|A TALK WITH JOHN WILKINSON
By Lee Dawson
This article was first published in the Elvis Express Fanzine over two EE issues Issue 13 - July/August 2003 &
Issue 14 - September/October 2003. Our friendship soon developed and the following year we were the first
Elvis group to bring John Wilkinson over to the UK......Below is the original interview.
John Wilkinson is one of those names that we have heard and grown up with over the years as fans of Elvis
Presley. Since I started the Elvis Express, I have been so lucky to have been in contact with people such as
Larry Geller, Bernard Lansky, the wonderful Uncle Ray Walker and now with John Wilkinson.
It does not matter how many times I get to meet these people, I still get nervous and I never take this privilege
And so at midnight in March, I dialled the number and there I was talking on the phone with John Wilkinson
LD – Hello John, first of all it is an honour to be talking with you.
JW – It’s an honour to speak to you my friend and I appreciate you getting in touch with me. If I can do something for Elvis’
fans and people who keep the Elvis fans together, I am always there.
LD – That’s nice of you to say
JW – Well, it’s the truth, because the Elvis fans is what I live for man.
LD – First question has to be how you became interested in playing guitar?
JW – Well Lee, I was raised in Springfield, Missouri, which is in the south west corner of the State down in the Ozarks, you
may have heard that term before?
LD – No, that is a new one for me!!
JW – Ok, well there’s a lot of Country Music, a lot of Blue Grass Music that comes through that area. Springfield was known as the Queen city of the Ozarks
and a home for Country Music for many, many years, it still is as a matter of fact. Old time Country Music players used to come through there and it was a
big Mecca for Country Music and Blue Grass, and I used to go down to the hills to some of these old peoples houses, well shacks actually, and I would
watch these guys play on home made instruments and I’d listen to them and come back home and I’d pick up my little $12.95 Sears, Roebuck Guitar and try
to do what they do and that’s where I really first started picking it up.
I actually started playing Guitar when I was 5 years old and I started playing five string Blue Grass banjo when I was 6. And then as the years went on and
the Folk Music boom hit the United States, it made a little bit of a splash in Europe, not much but some, people like the Kingston Trio, The Limelighters,
Peter Paul & Mary, all these kinds of groups, I listened to them and I thought “This is great” so I would copy them and I would listen to them, I have never
had a real music lesson in my life Lee, I learnt and still learn by ear. I just listen, pick it up and play it and so that is really how I got started.
LD – Who else influenced you, apart from Elvis?
JW – Many, Um! Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed..
LD – Oh! Jerry Reed, one of my favourites
JW – Oh yeah! The Wild Man boy!
LD – My Dad loves Jerry Reed.
JW – Jerry and I are old friends. He has never changed Lee, he is still as crazy as you ever want him to be and still out there playing. Yeah he is great
LD – You will have to get him to send an autograph of him for my Dad.
JW – You bet, I will.
LD – Cool. Now you say that you have never had a music lesson. But didn’t you actually give Elvis a music lesson once?
JW – (Laughing!!) You heard about that Huh!!
LD – I think it is one of my favourite stories that I have ever heard!!
JW – Well, I was 9 and he was 19 and so my Mother and Dad, bless their hearts, they are still alive, they are in their 90’s still living down in Springfield.
Anyway, Elvis was being billed as a second act, an opening act if you will, for some of the old Country Singers and I had seen some footage of Elvis on local
TV from the Louisiana Hayride and I thought, that looks like fun.
But I noticed that he wasn’t playing the guitar, now remember I had been playing since I was 5 so I knew a little something about guitar by the time I was 9
years old, not much more than I know about it now, but I now a little bit.
Anyhow, I noticed he wasn’t doing anything with it except just banging on it and I thought, you know, one day I want to meet this guy and tell him that he can’
t play guitar worth a damn.
Well, he came to Springfield, second billing to Ernest Tubb and they played at the old shrine mosque which is still there in downtown Springfield and I took
my chance. I knew they were going to rehearse on Saturday afternoon for the Saturday night show and so I rode down there on my bicycle to find this dude
and just tell him and so I did.
I rode down there, walked up the stairs to where the dressing rooms are, upstairs and this was at a time also when he didn’t have all those bodyguards
around. So anyway, I was walking down the hallway and then on the lefty hand side I come across this dressing room, I look in and there he is, sitting back
in a chair with his feet up on the table, with a six pack of cokes, so I knock on the door and he looks up and I said “Hey, your Elvis Presley!”, he said “Yeah, I
know!” so I though ‘Smart Ass’.
I said, “I’m John Wilkinson” and he said “Come on in” and we shook hands and I told him that I live here in Springfield and stuff and so we sat down and
talked for a while and he asked me all about my family, I mean he really showed an interest, and then I noticed this old beat up Gibson Guitar leaning
against the wall.
So I said, “Mr. Presley, do you mind if I borrow that guitar for a minute?” and he said “If you call me Elvis then that’s fine.” I said “Alright, Elvis.” so I took the
guitar and I whipped out a set of finger picks, put them on and I said, “You know Elvis, I’ve been waiting a long time to tell you that you can’t play guitar
worth a damn.” So he looked at me and said “Oh! you think you can play better than me?” I said “Elvis, I know I can!”
