Jerry Schilling, who counted Presley as his best friend, looks back on The King
Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling in Hawaii when Presley was filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style, circa 1965 (just before the Beatles visited Elvis in Los Angeles).
There isn’t a day that goes by that Jerry Schilling doesn’t think of Elvis Presley.
After all, he wakes up in a house high above the Sunset Strip that Presley gave to him in 1974. Schilling, 69, says his memory is still vivid of the moment when Presley handed him a personal check to buy it.
“It was right here on this balcony where Elvis turned to me and said, ‘Jerry, your mother died when you were a year old. You never had a home. I wanted to be the one to give it to you.’”
Presley frequently presented friends and acquaintances with Cadillacs. But in the annals of the Presley largesse, a house was unique.
Schilling—who has managed musical giants like the Beach Boys and Billy Joel—accompanied Presley as a personal friend at the peaks and valleys of his career, and even joined him for a unique spiritual quest. He poured much of that experience into helping produce a DVD set, Elvis – The Great Performances, containing remastered Presley concert footage, TV appearances, and rare interviews. It's being reissued this week.
Looking out over the sprawling metropolis below his Los Angeles home, Schilling talks about a Presley who few knew. He was privy to the moments the public didn’t see, such as when the Beatles came to pay their respects, and when Presley experimented with LSD.
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The two met in 1954 when 12-year-old Schilling was growing up in Memphis. Presley, then 19, was also a small-town boy, but his arresting debut single, “That’s All Right,” was playing on local radio stations. The singer still had time, though, to play quarterback in pickup football games on Sunday afternoons. And by chance one day that July, Schilling was invited to join. The two became fast friends.
Elvis’ enormous success on the stage and TV in the mid-1950s made his transition to the silver screen an obvious next move. By 1964, Presley was the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Yet, despite the money, he was dissatisfied. He imagined himself in pictures similar toRebel Without a Cause and On the Waterfront, but was instead starring in musical comedies like Girls! Girls! Girls! and Fun in Acapulco. Weary too of the ubiquitous Hollywood pushers and hangers-on, Presley wanted people around him whom he could trust.
So after an evening at the Memphian movie theater that same year, Presley implored Schilling, then a college student studying history, to come work for him, according to Schilling. Presley was offering the kind of fraternity they didn’t have at Memphis State. Schilling accepted the bid, and the next morning he was on a road trip with Elvis to Hollywood.
Schilling quickly became a key member of Presley’s entourage, known as the Memphis Mafia, living with Elvis in various Hollywood retreats as well as Graceland (Presley’s mansion in Memphis), and he continues to help maintain the cultural icon’s life work to this day. His 2006 memoir, Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, details his many adventures with Presley.
August is an especially poignant month for Schilling and for Presley devotees around the world. It's when Elvis died at 42 in 1977. Each year, fans make pilgrimages to Graceland in commemoration. August also saw the first and only meeting between Presley and the Beatles. The Fab Four showed up at the door of Elvis’ Bel Air home on August 27, 1965, to pay their respects. The Beatles were in Los Angeles to perform their music at the Hollywood Bowl; Presley was in town to begrudgingly fulfill his film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Schilling was among those present that night.
The visit between two of the most influential forces in rock ‘n’ roll history was at first a bit awkward, Schilling remembers. John, Paul, George and Ringo—then at the height of their fame—seemed dumbstruck in the presence of their idol. “We didn’t know who was going to say what,” says Schilling. “And then Elvis, having a great sense of British humor, said, ‘OK guys, if you’re just going to sit here and look at me all night, I’m going to bed.’ Everybody including Elvis died laughing, and that broke the ice.”
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If Presley and the Beatles played music together that night, Schilling doesn’t remember it. Neither did Paul, George or Ringo, though John Lennon later claimed a jam session took place. George Harrison at one point said he remembered smoking a joint out by the swimming pool that night, so his recall may have been a bit hazy. Nevertheless, the one memory still so brilliant that no one present could forget it is of Presley entertaining his guests by playing his Fender bass along with a Charlie Rich single called “Mohair Sam” that was looping on his jukebox.
