Rocking with the King: Jerry Schilling on his friendship with Elvis Presley

Ahead of co-hosting the Elvis in Concert tour, Jerry Schilling talks to DUNCAN SEAMAN about his friendship with the King.

Jerry Schilling with Elvis Presley.
Jerry Schilling with Elvis Presley.

Jerry Schilling well remembers his first meeting with Elvis Presley. It was on a football field in Memphis on July 11, 1954.

Schilling had been invited along by Red West, a friend of his cousin. The young rock ’n’ roll fan soon discovered one of his team mates was a local singer who was starting to make a name for himself.

“There were five older guys and Red said, ‘Jerry, do you want to play with us?’ I though, ‘Wow, I get to play with the big guys and Red West’. We chose up sides and went into the huddle to make a play. Dewey Phillips, the DJ [on the radio station that Schilling listened to], announced Elvis as a boy from Humes High and I realised that my quarter back was the boy from Humes High. They distinguished that to say he was not black, he was white, because all our schools were then segregated, unfortunately.”

Jerry Schilling

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    Schilling first saw Presley perform at Ellis Auditorium on his 13th. He recalls the singer being “so unconventional” for the time. “We, as young teenagers, had never seen anything like that.” Combining the influences of black rhythm and blues artists from Beale Street with gospel performers such as the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet, Presley would challenge musical and social conventions. “It was like watching a tiger be released from a cage. He dragged the microphone across the stage. It was so wild, but he was so brilliant, though. He would know just when to play with it and do a smile and then he would go back to being extremely sexual or extremely exciting. It was great to see.

    “As Bruce Springsteen said, when you see for the first time something that you weren’t expecting to see it is the greatest moment.”

    Schilling started “hanging out with the guys” from what would become known as the Memphis Mafia, Presley’s close associates, “right after the first football game”. After a couple of weeks he thought Presley would probably move on to different company – “Everybody in Memphis knew who Elvis was at that point, so he had plenty of people to choose from” – however, Schilling says: “I think he remembered I thought he was cool before he was popular, so he would always throw me a jersey.”

    Within a few months Presley was out on the road touring. “When he would back to Memphis he started renting the amusement park after it closed at night, so people wouldn’t crowd around. I would go to the amusement park at midnight and ride the rollercoasters. Then he would rent the Rainbow skating rink and we would choose up sides like football. Then within a year was the all-night movies – after the movie theatre had closed Elvis would have three or four films that he would choose. So for ten years, from ’54 to ’64, when Elvis was in town [they hung out].

    “In ’57 when he bought Graceland I was welcomed up there. The guys would say, ‘We’re doing this tonight – do you want to come up?’ The guys were older and they were going out to Hollywood and on the road, I was in high school.”

    Schilling got a football scholarship to study at college in Arkansas – “I was going to be a history teacher and a football coach” – but a call from Presley in 1964 changed his plans dramatically. “Elvis called me out to Graceland one night at 2am and said, ‘I need you to go to work for me’. I’d forgotten all about that, my life had gone a totally different way, so I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Now’. I thought about it for about ten seconds and I said, ‘Can I get home and get my clothes?’ I had to quit two part-time jobs, I had to tell me instructor that I couldn’t practice, I had to tell my father that I was dropping out of college in my senior year and we got in a little bus – not the kind that rock stars drive today, it was a Winnebago – and Elvis drove, there were five of us and we drove 2,000 miles from Memphis to LA, we stopped in truck stops at night time, Elvis would throw me a football and we would talk all night. And that was the start of me being part of the Memphis Mafia.

    “Over the years I worked as an aide then I was the stand-in in about seven movies while working for him. I got very interested in film and at one point I quit working for him and spent time in film editing, then Elvis asked me to come back and I could edit his films. Then he went on the road when he wasn’t doing films and that was fun for a while. I quit working for him again and went out with a little unknown artist and we were doing restaurants, opening acts, and we opened for the Beach Boys. I went back to working for Elvis and then the Beach Boys asked me to be their tour manager, then I became their manager, and I’m their manager as we speak today.”

    Schilling says he was acutely aware of the wider social impact that Presley’s music was having on the US in the 1950s. “It was politically not accepted, religious-wise it was not accepted, it was very taboo. The politicians and the religious leaders – not all of them, but most – were calling this vulgar music, a bad influence on the kids, but we were just having fun and this music was helping bring people together that had not ever been together before, black people and white, and I sincerely think that the fear was not vulgarity, the fear was ‘if these kids start going to concerts together and liking the music they may want to go to school together and who’s going to pick the cotton?’

    “I lived it, I grew up in the ’50s, in the extreme segregation of the South, in Memphis, the fear of the unknown, you never talked to black people unless they were working in your yard or picking up the garbage. That was the bad news, the good news is my city and a lot of cities have come a long way. In Memphis the last three great mayors we’ve had have been black, people have been wanting to vote, the city’s very progressive, so we’ve come a long way. There are still things to do but I think the biggest disservice to Elvis that still seems to be out there and I don’t understand is the idea that was that he was prejudiced. He didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body, he had close black friends. He wasn’t one to get up and march or stand on a box and say, ‘Hey, I brought black music to America’, he and Sam Phillips, he just did his thing and I think he took it further than religion or politics.”

    This autumn Schilling is joining Presley’s widow Priscilla on the UK tour of Elvis in Concert, where they will be sharing memories of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll alongside the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing along to film footage of the singer in action. Schilling says this is a way of bridging the fact that Presley never got to tour overseas. “It should have been bridged while Elvis was alive but this is the closest thing to being on the road with Elvis that I’ve ever experienced.

    “I hosted eight shows in Australia about a year and a half ago. Priscilla had called me from the London shows and she was telling about the audience reaction, the excitement and everything and it sounded great, but you really have to experience it. I’ve gone to Warner Bros and we’ve picked out some new footage, some new songs. Priscilla and I will host this together and we’ll talk about the music at certain parts of the show with the orchestra, we’ll introduce the TCB big band who have never played on the show with the orchestra before. Then probably at the beginning of the second act we will go up on stage and we’ll show some Super 8 home movies and narrate what was going on at the time.”

    Elvis in Concert: Greatest Hits Tour is at Sheffield FlyDSA Arena on November 28.