Flyer: How long did it take you to write your first hit record, "The King Is Gone?"
McDowell: At 2:22 in the afternoon on August 16, I was sitting in my Camaro and every station on the air was saying, "Elvis Presley has passed away." Fifteen miles down the road, I had the spoken part of the song written. That was my soul talking. I took it to the radio stations two days later on a big ol' acetate. I had eight acetates made for $2,800 and I wrote a hot check! I took the single to Nashville, and that night I was on the Grand Ole Opry.
You know the line, "I was barely six years old when I first heard him sing." Well, in 1953-54, I was going around the house singing along to Lefty Frizzell and Fats Domino and Little Richard records. My sister would buy those black records at Randy's Record Shop in Gallatin. One day she brought home a Sun record with Elvis on it. Even at 6 years old, I was blown away at this guy’s voice. I never will forget that in February 1956, she sat me down in front of our Philco television set and said, "You’ve got to watch this guy on the Dorsey show." She said, "You know that guy's records I’ve been playing you? Well, you’re gonna get to see him." Then Elvis came out and pointed his finger at the camera and went, "Ready, set, well, go cat go!" and it was like somebody had poured a bucket of water on me.
Whether you're painting portraits of Elvis, or you're singing like him, do you tap into a similar zone?
Exactly — although when I'm painting, I listen to big band and '40s music. When I did the painting, "Reflection of a King," which is on the front cover of The Genuine Elvis, I wanted that picture to be the ultimate Elvis. I spent days and days on his face and I finally captured the look I wanted, Elvis the King looking into a 10-year old Elvis' eyes. What I was conveying was, "Are you sure we really want to get into this?" There was nothing that kid could do except get on that speeding train!
These paintings all come to me as a ideas. "Reflection" was just like a song — I woke up and that image was in my brain, every detail of it. I'm the world's biggest Norman Rockwell fan, and I posed a little boy in that outfit in an 1899 hotel in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. I set all that up, put those situations exactly how I see them, and then I work from photographs. The only problem with the boy I used is he didn't have Elvis' ears, and if you're a big Elvis fan, then you know Elvis' ear! Luckily, in the movie Speedway, you can see an angle of Elvis' head exactly like that.
With the painting I did of Clark Gable and Elvis on the motorcycles, I wanted it to be the epitome of Elvis in '56, and I also wanted to show my hero Clark Gable at the peak of his fame. The parallels are unbelievable. Clark Gable came from poverty as well. If he were here, he’d say the same thing Elvis did: He was a lucky guy in the right place at the right time with plenty of smart people around him. The bottom line is this: Both of 'em had that "it" factor. David O. Selznick even said, "If I were going to do a remake of Gone With the Wind, I’d use Elvis Presley in Gable's role."
How did you wind up collaborating on The Genuine Elvis?
How did I wind up being an author? Three weeks ago I couldn’t even spell that word! I'm going to have to give all that credit to Edie — without her, I wouldn’t be a part of the project. Once I got involved, I called a friend of mine, Louise Smith, who I’ve known for 20 years. I asked her one day, "They're thinking about a book about Elvis, and you're the last of the Mohicans that has stories about Elvis. Will you give us a story?" She said, "Ronnie, I will be honest with you. That is my family, and I never wanted to tell these stories." Then she said, "Well, in 1951, Elvis came to see me at the Federal Clothing Store. After that it was me, Gene [Smith, Elvis' cousin and Louise's late husband], and Elvis against the world..."
Can you give us a brief teaser about the Two Hairs story you told for the book?
Everybody's gonna think I’m crazy, but I was singing for Elvis' 60th birthday concert in Memphis. I got out of the hotel room shower, and a little voice on my shoulder said, "Look down in the sink." The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I said to [guitarist] Scotty Moore, who was in the next room, "Hey Scotty, get in here!" He came in and said, "Good god, get a camera." The picture is in the book.