Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What I learned from Elvis


I never cared much for Elvis Presley.

Nothing personal, of course. I never met him. I just didn't care for his music. But that's because I'm a mid-Boomer and was too young to get wrapped up in the frenzy of the emergence of rock and roll in the fifties.

I started paying attention to music in the early to mid-60s when Elvis was in the Army and pre-Motown R&B groups like The Orlons, The Marvelettes and The Shirelles had the charts pretty much to themselves. Then the Beach Boys and Beatles came along and changed everything as Elvis returned from the Army and resumed making badly-written, suddenly very old-fashioned beach movies.

In 1973 I got to see Elvis perform in Las Vegas and I fell asleep. Literally.

Wasn't just me. Elvis knew he wasn't cutting it. He actually interrupted his band at one point and apologized to the crowd because, he said, "We can do this better." And then they started again but the magic had escaped the room like air from a badly-tied balloon.

Ironically, less than two years later I was living in Memphis and working as the Program Director for top-40 radio station, WHBQ. My morning deejay was George Klein, Elvis's best friend since high school.

George was a sweetheart. He didn't wear Elvis on his sleeve but he did wear the "TCB" solide gold lightning bolt necklace that Elvis gave every member of his so-called Memphis Mafia. George didn't talk about Elvis incessantly but I quickly became aware that everything George had ever accomplished, he attributed to Elvis. That was his perspective and I guess that makes it true.

George did occasionally talk excitedly about Elvis's promise to buy him a small town Tennessee radio station someday. I believe that promise outlived the King.

One evening in 1975 Karen, my first wife, and I were in our duplex in Germantown, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis, eating watermelon and watching TV. The phone rang.

It was George. He wanted to tell me he was at Elvis's house.

He waited a moment for a reaction but all I gave him was, "Okay..."

George quickly explained that Elvis had bought a new airplane and wanted him and a few other friends to see it. He wanted to know if that would be okay with me.

(I was only twenty-four and even though Elvis's music left me cold I was living and working in his town. I was impressed and even a bit envious. For a moment I thought excitedly George might be calling to invite me to go with them.)

"George," I asked, "why would you call to ask my permission to go see Elvis's new airplane?"

"Because it's in Dallas," he explained. And even though George was nearly twenty years older than me I was his boss and he waited for a reaction like a nervous teenager calling to ask his dad if he could stay out an hour later.

"George..." I said, realizing I wasn't being invited, "are you telling me you won't be at work tomorrow morning?"

"OH, NO!" He was horrified. "Elvis promised he'll fly me back in time to get to the station and go on the air at six!"

Elvis was good to his word.

George was on the air at six the next morning and spent the next three hours between records telling the tale of his wild transcontinental trip to see Elvis's new airplane. But you had to hear it to appreciate it. It wasn't the kind of hype, tease, slap and giggle you would expect to hear on the radio or TV now. George was very earnest and reporterly. He and Elvis were kids from Tupelo and except for Elvis's money that never changed.

George talked calmly on the radio that morning about his adventure with Elvis as if he was simply talking about a drive-in movie they'd gone to together. But even if he wasn't a born storyteller his was a fascinating and unique perspective.

I didn't live in Memphis long but I met lifelong residents and friends of George Klein who had never met, nor even seen, Elvis and never expected to.

In a very tight group, George was Elvis's best friend.

And he still is, I guess, because at the age of 74, thirty-two years after Elvis Presley's death, George Klein is still living back in the day. He's written a book about his life in Elvis's shadow. He gives interviews to everybody who asks. He is constantly telling how Elvis gave him, George, a new Cadillac every Christmas and his wife, Barbara, a new full-length mink coat.

You might think, as I did for many years, that's sad.

Now I just think it's George's life and he's probably grateful for every moment.

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