So I sang him a couple of songs, and played him some stuff and when I finished he said “You know, you’re pretty good” and I said “I know” so I put the guitar
down and we talked a little bit more and then I heard these footsteps coming down the hall and then somebody, I don’t know who? It might have been Red, I
don’t know? came in and said “Hey! you can’t be in here?” so I got up to leave and Elvis said “Just a minute, this is John Wilkinson and he is a friend of
mine, he just gave me a guitar lesson” he shook my hand and as I walked out the door, this was the strangest thing Lee, he called me and said “Johnny,
you know what? I just know we are going to meet again.” I wished him all the best, hopped back on my bicycle and went home and so that was the first time I
met him, back in 1955.
LD – So what did your parents think about you meeting Elvis Presley?
JW – I didn’t tell them, no sir. I didn’t tell them till around 1969. They would have had a fit if they knew I with with this long haired greasy truck driver.
LD – So they weren’t fans?
JW – No sir!
LD – So, the last words that Elvis said to you in 1955 were that he was sure he would meet you again. When did you meet up again?
JW - The next time that I met Elvis, by this time I was already out in California and I had established myself as a session musician and I was playing in all the
bars in Santa Monica and Hollywood and I was doing some of the local TV shows. Some of the DJ’s in town on the Rock ‘N’ Roll stations and the middle of
the road stations that played a lot of Folk music would see me in these bars and they liked me, so I’d be on their television shows and play, the audience
would phone in or write in and say, you know “Get him out of there” or “We like him” so it just so happened that I was playing the Whiskey A Go Go club on
Sunset Strip and one Saturday afternoon, I was sitting at home and the phone rang, at it was the manager of the Whiskey A Go Go and he tells me that
Jethro Tull was supposed to be performing as the opening act for Jefferson Airplane tonight but Tull had taken sick and wanted to know if me and the guys
could open the show instead?
Well, I said I was pretty sure we could, so I called everyone up and I called the manager back and so we did the show. So I walk through the front door and it
was real dark, but I noticed to the right hand side of the stage, at the front, there was a bunch of tables roped off, there were candles on the tables and stuff
and I assumed that somebody had reserved tables to see Jefferson Airplane?
Anyhow, we did our opening set which went just fine. So, after the show I went back downstairs and changed into my street clothes and then this huge form
filled my dressing room door and I thought ‘Oh! God, I am in deep doo doo here.’ I thought I had pissed somebody off real bad here, you know, some irate
husband, I don’t know?
So I turn around and I say “Yes sir, can I help you?” and then he says “There’s a man that wants to see you right now!” By now I was really worried.....So I
said “Ok, let me just put my guitar in the car! He says, “Don’t worry about your guitar, I’ll take care of your guitar.” So I followed him out to the front and he
took me over to those roped off tables I told you about and there he was. There was Elvis.
I had no idea that he was in the audience and he had a whole bunch of people around him and anyway, he told me to sit down and shook my hand and said
“Johnny, how you doing? I haven’t seen you since you were about 3?” I told him I was 9. He looked at me and said “You told me that I couldn’t play guitar
worth a damn didn’t ya!” I said “Yes sir I did”, he just looked at me and said “Well you were right!”, I said “I know Elvis, you knew E; A and that other cord.”
which we guitar players know is a B7.
Anyway, Elvis tells me that he enjoyed the set and then asked me what I was doing for that night?
I told him, nothing’ the whole band had dates but I could not buy a date, I could not have even got a hooker, that’s how bad it was.
So he says “Why don’t you come to the house with us, we gonna have a barbeque and sit around and sing for a while, what do ya say?” Well I said “Yeah
sure thing” and so Elvis tells me to give my car keys to Charlie [Hodge] and I rode with Elvis to the house. There was a whole bunch of pickers around and it
was a Gospel night, that and a bunch of Country things that he’d learned and we sat around laughing and giggling, singing and all that and at the end….
Well it didn’t really end to tell you the truth Lee, it only really ended a day and a half later and I finally got home.
Then I didn’t see him again for a long time and then in 1968, about the middle part I guess it was, I had been doing more TV shows and I was sitting at home
on a Saturday afternoon and the phone rings, now I have to stress this, all my buddies knew that I was an Elvis fan, so a lot of times they would call and try
to sound like him and try to trick me into thinking it was Elvis calling.
So the phone rings and I pick it up and this voice says “Hey John, this is Elvis” and I go “Right, Yeah, Click” I put the phone down and then I thought, that
was a pretty good imitation and then it rang again, this time I picked it up and said “Yes sir”, and the voice said, “Damn it John, this is Elvis, don’t hang up on
So I said that I was sorry and explained about my buddies playing jokes and he said “Well listen man, I’m tired of doing these stupid movies, I’m going back
on the road and sing, I need that and my fans need that and I want you to be in the band, I want you to be my rhythm guitarist.”
Now Lee, I had never played an electric guitar before and I told him that I was not a Rock ‘N’ Roll player, I was a Folk picker, ballads and stuff. Elvis said “No,
I like what you do and I want you to be my rhythm guitar player if you would do it?”
