"I was barely six years old when I first heard him sing, but somehow I knew from that moment on that it would be a lifetime thing." Driving down a Tennessee highway in a '77 Camaro on a sweltering August afternoon, McDowell was floored with the awful news of Elvis Presley's demise.
Pulling over to the side of the road to collect his thoughts, inspiration fortuitously struck, and the handsome, struggling songwriter composed his debt of gratitude to the King of Rock 'N' Roll in the form of "The King Is Gone," a tribute released in the immediate aftermath of his musical idol's death on a miniscule independent record label that went on to sell a staggering six million copies.
Realizing the potential of being saddled as an Elvis imitator was on the imminent horizon if he didn't instigate a career overhaul, McDowell refused management's questionable advice to don a tacky jumpsuit and forged a path based on his own merits as a songwriter, releasing the Top 5 "I Love You, I Love You, I Love You" four scant months later. McDowell did agree to provide Presley's singing voice on a slew of TV and film soundtracks in the ensuing years.
Between 1977 and 1990, the melodic song interpreter scored 27 Top 40 singles on Billboard's country chart. Fourteen of those vaulted into the Top Ten, including such perennial stalwarts as "Wandering Eyes," "Older Women," "Watchin' Girls Go By," "Step Back," "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation," "You Made a Wanted Man of Me," and "It's Only Make Believe," a rollicking duet with the originator himself, Conway Twitty.
Although the hits stopped coming years ago when a dynamic crop of young guns guided by Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black captured the public's imagination and record label personnel grew unwilling to actively market their artist's singles, McDowell genuinely remains optimistic about the future of his career. His confident do-it-yourself mentality eschews a regrettable tradition followed by many of his peers—he records and writes new music at a prolific pace.
Speaking of his latest single, "A Single Woman," McDowell declares that "it’s not that big of a deal for me to go out and get a hit at age 64. Now, a lot of people would think it’s the hardest thing in the world, but it’s not really. Especially if you strike a nerve.”
A proud road warrior and entertainer, McDowell keeps his fans salivating by touring upwards of 75 shows per year, performing a handful of dates each month. So dig in your heels and relax for a spell as the natural-born raconteur takes over the narrative in irresistible fashion.
The Ronnie McDowell Interview
Where were you born?
While I grew up in Portland, Tenn., I was actually born in a little place called Fountain Head, Tenn. I went up there recently where the old hospital was where I was born. Unfortunately, the building is not there anymore. Back then it was called the Highland Sanitarium. That’s what all hospitals were called. It was actually the hospital for the whole county. My son, Ronnie Dean, and daughter, Athena, were both born there—in the same room. But it’s gone now. It’s kind of sad.
I’m dating a very beautiful girl named Jamie who makes me happy. I live in Hendersonville—which is about 17 miles north of Nashville—since about 1988. Along with my dog and cat, I’m living in this big monstrosity house that I built for resale but in 2008 the bottom fell out.
Did your parents, Howard and Georgia Mae McDowell, live long enough to see you achieve your dreams?
Oh yeah. Daddy was born in 1910, so he was only 67 years old when I had “The King Is Gone” in 1977. Only three years older than I am now. Daddy got to see “Older Women.” He even lived to hear my final hit, “Unchained Melody,” in 1990. He saw my whole career progress.
Coming up during the Great Depression like Daddy did—then having a son that would have a No. 1 record—you can imagine he was real proud. My mother was, too. My mother was one of those mothers that had 11 kids— I’m the seventh son—and she was proud of all of us. She loved and treated all of us like we were all one big baby.
My mother died of smoking, even though she didn’t smoke. It was secondhand. My little brother passed away in 2011 from it. He was the worst smoker on the planet. I hate cigarette smoke. I never have understood that concept of sucking smoke into your lungs. That’s my biggest pet peeve in the whole wide world.
How did you start writing songs?
When I was stationed in Vietnam, I would compose music on my guitar. I wish I owned it today. I still compose on guitar. I also have an old Player piano at home that I play on all the time just for fun.
The weird thing about it is that I saved my notebook with all those original songs that I composed. You oughta see some of the titles—“I Love You,” “The Sky Is Blue,” etc. But you gotta start somewhere [laughs].
