When Jerry Schilling was a 12-year-old, he would go to Guthrie Park in Memphis, Tenn., to play football. Often, there was a mix of younger and older boys. One older boy in particular loved to draw up plays on pieces of paper and execute them. He liked to “get down and dirty” and suffered a broken nose and fingers taking part in the pickup games.
Despite a nearly 10-year age gap, the two became friends in July 1954. Schilling would go onto to play high school football, and then afterwards he had a remarkable career as a manager for the Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Billy Joel. He got bit parts in multiple movies during the 1960s and worked as a film editor, which brought him into professional contact with famed director Martin Scorsese.
The friend released his first song a little more than a week after he and Schilling met and would later become the most recognizable musical personality of the 20th Century: Elvis Presley, the king of rock ’n’ roll.
“I don’t know if I was Elvis’ best friend, but he was certainly my best friend,” Schilling said in January at a conference at Graceland.
Schilling, along with Elvis’ only wife, Priscilla Presley, and others gathered in Memphis in January to celebrate the king’s birthday. Elvis would have turned 85 this year, had he not died from a drug overdose at the age of 42, on Aug. 16, 1977.
Elvis, along with his other contemporaries, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, got their start at Sun Records in Memphis, under the tutelage of Sam Philips.
Phillips eventually sold Elvis’ contract in the midst of him becoming a mega star, and Sam’s son, Jerry Phillips, told Talk Business & Politics his father saw something in Elvis early on. Schilling spent a portion of his childhood and later adulthood in the singer’s company.
“There was nothing in this world like Elvis Presley,” he said.
Elvis released a number of smash hits in the mid-to-late 1950s, but soon the Army drafted him into service. He was sent to Germany where he met a teenage girl named Priscilla. The two became close spending hours on the phone chatting.
When it came time for Elvis to return home, Priscilla said she was devastated. She accompanied him to the airport when he left Germany. Throngs of fans followed their every move and there is a famous picture of the two sitting in the back of a car.
“Elvis liked being a soldier … he did everything the other soldiers did, no special treatment. It was very important to him,” she said. “After he got drafted his mother passed away and he was very close to her … he didn’t know if his fans would still be with him … coming back to Graceland was very strange for Elvis.”
It took Elvis 21 days, but at 2 a.m., Priscilla got a phone call from him. The two began exchanging lengthy calls, but his manager, the notorious Colonel Parker, would not allow him to have a girlfriend to maintain his image, Priscilla said.
Eventually, she moved to Memphis. The relationship was kept a secret until the couple wed in 1967. There have been numerous rumors that Parker and her father pressured Elvis into marrying her, but it’s not true, she said.
“I don’t think people wanted to accept the idea that Elvis and I were getting married,” she said.
During the 1960s, Elvis starred in a series of movies such as “Blue Hawaii” and “Viva Las Vegas.” He was in 31 movies in all. The hectic filming schedule didn’t allow him to perform music and he became depressed, she said. He made his comeback to music in 1968 and he never looked back. She added, “No one approached Elvis before a show … he was intently nervous. He always said every show is different.”
Elvis was a fun-loving, charismatic guy who relished life, she said. He would go on binge buying sprees buying cars, horses, jewelry or just about anything else. During one shopping spree in early 1967, he bought two dozen or more horses, including his famed horse “Rising Sun,” in a little over a month’s time. He even bought personal karate lessons from Chuck Norris.
Many of the check stubs, signed by Elvis, and his father, Vernon, are in the archives at Graceland. Vernon Presley paid a lot of the bills and had a particular habit, referred to as the “90/10 discount.” Vernon would write a check for a bill and pay only 90%. He would then send a second check for the remaining 10%, hoping the person being paid would keep it as a memento and not cash it.
Elvis’ influence can be found throughout eastern Arkansas as he played clubs and auditoriums up and down the Delta. In his rising years, he played in Jackson County four times, more than the one-offs he typically traveled. Jackson County law enforcement turned a blind eye to illegal gambling and that made the club venue payouts for performers much higher.
“He (Elvis) could make more money in one show in Jackson County than he could in Memphis,” said Henry Boyce, overseer of the Rock-n-Roll Highway 67 Museum in Newport. “Jackson County was wide open back then. Elvis only played in a lot of places once. He played here four times. I think that’s significant.”
For the last two decades, the Arkansas Delta region has made an effort to capitalize on the heritage of Elvis and other early rock-n-roll, rock-a-billy and country music pioneers. The Johnny Cash boyhood home in Dyess and Helena’s blues roots are a draw when people come to Memphis to visit Elvis’ Graceland.
Schilling, the childhood friend, said he and Elvis were in Washington, D.C., one time and Elvis wanted to go to the White House to meet then President Richard Nixon.
The Secret Service was at first skeptical that he was the real Elvis when they arrived unannounced at the White House, he said. Agents would only allow Elvis into the Oval Office to meet the president, but someone working near the office told Schilling and another friend Nixon would call in a minute or two and invite them in. Within moments, the call came and they walked down the hall to the Oval Office. Elvis opened the door and greeted them.
“I didn’t know if I was at the White House or Graceland,” he said.