At that time I had just quit the ‘Kingston Trio’ and I said “I haven’t got anything going right now, yeah I’ll do that.” So he told me to come over to the house
that night to talk about it and so I drove up there and we sat down and talked and when I got ready to leave, Elvis said “John, here is my contract” it was a
handshake Lee. He stuck out his hand and said “I’ll pay you xx amount of dollars and you play guitar for me the best you can.” I said “You got a deal bud”.
LD – And that was your contract!
JW – Yep, that was it. Of course, later on the Colonel set up proper contracts because of the Union and all that, but my original contract was a hand shake
Right then and there he said “You now work for me” so I said, OK man. The next day Tom Diskin (the Colonels right hand man) who by the way was a
wonderful human being, very much unlike Parker…..Tom [Diskin] called and said that Elvis was fixing to go into the International Hotel in Las Vegas and we
going to do some rehearsing and he asked if James Burton had called yet, so I said that he had, he asked me to be in the band but Elvis beat him to it. So
he said, do you know where the ABC studios are in Hollywood? I said yes I do. Well I was told to come on down there at 7:30 and Elvis was going to sing
and have everyone just play along and see what we got, I went down there and that was the beginning of it all Lee!
LD – So it was just one big jam session!
JW – That is exactly what it was, we did things like Little Sister; Good Rockin Tonight; Rip It Up and Heartbreak Hotel it was mostly older stuff at the time and
it was great.
LD – It’s a shame RCA didn’t record that one.
JW – It would have been great. You know, RCA are holding onto a lot more stuff that the fans don’t know about. I am sure they have this stuff in the can.
They keep repackaging things right & left you know, the fans will buy it, I buy it too. But they have new stuff, they held back the Twelfth of Never for ever you
know and then finally they released it. There is other stuff that I KNOW was recorded during rehearsals that has yet to be released. Elvis would often try out
songs that he had heard on the radio or demos sent to him.
LD – When you met Elvis in 64, had his personality changed at all from when you met him in 55?
JW – He hadn’t changed one bit. He was still polite and nice, he was the same fella and hadn’t changed one bit.
LD – Many people who met Elvis talk about how sincere a man he was
JW – Oh he was, extremely so and it was not false sincerity either Lee. He was genuine, he really cared.
Elvis cared about everybody to a fault, he should have cared about himself more but he was more interested in making sure everybody else was okay, but
that was Elvis.
LD – That’s not necessarily a bad thing!
JW – True, he had something that is lacking so much in today’s world. But Elvis was a sweet man, a very sweet man.
If he liked you, everything was fine. You know Lee, all he ever asked of any of us was to be on time, be sober and do your job the very best way that you
know how. That’s all he ever asked Lee.
There were a few in the organisation that didn’t want to stick to that unfortunately, but that was all he asked and be loyal. That wasn’t too hard; by working
for Elvis I am now known all over the world and I will always thank him for that……………..
Here is part two of our Exclusive interview with John Wilkinson from Issue 14 - September/October 2003
LD – Do you recall the very first Vegas show? What was the atmosphere like? Prior, during and after the show?
JW – He was very excited prior to the show and I mean even before we had gone to Vegas. Elvis told me “This is it John, I am gonna show Vegas I really am
a viable talent.” Because in 1956 he played the New Frontier and he was a good as booed off the stage. Vegas were not ready for Elvis Presley and I don’t
think Elvis was ready for Vegas? But he never forgot the way he was treated there, so he said “I’ll show them, will you guys help me?” We all said “sure
Elvis, what ever you need.”
And you know Lee, during rehearsals and on stage he would try and stump the band……try to!
He would just start some song that wasn’t even an A side and say we’re gonna do this and he would expect us to say “Oh hell Elvis, we don’t’ know that” but
it never happened, he could never stump us. You see, we were warned that he would do things like that. Sonny who is an old friend of mine said to me,
“John, don’t be surprised if he whips out a song that starts with Rhythm guitar, don’t say ‘Elvis, I don’t know how to do that’ just do it!
Anyway, we all got to Vegas and checked into the hotel and had rehearsals in one of the ballrooms on the lower level and he would show up bright and
fresh, singing great and having fun and that was the key, he was having fun.
You know Lee, around 69, 70 he was having a ball and I can tell you this right now Lee, the rehearsals were as electric as the stage shows and we learned
very early on, never take your eyes off of him because if your weren’t paying attention you could get a karate kick coming your way.
He was playing, laughing and giggling but he always got his work done. The opening night he was real nervous, I heard him say “What if they don’t like me?
What if they laugh me off the stage?” We all just told him not to worry, it ain’t gonna happen, he looked great, he sounded great and we told him to just get
out there and work his magic and we were gonna work harder than ever to back him up.
Anyway, we were on a platform that had wheels on and the stagehands rolled us out behind the curtain.
Bobby Morris was the orchestra conductor then and he had all kinds of ideas how to start the show and how it show be and Elvis said “No”, my guys will
start the show.
So Elvis is ready and Ronnie (Tutt) starts the rift and then James and I start into a A cord rift and here he comes, walking out, looking just spectacular,
comes out with a kind of a jaunty walk and grin on his face as if he had some kind of secret, you know a kind of “I know something you don’t know” look.
He grabbed the microphone and laid down into “Blue Suede Shoes” I think and the whole place came unglued, people were jumping up and down and just
going nuts. After that first song it was a standing ovation and it took a while to restore order and the look on Elvis’ face was kind of “They really do like me!”
