George Klein — radio deejay in Memphis since the 1950s; host of his own local TV show in the 1960s; and an on-air personality to this day on Memphis radio and TV and on Sirius radio's Elvis channel — has been holding out on us. As someone who knew Elvis Presley since their days at Humes High School and as a member of Elvis' Memphis Mafia, Klein's seen some things, been around — Graceland, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, you name it.
Klein's been treating Elvis fans to stories for decades, and he's been plenty quoted by Elvis biographers. But Klein's never had those stories — including his life story — set down in his own words, at length, on the printed page, until now, this month, in what would mark Elvis Presley's 75th birthday. With the help of writer Chuck Crisafulli, Klein's come out with Elvis: My Best Man (Crown), a memoir with an added subtitle that just about covers it: "Radio Days, Rock 'n' Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley."
And cover it Klein does — from the day Elvis entered Miss Marmann's eighth-grade music-appreciation class at Humes in 1948 to the day Elvis died in 1977. Klein was there — there, early on, on the road with Elvis and there to keep Elvis company throughout the King's career, day or night but mostly nights, because Klein had his own thing going: a prime-time rock-and-roll radio slot and a long-running gig hosting Talent Party (where he introduced Memphis TV audiences to the likes of Fats Domino and James Brown). But Elvis was there for Klein too. He was best man at Klein's first wedding. He paid for Klein to have a nose job. And he intervened (by going all the way to the Jimmy Carter White House) when Klein got into some mail-fraud trouble with the U.S. Postal Service.
Girls? Klein, again, was there for his "best man": to introduce Elvis to female fans for some after-show down-time. He was there too to introduce Elvis to Klein's own physician, George Nichopoulus. All that, and a good deal more, Klein covers in his book.
But what's the story with the book? Ask George Klein, as the Flyer did in a phone interview a few weeks before his Elvis: My Best Man was due to hit the stores, and what you'll get to a simple question is an ear-full of back story. As Klein himself admitted: He's a "high-energy, cookin', up-tempo" kinda guy.
The Flyer: In the author's note to your book, you write: "So much has been written and said about Elvis Presley that for a long time I didn't feel the need to add my own book to the clamor." But now you have, and now that book's ready for readers. Your thoughts?
George Klein: It's exciting, and like the old cliche, it was a labor of love. And I had a terrific writer to help: Chuck Crisafulli, who'd worked with [fellow Memphis Mafia member] Jerry Schilling on A Guy Named Elvis.
But first I had to go through a number of writers. I'd gone to Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, but he ended up saying, "Man, I'm all tied up. Let me find you somebody." But this guy in Boston he recommended didn't work out.
Then there was a guy at The Commercial Appeal. I said, "You think I'm gonna hook up with a newspaper guy who hasn't written any books? This is my life! This is too important to me."
Then there was another writer, a good writer. He said he'd help me if I helped him. Well, he went south on me, man. I called him. But they said he'd had a nervous breakdown. Then they said he was in a "home." He couldn't talk.
Another guy ... We started work, for a week. Then we started talking about percentages on profits from the book. He said, "I get 70, you get 30." I said, "WHAT?" So I called some friends. They said it should be 66 for me and 33 for him.
Well, this guy went berserk on me. He said, "All you're gonna do is sit there in Memphis and talk to me. You're not gonna do anything. I'm gonna work all day and night on this."
I said, "I've been working on this book for 30 years! I've been holding off."
We broke it off. I put the book on the back burner. I thought, My medium is radio and TV. I'm gonna stick with that.
Then, I was with John Daly, the golfer, and he asked me, "When are you gonna write your book, GK?" I said, "JD, I've had some problems with writers." Then he said, "My book just came out. There's a guy ... Steve Waxman, he's my agent in New York. Let me get with him."
JD said he'd gotten a million dollar advance. I said, "A million dollar advance! That's crazy. Nobody gets that." He said, "I did." I said, "How'd you do it?" He said Scotty Waxman had brought him to New York. The publishers came by. And at the end of the day, there was a bidding war.
So: I went to New York. JD called Scott. I sat with Scott, and I said to him, "Why would you be interested in my story?" "Because," he said, "you were there in the early years. You knew Elvis before he was Elvis. You were a pioneer in roll-and-roll yourself. You knew Dewey Phillips. You can bring your own career into it. You opened the door for black entertainers in the South on TV. You can bring in the fact you worked with James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson."
I said, "NOW you're talking."
And that got the book rolling.
And the book was written how?
Chuck and I were on the phone — a lot — with me dictating. We'd set aside three to four hours a week.
I'd been saving all these notes — 40 years of notes. Every time I'd think of something, I'd write it down on legal pads or scratch pads and throw them in a drawer.
So: Chuck and I sat down by phone, and then Chuck would write the chapter. Then we'd submit the chapters to an editor at Random House. Finally, we thought we'd finished. But I'll be honest with you: We wrote the book, but the editor said, "Now, that's the rough draft." We did that three times!
Any problems writing about yourself? Any incidents you thought twice about including?
It wasn't tough. I'm an entertainer too. I can talk, as you can tell. I've got my stories down. The book is a coming-out, if you will.
Plenty of people in Memphis — people who grew up listening to you on the radio and seeing you TV
— are going to be as interested in you as they are in Elvis.
You know, you're not the first person to tell me that.
Your father died when you were young. Your immigrant mother was left to take care of you and your two sisters. What was her reaction to your taking up with Elvis so early in your broadcasting career?
My mother was from the old country — old-school. And at first, she didn't know what to think. She said to me, "You're leaving your radio and TV career to run with Elvis?" I said, "Mom, you don't understand. This guy is going to be the biggest thing in the country. It's gonna be a great experience for me."