In 1970 I was transferred to Adak, Alaska. I recorded a song called “Baby I Love You” in a church. The preacher got mad and said, “I don’t think you boys need to be recording in a church doing secular music.” The reason we chose the church was ‘cause it had this big boomy sound. Fortunately, we got the song finished before he ran us out [laughs].
I just made up my own record company and released “Baby I Love You” as a single. It was a one-off type deal. I’ve only got about six of them left on 45s. I can see it right now—the label consists of a yellow circle with red lettering.
I got out of the Navy in May 1972. As soon as I got home, I started writing songs and going to Nashville. I had my first song recorded not long afterwards by a guy named Gene Nash. He was on Chart Records, and I still have Gene’s record of “I Like It” framed. I’m so glad that I kept those things. Jean Shepard [“The Real Thing;” No. 85 C&W, Shepard’s final charting Billboard single in April 1978 on Scorpion Records], Porter Wagoner [“Dear Dad”], Billy Walker, the Wilburn Brothers, and Roy Drusky also recorded my songs. I was just having fun writing songs.
Incidentally, Roy gave me my first A-side, “Deep in the Heart of Dixie” [Author’s Note: Released in September 1976 on Scorpion Records, the same label that would sign McDowell the following year. Drusky’s version failed to chart on Billboard]. You can go on YouTube and listen to it.
“Deep in the Heart of Dixie” is a beautiful song, even if I did write it. Roy did such a great job. As a matter of fact, I’m singing harmony with him on the record. My nephew Jody, who plays keyboards and sings backing vocals in my band, recently came to me and said, “Check this video out.” I hadn’t listened to Drusky’s rendition in over 35 years, but it was just like yesterday.
I can write in most any situation, even when I’m on the road. I’ve never been a fan of those factory-made songs. I must have inspiration of some sort.
Is it true you were broke when you recorded “The King Is Gone” in the immediate aftermath of Elvis Presley’s untimely demise?
I wasn’t really broke. I was just a working boy earning a living in clubs around Bowling Green, Ky., six nights a week, five shows a night. Of course, I was also having fun writin’ songs for other artists.
On Aug. 16, 1977, I was driving down the road in my ’77 Camaro. I know the exact spot where I was at. I turned the radio on, and it was 2:22 in the afternoon. This deejay goes, “It’s official—Elvis Presley has passed away.” That shocked me beyond belief. I turned the dial to one station after another—I don’t care if it was sports, talk, jazz, or R&B—and they were all talking about Elvis’ demise.
Before I got 15 miles down the road, I was writing, “I was barely six years old when I first heard him sing. Somehow I knew from that moment on it would be a lifetime thing.” I didn’t know it at the time but I was literally writing my life because that’s the truth.
I went into a Nashville studio two days later. A friend of mine named Lee Morgan was standing there and said, “Hey Ronnie, I’ve been to your shows. When you do an Elvis song, you do it like Elvis.” I replied, “Yeah, I love Elvis’ music.” “Well, listen to what I wrote.” So I did. I immediately liked what I heard and asked Lee to listen to what I had written.
We decided to combine our lyrics and record the song. Everything happened in a whirlwind of activity. Ironically, guitarist Bucky Barrett, who was scheduled to go to Portland, Ore., and play with Elvis on August 17, was on “The King Is Gone.” He and Scotty Moore, Elvis’ original lead guitarist, are big buddies.
Lee came up to me when we had finished the song and said, “Ronnie, you are gonna pay for this session, right? I ain’t got a dime.” I replied, “Lee, I’ve got like $42 bucks to my name” [laughs]. Thank goodness I had my checkbook in my back pocket. Anyway, I wrote hot checks for the tape, studio, engineer, and musicians.
I firmly believe in the old adage, ‘If you want something done, do it yourself.’ I love Donald Trump because he wrote a book called Never Give Up: How I Turned My Biggest Challenges into Success .
I went home with that tape and slept with it—not very much I might add [laughs]. I felt like I had something that was speaking to a lot of people. And I did. I got up the next morning and literally took this big ole acetate to WENO AM radio in Madison, Tenn. I asked the receptionist, “Would you play this?” She replied, “Well, we just don’t do that off the street.” I persisted and finally convinced her to let me speak with the deejay. When he played it, the phone lines lit up.