Elvis was on top of the world and after the show we went up to the suite and he was just ecstatic, a bunch of stars who were in the audience came up to say
hi, Bill Medley, Carry Grant, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jnr and such but Elvis was so happy and it was wonderful for me to see my friend so happy and
having a ball.
LD – It must have been great for Elvis after doing nothing but movies for eight years?
JW – Oh yeah, they didn’t allow him to be himself. You know, he picked up a million dollars per picture which was fine but he was not happy. Elvis wanted to
be a serious actor but they wouldn’t give him the chance, the Colonel always said no.
When Barbara (Streisand) offered him a Star is Born he was so excited, he read the script and knew everyone’s part and he had already told Barbara and
John Peters that he would do it. But the Colonel turned round and said no, Elvis asked why? And the Colonel told Barbara “My boy will get top billing or don’
t do it.” Elvis told the Colonel that he didn’t care about top billing but privately, the Colonel told Barbara that there was no way that his boy was gonna make
a movie about a burnt out Rock n Roll singer. And that made Elvis extremely sad.
I remember going to Elvis and saying “Why don’t you dump that S.O.B. and let Tom Diskin take over?” Elvis looked at me and said “I shook his hand when I
was 19 years old and I never go back on my handshake. If a man can’t honor his handshake then he ain’t no man at all.”
LD – I take it that you were not an admirer of the Colonel?
JW – No, the Colonel and I were not friends. The Colonels trademark was intimidation. The Colonel had a gambling problem and so he would put Elvis on
the road or in Vegas and as long as Elvis played the money came in. He was getting 50% Lee…for God sake, which was not only immoral it was flat illegal
and it was all so the Colonel had money to gamble with.
LD – A question from my Dad, Barry.
“Did Elvis look for input from the guys in the band?”
JW – Hi Barry, yeah he asked but it was his final decision on what to do. During rehearsals we would take a break or something and I remember a few
occasions where he would sit with me and ask what I think of this or that, should this be half a key higher or that. One example, I thought ‘Little Sister’ should
have been half a key higher because his voice had matured by then and I remember telling him that it wouldn’t hurt to try it and he said “Ok, lets try it half a
LD – The only real insight, film wise, to you all in the studio is the rehearsal footage from “That’s The Way It Is”.
JW – That was pretty much what it was always like in the studio.
LD – I know there is more film of rehearsals.
JW – Oh there is a lot of film that should be released but they keep holding onto it all.
LD – It just looked like you all had a great time.
JW – Man it was, it was a big party Lee.
LD – In “That’s The Way It Is” as I was growing up. I nicknamed you ‘The Quiet Man’ because you always seem to have this little grin on your face but never
say a thing.
JW – I knew Elvis, and I always kept my wits about me. Just wanted to see what he was going to do but all the rehearsals were like that. The ones that went
to 4 or 5 in the morning at RCA studios in Hollywood were like that.
LD – How much film was taken during rehearsals that you recall over the time you were with him?
JW - There is a lot of film, they filmed a lot of stuff that the fans no nothing about yet. I am willing to bet you that they have got 18 to 20 hours of film.
LD – This is footage from TTWII right?
JW – No, from other stuff that was filmed, including the time they filmed us having fun up in Elvis’ suite talking and jamming and then there is the rehearsal
stuff that was filmed for TTWII, On Tour & Aloha. I will bet you my last penny that this stuff is there in the vaults waiting to be released.
LD – REALLY, WOW……Well we can all hope they release this stuff soon
(Note: since this interview there has been several hours of unseen footage from TTWII and On Tour)
JW – Yeah, before we die cause we ain’t getting any younger Lee. Although, I was the youngest in the band.
Elvis used to call me the Mystery Man, he would say; “John, you’re a real mystery to me, you’re a weirdo.” I said what do you mean I am a weirdo? he said
“You don’t hang around in the lobby patrolling for girls, you don’t come up to the parties very often.” So I just told him straight, I said “I am not here to use
you Elvis, I enjoy making music with you but I won’t use you.” So yeah, I was the quiet one.
LD – What was your favorite song and the most fun to perform on stage?
JW – American Trilogy was just an amazing piece of work that Elvis took and made his very own. The way he did it always brought tears to my eyes and of
course the gospel things. I love the gospel things that he would do.
As for the up-tempo, I think we only did ‘T-R-O-U-B-L-E’ a few of times on stage, too many damn words to deal with on that one. Um! Burning Love;
Steamroller; Polk Salad. You know, before we went to Vegas he wanted to get away from Hound Dog and stuff like that but we told him that he would have
to do those to please the older fans in the crowd and later on he would do medleys of his early hits.
I loved Kentucky Rain, that was probably the hardest song there was to play on stage because of all the weird cords in there.
LD – It’s funny that you should mention ‘T-R-O-U-B-L-E’ because it is 28 years ago today (March 11th) that you recorded that in the studio with Elvis.
JW – I’ll be darned. Was it really? Time surly does fly by huh?
LD – You had been with Elvis since 69 but that was only your second ‘Studio’ session with him why was that? Did you have other commitments?