The next day, before the Beatles’ concert, Lennon confided something to Schilling that the Elvis fan was too nervous to say in the presence of Presley. “John pointed to his sideburns and said, ‘Do you see these? I almost got kicked out of high school because I wanted to look like Elvis. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.’ Later that day, I told Elvis what John Lennon said, and Elvis just smiled. That said everything to me. He didn’t make a comment, but what John said really meant something to him.”
For Schilling, looking back on that night at Presley’s house on Perugia Way is bittersweet. Presley, though not jealous of the success the Beatles were enjoying, saw up close the creative freedom they enjoyed—something he once had but somehow had let slip away.
Neither Presley nor the Beatles could fathom how the inexorable forces of the next few years would impact them. The Beatles came to be viewed as a countercultural force in America, in part because of Lennon’s quip that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Though Presley himself would eventually be known by the rather Christ-like moniker “The King,” it’s still hard to imagine the Pentecostal from Tupelo drawing such a comparison to himself. But Presley's dissatisfaction with his movie career at the time seemed to lead to a spiritual quest for meaning that would ultimately bring him back to his music. As Schilling says, “Elvis was searching.”
Presley famously kept a Bible by his bedside and was even known to lead female fans in studies of the sacred text. When asked if he had witnessed Presley reading the Bible, Schilling quickly answered, “Oh, God, yes. He’s read it to me before, many times, right out here,” pointing to the balcony. “Did we ever pray together? Yes. I think he considered himself a born-again Christian, and I think there was a basic part of him that was always Christian. Outside of that, he also knew that there was a whole other world out there.”
Presley looked for some of that other world at the Self Realization Fellowship, an ecumenical group focusing on meditation and yoga. Schilling accompanied him to its Mt. Washington headquarters near Los Angeles, where Presley conferred with its leader, Sri Daya Mata, and offered to surrender his career in exchange for a life of spiritual dedication. “But she convinced Elvis,” says Schilling, “that he could do more for the world through his entertainment.”
Presley's journey also included reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a 1954 book chronicling the British intellectual’s experiment with mescaline, an organic psychedelic. Schilling said Huxley’s sublime experience—“Everything shone with the Inner Light, and was infinite in its significance,” he wrote—appealed to Presley.
Hoping to discover this “Inner Light,” Presley enlisted Schilling, the entertainer's girlfriend (and later wife) Priscilla Beaulieu, and hairdresser Larry Geller to join him on an LSD “trip.” Schilling remembers the surrealism of the night. “Elvis and I started having an entire conversation just by laughing,” he said. “I stared at Elvis, and he seemed to morph into a child. He was this plump little boy, at times insecure. The more I stared, the more he changed. Eventually, I saw him as a baby smiling back at me, contented as could be.”
In 1960, LSD received Good Housekeeping’s seal of approval as a useful psychiatric drug, and by the time that Presley used it in 1965, it was still legal. But even so, Presley had no intentions of disclosing to the public his one-time usage of the psychedelic. Schilling says that unlike the Beatles, Presley never aimed to make his private experiences a part of his entertainment. Presley felt that with his fame came a certain responsibility to impressionable fans. That position increasingly made him the odd man out during the Vietnam era when artists and other celebrities sought to enhance their authenticity by wearing their establishment-challenging beliefs on their sleeves.
By 1967, Elvis Presley and the Beatles were a study in contrasts. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ celebration of their own spiritual and psychedelic explorations, won the Album of the Year Grammy. But Presley’s private search led him to a different musical expression. He took home his own statuette at that year's Grammy ceremony for the album How Great Thou Art. The category was Best Sacred Music.
Schilling, whose career in music management came later, says that his time with Presley eclipses everything else. For as long as he lives, he won’t forget the man he met playing football so many decades ago. “Elvis was on the leading edge,” Schilling says. “He had no prejudices. He literally changed the world. And he was my best friend.”