But she liked Elvis. And when she met Mrs. Presley, they bonded. Mrs. Presley liked me too. I think it had to do with the fact I was senior class president. She knew I was a good person. That opened the door for me big-time.
In your book, you want to emphasize aspects of Elvis' personality you think have been too often overlooked. His humor. His intelligence. What's the biggest misconception you wanted to correct?
People thought Elvis was lonely. He wasn't lonely! He was bored. When you become a superstar, your attention span becomes very short. I've been around others — Muhammad Ali, Jerry Lee Lewis. If you wanna talk to them, you better get to the point.
And Elvis' drug use?
There were no hard drugs around. I never saw, say, cocaine or meth. It was prescribed medication Elvis was on. And because it was prescribed, he thought it was okay. I wanted to clear that up too.
And you wanted to give credit where it's due: Elvis' skill at managing his own recording sessions.
Elvis was easy to work with. He got along great with the musicians in the studio. But there wasn't a lot of clowning around, and he didn't like anybody bringing in negative vibes. When Elvis put his voice down on acetate or whatever, he knew it was going to be for history.
Elvis couldn't read music. So he'd explain to the musicians what he wanted, and he wanted them to take it from there. Then he'd listen to the playback and talk to the musicians some more. He'd learned from Sam Phillips how to control his own sessions. But he hated rehearsals. He wanted spontaneity, freshness. He'd tell the musicians, "You guys got ideas? Pitch in."
What's been the family's reaction to Elvis: My Best Man?
Priscilla: She loved it; Lisa: I don't know. But before Priscilla did the blurb for the jacket, she, of course, wanted to read the book ... the first rough draft. She said, "George, you left me out of some places." I said, "Priscilla, I didn't wanna step on your toes." "That's all right," she said. "We're friends. We're family."
Times you wish you'd done things differently?
In L.A., I once got offered a mid-day radio show. But I'm not a mid-day guy. I'm a late-afternoon drive guy or night guy. I'm high-energy, cookin', up-tempo. Those L.A. jocks had great voices — real sharp. And on a nighttime show, I could've handled it. But I was scared of going up against those great voices mid-day. It's not my bag.
When Elvis was in the army, I was even thinking of trying to make it in Hollywood. But actor Nick Adams told me, "GK, don't come. This town will eat you alive. It's tough. Hollywood is tough. In Memphis, you've got it made."
You did have it made.
Billboard once selected me #1 disc jockey in Memphis. My TV show, Talent Party, got an award for one of the top TV shows in the South. And, on top of that, when they started the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Priscilla asked me to go to New York to accept the award for Elvis.
The ceremony was at the Waldorf Astoria, and Elvis was the last one inducted. I had to make a speech for him, and when I went up, Julian and Sean Lennon presented me with the award. Julian had on a button that said "Elvis."
"Your dad used to wear that button," I said. Julian simply said, "Yeah."
And then I made the speech. What a thrill that was.
And what an honor for you to have your own brass note on Beale.
That really is a thrill. Gosh, I'm glad you mentioned that.
Girls! girls! girls!; plus, Dr. Nick for the defense
"How could Elvis Presley, one of the most sexual and romantic icons of his time, never have enjoyed a long-lasting, meaningful relationship with a woman?"
That's how music journalist Alanna Nash (author of a biography of Colonel Parker and a book called Elvis and the Memphis Mafia) puts the question in the introduction to her new blockbuster biography, Baby, Let's Play House: Elvis Presley and the Women Who Loved Him (It Books/HarperCollins).
The book weighs in at more than 600 pages with an additional 40-plus pages of endnotes, but Elvis' relationship with countless girlfriends makes this a big topic, and Nash, according to psychologist Peter Whitmer, has "the take" on it — one that's been missing from previous serious studies.
The take? Elvis suffered from being a "twinless twin" after the death in childbirth of his brother, Jessie, which is not exactly news. But combine that with a, psychologically speaking, "lethal enmeshment" with his mother, Gladys, and there you have it — Elvis Presley: "girl-teaser supreme," who was hung up on 14-year-olds, the volume of his romantic conquests practically "pathological." Nash says the man suffered from satyriasis, which helps to explain why and how Elvis could juggle several women at once (five count 'em five women in the 17 days it took for him to film Kissin' Cousins), until, near the end of his life, according to girlfriend Sheila Ryan, Elvis could sit, on the couple's first date, talking baby-talk dressed in a bib and fireman's hat. The next day, Ryan was injecting him with Demerol.
Time to page, then, George Constantine Nichopoulos, M.D., aka Dr. Nick, who's finally come out with his own account of his years as Elvis Presley's personal physician in The King and Dr. Nick: What Really Happened to Elvis and Me (written with music journalist and native Memphian Rose Clayton Phillips; published by Thomas Nelson).
What "really happened"? That's a big question and has been the big question since Elvis' untimely death — from what? A mixture of prescription drugs? Or was his death due to high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries, leading ultimately to a heart attack?
Here's another question: Who is Dr. Nick? Pill pusher or Good Samaritan? No question, after reading The King and Dr. Nick: The man thought he was doing what was best for a patient beset with medical problems, a grueling concert schedule, and a bunch of hangers-on but who happened to also have other doctors in other cities supplying him with what he wanted when he wanted it.
That was news to Dr. Nick when he learned of it. And it was Dr. Nick who substituted placebos in place of the drugs Elvis sought. It was also Dr. Nick who rationed Elvis' drug intake with the help of his nurse, Tish Henley. But it was Dr. Nick who was hounded by reporter Geraldo Rivera; who sat before the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners; who went before a Shelby County grand jury; and who eventually lost his license.
In the end, and knowing now what we know, should Dr. Nick have handled his star patient differently? Should Dr. Nick still be a villain in the death of Elvis Aaron Presley? Yes and no. The King and Dr. Nick makes a compelling case for the defense.