JW – Yeah, other commitments and stuff! I missed out on those STAX sessions in 1973 but not due to no other commitments. There were odd things going
on with those STAX sessions, you know I was told by Elvis that I was going to be doing the sessions, but then as the date approached I was suddenly told by
a member of the band that I was not going to be doing the sessions and I know why….it was because there was a vendetta against me from a couple of
members of the band, but I don’t wanna go into details at this time. You never know Lee, if I get to know you and trust you I might one day tell you all about
those days. But I learned that Elvis was told I could not attend the sessions due to prior commitments.
LD – You were the only member of the TCB band to play every show with Elvis is that true.
JW – Yeah I think I was, Um! James did too but he threatened to quit a couple of times.
But I was certainly the only member of Elvis’ band never to quit or threaten to quit.
LD – Did Elvis ever talk to you about the threats of others to leave?
JW – Yes he did, Elvis asked me one time “Everybody else is asking for more money John, don’t you want more money?” and I said “No! You’re paying me
more money than I ever saw in my life man and I am having a great time. I have never had to worry, if I needed something I could come to you. I am not here
for your money or your diamonds or your cars, I am here to play music for you.”
He just looked at me, I will always remember the look in his eyes and he said; “Thank you John for being so loyal.” And I said “Why shouldn’t I be after all
you have done for me.” That’s just the way I am Lee and to this day I am still loyal to my friend.
LD – Talking of gifts, what on earth could you buy Elvis for Christmas or his birthday?
JW – You couldn’t, someone would buy him a back rest for his car or a shirt or oranges or something. But it was tough man! We would gust get him silly
things like water pistols, which was a mistake, you know just silly things.
LD – Elvis’ wit and frankness is rather well known. What is the most profound thing that he ever said to you or while you were in his company?
JW – I will try to answer this as clearly as I can Lee! I remember on stage, I believe it was in Vegas, after a show the fans rush the stage and give out kisses
and there was a girl who had made a crown and as she gave it too him she said ‘You’re the King, Elvis’ he pointed upwards and said “There is only one
King Honey” but he thanked her and kept the crown but we did not expect him to say anything like that on stage.
Another time he said to me “You know Johnny, if it was not for these fans I would be just another lounge singer and you would be sitting on a bar stall
behind me playing tunes for me. Never forget John, always take care of the fans, you look after them and they will always look after you.” And that has been
proved time and time again and I always take time to talk to the fans and want to find out about them and what he said to me is still true to this day.
Actually, where in England are you Lee?
LD – I am from Brighton
JW – Oh I know that, it’s great section of the country.
LD – Since starting the Elvis Express I have been amazed at the friendliness of fans and shocked at the unfriendly side with some of the official clubs and
the nastiness of some of the Elvis World.
JW – I know what you mean Lee, it disappoints me too. I see the way some fans are and how they treat other fans and is disgraceful and would make Elvis
so very angry.
LD – I find it hard to understand why people, fellow fans would get nasty over another club. There is enough room for everyone I feel.
JW – Sure, there is more than enough room. In fact, when I was in Europe recently I spoke with several presidents and told them that I would really like to
see all the clubs in Europe to work together so that no one club has to put up with all the expenses and such and you know what they said to me? We can’t
do that as there are some clubs that we can’t trust and don’t know if they would stab us in the back or not?
So I said they are not real Elvis clubs, real Elvis fans don’t do that. The same thing goes for the States Lee, people will try to work together but then
everyone wants the credit. Hell, they are supposed to be here for Elvis and his fans not for they own credibility.
So I agree with you Lee, it is a great shame.
LD – Fans see you guys as their last living link to Elvis and we need to get you over here for them to meet you.
JW – Well sure, you know I don’t lie about Elvis, I tell the truth and if someone asks me a question I don’t wanna answer I will tell them that they are out of
bounds and I don’t wanna talk about that, I am not hiding anything it’s just that there are things that are private between Elvis and myself and I won’t share
some of those things. I will always hold true to my word that I will remain loyal to Elvis and that is just what I do.
LD – Our groups anthem and my all time favorite Elvis song is “If I Can Dream” and I wish all clubs and fans could live by the words of that song.
JW – Aren’t the words incredible! That is one song we tried to get Elvis to do on stage and he never would. It would have been just as big as Trilogy.
We had it all worked out but he never would do it and I don’t know why?
LD – Do you remember the night 3 men jumped on stage to fight Elvis?
JW – Oh yeah! First of all they were drunk and from an opposing karate school and they had been overheard in the line outside saying that they were
gonna see how tough Presley was and that was a big mistake because Red and Sonny were there and Gene Russell who we called ‘Tex’ and I was there
too and I had a fifth degree black belt, so these guys jumped up for their 15 minutes of fame and they got their butts kicked good. Elvis tagged a couple of
them and Red and Sonny got them, which is bad news.
But after he apologized to the crowd but they were standing and applauding and cheering Elvis on.
LD – Lana would like to know what was one of the best things Elvis ever did?
JW – Let’s see. The best thing he ever did was embarrass J.D. all too hell! (Laughter!!!!!) On any given occasion.
No I think it was Richmond Virginia and the fans were really unruly and after Steamroller, 2000 fans just charged the front of the stage and the rent-a-cops
who are supposed to hold the crowd off, just split.
