Editor’s note: Thursday (Aug. 16) marks the 35th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.
Elvis Presley can still draw a crowd.
More than 200 of his fans jammed the Ford Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville Saturday (Aug. 11) to hear four legendary songwriters tell how the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll changed their lives.
Presley died at his home in Memphis, Tenn., on Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42.
Telling stories behind some of their songs Presley recorded were Dallas Frazier, Jerry Chesnut, Mac Davis and Billy Swan. Frazier, Chesnut and Davis are all members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The Ford Theater is designed like an elevated classroom, with all the seats looking downward at the performance area where the four songwriters sat — Frazier at a grand piano, the others in a row of plain, armless chairs with microphones and guitar stands in front of them.
The museum’s congenially cerebral Michael Gray conducted the “Songs Fit for a King” session, deftly filling in helpful background information, keeping the songwriters on subject and allotting each sufficient time to convey his myriad Elvis connections.
Among the many music industry figures in the audience were Scotty Moore, Presley’s guitarist from the start of his career, and Chip Young, a regular member of Presley’s studio band between 1965 and 1977.
Frazier was first on the program to speak. He said he was a high school freshman when he first heard Presley.
“I kind of grew up with Elvis, musically speaking,” he observed. “There’s never been another Elvis.”
Frazier noted that he wrote “There Goes My Everything” in the winter of 1963. Country singer Jack Greene recorded the song in 1966, and it went on to top the charts for seven weeks and was voted the Country Music Association’s single of the year.
Presley cut his version of the song in 1970. It peaked at No. 9 on the country chart. Frazier pointed out that he rewrote the song as a gospel tune called “He Is My Everything” and that Presley had recorded that one as well.
“Elvis was a spiritual man,” he said. “He always leaned toward gospel. He loved gospel quartets and had half of them working for him.”
Frazier ended his first round by playing and singing “He Is My Everything.”
Next up was Chesnut, who confessed he was so immersed in establishing himself as a country songwriter and singer that he paid scant attention to Presley when he first came on the scene.
“I was kind of like [Roy] Acuff,” Chesnut explained. “I didn’t understand [Presley's music.]”
A Kentuckian who grew up listening to Bill Monroe‘s bluegrass sound, Chesnut said he was particularly jarred by Presley’s rocked-up recording of Monroe’s signature tune, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
“Elvis was just out of reach and another ball game,” Chesnut continued, playing the complete rustic. “For a long time, I didn’t know who Ray Charles was. When Elvis Costello cut some of my songs, I thought he was an Elvis imitator.”
Chesnut wised up quickly to the ways of Elvis, he admitted, when he cut one of his songs. “I listened to his voice,” Chesnut drawled, “and I got to loving his music.”
That first song was “It’s Midnight,” which Chesnut co-wrote with Billy Edd Wheeler and which Presley cut in 1975.
Asserting that he generally disdained co-writing with anyone, Chesnut said he agreed to make an exception when Wheeler attempted to write a pop music variation on Chesnut’s “It’s Four in the Morning,” which had been a No. 1 for Faron Young in 1972.
After Wheeler failed in his attempt, he asked Chesnut, who was then running Wheeler’s publishing company, to help him with the song. Chesnut agreed and finished writing “It’s Midnight” on the drive back to Nashville from a golf tournament at a nearby state park.
Gray asked Chesnut how Presley got the song — a question that led to another of Chesnut’s colorfully convoluted stories.
“Lamar Fike [a friend of Elvis] had been running Hill & Range [music publishing company],” Chesnut said, “and they gave Lamar a Fleetwood Cadillac to leave. … [After that] he wanted an office in my building and wanted to pitch songs for me. … Elvis was cutting [in town and Lamar] took ['It's Midnight'] down and played it for him, and he loved it. That was my tie-in. From that time on, when Elvis was in town and getting ready to cut, he’d tell Lamar to ‘see what Jerry’s got.’”
Presley cut “It’s Midnight” in 1974, and it became a No. 9 country hit.
At this point, Gray introduced a segment of Presley’s recording of the song.
Chesnut noted that Jose Feliciano has just released a version of “It’s Midnight.”
“I was about 14 and out at about 4 o’clock in the morning,” Davis said, “when we heard [Elvis'] ‘That’s Alright Mama.’ It got me so excited, I couldn’t see straight.”
(Davis recounted this epiphany in his 1981 hit, “Hooked on Music.”)
As it turned out, Davis couldn’t hear straight either. He’d never heard the name Elvis. So when he and a friend went to a local record store the next day to check out this new guy, they asked if they had a song by “Alman Parsons.”
