Remembering legendary Memphis DJ and Elvis Presley’s closest confidant George Klein
George “GK” Klein, who died on February 5, 2019, at the age of 83, worked in radio and television throughout his life.
And as a lifelong resident of Memphis, Tennessee, he naturally crossed paths with another local boy in the music industry — Elvis Presley. In fact, the two had a connection that preceded Presley’s worldwide fame; they’d attended high school together. As Klein’s own career took off, he was always ready to give Presley’s latest record a spin, and indulge the King’s whims. Such as in 1966, when Presley was driving home to Memphis from Los Angeles. He tuned into Klein’s program on WHBQ when the station came in range, and heard him playing “Green, Green Grass of Home” by Tom Jones, and loved it so much, he kept calling the station asking Klein to play it again. And again. And again. And Klein did, every single time. Klein wrote about his experiences with Presley, and more, in the 2010 book Elvis: My Best Man. The following is taken from an interview with Klein about his book just before its publication, in December 2009:
How did you decide to write a book on Elvis?
Well, I didn’t want to write a book to be quite frank; my medium is radio and television. So when they came to me and said, “George, we want you to write a book,” I said “Man, there’s fifty books on Elvis, why do you want me to write a book?” And they said, “Well, because number one, you knew him before he was Elvis Presley; you knew him in the 8th grade, and you were very close to his family, and we don’t have any of those stories. And number two, you were a pioneer in radio and television. You and [Memphis DJ] Dewey Phillips were the first rock ‘n’ roll disc jockeys out of the South. And you were the first white guy to let Fats Domino break the color barrier on your TV show.” And I said “You mean I can work that into the book?” They said, “Oh yeah,” and I said, “Now you’re talking! Okay, I’ll do it.”
Breaking the color barrier, like in the musical Hairspray, where they integrate the TV show — you really lived it.
Yeah, I lived it. I lived it. You see, Memphis was getting red hot as a recording center. Stax Records was hot with all their stuff; Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave, and Isaac Hayes, and Carla Thomas. And then on the other side of town, American Sound Studio was happening, they were recording a lot of black acts, like Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex and those guys. And Willie Mitchell, he was cutting black acts, like himself and Al Green.
Now, I had a show similar to American Bandstand, called Talent Party. And the station wouldn’t let me put black acts on television. So I went to the program director, and I said, “Look, this is ridiculous. There are all these great acts in town and I can’t use them on my TV show! Man, all I’ve got to do is make a call and they’ll come down and do the show.” And he said, “Well George, you can do it, but your first act has got to be a big star.”
So here’s what happened. Fats Domino was coming to town and I went to see him. And I said, “Fats, I need you to do my TV show, man. I got a hot show going.” And he said, “Oh baby, I don’t do no TV, I don’t do no local TV, baby.” And I said, “Okay Fats, instead of going into a long talk, I’ll just give it to you straight up. Fats, if you do my TV show, you’ll be the first black entertainer to be on white television here in Memphis.” And he said, “Let’s go baby, let’s go! On one condition. We’ve got to stop on the way to the station and get me a taste.” He meant a pint of whiskey. And I said, “Fats, they don’t allow people to drink in the TV studio, but I think they’ll make an exception for you.” And we stopped at a little liquor store and bought a pint of whiskey. And he said, “I’ll put this little pint underneath the piano, nobody’ll see it, I’ll take a little nip from a paper cup between songs.” And I said okay. And when he did that show, he opened the door to all these other great black acts.
What was your reaction when you heard Elvis’ first single, “That’s All Right”?
I was shocked. By that time, I got a radio job in Osceola, Arkansas, and I’d come home on the weekends. So I came home one weekend, and went up to see Dewey Phillips. And he said, “Come here, man. You ain’t going to believe what happened last night. Sam [Phillips, owner of Sun Records] came in and brought me a new record, and I want you to hear it.” And he put it on the turntable and asked, “Who’s that?” And I said, “I don’t know Dewey.” And he said “Well, you oughta know, you went to high school with him.” I said, “You mean Elvis has got a record out?” Cause Elvis was the only guy in school who would get up and sing. And he said, “Yeah, Sam brought it up last night. I played it seven times. It’s a smash.” He gave me an extra copy, and I took it back to that little radio station where I worked which was 50 miles outside of Memphis. And I think to this day they tell the story about me bringing Elvis’ first record in, to be played on the air there.
You stayed friends, even though you weren’t fully in his “Memphis Mafia” entourage, because of your radio career.
You’re exactly right. I hung with Elvis, but I still had the other world, my own world. And he liked that. He said, “GK, you got your own career, but I want you to have entrée with me. Come with me and hang with me anytime you want.” He was happy that I had a career going, and it was something that involved him, too. Because he’d come by the radio station and I’d interview him and get him on the air, and he let me take pictures. He let me have open entrée. I would do all these promotions that revolved around him, and he gave me carte blanche.
It must have been hard watching Elvis’ career sag in the ‘60s because of those bad movies.
I got fed up with the Colonel [Parker, Presley’s manager] about those movie scripts. But he said, “George, my boy” — he called Elvis “my boy” — “he’s done pretty good here in Hollywood. We get a million up front, we get 50 percent of the pictures, star billing, and we get a soundtrack.” And I said, “But Colonel, what about the scripts?” He said, “Scripts? If I’ve got to read the scripts that’s another million dollars.” And that was his answer.