And there was a lady down at the front holding a baby up above her head because all the people were crushing her and if she dropped that baby it would
have been killed and so Elvis looked over to Ed Parker and told him to do something, so Ed grabs the baby and sticks it under his arm, you know big ol’ Ed,
the baby couldn’t be safer anywhere and he pulled the lady behind him and the state troops arrived and they and Elvis’ guys managed to push the crowd
back and once they got everyone settled down, Elvis looked at this lady and said “Lady, I appreciate you liking my music but your baby could have been
killed because you wanted a kiss.” He then gave a scarf to Ed and told him to give it to the lady and then said to her “Don’t ever do that again” but he
recognized what was going on and kept his cool.
LD – Cathy would like to know who decided on the outfits the band would wear for each show?
JW – Ronnie Tutt was in charge, he had a list of the outfits that Elvis would wear and lets say Elvis would wear the Peacock Suit, beautiful suit, and so
Ronnie would say light blue suit and white boots.
LD – Did anyone ever mess up and arrive put on the wrong outfit?
JW – Oh yeah! it happened but fortunately there was enough time for that person, and gosh I could mention his name, who got his days mixed up to go and
LD – What was Elvis sense of humour like?
JW – (Laughter) Wicked and Sick!
This will show you his sense of humour. It was in Vegas and I am not sure of the year but it was while it was still called the International, I think it was our
second year there but I am not sure.
Elvis and the boys had been upstairs and shooting water pistols at the guards and everybody all afternoon. Well, then it was time for the show and we’re on
the band cart and ready to go, we all start playing the intro and Elvis comes walking out from my side and with all the lights and stuff it was sometimes pretty
hard to see properly but I could see that he had something in his left hand but can’t make out what it is and as he gets directly in front of me I see it’s a
damn water pistol and he shoots square in the middle of my guitar. Now Lee it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what happens when you mix water with
LD – Fizzzzzz!
JW – Exactly, there was a blue light that went from my fingers and up through the strings. It knocked me back and I looked at him and said “Why did you do
that?” and he said to me “Cos’ I have a water pistol and you don’t, ner! ner!”. After the show he asked if I was okay, but he just had some fun.
Sometimes a female fan would throw her panties on stage and he would pick them up and put them on J.D.’s head or something. Elvis loved practical jokes
and he had a great sense of humour.
LD – What would make Elvis angry?
JW – People not paying attention on stage, not having rehearsed their parts right.
He would get on at the singers a little about that.
LD – Elvis and J.D. seemed to have a great time together.
JW – Oh, Lee he loved J.D. they were a riot together. You know, Elvis looked at J.D. like he was his second Daddy well of course we all looked at J.D. as our
Anyway, you see, Elvis was a perfectionist and he demanded perfection cos he felt he had the very best musicians and singers the world had to offer and
he expected 100% and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that at all.
Now, Tom Jones, Tom and I are old friends but Tom is not that much of a perfectionist, he really isn’t.
That’s not to say Tom’s not a great artiste, he is but he is not the perfectionist that Elvis was.
Elvis knew exactly what he wanted to hear at all times, he would work things out on the piano at home or in the studio and he would bring the singers over
and say “Here listen, this is what I want, this is what I feel” and he would sing everybody’s part but everybody worked with Elvis in that respect Lee.
You know we would say “Elvis, you tell us what you want and that’s what we’ll strive to get to for you, and if you don’t hear it the first time, stop, let us know
and we’ll fix it right there.”
Elvis told me one time when I first started with him, I said “Elvis I hope you haven’t made a mistake, I’ll do the best I can for you” and he said “Listen Johnny,
if your worried about making a mistake, make sure you make the mistake good and loud so that you know where it is so when it comes round again you can
lay an ambush for the S.O.B. and that will be it”. [Laughter!!!]
Oh I got to tell you this; I was playing ‘Early Morning Rain’ in Lake Tahoe, and I was playing the opening of it and I broke a string, Now, Elvis stopped the
show and said to me “Johnny, you know you played better when you were 9 years old” so I restrung the guitar and we did the song again. That was in front
of the whole audience, made me look like an idiot. [Laughter!!!]
LD – When did you start to realise that something was wrong with Elvis?
JW – Okay! the first indication that I personally saw was in 1974 at College Park, Maryland and when he came out on stage and looked bloated and his
eyes didn’t look right and as he walked out between me and Kathy (Westmoreland) I looked at Kathy and asked “What’s happened?” and she looked like ‘I
Don’t know?’ Well it was the water retention, which really did account for a lot of his bloating, it really did and of course his impacted colon, but in 74’ is when
we all thought “Something’s not right”.......It was sad to see because by 1974, he wasn’t having fun anymore.
LD – I guess all the touring had become like the movies to him as it became repetitive. He should have been touring the world.
JW – Lee, Elvis wanted to go to Europe so bad and he realised the value of his European fans and he really did want to go to Europe more than anything
but the Colonel couldn’t get a passport.
LD – So why couldn’t the Colonel stay in America and Tom Diskin take care of things in England or where ever?
JW – You are kidding?........Elvis would have found out that Parker wasn’t as badly needed as he thought he was. It’s a real sad thing, I know the value of
coming to Europe, and there can be no better boost for your ego or your career than when the European fans say “We want you to come over”.
LD – Well I can tell you now John that as soon as we can afford it, you will be on your way over to us.