“They said, ‘You mean Elvis Presley? We said, ‘Yeah.’ We sat there and wore that record out until they ran us out of the record store,” Davis recalled. “We didn’t have a dollar to pay for it.”
It was a musically rich time to be living in Lubbock, Texas, Davis remembered.
“About that time, Buddy Holly was playing at a skating rink in Lubbock,” he said. “It was right down the street from my house. I used to tell people you could go down there and skate and pay an extra quarter and dance for two hours and get your ass whupped.”
He said he eventually got to see Presley and his band (including Scotty Moore) playing on the back of a flatbed truck at a Ford dealership in Lubbock.
“It was about nine-to-one girls out there in the parking lot,” said Davis, “and every one of them was … excited. I guarantee you, that night I was standing in front of a mirror [trying to copy you]. What a sound you guys had. … I was involved in [Elvis'] comeback years, but to me, the real Elvis records were in the beginning. Those old Sun Records had a unique sound, and his voice was way up there. I happened to like ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky.’”
“You weren’t by yourself,” Chesnut conceded.
Noting the first Mac song Presley recorded was “A Little Less Conversation” in 1968, Gray asked how it happened.
“I was working for a publishing company,” Davis said, “and a guy named Billy Strange — God love him, he passed away a few months ago — came by my office looking for material. He came in one day and was listening to some stuff, and he said, ‘You write some pretty good stuff.’ He said he was getting together some music for an Elvis movie and asked if I had anything. And I said, ‘Hell, I’ll find something.”
Strange gave Davis the script to the movie Live a Little, Love a Little, told him to read it and invited him to contribute any song he thought would fit.
“There was a scene — a kind of seduction scene — around a pool,” Davis continued. “I had this song. To be honest with you, I’d written it for Aretha Franklin. I had to change the lyrics, clean them up.”
Davis then proceeded to sing the more lubricious “Aretha” version of the song.
“I still wish Aretha would cut it,” he said ruefully as he struck the first chord.
Ever the showman, Davis beckoned to crowd to sing along with him on the “Come on, come on” part — and it did.
“They remixed that thing 34 years later by Junkie XL for a Nike commercial for World Cup Soccer,” he said. “I never knew this stuff was going on until somebody called me and said, ‘Hey, congratulations on your hit.’ And I said, ‘What hit?’ He said, ‘You got the No. 1 record in England.’ I said, ‘With who?’ He said ‘Elvis.’ And I went ‘Sure.’
“It turned out when I finally heard it that they’d been running this thing as a commercial all over the world. … It was the biggest hit I’ve ever had.”
Billy Swan said he was about 14, too, when he discovered Elvis.
“It was the Sun sessions stuff,” he said. “‘Mystery Train’ and stuff like that and ‘That’s Alright Mama.’ One thing I loved about it was Scotty’s guitar and Bill Black’s slapping bass. The three of them were so good. I don’t know if you’d call it rockabilly or pop, but it was like soul music to me. It still is therapeutic when I go back to listen to it.”
Before asking Swan to talk about “I Can Help,” the only song of his that Presley recorded, Gray wanted to know about Swan’s “Lover Please,” which had a Bill Black connection.
Swan said he had some friends who were opening a show for the Bill Black Combo in 1961.
“I rode over [to the club in Kentucky] and met Bill,” he recalled. “Bill liked the group and said he was starting a label and would like to record them.”
Swan accompanied the group to the recording session. Black asked to hear some of Swan’s songs. So he played “Lover Please,” the first song he’d ever written. By the usual roundabout way that songs get heard, Clyde McPhatter eventually came across “Lover Please,” recorded it and turned it into a No. 7 hit in 1962.
Soon after that, Swan moved to Memphis, planning to “get serious’ about his songwriting. There he worked with Bill Black.
“The first place I went to was [Presley's home] Graceland,” Swan said. “I’d never seen it. I started talking to Travis Smith, who was the guard there and was Elvis’ uncle. It so happened that his son, Billy, had left home, and he said, ‘You can have a room at our house for a hundred [dollars] a month. They lived about two blocks up the street.
“So I spent most of my time around Graceland and going to the movies and the skating rink and the fairgrounds. … The first time I went skating [with Elvis], I was skating around and one of Elvis’ guys came out in front of me, and I guess he was going to try and knock me down. But I’d skated, and I did him instead.
“I kept skating around. I just have one eye, and out of the corner of that one I noticed Elvis — all in black — skating around. The next thing I know, I do a flip and I’m on my butt. So he looks back, and he’s laughing at me, and I smile or whatever. I had a pair of these brand new, stovepipe-legged pants — and it just tore the crotch out of them. I didn’t know what to do.