The Monday after the record came out I went to a record store in the mall—when they still had record stores. They had a box with “The King Is Gone” sitting on the counter. Nobody knew who I was. Everybody that came through that line would look down, see that record, and buy it.
“The King Is Gone” was only my third proper single on Scorpion Records, but it became my biggest smash [No. 13 on both the Pop & C&W charts]. It sold a million records in a week. Two weeks later I was on American Bandstand with Dick Clark and The Midnight Special. It was like a movie—pure magic.
Out of six million total copies sold, I got one check for $28,000. That was it. I should have made a million dollars at least. There’s no telling how much money Slim Williamson, the president of Scorpion Records and my manager at the time, made from my song. But I am grateful that he took care of my hot checks [laughs]. I usually perform “The King Is Gone” every night and then I follow it up with an actual Elvis song.
How did you sign with major label Epic Records and ultimately befriend music publisher-songwriter-producer Buddy Killen?
My original label, Scorpion, was independent and had promoted me as much as they could in the two years I was with them.
Bobby Borchers is a country recording artist who was instrumental in getting me the Epic contract. Bobby was doing a show with me in the Carolinas. Fans were just tearing at me, trying to tear my clothes off. All that Elvis emotion was still high back then. It was amazing. You would have to had been there.
Bobby went back to his home label, Epic, and talked to Buddy and label chief Rick Blackburn. He told them, “You ain’t going to believe, but women were going crazy over Ronnie McDowell. You’ve got to sign this guy”
Well, I had already scheduled an appointment to see Larry Butler (Kenny Rogers’ producer) and then Buddy. The first one I went to that morning was Buddy. I said, “Buddy, you know I’ve got to go see Larry Butler.” He replied, “You don’t need to go nowhere else but here.” I never left [Author’s Note: Produced by Killen, McDowell’s debut single on Epic was “The World’s Most Perfect Woman,” a Top 20 C&W hit in March 1979].
I kept working with Buddy through part of my tenure with Curb Records—12 years altogether. I eventually talked Buddy into letting me produce my own stuff. I think the first thing that I produced was me and Conway Twitty singing the up-tempo version of “It’s Only Make Believe” [No. 8 C&W, December 1987; McDowell recorded a rare power ballad rendition while on Epic for his Good Time Lovin' Man album in 1981. Twitty guested on that version as well].
Buddy produced my last hit single. I called him one morning and asked, “Hey, Mike Curb wants me to do ‘Unchained Melody.’ Can you come and produce it?” [Author’s Note: “Unchained Melody” peaked at No. 26 C&W in November 1990.]
Our last project together was an album called For Your Precious Love [September 1991] released right after the Unchained Melody album [January 1991]. I loved Buddy Killen. I miss him [Killen passed away in 2006 of pancreatic cancer at age 73].
It’s an amazing career that Buddy had. He doesn’t get the credit. Buddy should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. They put Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill in before they put Buddy Killen in. I love Vince, but are you kidding me? You don’t have Johnny Horton in the Country Music Hall of Fame? Are you kidding me? I’m not a Nashville Music Row fan as you can tell.
One of my favorite Ronnie McDowell hit singles that you don’t hear very often is “Step Back,” a No. 7 C&W single in August 1982. How did you come across it?
Just a young boy at the time, Craig Morris is a very talented piano player and songwriter who was in my band. Craig later founded a country group after he left me called 4 Runner.
I heard Craig playing the song one day, and I asked him, “What is that?” He goes, “Step back, get out of the way, she’s comin’…” I replied, “Man, let’s go see Buddy Killen and have him listen. I think that’s a big hit.”
“Step Back” was a video as well—albeit a very obscure one today. It was one of the first videos ever done in Nashville. Great video, by the way. I wish I could locate a copy. I haven’t seen it in over 30 years. I don’t have most of my stuff, unfortunately.
Who owns the Epic material [1979—1985]?
The Japanese and the Germans own most of the record companies, including Sony, which handles my Epic catalogue. But I think it’s only for 25 years. As a matter of fact, I just got back “Watching Girls Go By,” “All Tied Up,” and the songs that I wrote in the early ‘80s.
