When the Beatles met Elvis in LA, and why the friendship turned bitter
Beatles at backyard party in Los Angeles in 1964, a year before meeting Elvis.
"I always wanted to be this tough James Dean type, but Elvis was bigger than religion in my life. When I heard 'Heartbreak Hotel,' it was so great I couldn't speak, I didn't want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind." — John Lennon
"It was a load of rubbish. It was like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck." — Lennon on meeting The King
Shortly before 6 p.m. on the evening of August 27, 1965, I got a call from Beatles road manager Mal Evans. "Get over to the house right away — we're going to see Elvis."
August had been a crazy month for me. I was keeping a close eye on the Beatles, but earlier I had spent six days covering the Watts riots for my London newspaper and dodging sniper bullets. The rioting was over and so getting a front-row Los Angeles seat for an intriguing "Summit" — of Elvis and the Beatles — sounded a lot less dangerous.
The historic visit was to take place at Elvis' one-story mansion at 565 Perugia Way in Bel Air. Mal sounded more excited than he had been on the entire Beatles tour. But then he added the disappointing kicker: "Brian says no photographers or tape recorders. Everything is off the record."
In fact I later discovered that in a personal note to his assistant, penned on Beverly Hills Hotel notepaper, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was savvy to the ways of publicity, went against type by stressing how important it was not to turn the visit into a press event. He scrawled:
"1. I do not think they should meet Elvis through the efforts of any newspaper rep. It (the meeting) can only be arranged (if they're that keen) then in my view it must be entirely private and unpublished. 2. In my view it is absolutely inadvisable to allow any pressman or photographer to interview or take pictures whilst they are at the house."That wasn't what I wanted to hear, but within half an hour, I was at the Beatles' rented house in Beverly Hills on a perfect night: the 80-degree daytime heat had cooled to the mid-60's. Strangely all the Beatles were nervous at the idea of finally meeting Elvis after more than a year of intense negotiating. Epstein came into the room with a big smile: "Elvis is waiting."
Minutes later our limo with the Beatles clad in light jackets and open necked shirts, pulled through electric gates into a driveway outside a low-slung, gray house surrounded by a ten-foot wrought-iron fence. To our surprise there were more than 100 screaming young women in the street outside Elvis' house.
"We're here to see Elvis," John shouted to none in particular in a jovial loud voice as we approached the front door, which opened before pushed the bell.
Just inside the door was a big, round lobby. Off to the left was a huge living room with a giant (at least giant for that era) TV screen, which was on but without sound. The house was furnished in what I would describe as Vegas Overdone — heavy, overstuffed chairs and faux antique tables, which might have been something you'd find in a medieval castle. The windows were covered by heavy, satiny drapes, and the lighting came from a series of red and blue wall lights, plus an elaborate glass chandelier almost as big as a refrigerator. The stuccoed walls were salmon pink.
There was just too much furniture for the room. The TV, in sharp contrast to the old-fashioned chairs and tables, seemed an odd addition. At one end of the big circular room, which reminded me of a mini ballroom, was a pool table; at the other end, a white grand piano sat incongruously next to a multi-colored jukebox with an Elvis record playing at full volume. The carpet was garish, too, a pale tangerine color. The room had a big fireplace but it was not lit. I thought it was all a bit gaudy, more like the Old South than New California.
And there, lounging on a long, crescent-shaped, off-white couch covered in brightly colored pillows, was the King himself.
He stood up at the commotion that greeted the Beatles' entrance. He looked just like you'd expect Elvis to look. His enormous head of dyed black hair was brilliantined and combed back. His sideburns ran thick and deep down both sides of his face as though they had been carefully glued to his cheeks. He wore a stiff jacket with a high collar over a bright red bolero shirt and tight blue jeans. And he was surrounded by assorted minions — guys less elaborately attired and several young women (some of them teenagers) who looked like cocktail waitresses in a saloon.
It was shortly after 11 at night, but Elvis was wearing wraparound sunglasses, which it seemed he needed to cope with the blinking lights, bright walls and carpeting, though we later learned he had glaucoma. He pulled the glasses off seconds after we arrived. In his other hand he held the TV remote.
I wish I could report that great dialogue instantly flowed between the musical heroes, that there was witty repartee and instant bonding as Elvis and the Beatles swapped rock war stories or exchanged intimate details about coping with life at the top.
That just didn't happen.
The two camps of icons were positively awkward at first, and Elvis' Memphis Mafia — Joe Esposito, Marty Lacker, Billy Smith, Jerry Schilling, Alan Fortas and Sonny West — seemed more excited than Elvis did when the Beatles walked in.
Finally, after a few seconds of uneasy and awkward silence, Paul (ever the smoothie) walked straight up to Elvis and shook his hand. "Paul," he said simply. "Good to meetcha." Then the other three followed his lead, giving their first names only. Elvis kind of clicked his heels as he greeted each Beatle. Then Brian stepped forward, greeted Elvis, and shook hands with Elvis' managerTom Parker and formally introduced his boys to Parker even though they'd met him a year earlier. I thought it all played out a bit like a comedy sketch. The two managers were more at ease with each other than their stars were, stepping back to give their boys the spotlight and the oxygen they needed.
I noticed that Elvis looked a little bit annoyed, surly, even: Possibly, he was surprised and likely ticked off by the small army of strangers (all the hangers-on with the Beatles) who had filed into his house without an invitation.
A healthy complement (maybe half a dozen) of young women were soon hovering around the Fab Four and Elvis. Several were wearing short-shorts or jeans with tight blouses that displayed lots of cleavage and even a bellybutton here and there.
There were no further introductions, although as the night wore on, I saw a beautiful young woman with raven hair piled high and far too much black eye shadow. She was never formally introduced to any of us, but this, we knew, was Priscilla. When she moved territorialy closer to Elvis, he put his arm protectively around her narrow waist and included her in some of the chitchat with John and Paul. Then she withdrew.
Neil Aspinall, the Beatles other "roadie," recalled that he was fixated on Priscilla. "She looked a bit like Barbie doll," he said. "Black hair stacked high in the beehive fashion...and some kind of tiara."
While the Beatles didn't object to our prying eyes, Elvis showed his discomfort by displaying an alarming absence of enthusiasm. He didn't like the idea of being turned into a museum exhibit in his own home. It was a lot like being at the theater with the actors in costume at center stage, but no one could remember what lines they were supposed to deliver or even want the show to begin.
For the first twenty minutes or so, the boys from Liverpool sat with their host on that long white couch in front of the flickering, soundless TV, making some sort of half-hearted small talk. It was pretty painful until George plopped himself cross-legged on the floor, dragging an ashtray with him. The Beatles were given drinks (and refills) of mostly rum and coke as they surveyed the strange scene and waited, unsure of what the protocol was to be.
Finally, Paul took the TV remote and began changing channels. He was amazed at the wonderful new gadget that he could hold in one hand and switch stations from his seat without having to touch anything on the TV itself. But Elvis looked increasingly irritable at the desultory small talk. At last he stood up, took the remote out of Paul's hand, and drawled with mock severity, "If you guys are gonna just sit around. I'm goin' to bed."
Everyone laughed, and Elvis visibly relaxed: "Didn't you guys show up to jam?" he asked.
That was the signal the Beatles had been waiting for. They jumped to their feet, and as if by magic, guitars appeared. Elvis pulled off his high-collar jacket and tossed it to an aide, who gave him a guitar. Suddenly he looked a lot more animated and comfortable.
Someone pushed a large amplifier to his side, and he plugged in, and then they all began strumming like members of an orchestra warming up. No conversation, just Elvis taking over. Wordlessly, with Elvis in the lead, they moved into "Blue Suede Shoes." Next, Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven." After that, Paul moved over to the piano and the unscheduled concert continued with more Berry: "Maybelline," a staple of the King's early live shows, and "Promised Land," which he would record ten years later in the famous Stax Sessions.
It was all music and almost no conversation. I watched, mesmerized by this unscheduled jam session from the greatest popular musical talents in the world.
Ringo, looking a bit left out of it, stubbed out his cigarette and said to no one in particular, "Anyone fancy a game of snooker.
During a pause in the jam session Elvis asked, "Any of you guys want popcorn?"
"I'd much prefer a whisky with a shot of Tizer (a popular English soft drink)," John said with a straight face. "With a cheese and pickle sandwich." Elvis didn't get the joke.
In a smaller study a few feet away, Parker and Epstein were deep in conversation, Then Parker pulled a small, brown leather humidor containing three cigars out of his jacket pocket and offered it to Brian. "Have a Cohiba."
Epstein helped himself to one, and so did Parker, who pulled a clipper out of another pocket, snipped Epstein's cigar and did the same for himself. One of the Presley minions quickly stepped forward with a huge lighter. Both of the managers lit up and began puffing furiously as they walked into the anteroom with a long, gigantic buffet table laden with drinks, a big seafood platter, huge pizzas, cheese dips, bread rolls, brownies and a silver tray laden with assorted doughnuts which seemed somewhat out of place in the elaborate spread.
"Pour Mr. Epstein a bourbon," he told one of Elvis' sidekicks.
"No, thank you," said Brian, "just a whisky and a touch of soda."
Back in the main room, Elvis and the Beatles had stopped playing, and their conversation was flowing more freely. Paul seemed to drive the chat and instinctively gave Elvis the kudos he thought he deserved. "We're all crazy about your early stuff," he told Elvis. "We grew up in England with you. It's our favorite. I wish you'd do more songs we listened to in Liverpool."
Elvis nodded, though perhaps a little peeved at Paul's suggestion that his best days were past. "Yeah, they've got me doin' a new movie every week, only I play the same guy each time singing the same songs," he admitted.
Around 1:30 am the party wound down. But before they left, Parker signaled to two men, who gathered five large shopping bags laden with what turned out to be collections of all of Elvis' records, and handed them to each Beatle and Epstein.
As John walked out the front door he told Jerry Schilling, "I know Elvis can't get out, but we're just up the road and we'll be there for another couple of days. Maybe you can bring Elvis over to our place."
"Sure, John," Schilling responded, "but I knew it was never gonna happen," he recalled later.
And it never did. A few years later the Beatles were infuriated when they heard that Elvis had gone to the White House — and badmouthed the Beatles to Richard Nixon.
And a year after finishing my book and while in Los Angeles at a Beatle fanjets convention, I met David E. Stanley, who was Elvis' half brother. His mother Davina "Dee" married Elvis' father Vernon in l960, two years after Elvis' mother Gladys died.
"When Elvis went to the White House in December l970 to see Nixon and said bad things about the Beatles," Stanley told me, "I saw him leave Graceland and he was totally stoned out of his mind."
And in fact, presidential papers recently released revealed that on the American Airlines flight to Washington DC, Elvis scrawled a hand-written, sloppily worded five-page letter saying that he had talked to Vice President Agnew in Palm Springs and had become a great admirer of Nixon. He asked Nixon to make him "a federal agent at large" to help combat the nation's drug problem. As part of the deal, he said, because of his fame, he could communicate with anti-establishment types — "the drug culture crowd. the hippie elements, the SDS and Black Panthers" — who he could persuade to support Nixon.
And for good measure he also tossed the Beatles to the wolves, declaring, "the Beatles came to this country, made their money and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme."
And Elvis, jealous because he had been deposed at the top of the hit parade by the Brits, and upset after their first movie "A Hard Day's Night" was an instant smash, while under contract he was forced to make three corny movies a year, bitterly denounced the Beatles to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in l971. "The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy, unkempt appearances and suggestive music...."
Elvis got his honorary Drug Enforcement badge and he presented Nixon with a set of guns from his private collection, which he had surreptitiously carried with him into the White House.
The Beatles built up a healthy resentment of Elvis.
And then to add further insult, Nixon angered by John Lennon's anti-Vietnam war campaign, set the U.S. government onto Lennon in an effort to get his trouble-maker deported.