I was once, just once, this close to Elvis Presley, who was born 80 years ago today.
It was June 1972, a heady time to be in the music business, a time when there were still lots of small, independent labels run by colorful -- if sometimes crooked -- characters who cared about making great records.
As a reporter for the trade magazine Record World, I got to cover Elvis's press conference at Madison Square Garden on June 9, just before his first-ever New York performances.
Having staged a dramatic comeback a few years earlier, The King strode into the pressroom still looking like royalty -- tall, tan, impossibly handsome and projecting an otherworldly charisma.
Elvis was self-deprecating, quick-witted and gentle. He fielded questions about his hair (he'd stopped using "greasy kid's stuff") and his opinion of Vietnam War protesters (he declined to comment). When asked whether he was indeed the shy, humble person his image suggested, he stood up and unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a colossal Vegas-style gold belt buckle. 'Nuff said.
The presser was filmed for TV, of course, and the clip below (at 1:38) confirms how happy I was to have a front row seat for that piece of pop music history. Two seats to my left, and just as happy as I, was Record World's then-editor Gregg Geller, who would go on to a stellar A&R career that included the signing of Elvis Costello, the greatest Elvis this side of, well, Elvis..
"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!" Gregg recalls. He also remembers the role of Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' larger than life manager, in the proceedings. "He was selling pencils -- the better to take notes with. It was a press conference, after all."
That night's show wasn't Elvis at his best, but it hardly mattered. He gave the overflow crowd an enthralling communal experience. He took us from cries of exultation to tears of grief and back again, with a dollop of 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 was the most heartbroken, and the most eloquent. 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 several of my father's songs, including "My Heart Cries for You," which was written with Percy Faith on a bet in 10 minutes at the trotters. It was a No. 1 hit for Guy Mitchell in 1950 and a throwaway for Elvis, something he sang for fun and memorialized on the Home Recordings album.
Also on that album was "What Now My Love," Dad's 1962 collaboration with Gilbert Becaud, which became a staple of Elvis' live show and also appeared on the multi-million-selling Elvis Aloha from Hawaii album/DVD. One time a golf partner asked Dad to name some of his tunes; when Dad mentioned "What Now My Love," the guy replied, "You didn't write that -- Elvis did."
(Portions of this blog appeared in a blog several years ago.)