I had to pay a little money but now I got it back for my kids and grandkids. We get all the royalties and perpetuity from now on. They have nothing to do with it anymore. A lot of artists don’t know that but I found that out through a friend of mine.
As far as the Epic material seeing re-release, it’s like Jerry Reed sang, ‘When you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re not, you’re not’ [laughs]. Once you get something going, the labels will start funneling it back into the marketplace. That’s how it goes. But if you don’t get up to bat, you ain’t going to get a hit.
Why did you leave Epic Records in 1985 and ultimately sign with Curb Records?
In those days the record companies would keep you for seven years. That was their policy. If you weren’t having No. 1 records and selling gold and platinum after seven years, they’d get rid of you.
But you were still having Top Ten hits like “In a New York Minute” and “Love Talks” at that point.
To be honest with you, I don’t know. Epic let me go. As soon as they let me go, Buddy Killen visited Mike Curb. Mike said, “I’ll take him.”
The things that Mike Curb has done are astronomical to me. He wrote Hank Williams Jr.’s first No. 1 record, “All for the Love of Sunshine” . He wrote “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” He produced “You Light Up My Life” for Debby Boone and “One Bad Apple” for the Osmonds. If you go to Disney World and hear “It’s a Small World After All,” that’s the Mike Curb Congregation.
Mike bought the Audubon house for a million dollars [the home Elvis owned at 1034 Audubon Drive prior to purchasing Graceland in 1957]. The owners only paid $137,000. You know why he did it? Because he did not want anybody disturbing where Elvis Presley lived when he had eight No. 1 records.
The reason Mike bought RCA Studio B in Nashville was he didn’t want anybody disturbing where Elvis recorded “It’s Now or Never.” Incidentally, the album cover of The King Is Gone was taken at Studio B (I didn’t record the album there). I still have that shirt hanging in my closet—it looks brand spankin’ new—and I still have that acoustic guitar.
Anybody that loves Elvis Presley as much as I do has to be a great guy. And Mike Curb is. I just re-signed with Curb. Dadgum—it’s almost been 30 years. Nobody keeps trying to do what I’m doing. Everybody just gives up and quits.
Do you own your early Scorpion recordings [1977—1979]?
You know who owns all that stuff? Mike Curb. We’re getting ready to release my second album, I Love You, I Love You , on CD. The other three—The King Is Gone, Live at the Fox, and A Tribute to the King: In Memory—are already available.
Until Mike tells me to quit releasing them, I’m going to keep doing it. Not that I’m doing anything deceitful or behind his back. He doesn’t care. When you’re a billionaire [laughs]…I can’t tell you how good Mike’s been to me over our 30-year friendship.
What can you tell us about your songwriting collaboration with Serabee, aka Sera Buras, best known as a contestant on the debut season of NBC’s The Voice?
Serabee and I have written four songs, including “Water Under the Bridge” and “She’s Crazy.” She has secured a major recording contract with Sony and is recording an album in Nashville with producers Keith Stegall and Peter Collins.
I think she’s going to be the biggest thing in the world because she’s the best singer, songwriter, musician, and performer I have ever known. Ever. And she’s beautiful.
What was the inspiration behind your recent single, “A Single Woman?”
During President Obama’s re-election campaign, I was watching a news commentator discussing that there is approximately 40 million single women in the United States. That’s why Obama got elected again. I was completely unaware of that statistic. I thought, ‘That needs to be a song.’
Not long after I was driving down the road in my car, and the opening line suddenly came to me: “She’s a single woman taking on the world, a single lady, all-American girl, she don’t need nobody to make her proud and strong, she’s a single woman and she’s making it on her own.”
The entire melody was there, too. I jotted down two verses, the bridge, and at the end I go, “She don’t need a man to make her proud and strong.” I threw the ‘man’ thing at the end on purpose. It has a calypso vibe if you will.
I waited awhile before turning in the final version of “A Single Woman” to Curb—my longtime record label. I didn’t wanna go through all that frickin’ office protocol and bullcrap. Everybody at the label has an opinion. I imagine them saying, ‘Ronnie McDowell is 64. Why, he ain’t gonna get nothing played. This is a youth driven market.’
