Elvis, my wonderful friend

With a new show about Elvis set to tour the UK, music industry veteran Jerry Schilling shares his memories with Katherine Hassell of the king of rock ’n’ roll – and his dear friend

Elvis Presley playing guitar

by Katherine Hassell |

When Elvis Presley died in 1977 at the age of 42, the world lost an icon. A man whose sexy image and pioneering sound – a fusion of country and rhythm ’n’ blues – changed the face of music. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Jerry Schilling, however, lost someone far more important: his friend.

Jerry was just 12 in 1954 when he met a teenage Elvis who’d already become the highest-selling solo artist ever.

Elvis was 19 and his debut single, That’s All Right, had just received its first airplay. The singer was trying to gather lads for a game of football in a Memphis park. “He couldn’t get enough his own age, so I got to play,” recalls Jerry.

Elvis signing autographs

The gang continued to hang out every week and, over years, friendships developed. “I looked up to Elvis as a big brother,” says Jerry. “I didn’t live with my own brother as my mother died when I was an infant and he went to boarding school. I lived with relatives. I was closer to Elvis than anybody.”

A decade later, Elvis employed Jerry as part of his entourage. His roles varied from bodyguard to film producer. Jerry even lived at Graceland.

So who better to discuss the man behind the music, alongside Elvis’s actress ex-wife Priscilla, in the upcoming UK arena tour Elvis In Concert? The show will see the star sing (a digital image recreated on screen) with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and his legendary TCB Band. Jerry and Priscilla will also share intimate stories, photos and home movies.

“You’d think Graceland would be a rock ’n’ roll hangout and some nights it was, but it was a home,” says the 77-year-old who later managed The Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis’s daughter, Lisa Marie. “It was the most peaceful, safe place I’ve ever been. His grandmother lived there. His father and mother had, too. It was his dream to have friends and family share his good fortune,” Jerry adds. “We’d rent movies and sit up and talk in the den. We lived a nocturnal life. Elvis was a real thinker. I haven’t met anybody more interesting to talk to one-on-one.”

Graceland

Although Elvis and Priscilla split in 1973, they remained close. “They still loved each other,” says Jerry. “It was the lifestyle that didn’t work out after having a family – us going on the road. Many times after the divorce, I drove with Elvis to Priscilla’s home where they’d spend hours talking. He called her all the time.”

Ironically, as Jerry prepares for the UK arena tour, he says performing with a full orchestra and touring Britain would have been two dreams realised for Elvis. He even bought a plane for the trip, says Jerry. “When his manager Colonel Parker didn’t want to do it, Elvis fired him. It was the first time I ever heard them argue,” says Jerry. “Elvis wanted to tour overseas but the Colonel wanted him to stay in Vegas and play domestically. You can’t take a creative giant like Elvis and have them do the same things,” says Jerry.

When asked which Elvis song means the most to him, Jerry says:

“If I Can Dream.”

Elvis and Priscilla Presley

Earl Brown wrote the song, a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, after discussing ideas with the singer. “It really tells of what Elvis felt,” says Jerry. “‘If I can dream of a better land where all my brothers walk hand in hand’ – he’s talking about white brothers, black brothers, everyone together.”

That was a powerful image in 1968 after years of segregation in America. The singer was, of course, influenced by black music. “It was the first time white audiences were exposed to rhythm ’n’ blues,” says Jerry. “Elvis brought people of various backgrounds together – more so than politicians or religious leaders. A big statement, but that’s how I feel.”

Jerry believes it was his friend’s biggest legacy. He didn’t just change lives with music, though. Each Christmas, a time he loved, Elvis wrote cheques for 50 charities. “They could be for a Catholic church, a Jewish synagogue, the homeless,” says Jerry. “There was no press. It was about needy people.”

Elvis has now been dead as many years as he was alive, but continues to captivate the world. Netflix has a new animated series. Baz Luhrmann has a biopic starring Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker and Austin Butler as The King. And the UK tour follows three critically acclaimed orchestral albums.

How would Elvis feel about being so revered still and the new arena tours? “I think he’d be thrilled. He knew he was special,” says Jerry, “but he was also a vulnerable artist too. For me the tour brings back my friend. His spirit is touring with us.”

Elvis In Concert can be seen from November 25 to December 1 at various venues across the UK. Visit www.ticketline.co.uk for details.

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