible deals? Why did he have the Colonel manipulate him so badly? And for so long? I tried to work out why he did these things. When I finished the book and read it through a few times I felt what a sad life and what a waste of a life really. He could've been so much more.
Q - I was once told there have been so many books written on Elvis that you can't make any money on an Elvis book. So, why did you decide to write Being Elvis?
A - That's wrong actually. You can make some money. You don't make millions, but it will pay me very well for a year's work. It sells all over the world in different countries, different translations. But, I didn't write it for the money. I wanted to write it to get his point across. People today don't really know how important he was. People like you and I do. Young people just don't know. They have this image of a cheese burger guy in a white, rhinestone suit and all these shows in Vegas, but they don't know how revolutionary he was. I wanted people to know that. He was more than just a guy in a white suit. I wanted to try and explain how it went wrong. Peter Guralnick has written two tremendous books. I wanted to write a book that was in a way like a novel. If you read it like a novel, what's going to happen next? So that's why I wrote it. It's done pretty well.
Q - You actually interviewed Elvis?
A - Yeah. It wasn't a great interview. It was in 1969. He'd just gone back onstage. I was told here (England) that he was going back onstage by a guy who worked for Tom Jones and who knew the Colonel. He said, "If you can get out to Vegas I'll get you in to meet Elvis." I said, "Interview?" He said, "Yeah." A guy, Terry O'Neill, quite a famous photographer, was with me. We were hanging around the hotel. We saw the shows. "You've got to wait." "When's it going t happen?" Finally, on the third night, in those days you had to pick up a house phone and the message from the Colonel was, "Elvis will see you now." So we had to rush up to whatever floor it was at the top of the building. There's Elvis, sitting with his friends, the Memphis Mafia, and he couldn't have been nicer. The other thing was the Colonel was there. He was hovering, standing, the whole time to one side. When I went in it was kind of interesting 'cause when I walked in there was Elvis sitting there and as soon as he saw me he jumped up. The other guys with him just looked around kind of nonchalantly, probably thinking well, who the hell is this? But Elvis sat down and I sat down next to him and we talked about; I probably kind of blew it later on 'cause I asked about why'd you make all those terrible films? I didn't put it quite like that, but that was the implication. Elvis was really honest when he came out of the Army and signed his contracts. The Colonel was probably thinking I've got to get rid of these guys. It was an interview. It wasn't a great one. I got great ones from Lennon and McCartney, but not from Elvis. He was guarded, but he couldn't have been nicer. I think he would've talked for a long time if the Colonel hadn't kicked me out after that half hour. He'd had enough.
Q - That was your one and only interview with Elvis?
A - Yeah.
Q - It surprises me that Colonel Parker would have let you two talk to Elvis.
A - It surprised me too. It amazed me.
Q - I'm not talking about you in particular, but I didn't think Elvis gave interviews. Didn't Life or Look magazine ask to interview Elvis and the Colonel asked $50,000 for an Elvis interview.
A - All the stories, yeah. I think Chris Hutchins, a guy I'm friendly with, organized the meeting with Elvis and The Beatles. So, he had the Colonel's ear for a bit. I think they were quite friendly. I told him since the Colonel was not a guy to be friendly with. Anyway, I think that probably helped. But you know, it happened. It was just bizarre. In the front of Being Elvis there's a little story about when I went back to New York. I got on the phone with Bob Dylan. He asked me, "What was Elvis like?" We were all the same age, teenagers when Elvis came along. John Lennon asked all the same questions. "What was he like? What did he sing? Did he do "Mystery Train"? "That's All Right Mama"?" Really interesting. Stars start off being fans of somebody before they find their own way.
Q - John met Elvis in 1965.
A - Yeah.
Q - He could've gone to see Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969.
A - He could've easily gone. Bob Dylan went. Why he didn't I don't know. He didn't though. He always said he was disappointed in him. He felt after he got into the Army he lost the magic touch, which in a way he lost a magic touch for sure. Bob Dylan went. Bob Dylan called him "The Gypsy."
Q - Did you try to interview any of the Memphis Mafia guys for your book?
A - No. I'd met Red (West) and Joe (Esposito), who were with Elvis that day. By the way, Red died, didn't he?
Q - He did.
A - I felt so sad for him. He was the most loyal, but everyone had their say. They've all done these long interviews. All the books are available on Kindle in one form or another. So, you don't get anything extra from these things. Very, very rarely do you get anything extra. The trick is, it's a bit like being a historian. You go through everything published possible. The person I did talk to was Marion Keisker, years ago. I spent a day with Sam Phillips, the person who first recorded him. I found them very interesting. I also talked to Mort Shuman, who wrote "His Latest Flame". He was a big friend. Mike Stoller. All these sort of people. I wasn't interested in talking to the maid. They've said what they wanted to say. Elvis was unique in that he invented the idea of a Rock star. We didn't have Rock stars before. Ever since it's been non-stop. So, he was a really interesting character. Also, few people have a story like his from the abject poverty of Mississippi to The White House in effect.
Q - You say on the very last page in your book: "Whether he (Elvis) was a great singer has to be a personal opinion." Really? I think most people would agree that Elvis could really sing. He was a great singer.
A - I think he is a great singer, yeah, but I can see other people saying Pavarotti was a great singer. It really is where you stand. I think that Glen Campbell was a great singer.
Q - Right.
A - A beautiful singer. I remember saying to John Lennon, and this will make you laugh, we were talking about singers and someone was criticizing Tom Jones. John said, "He's alright for what he does." I said, "Yeah, but he's not a great singer." He said, "Well, who is a great singer." I said, "Well, Paul has a nice voice."
Q - Uh-oh.
A - Yeah, I know. (laughs) And John said, "He's got a high voice." (laughs) A great way he said it, "a high voice," but he does have a nice voice. Elvis was a great singer, but there will be people who say, "C'mon, he wasn't Pavarotti."
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