“Elvis was over there talking to [then-wife] Priscilla. So I went over there, and I said, ‘Elvis, I tore the rear end out of my pants. Can I keep skating? ‘ He said, ‘Do you have underwear on?’”
Swan assured him he did — and he went on skating.
With that tale told, Swan sang “Lover Please” to the crowd’s obvious delight.
Then the action shifted back to Frazier, who pounded out “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” a song he co-wrote with A.L. “Doodles” Owens and which Presley recorded but didn’t release as a single.
Chesnut sketched in the background of “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” Presley’s 1975 No. 11 country and No. 35 pop hit. He said he wrote the song specifically for Little David Wilkins, a 385-pound dynamo then recording for MCA but making his living performing at the local Ireland’s restaurant.
“David kept saying, ‘Write me a hit,” Chesnut recalled. He said he personally ranked Wilkins alongside Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis when it came to entertaining people.
Chesnut said he’d played enough “skull orchards” to know “when a good-looking woman walked in [to a bar] by herself, it was trouble.”
Before he could deliver the song to Wilkins, Chesnut said, the always enterprising Fike took it to Elvis, who decreed, “Don’t let anybody else hear this. It’s my next single.”
Travis Tritt revived the song in 1992 and took it to No. 13.
“It’s bought a lot of boats,” Chesnut observed.
Gray then cued up a live recording of Elvis singing and talking about “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” at a concert at Middle Tennessee State University.
Davis, whose turn it was next, told the crowd that he and Billy Strange wrote “Memories” for Presley’s 1968 “comeback” TV special.
It was a last-minute assignment, he said, leaving him just 24 hours to come up with a song. Davis had worked himself into a state of exhaustion, but Strange, who subsisted on a diet of “uppers,” gave him a “Big Red” pill with which to revivify himself. Then Strange fell asleep, leaving Davis to finish the project.
“I never took another Big Red,” Davis said. “I didn’t sleep for two days.”
The crowd erupted with applause as Davis sang the first line from the song: “Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind.”
Swan said he wrote his biggest hit, “I Can Help,” in March 1974. His own recording of it that same year was a No. 1 country and No. 1 pop single for two weeks. It was later an album cut for Presley.
Frazier completed his Elvis tribute by singing “Wearing That Loved On Look,” another co-composition with A. L. “Doodles” Owens. He said he never met Presley but once talked to him on the phone.
Chesnut said “Love Coming Down” was one of his favorite songs, even though it has never been a single. It was one of the two last songs, he said, that Presley recorded before he died.
Chesnut first met Presley when he asked him to go to a movie with him. The movie was the 1973 film, Charlie Varrick.
“We shook hands,” Chesnut said, “and he said, ‘How ya doin?” It was then, Chesnut continued, that he realized that Presley was just a “little shy, wonderful kid. He was simple. All the great people are simple.”
That meeting, Chesnut said, was transformative.
“From that day, I quit trying to write hit songs and started trying to write great songs,” he said.
Then to a prerecorded track and in a quavery voice, Chesnut sang “Love Coming Down,” the refrain of which is, “Another man so busy going up in the world/That he couldn’t see love coming down.”
Davis said he wrote “In the Ghetto” in response to the racial troubles brewing during the civil rights movement. He said he’d grown up with a black friend and could never understand the reasons behind segregation.
“I was going to call it ‘The Vicious Circle,’” he said, “but try to rhyme with ‘Circle.” He wrote the song, he explained, after Freddy Weller showed him a guitar lick he’d learned from Joe South. The lick, he said, is the one you hear at the beginning of “In the Ghetto.”
After he wrote the song, he said he called Weller at 3 in the morning and played it for him.
“You son of a bitch!” Weller responded.
Presley scored a No. 3 pop hit with “In the Ghetto” in 1969.
Following his explanation, Davis sang the song.
Swan concluded his portion of the event by singing his slowed-down and soulful version of “Don’t Be Cruel,” Presley’s 1956 hit that topped the pop chart for 11 weeks.
Gray asked Davis to end the show by singing his “Don’t Cry Daddy,” a No. 6 pop hit for Presley in 1970.
Before singing the song, Davis explained he had been watching an account on television of the My Lai massacre in which American soldiers deliberately slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese civilians.
“I was crying,” Davis said, “when my son Scotty tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t cry.’” Then, as songwriters are wont to do, Davis turned his tragic feelings into a song.
His son Scotty, by the way, was the inspiration for Davis’ song “Watching Scotty Grow,” a 1970-71 hit for Bobby Goldsboro.
“Scotty, by the way, is 48 years old now,” Davis noted.