There are people in the Curb office who have been there for ages, and they were killing singles that I was releasing 25 years ago. Why in God’s name would I want to go back down there again?
It’s exasperating—I wish I could still release a normal song and receive radio play. I’m not alone, though. Artists like Ronnie Milsap, Gene Watson, Eddy Raven, and T.G. Sheppard still sing as good as they ever did. T. Graham Brown is the singin’est fool on the planet. It’s so stupid that we’re not hearing great songs by these guys anymore.
The beauty of it is today we have the Internet which has nothing to do with radio. The Internet is so much more powerful and bigger than radio will ever be. Eventually there ain’t gonna be program directors or radio. It’s not the future—it’s now. That’s why I have Sirius/XM Radio. I can listen to whatever I want 24/7, whether it’s Frank Sinatra or George Klein’s Elvis show, without a deejay telling me what I’m gonna listen to.
I pay no attention to all this political bullcrap at radio because I still believe in the magic of a song. You can take the greatest song in the world, a mediocre singer, and it’d be a hit. It’s still about the song.
“A Single Woman” is doing unbelievably well on the Internet. You can listen to it on ReverbNation, watch the official video on YouTube, or purchase it on my Brand New Album CD. I didn’t realize what a nerve I had struck until “A Single Woman” appeared on ReverbNation. In one hour it had 120 plays. That’s unheard of.
I hope all these grassroots efforts keep burning. I can’t begin to tell you how many single ladies have told me, “You wrote my life.” That’s particularly true when they hear the line, “She gave up everything to be by his side, she thought he was her savior…that one true love in life; then things began to crumble, God knows how she tried to keep it altogether through the cheatin’ and the lies.” Later they ask their friends, “Have you heard that song by Ronnie McDowell?”
That’s what I did with “The King Is Gone.” Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was writing my life and everybody else’s life that felt the same way I did. Any time you can speak to a mass amount of people, it’s magic.
Have you noticed any lucky career patterns in recent times?
It’s funny how life is—death or success always comes in twos and threes. For example, during one particularly serendipitous week, the idea for “A Single Woman” came along.
A few days later I finalized a contract from Walt Disney based on a painting of mine. I must credit my 24-year-old son, Tyler Dean, who had the total vision. My daughter sent the painting to Disney, and the head dude of Disney sent me a contract. The reason why is because he said that I captured what nobody else had captured. Now I’m going to do two paintings a year for Disney.
Then I did a second episode of Cajun Pawn Stars, a reality show on the History channel. Isn’t that weird? I go along for years and nothing goes on until that one week…but that’s the way life is. Twos and threes.
I admire your tenacity for writing and recording new material when so many of your contemporaries have relegated themselves strictly to a never ending cycle of touring.
You know why? It’s because of the way the industry treats them. Some of the guys that came up with me make an effort to still be active artistically, but most of them just go along, forget about it, and don’t care. It’s downright sad.
Thank God for the Internet, because we now have an outlet that has nothing to do with radio and all of those omnipotent God program directors, which they think they are. They feel like they have our lives in their hands. In essence, they do.
It’s all the biggest bunch of bullcrap that’s ever been in the music business. That’s the God’s truth to me. If I go in and record a song now and put it on the Internet, they have no control over that. Think about that. That’s the beauty of the Internet.
Here’s how I look at it: If you take this little marble that we’re sitting on and compare that to the massive amount of space the universe has, it’s nothing. If my next single became the biggest thing on the planet, it’s nothing compared to the scheme of the universe. It’s just so minute that it doesn’t really matter.
In other words, it’s not that big of a deal for me to go out and get a hit at age 64. Now, a lot of people would think it’s the hardest thing in the world, but it’s not really. Especially if you strike a nerve.
A Ronnie McDowell concert is an entertaining, interactive experience, even for fans sitting in the back row. Besides singing, you regularly venture into the audience, perform impromptu requests, relay humorous anecdotes about your career, and dance your socks off. Your command of a stage is commendable.