And to a degree, on one point he was pretty good. He said, “George, there are guys walking on Hollywood Boulevard, holding up their Oscars that can’t get arrested because their last movie bombed. My boy gets that money up front, he gets star billing, and we make money on the pictures.” I said, “Colonel, what about the big picture down the road?” “We don’t worry about that. All Hollywood worries about is ‘What did your last picture do?’ That’s all Hollywood cares about. And if we try to change the concept now and the formula that we have, and the picture bombs, Hollywood’s going to blame it on us. We don’t want to be wrong.” And I said, “But Colonel, Elvis should be doing pictures like Steve McQueen’s doing, and like Dean Martin’s doing those detective pictures. Or maybe doing a karate picture or something.” “Oh George, we don’t want to change the formula.” And the biggest mistake he made was turning down A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand. A huge mistake in Elvis’ career.
And Elvis wouldn’t confront him about it?
He wouldn’t put his foot down. “The old man got me this far, he made me a big star.” And we didn’t say it, but we were all thinking, “Made you a star? Elvis, you’d have been a star without the Colonel.” But he wouldn’t put his foot down. And we all got discouraged about the Streisand film, because everybody had read the script, and everybody was all excited. Streisand was red hot at the time, and it was a different type of role that would’ve been Elvis’ From Here To Eternity. And the Colonel just shot it down like it was nothing. It was really discouraging.
Parker had to have control all the time.
Yeah, that’s true. He didn’t like anybody getting control of Elvis. And he didn’t like anybody going over his head and talking to Elvis about stuff. He said, “Elvis is my artist. I’m his manager. You want to talk business, you come to me. You don’t have to go to Elvis.” So we were a little apprehensive sometimes to go to Elvis with deals.
But that night at the dinner table, when I suggested Elvis record at American Sound in 1969, I took a hell of a chance then. Cause Elvis could have kicked me out of his house. He could’ve said, “George how many songs have you written or produced?” And then I’m shut out. But I just loved him so much, and I knew from my heart that he wasn’t going in the right direction musically. And he knew that.
What was it like watching producer Chips Moman work with Elvis at American Sound?
It was cool, because I’d seen Chips work with other artists. I’d seen Chips work with Neil Diamond, and Dionne Warwick, and the Righteous Brothers, and some pretty big stars. It was interesting in that Chips and Elvis were both there for one reason, and that was to get some hit records. And they had to give and take, each one. And Chips was not going to take anything from RCA; as you know, and the book explains what exploded over “Suspicious Minds” [Moman was asked to give up some of his publishing on the song. He refused]. Chips almost kicked them out of the studio.
But Chips was beside himself that he was going to get to cut Elvis. But by the same token, he wanted to get the point across that Elvis had to let loose at the pass, and accept what was going to happen at that studio. And not dwell on old stuff. And Elvis was ready to do that. So it was a mutual admiration society. We told Elvis that Chips was very independent, and he’ll say things, not to hurt your feelings, but just to tell the truth. He’s not a bullshitter. And Elvis said, “That’s what I want.” And I said, “Elvis, the guy is really talented. Now, he’s a little bizarre. He may come in the studio and play cards for two hours, like you used to sing gospel for two or three hours.” And he said, “I like that. I like to warm up. I think that we’ll hit it off.” And I said, “Elvis the studio’s real funky, it’s like a small studio, like Sun Records.” And he said, “Great, that’s what I want. I’m tired of these big elaborate studios where you can’t get great sound.” So it was just one of those magical moments in musical history.
He had good songs for a change, and his voice had a new maturity. I felt that worked well with the sad nature of some of the songs he recorded at American.
It sure did, and it showed that he could really sing, you know. And those musicians, they were ready to rock ‘n’ roll with him. That rhythm section was awesome and Elvis was ready to compete with them to show that he still had it. And when they heard those first couple of takes they knew, oh, this is going to be great. The guys couldn’t wait to get to the studio the next day to cut with him.
He could always rise to a challenge when it was presented to him.
That’s true. He could rise to the occasion. See, he was a very versatile singer. And I know I sound like I’m a cheerleader, but the truth was, he could sing all types of music. He could sing rock ‘n’ roll, he could sing pop, he could sing country, rhythm & blues, and especially that gospel feel, if you listen to him hard you can hear some of that in a lot of his songs. And you’re right, he wasn’t scared to give it a shot if he thought it was going to work.
Why didn’t he go back to record at American?
Okay, what happened was that, it got bogged down in politics, and things got blown out of proportion. And Elvis hated confrontations, and he hated bad vibes. I wasn’t privileged to know why he went to Stax. But Marty [Lacker, another of the Memphis Mafia] was there I think, and he said, “Well, if you don’t feel like cutting at American and you want to still cut in Memphis we’ll cut over at Stax.” But it wasn’t the same at the Stax.
It must have been hard for you to write the final chapters.
It was. It really was. But I’m not upset with discussing the past as long as I do it professionally, in a nice way. Elvis had a chemical dependency on prescribed medication. Which is the truth, but I word it so it comes out nice; Elvis had a dependency on prescribed medication, and he let it get the best of him, and it affected his heart and he died of a massive heart attack. But in the book, I had to get a little more into it. And it was tough.
I told my wife the other day, “I wonder if I could’ve done something more to help him.” I wrote in the book, the risk was if you tried to confront him with the problem he was having and he shuts you out, then you can’t help him. So some of us figured, well, we’ve gotta fix it where he can’t shut us out, but we still try to help him. Like Dr. Nick, he did the best he could with those placebos. We’d stay up real late taking Elvis’ pills out, making placebos and doing things. But I still wonder if we couldn’t have done something more to help him.
What’s made him live on, do you think?
The main thing was his music, the legacy of his music, he left us with a lot of great songs. On top of that is the fact that he was the first, he was a pioneer. And whenever you’re the first of anything, and you’re good, and you die young, you’ll live on.