I once was this close to Elvis Presley.
It was June, 1972, and, at 22, I'd landed a reporting job at the music trade magazine Record World, which meant I got to interview the ace artists and cover the cool concerts. It was a heady time to be in the music business, which still featured lots of small, independent labels run by colorful -- if sometimes crooked -- characters who actually cared about making great records.
On any given night I might be burdened with the task of reviewing Randy Newman at the Bitter End, Bette Midler at the Baths -- our headline, "Bette Terrif At Tubs," is still one of my faves -- Doc Watson at Gerde's Folk City or a Who guitar-smashfest at Forest Hills.
But perhaps the most thrilling experience of that spring came when I attended Elvis Presley's press conference at Madison Square Garden on June 9th, just before his first-ever New York performances.
Having staged a dramatic comeback a few years earlier, The King -- who would have turned 75 last week -- strode into the press room still looking like royalty -- tall, tan, impossibly handsome and projecting an otherworldly charisma. I got goose bumps just being near the man whose glorious music introduced me -- and countless millions all over the world -- to an ecstatic world beyond our everyday experience.
Elvis fielded questions about his hair (he'd stopped using "greasy kid's stuff") and his opinion of Vietnam War protesters (he declined to comment). The most memorable moment came when he was asked whether he was indeed the shy, humble person his image suggested. He answered by standing up and unbuttoning his jacket to reveal a colossal Vegas-style gold belt buckle. 'Nuff said.
In some vault somewhere there is TV footage of me and Record World's then-editor Gregg Geller -- who was all of 24 -- sitting next to each other at that press conference. Gregg recalls, "I was so awestruck to be in the presence of The King that I was incapable of asking a question (one of my greatest regrets -- ever!). I also remember the Colonel's role in the proceedings. He was selling pencils -- the better to take notes with. It was a press conference, after all." (Colonel Tom Parker was Elvis' legendary manager and another larger than life figure.)
That night's show wasn't Elvis at his best, but it hardly mattered. He gave the overflowing crowd an enthralling communal experience -- taking us from cries of exultation to tears of grief and back again, with a dollop of self-deprecating humor lest we start singing in tongues -- from the over-the-top "Also Sprach Zarathustra" introduction to the stirring finale of "The Impossible Dream," by way of "All Shook Up" and "Heartbreak Hotel."
Five years later, when news broke that Elvis had died, a deep gloom settled in at the Record World offices. Writer and Elvis fanatic David McGee -- who's since penned books about Carl Perkins, Steve Earle and B. B. King and now runs the fantastic web publication The Bluegrass Special -- was the most heartbroken. He wrote, "In Elvis, I found someone to believe in; in rock and roll, as I learned it from him, I found a way of life that I wouldn't swap for any amount of money, because it was, and is, endlessly rewarding and fulfilling. It's only natural that I feel a certain hollowness inside of me now. A certain hollowness? I feel as if my guts had been ripped out."
Elvis recorded three songs written by my dad, Carl Sigman. My Heart Cries for You was composed -- on a bet -- with orchestra leader/composer Percy faith in ten minutes at the race track, and quickly became a number one hit for Guy Mitchell in 1950. It was a throwaway for Elvis, sung for fun and memorialized on the Elvis at Home album. Also on that album was What Now My Love -- one of my dad's most despairing lyrics -- which became a staple of Elvis' live show and appeared on the multi million-selling Elvis Aloha from Hawaii album/DVD. The song's been recorded by hundreds of artists, but none can top the grandeur of Elvis's live performance, though Miss Piggy's interpretation will leave you simultaneously weeping and giggling. The third was Fool, a moderate hit single and side one/cut one on Elvis's self-titled 1973 record, which has come to be known as the "Fool" album.
None of these was among Elvis's best recordings, but hearing them or anything else by The King brings back the thrill -- and the goose bumps -- from that spring day in 1972.
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