Thank you. But here’s what I don’t understand. This is called the entertainment business. If I go to a show, you d-mn well better entertain me. If you just stand there in a 10-foot circle and don’t move out of it, you’re gonna bore me. Every time. It’s Shakespearean, artsy gratis bulls--t. I like somebody like Tom Jones. Buddy, you talk about a show. Tom kicks butt.
George Strait makes me a lot of money with the song that I wrote for him [i.e. “Under These Conditions,” released on Strait’s February 1988 album entitled If You Ain't Lovin' You Ain't Livin']. I’ve worked with him many times, and I love him to death. I love his singing, I love most of his songs, but he stands in a six-foot circle and never moves. Fifteen minutes into his show I’m bored to death.
I loved George Jones to death. Every time I worked with him, he would tell the crowd, “Now ya’ll have seen Ronnie, and he was all over this stage. You see this little circle right here? I ain’t gonna move out of this circle.” But George could do anything he wanted [laughs]. He’ll always be my hero.
Conway Twitty was not an entertainer. He’d get mad at me. He’d call me on his bus and say, “All you need to do is stand there and sing ‘em your songs. You are not a comedian.” I’d reply, “But Conway, think about this. You’ve had 40-somethin’ No. 1 records. I’ve had two. I gotta dazzle ‘em somehow. All you gotta do is go out and sing No. 1 records.” That was Conway’s philosophy, and it worked for him. Hey, who’s going to argue with his career?
Fortunately I had a lot of wonderful records and have enough to sustain an hour and a half show. Some of them I can skip and still do a good show. My philosophy is similar to Al Jolson’s—entertain people and give them their money’s worth. I like to be interactive with the audience and make them sing, laugh, or dance. It doesn’t matter what age. Just last night I noticed an elderly woman twisting along to the music [laughs].
What kind of a guy was Conway Twitty like?
Conway always told it like it was. If he felt like telling you something, he would tell you…even if he didn’t like a song.
One time Conway called me on his bus and said, “I wanna know where you found that song.” “What song?” “’You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation.’” I replied, “A young boy by the name of Jeff Crossan wrote it.” “Don’t you ever get another song from him!” “Why?” “That’s one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.” “But Conway, it’s number twelve this week.” “I don’t care.”
Two weeks later “Bad Reputation” climbed to number one. Conway called me back on his bus and said, “McDougall, if you can take that song to number one, you’re a lot better than I thought you was” [laughs].
One day in 1987 while I was driving down the road, I had an idea about doing Conway’s “It’s Only Make Believe” up-tempo. The Kentucky Headhunters were my band for about eight years, and I went in the studio with them and recorded it.
I found Conway at another Nashville studio and said, “Conway, will you listen to this?” He probably knew I wanted him to sing on my version, and he was resistant at first. But he jumped up and said, “Ronnie, that’s exactly the way I always wanted Elvis to do that song.” I stammered, “You’re kidding me.”
Conway continued, “I visited Elvis in Las Vegas [August 1971]. When I walked up to him, Elvis turned around and sang, ‘People see us everywhere, they think you really care, but myself, I can't deceive, I know it's only make believe.’ We sat down across from each other on the floor in the hallway of the Hilton Hotel. We talked for two hours. Elvis didn’t wanna see none of those movie stars that were waiting backstage.”
Conway was from Friars Point, Miss., and Elvis hailed from Tupelo, Miss. That’s why Elvis wanted to talk with Conway rather than those celebrities. Elvis told Conway that “It’s Only Make Believe” was on his jukebox at Graceland. That really blew Conway’s mind.
He used to say, “Ronnie, if you want to do this for a long, long time, work on the weekend and stay at home during the week. Rest your voice. Don’t overdo it.” Wasn’t that a great philosophy? I’ve followed his advice. My touring schedule can range anywhere between 80 and 120 dates including corporate shows.
Ironically, Conway died in 1993 at age 59 of a ruptured blood vessel in his stomach while touring. It’s amazing to realize that I’ve lived longer than Conway.
Conway was one of the best people that I have ever known. My band always wants to ask me questions about him. During all those years that I opened shows for Conway, I never for one moment took that for granted. I always knew who I was with and what an unbelievable superstar he was.
Did you meet Rick Nelson?
