Musicians, songwriters who worked with Elvis share memories, 35 years after his death

Elvis Presley left behind hit songs, epic performances, some so-so movies and an image as a handsome, rebellious, talented and sometimes-troubled artist that remains indelibly marked in America’s pop culture psyche 35 years after his death.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Elvis Presley left behind hit songs, epic performances, some so-so movies and an image as a handsome, rebellious, talented and sometimes-troubled artist that remains indelibly marked in America’s pop culture psyche 35 years after his death.

Presley also left behind memories held closely and deeply by the songwriters and musicians who not only helped him work his magic in the studio and onstage, but also worked hard to keep his music alive today. Many described him as intelligent, humble and generous.

DJ Fontana, Elvis’ longtime drummer, met Presley during the popular Louisiana Hayride shows in the early 1950s. Fontana, who still tours and plays Elvis songs, said Presley rarely rehearsed and always appeared cool.

“He never did prepare for nothing, early on,” Fontana said. “Every time he came onstage he was ready. He never did get really nervous, you know.”

Fontana, studio musician Bobby Wood and others are playing a 35th-anniversary tribute concert in Memphis on Thursday, commemorating the day Presley died in 1977 at 42.

The event is part of Elvis Week, the annual celebration of all things Elvis that includes the candlelight vigil at his mansion, Graceland, on the eve of the death anniversary.

Elvis Week will draw about 75,000 fans. Ex-wife Priscilla Presley and daughter Lisa Marie Presley are expected to attend the concert, which will include live musicians playing along with video footage of Elvis singing.

Also in attendance will be songwriter Mike Stoller, who teamed with the late Jerry Leiber to form a songwriting duo that today is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stoller appeared at a songwriter’s forum at Graceland on Saturday.

Leiber and Stoller wrote an impressive roster of pop, country, R&B and rock ’n’ roll classics, including Elvis recordings Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Don’t and Loving You.

Stoller recalls being impressed with Presley’s hard work and his manners. When they met, Stoller had to tell Elvis to refer to the songwriters — who were only two years older — as Jerry and Mike, not sir.

During the recording of Jailhouse Rock, Stoller was sure they had nailed it on the ninth take.

“He was already up to take 25, 26, and he kept saying, ‘I think I can do it better,”’ Stoller said.

“Finally he said, ‘Where’s that one that you liked?’ We went back and played it and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s cool.”’

When Big Mama Thornton first released Hound Dog in 1953, it was a woman’s song about a low-class man who was “cryin’ all the time.”

Her recording was a hit in black communities but hardly known among whites, Stoller said.

When Presley sang it, it changed.

On the record and in his gyrating performances, the young Elvis portrayed a masculine sexuality that helped turn Hound Dog from a woman’s song into a man’s. He also brought the song to a worldwide audience.

“It still had the same attitude,” Stoller said. “I think that’s what Elvis liked, that kind of snarly attitude.”

The way Stoller found out that Hound Dog was a hit is quite remarkable. Stoller was returning from a three-month stay in Europe on the ocean liner Andrea Doria when it collided with the Stockholm and sank near Nantucket, Mass., on July 25, 1956. About 50 people died and more than 1,600 were rescued.

Stoller was picked up by a freighter that brought rescued passengers to New York. Leiber met Stoller at the dock.

“When I came in and went down the gangplank onto solid ground, he was there at the dock running up and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Mike, we got a smash hit,”’ Stoller said. “I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ He said, Hound Dog. I said, ‘Big Mama Thornton?’

He said, “No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”’

Presley’s career eventually slowed down, and he lost popularity to acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But a 1968 television musical show, referred to as the ’68 Comeback Special, showed that Elvis had returned as a revitalized, handsome, vocally strong performer.

He then went back to Memphis, teaming up with The Memphis Boys, an accomplished and highly respected band at American Sound Studios, on the albums “From Elvis in Memphis” and “Elvis: Back in Memphis.” The Memphis Boys backed Presley on the hits “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.”

Keyboardist Bobby Wood bonded with Elvis because they were both from Mississippi, were from spiritual families and were lovers of gospel music. Presley was born in Tupelo and Wood grew up in nearby New Albany.

Wood recalls one day when they were sitting in the control room and he complimented Elvis on a diamond and ruby ring he was wearing.

“He just pulled it off and handed it to me. I looked and his name was on the inside of it,” Wood said. “I just handed it back to him and he said, ’No, that’s yours.”’

Wood refused to take the ring: “I said, ’I’m just here for you, man, I just want to be your friend. You don’t need to give me anything.”’

Stories about Presley’s generosity abound in his beloved Memphis.

Singer-songwriter Andy Childs, a Memphis native, remembers going to Graceland as a child with his father and brother in 1969. There was Elvis, sitting on a horse near the front gate, holding court.

“He smiled a lot, he looked terrific,” Childs said. “When I shook his hand, he looked right at me. He made eye contact with people a lot.”

When Presley died, Childs said the phone lines in Memphis suddenly became jammed. Residents needed to tell the world that, after struggling with prescription drug abuse, the King was dead.

“You just thought that Elvis Presley was invincible, that he would always be there,” Childs said. “It was just a surreal moment. Passing away at 42 is way too darn young to be checking out.”

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