Book Review: Elvis, My Best Man
Last week I was browsing through the selection of new books at my local library, searching for two titles in particular: Blockade Billy, the new baseball-themed novella by Stephen King and Jesse Ventura’s American Conspiracies. The absolute last thing I was looking for was yet another book about Elvis Presley.
You see, a few years ago I read everything about Elvis I could get my hands on. My reading list included volumes written by everybody from his the obvious (his wife) to the questionable (his nurse and his hairdresser) to the completely ridiculous (his wife’s boyfriend). Most of the books were simply a rehash of the last and soon I gave up on that reading phase when I realized that I could probably write a decent enough biography of the man myself.
But nevertheless I saw the word Elvis stretched across the spine of the book and I had to take it off the shelf and at least check out the cover, see who wrote it, maybe glance through it a little. Turns out this one was by George Klein, a legend in Memphis radio and a very close friend of Elvis who has more of a right to pen a book on the King than, let’s say Lucy de Barbin (Google it, and yes I actually read her book). But still, I would be lying if I said that the author was what convinced me to actually check this book out of the library. No, the blurbs on the back from Jerry Lee Lewis and Tom Petty did that.
After reading it, I have to admit that I did the right thing by checking it out. For starters GK (the nickname given to the author by Elvis and how I will refer to him for the remainder of the review) is a born storyteller and over 50 years in radio could have done nothing but enhance that. And, believe it or not, I even learned some new things and even those things which I’ve read before a thousand time can sound fresh when presented with the personal tone of somebody who was there. There’s a feeling of sincerity in the writing that tells me that GK is writing not to make money off of the Presley name, but to defend a legacy that has been dragged through the mud in countless other books and other products, far too many of them coming directly from the Elvis estate and RCA (I don’t think, for example that books by Red and Sonny West or even Albert Goldman can possibly harm his legacy any more than the Elvis ducks Graceland released a few years ago; and for that matter I doubt if Elvis would be half as embarrassed by an official release of the 1977 footage as he would be by the widespread availability of both Harum Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins on DVD). And as he says in his introduction, he will not always be here to defend that legacy.
The author met Elvis when both attended Humes High School in Memphis and was among the first to hear him sing in public when he performed two songs for their music appreciation class. They met again when GK emceed one of Elvis’s first concerts on the back of a flatbed truck and from there the friendship grew. There are tales of the wild times on the road in the ’50s or on Hollywood movie sets in the ’60s. Among the most interesting tidbits to me was the story of when country singer Faron Young showed up to one of Elvis’s parties with Jim Denny, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry who had infamously told Elvis years before to “go back to driving truck”. Amazingly, Denny now wanted to work with Presley.
There’s plenty of stories about the generosity that Elvis showed toward his friends, family, and even complete strangers. Tales of Elvis giving away houses and new cars are common knowledge, but a new one to me was when he visited the Shelby County Jail on Christmas Eve just to wish the prisoners a merry Christmas. But his dark side is well represented as well. After all, GK is the one who first introduced Elvis to George Nichopoulous aka Dr. Nick.
And of course the book is literally filled with interesting anecdotes about Elvis’s meeting with various other stars. Like when Elvis’s idol Dean Martin gave him some acting advice backstage at a ’50s concert. Or the time Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips stopped by Graceland and Elvis and Jerry Lee spent the night at the piano. Or the all-night gospel sings with James Brown. Or when Elvis won over an all-black crowd at a show headlined by the likes of Ray Charles and B.B. King. Or how about when he put GK in charge of seeing that Jackie Wilson was “taken care of” after the legendary soul singer fell at a 1975 concert, leaving him in a vegetative state for the remaining nine years of his life.
But what really shone through in the book were the more personal stories. You could tell how much the two men- Elvis and GK- truly cared for one another. Whether it was smoking weed with Elvis and Priscilla at Graceland or listening repeatedly to a record of Charlie Rich singing “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” in Elvis’s hospital room shortly after his divorce, their friendship and the simple stories about the normal aspects of life are what is at the heart of the book. (Not that anything around Elvis can be said to be “normal”- after all, he made a personal phone call to President Carter in an attempt to keep GK out of jail.)
As the book nears the conclusion, the stories become both more personal and more heartbreaking, although there are still plenty of good times (like when the entire Memphis Mafia, including Vernon Presley, gathered in a Tampa hotel room to watch two groupies put on a “show”).
At times the book reads more like the story of GK than of Elvis and that is fine too, because as I already mentioned he is a hell of a storyteller and his long career in radio and in the music business ensure that he is full of stories. We learn, for example, that he was the first person to play Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis on the radio, we hear about him crossing a major color line in the segregated south by pairing Fats Domino with white dancers on Memphis TV, learn that he emceed a Beatles concert in Memphis amid protests over John Lennon’s “Jesus” comment, and read about him hanging out with Hendrix backstage.
Overall, this book was a fast, entertaining read. If you want to read a book about Elvis, you can do far worse than this one. But you can also do much better by reading anything written on the subject by Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) or Greil Marcus (Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, and Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives).