George Klein. Two words you just know if you live or ever lived in Memphis. Or if you’re an Elvis fan.
Klein, a radio and TV personality - and the King’s buddy - died Feb. 5 at the age of 83.
He was a deejay. He had his own TV show. He made personal appearances seemingly everywhere, including Graceland during the commemorations of Elvis’s death in August. He was even in Elvis movies, including “Jailhouse Rock.”
I remember him as gracious and kind. The first time I saw him was in the 1970s at the old Tadpole discotheque. It was like seeing a movie star. I don’t think I said a word to him that night.
Over the years I called him at his home or work to verify something about Elvis or find out something about the King for a newspaper story. He always called me back and he told me everything I wanted to know.
One of the last times I called him was to see if he thought Elvis ever ate the meatloaf at the Arcade restaurant. It was for a food story. Klein said he never went with him to eat at the Arcade, but he told me about the type food Elvis liked to eat. I think Klein knew everything about Elvis.
But nobody knew Elvis like his close friends Priscilla Presley and Jerry Schilling.
The first time Priscilla heard about Klein was when she was in Germany, she says. Elvis was telling her who his friends were. “And George, of course, was at the top of his list,” Priscilla says.
“The first time I met him was when I went to Graceland in 1962 for Christmas. When he (Elvis) had asked me to come there for Christmas. And we drove up the drive of Graceland and he opened up the door and all of his friends were there that he wanted me to meet. And he introduced me to family and friends. People that he thought were very special. George, of course, was right there among them.”
Elvis, she says, “really thought George to be a great friend. They had gone to Humes High School.”
Elvis and Klein “kept their friends close to their hearts over the years.”
And, she says, ‘And beyond with George.”
What made Klein special? “His loyalty. His friendship. His support. I don’t think I’ve ever heard George say a bad word about anyone. He remembered everyone. He was charitable. He would emcee foundations. He was just a great human being.
“You loved having him around. His sense of humor. His relationships with all his friends. He had so many friends that embraced him and vice versa.”
Elvis and Klein “had their own language,” Priscilla says. She recalls them saying to each other, “You Got it right, Mister.”
Priscilla, who kept in touch with Klein, spoke to him two days before he died. “I’ve been speaking with him at the hospital.”
The last time she saw him was when she presented him his Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Award. “I went and brought it to his home.
“It’s just hard to believe that he’s gone. I don’t know what Memphis will be like without George Klein.
“He’s an icon.”
Schilling, a close friend and business associate of Elvis, and Klein were friends for decades. “He has been my dear friend since the beginning - when my mother was his babysitter and we lived across the street from each other on Leath Street in North Memphis - 777 and 780.
“At Humes High School, George was the president of the class. Elvis didn’t have any real friends at that time in school ‘cause he came up from Mississippi. George was just nice to him. It wasn’t like they were best friends in high school, but George was nice to him. And so right out of high school when Elvis made the record and everything, he trusted George.”
And, he says, the “people Elvis remembered who were nice to him in high school” became the “nucleus of the start of the Memphis Mafia.”
Elvis “didn’t hire like an accountant or a bodyguard or a bookkeeper. He hired people he trusted. Because you weren’t just working for him at that time. You were living with him.”
And, he says, “It was a family. We were all brothers. George was really kind of the glue of all the friends and stuff of Elvis. He knew everyone from every era, whether it was Hollywood, Memphis, early days, later days, George was right there.”
George, he says, “was always nice to me. In later years he called me his ‘West Coast manager.’”
Schilling got Klein a writer for his book, “Elvis: My Best Man: Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My LIfelong Friendship with Elvis Presley."
“I was his friend sounding board. We never had an official management relationship. We were too good of friends for that.”
George Klein was always George Klein, Schilling says. “George was the same George that he was when we lived across the street from each other. He was six years older when I got to know Elvis in ‘54. George never changed. I think he changed a lot of things.”
Klein, he says, was “a pioneer on rock and roll radio. And when he had the TV show at WHBQ he was the first person in Memphis to have black artists on his station. I think Fats Domino was the first artist.”
Along with disk jockey Dewey Phillips, Klein “was right at the heart of it all.”
The last time Schilling saw Klein was two weeks ago. “Cindy (Schilling’s wife) and I went out to the Memphis Jewish Home. George knew we were coming and, thank God, he was having a good day. Which was not a good day normally. But a good day for George. We held hands. We talked almost every weekend of our lives whether on the air or off the air. But we always talked about basketball.”
Schilling became president of the Memphis Music Commission when Coach John Calipari became University of Memphis basketball coach. “He and George and I became really good friends along with R. C. Johnson, the athletic director. Coach Cal, when he went back after the game to talk to the team brought me and George back and we would listen.”
Schilling loved basketball, but he would defer to Klein when somebody would ask them what they thought about the game. Schilling would say, “Yeah, George, tell Coach Cal what we think.”
All the basketball players knew Klein and called him “GK” and “The Geeker.’ He was loved across the board.”
People outside of Memphis knew him, too, Schilling says. “I can talk to U2 or anybody about George Klein. They all know who he is.”
Klein, Schilling says, “never wanted to leave Memphis. He loved Memphis. And he had opportunities out here in Hollywood with the top radio station. He just didn’t want to leave Memphis.”
Then there’s the unmistakable George Klein voice. “Elvis would call it his ‘radio voice:’ ‘Oh, George, knock off that damn radio voice.”
Schilling says he told Priscilla, “I don’t think the bang of George leaving has hit me yet. He was truly for the last 40 years or whatever my best friend.”
Those days when he and Klein lived on Leath Street don’t seem so long ago, Schilling says. “I can hear his mother calling ‘George Boy, get in this house.’ I hope GK hears her calling now.””