JW – I would love to Lee I really would love to. Just let me know and I will be there. Lee, in your email you told me that you were not affiliated with EPE is
LD – No we are not
JW – You say you are not with EPE in anyway shape or form?
LD – No, I don’t personally agree with them
JW – GOOD, then you and I are friends. You see EPE and I are not friends. I told them I will not be a part of something that rips off the fans. The fans are
my friends and you hurt my friends, you hurt me.
LD – I think Jack Soden (CEO of EPE) is proof that Elvis is dead.
JW – Oh yes, isn’t Jack just wonderful (laughing).
LD – I sent him an application form to join the fanzine once!
JW – Did you really (laughing) that’s cold man, I love it! I don’t know how many of the American fan clubs they have reinstated after they took away their
official status of clubs that wouldn’t give them their member’s names, addresses and phone numbers.
LD – In England that is illegal you see, it breaks the data protection act.
JW – Well it’s illegal here too. That’s invasion of privacy. In fact the Blue Hawaiians fan club is run by a wonderful lady and she flat refused and told EPE
that her members have put a certain trust in me, she had their private details and she told EPE that she will not give that information out.
So they promptly took her status as an official club away from her, I have heard that EPE have reinstated some of those clubs but I am not sure?
LD – So they should, no one can demand that someone must break the law.
JW – I don’t like what they have done to Graceland. I don’t like what Priscilla has done to Graceland.
I have been in the house several times since Elvis died and it is not the same as it was when he lived there. Ok, it’s a fact that Elvis was an interior designer’
s nightmare but he decorated that house and it should have been left that way regardless of the colour. But Priscilla wanted this changed because she
thought it looked like hell, well tough. That’s the way Elvis liked it and that is the way it should have stayed.
LD – There is talk of opening up the upstairs of Graceland which I disagree with totally. I have no wish to see where Elvis died and anyway the upstairs was
his private domain and should remain just that.
JW – Who wants to see where he died for Christ sake, it’s a bathroom with a couple of nice easy chairs and such, I have no desire to go back up there and
anyone who does is really very sick, that’s not an Elvis fan. You know, the first time I went back to Graceland after Elvis died, Patsy Anderson, do you know
LD – I do, a lovely lady
JW – She’s a sweetheart. Anyway we were in the dinning room and there were some other people there and I said “Patsy, you know this room don’t look the
same” and she said I know it’s been redecorated and stuff so I said no I mean the chandelier don’t look right without the spaghetti and mash potato hanging
off of it (Laughter).
LD – Staying at Graceland. In February and October 76, the Jungle Room sessions took place. Now the room does look that big, how did you all get in their?
JW – The room was gutted and all that was left in there were these folding type camp chairs for us to sit in but there really was a lot more room that it looks.
I know what you mean, there were 10 to 15 people with equipment and it was a little crowded but we got the job done.
LD – There are stories about the Jungle room sessions and that Elvis was impossible to work with and unpredictable. You were there, how true is this?
JW – He was not, he was not happy with the sound that RCA was doing with the sound truck out back in the back yard, he didn’t like the sound and Elvis got
really p***ed of with it to tell you the truth Lee and he went upstairs and we didn’t leave because we had known him to do this before and come back when
he had calmed down a bit.
Well he came back down with a AK-47 and a 12 gage pump action shot gun and said he was going to blow those speakers all to hell and then he said he
was going after the engineer too [Brian Christian]. Well, we calmed him down and the session went on but it was not very productive.
He would tell them to play back a recording and he would say “That’s Sh*t, that’s what we gonna send to New York for those old ears to get hold of, No! Now
cant you guys in the truck do anything right?”
Now the poor engineer in the truck didn’t know what he was up against and there was the producer [Felton Jarvis] trying to calm him down and Elvis was
demanding better speakers and a new engineer or he would tell RCA to stick it and sign with White Whale or something. [Note: The Engineer was replaced
for the October sessions with Mike Moran]
He had his temper tantrums, just like everyone else, but he was a perfectionist and he wanted that but wasn’t getting it. I have heard this kind of story
before but he was no way impossible to work with and I tell them, I was there, you were not!
In the 9 and a-half years I was with him, he was never impossible to work with.
One of Lamar Fikes jobs was to get out there and beat the bushes and find new material for Elvis. He did find some stuff but it was usually pretty awful stuff,
so Lamar was just taking him for a ride like so many others, getting paid for doing nothing.
LD – A personal question, on ebay recently there was the TCB that Elvis gave to Lamar Fike which was being sold. Do you still have yours.
JW – I am wearing it right now. The TCB is my most prized possession. I have rings and bracelets from Elvis all that stuff but my TCB will go with me to the
grave. The real TCB’s were 14ct Gold and Lamar doesn’t deserve to wear one anyway.
LD – This is the question I don’t like to put to those close to Elvis so please excuse me.
What are your memories of August 16th?
JW – Oh lord! Bare with me on this one Lee okay! We were in a plane on our way to Portland, Maine to open up the next concert tour.
All the L.A. people were on the plane and we stopped in Las Vegas to pick up Joe Guercio and his people and then we were on our way to Portland. As we
were approaching a place called Pablo, Colorado, the pilot comes over the intercom and tells us that we have to set down, we gotta check the plane.