I never saw Rick, period. I had a chance to do so. I was at the Marina in Vegas in ’77. He was next door playing at the Aladdin Hotel. Everybody in my group went over and said, ‘Hi.’ I didn’t go. I’m still kicking myself.
I’m the biggest Rick Nelson fan that ever, ever lived. Rick had the smoothest voice and the greatest songs. Everybody was comparing him to Elvis and all that. He idolized Elvis. That’s why he started doing what he was doing ‘cause he was out on a date one night at a drive-in. The girl goes, “Hey have you heard that new guy…Elvis Presley?”
Rick hadn’t even heard of Elvis, so he went and listened to “That’s All Right Mama.” Rick knew right away that’s what he wanted to do. It doesn’t matter who you are or what career you are. Even Bob Dylan was pulling from Woody Guthrie [laughs]. Everybody pulls from somewhere.
In 2004 Patsy Andersen, manager of fan relations at Graceland, resigned after 22 years of service due to gender income discrimination. Up to that point you had performed numerous Elvis tribute concerts with Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, the Jordanaires, the Stamps Quartet, and Millie Kirkham during Elvis Week at Graceland.
Yes, I used to do that when Patsy was there. It doesn’t get any better than Patsy Andersen—she’s one of my best friends in the world. After Patsy left, I performed a number of Elvis-themed shows in Tunica, Miss., with Elvis’ original musicians and backup singers. During Elvis Week 2014 I debuted “Tribute to the King” at the Hotel Memphis [formerly the Memphis Marriot] with my buddy, D.J. Fontana.
However, Elvis fans look at me kind of funny. Not all of them but most of them do. I know why—you don’t mess with people’s idols. You just don’t do it. They’ll crucify you. I had “The King Is Gone,” and I’ve been Elvis’ voice in all these movies and commercials.
I’m the biggest Elvis fan that ever lived on the planet. They don’t see and understand that I’m Elvis’ biggest fan. I literally am.
Why did Elvis perform so much subpar material as his career progressed?
I heard original Memphis Mafia member Red West the other day on my buddy George Klein’s Sirius/XM show.
Red said something to the effect of, “When I hear some of them d*mn movie songs and some of what he sang later on in his life, I just turn it off. That wasn’t my friend. Elvis wasn’t himself. He was doing stuff he shouldn’t have been doing and taking stuff he shouldn’t have been taking.” Red didn’t say that latter part but he was sure implying it. I feel the same way.
I’m such an Elvis fan that when I hear some of that movie and later stuff that he did, I’m like, ‘What the hell?’ I would have told Colonel Tom Parker to shove it. I would have said, “That’s crap, and I ain’t doing that. I don’t care if it’s in the movie. Find me better material.” I guess Elvis was just easy going. Or he just got to where he didn’t care anymore.
The first home Elvis Presley purchased was at 1034 Audubon Drive in Memphis, which he lived in for approximately a year until buying Graceland in March 1957 due to privacy concerns. How did you manage to do a concert from the historic property?
Through Stageit, an Internet multimedia concert experience that’s possible wherever you are as long as there’s Wi-Fi and a webcam. Fans can visit Stageit and pay a fee to watch an interactive show.
On Dec. 2, 2012, Mike Curb let me spend the night there for the first time. I’m the first person to do that in years. I had always wanted to, but I wasn’t aggressive about doing it until Stageit came along. It was the perfect excuse to do a stripped down mini-concert. I didn’t ask anybody if I could—I asked for permission and forgiveness later [laughs].
Later that night I went through each room of the Audubon Drive house and held up the wonderful pictures that Alfred Wertheimer took of Elvis and his parents [Vernon and Gladys] in 1956. There’s pictures of Elvis in his closet, bedroom, kitchen, pretty much everywhere. It was one of the most thrilling nights of my life.
Are you a fan of social media?
I’ll be totally honest with you—although I know how to do YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and all that stuff—I don’t concentrate on social media. I let my sons handle it, and they do a good job. I put my energies elsewhere, because I think spending time on those sites is frivolous. I use a computer to do my workout and the base work for some of my artwork.
What is your perfect day?
Of course, the first thing is breathing [laughs]. My perfect day is getting up and doing my work out early in the morning. The rest of the day I feel like a million bucks. I love to paint. Hanging out with my kids—and now my grandkids—is icing on the cake.
Without your health, you have nothing. You can be Bill Gates and have $60 billion dollars. But if you don’t feel good, what does it matter? Your health is the most important thing along with time. If you’ve got time, you can heal.
It’s amazing—you don’t look or act your age.
No, I don’t. I’m never going to do that. You have to take an aggressive stance. Last year I completed my second three-month round of P90X, an extreme workout program consisting of push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, yoga, etc.
On top of that, I added a hybrid of Shaun T.’s Insanity, a 60-day total-body conditioning workout. It was brutal and gruesome, but it really made me feel like I was 18 again. I wasn’t doing that kind of workout regime when I was 18 [laughs]. How many people my age do that?
I got in the best shape of my life, and my body totally responded. It’s not rocket science. That shows you that regardless of age, if you exercise, your body will respond because it has muscle memory. You can totally reset your body.
If you keep stress out of your life, eat right, and exercise, your quality of life can significantly increase. I don’t want to get old and crotchety. I realize we’re all just a heartbeat away from death, but from now on until I die, I will never stop taking care of my body.
I went to a restaurant buffet today, and everything that I walked by had big ol’ globs of hog meat in it. People wonder why they have heart problems, why they’re sick all the time, and why they have to take pills. I don’t take anything. I just believe in staying physically fit. I don’t have any spare parts. Think about it [laughs].
DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who's who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic "Stood Up" b/w "Waitin' in School" driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.
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Exclusive Interview: Jordanaire Ray Walker counted Elvis Presley as a close friend for two decades. In fact, the genial bassist's debut recording session with the King of Rock and Roll yielded a million selling record – "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I." He recently relived the experience of sitting front row center during an Elvis recording session. Later when the "Alabama Wild Man" himself, Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers, the session got especially rambunctious. Visit the following article, "Jordanaire Ray Walker Recalls Studio Nights With Elvis Presley and Jerry Reed," for the complete lowdown.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: "Dad taught me to keep going and learn it all. He was capable of doing everything—the epitome of a true entertainer." Dean Martin's lovely daughter, Deana, keeps the limelight planted firmly on her family, performing and recording her dad's material all around the world. Deana recently agreed to explore a side of her father rarely discussed in modern literature, a man of simple tastes versus the cliché-ridden, glitzy Vegas image. In "Deana Martin Can't Help Remembering the Swingin' King of Cool," Dino's daughter shares heretofore unheard memories regarding John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, family vacations, guitars, horses, watching old Westerns with Sammy Davis, Jr., golf, and their poignant, final Christmas spent together.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Blind pianist Ronnie Milsap, who ruled country radio during the late '70s and '80s with soul-influenced jewels ranging from "Any Day Now" to "Stranger in My House", had a bona fide boyhood idol in the King of Rock 'n' Roll. In "More Thunder on the Piano...", Milsap offers juicy anecdotes about playing keyboards and singing harmony with Elvis on "Kentucky Rain" in the ghetto-ridden section of Memphis, playing two highly coveted New Year's Eve parties attended by a gun-loving, flashlight-toting Elvis, how he learned about the icon's shocking death, and the dilapidated World War II-era plane that nearly cost him his life while en route to a record convention appearance.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Easy listening song interpreter B.J. Thomas won a well-deserved Grammy for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" after it appeared on the soundtrack of the legendary "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." In "Just a Regular Guy With a Burning Desire to Sing...", the effortless "Hooked on a Feeling" singer exclusively recalls amazing stories about arriving in Memphis in the late '60s and singing for Elvis Presley, appearing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and having buckets of rain inexplicably thrown on his head, opening for the notoriously temperamental James Brown, his conflict with the Contemporary Christian industry, and his most popular album in 30 years, the duets-laden "Living Room Sessions", recorded in Nashville.
Further Reading: Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other's work immensely. However, Elvis swore off watching "The Tonight Show" on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a "fat and forty" joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis' Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words nearly 40 years ago? A recent viewing of the original clip and accompanying "Tonight Show" transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate "What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis..." for the complete lowdown.
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