I thought that it was weird because the plane we were on could easily make it from coast to coast without stopping for fuel. Anyway we landed and we were
told the we could all get off the plane and stretch our legs so we all got off.
Then somebody from the tower came over and said that there was a message for Marty Herral. Marty was the lead trombone player for the Joe Guercio
Orchestra and a good friend of all of ours and he was one of only 3 of the Orchestra that had a TCB.
Anyway Marty follows the guy to the tower, Marty comes back and didn’t look good at all, we all thought lord! has his Dad died or Mum? And anyway, Marty
went to the top of the stairs leading to the plane and tells us to gather around.
He then said “I am sorry to be the one to have to tell you this but Elvis died this morning” Well, hell, we were all crying and I remember saying “How dare he
die, Elvis Presley can’t die, he may retire but he don’t die”
So we all got on the plane and got out the Scotch or whatever and drank our way back to Vegas and let those people off and the rest of us went back to L.A.
Once I got back I called my girlfriend at the time and told her to pick us up and she said “I know, I heard it on the news.” and so I got home and called
Burbank Airport and chartered a plane to Memphis, I just wanted to be of some help to the family and so I was there for the funeral but nobody knew it, I just
wanted to be there to be of some service to Vernon or the family but that day was the worst day of my life, because my friend was dead……..
[Phone goes silent for a few moments, with just small slight noises being made]
LD – Are you okay John?
JW – You know what Lee, when I heard that Ginger hadn’t even checked on him, I got really pissed off……
LD – As far as you know, what is the truth about Elvis and Ginger Alden getting married?
JW – NO WAY!!!! She was on her way out. He [Elvis] was tired of her asking for money all the time and all this stuff about he was going to get her mother a
house and all that kind of thing is total Bull.
She was on her way out, she was to be gone in a couple of days, it was a case of pack your bags and get out B**ch.
LD – So that’s no to the marriage then huh [Laughter]
JW – Hell right, you see, Elvis gave me diamond rings but I wasn’t going to marry him (laugh) that is trash, it was not going to happen. She was a gold
digger who wanted to get all she could out of him.
LD – There were too many gold diggers
JW – There certainly were. Lee, your gonna have a phone bill that’s gonna break you for the next ten years. We have talked for over an hour and a half.
LD – Man, I am sorry!
JW – Hey it don’t bother me, I am really happy to talk to you. I just don’t wanna see your phone bill that’s all (laughing)
LD – I’m glad Lana is in bed (1:30 am) – LAUGHTER!!!! Did Elvis ever talk with you about the book by Red, Sonny and Dave Hebler?
JW – Yes he did and he was very hurt by that but he didn’t really know all the facts. He assumed they had put the book together the way it came out and
that is not right. Sonny and Red had planned to write a book and did write a book but the version that you saw and I saw and the world saw is not what Red
and Sonny had in mind at all.
That was Dave Hebler, and Dave was the one that got hold of that Steve what ever the hell his name was from the National Enquirer. The thing with the girl
and the pool cue, where Elvis hit the girl in the chest with the pool cue? They don’t tell you that the girl was drunk and breaking things in the house and
running around and they don’t tell you that when Elvis came down stairs to see what was going on, she cussed at him and treated him terribly and that she
took a swing at him and in defence he pushed her back but the book makes it sound like he attacked her which is not what happened.
I had a long talk with Sonny and he told me that it was not their idea for the book to come out like it did. It was Hebler that dug the dirt.
LD – Did Elvis ever see the users?
JW – Yeah, he knew he was being used by some and that hurt him a lot. So many people who had been there for so long were just there with their hands
Then he would meet somebody like me or Jerry or Kathy who didn’t want nothing except to be paid for what we did but we didn’t want anything else.
You know, I turned down a car from him and it damn near broke his heart. He said “Nobody has ever turned down a gift from me” so I said “Well I do, I just
bought a new car Elvis, I don’t need a new car man”. That’s the kind of friendship we had, it was one of trust and love.
LD – John, I am gonna let you go now….
JW – Hey my friend, thank you for taking the time to talk to me and thank you for becoming friends with me and I hope I will hear some more from you on
email. I sent you my home address didn’t I?
LD – You sure did and I will be sending you some issues of our little fanzine.
JW – Would you, that’ll be great and I hope we can meet in person real soon.
Send my love to your wife and to your family and all the fans out there. Talk soon my friend.
LD – Thank you John.
[Note: Since this interview took place, John came over to Brighton, UK where he took part in the first documentary to be made on his life. The now highly
sort after DVD release ‘John Wilkinson: My Life With Elvis’.
John and I have become good friends and we welcomed him into our home in 2004 where he joined us for a family Sunday roast dinner and we hung out for
7 days talking, drinking and having a great time. John really is a wonderful, kind and loyal friend and I am honoured and privileged to be able to call him one
of my closest and dearest friends.]
First published 2003 copyright, Elvis Express & Elvis Express Radio
All articles submitted to the Elvis Express are granted permanent permission to be featured on any media as used by Elvis Express Radio.
|Cover art to the rare DVD release of the documentary, 'John Wilkinson: My Life With Elvis'
Released by the Elvis Express in 2004.
|John Wilkinson & Lee Dawson during filming for the documentary
the phone with John Wilkinson.
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