George Klein finally, for the record.
Hard to believe, but on January 8, 2010, Elvis Presley would have turned 75.
Almost as hard to believe is the fact that George Klein, a friend of Presley's since their student days at Humes High School and a well-known radio and television personality in Memphis for decades, has spoken often enough of that friendship, but he's never written about it — until now, with the publication of Elvis: My Best Man (Crown).
And Elvis was exactly that . . .
He was best man at Klein's wedding, in 1970 to his longtime girlfriend Barbara Little, inside Presley's 30th-floor VIP suite at the Las Vegas International hotel. Presley was the one who urged Klein to get married. He was the one who paid for the wedding. And he was the one who presented the couple with an unlikely but memorable gift: a matching pair of gold-plated derringer handguns. When it was time for some wedding pictures, Presley pulled his own gun from the holster under his jacket and held it to Klein's head. Caption that photo "shotgun wedding." Klein, in his memoir, calls it one of his all-time favorite photos of the two together. And they were together — a lot:
From Humes High, to Presley's appearance on a flatbed truck at the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center, to Presley the country's premier white rock-and-roller. Then: Presley in Hollywood. Then: Presley back from the Army, back on record, and back in the movies. Priscilla. Graceland. Late-night partying at the Mid-South Fairgrounds and the Memphian theater. The "Comeback" TV special. The comeback record work in North Memphis and Nashville. Las Vegas. Girlfriends. Touring. Et cetera. Klein was there, on hand as friend to the man who would be King, as a traveling companion and confidant to "Elvis himselvis," according to Klein's coinage. Fun times for years. Fewer fun times in the later years — up and until Presley's untimely death in 1977.
Was there any question who should do the honors when Presley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural class of '86? Not according to the blessing of Priscilla Presley.
The ceremony was at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, and introducing Klein, who was there to receive the award on Presley's behalf, was Sean and Julian, sons of John Lennon, who once famously observed, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." And before that audience at the Waldorf — an audience of superstars and music-industry heavyweights — there was Klein in what he calls the "highest honor of his career."
But before Elvis, there was the boy George Klein, and as he relates in his book, he grew up in North Memphis, the son of immigrant Jews in a neighborhood of gentiles. His father, a supplier of produce for Memphis grocery stores, died when Klein was young. His mother, who took on the task of rearing George and two older sisters, worked as a seamstress. Even as a boy, Klein was half-daydreaming of a life in show business. He had the drive, and he had the voice: a voice for radio work. So he served as a gopher for Memphis' rockin' wild man: disc jockey Dewey Phillips. Then he took what airtime he could get at a number of Memphis and Mid-South radio stations, where he helped introduce audiences to the first records of Presley and an unknown named Johnny Cash.
Klein finally came into his own on station WHBQ with George Klein's Rock 'n' Roll Ballroom. (Where he became popularly known as "DJ-uh-GK.") And he came into his own as a TV personality on Talent Party, where he brought James Brown and Otis Redding onto local screens.
He also called TV wrestling matches. He did voiceover work at Memphis drive-ins. He introduced the Beatles to the stage of the Mid-South Coliseum in 1966. And through it all, he kept up with Presley and kept an eye out for girls for Presley to meet. (Among the better known: Cybill Shepherd and Linda Thompson; among the lesser known: They're too numerous to mention.)
Today, Klein hosts the weekly Elvis Hour on WMC-AM and the George Klein Show on Sirius Radio's Elvis channel. But there were some things he especially wanted known in a recent phone interview — a couple of misconceptions: one, that Presley suffered from loneliness and, two, that Presley was done in by hard drugs:
"He wasn't lonely," Klein said. "When you become a superstar, your attention span becomes very short. I've been around others — Muhammad Ali, Jerry Lee Lewis. If you wanna talk to them, you better get to the point."
And as for Presley's decline and demise: "There were no hard drugs around," Klein said. "I never saw, say, cocaine or meth. Elvis died of a chemical dependency on prescriptions. And because they were prescribed, Elvis thought they were okay. He saw it as medication."
What Klein saw of Presley's time in the recording studio he'd also like to make clear: "When Elvis put his voice down on acetate or whatever, he knew it was going to be for history. So he controlled his own sessions. The mood was lighthearted, but he was serious. He didn't like anybody bringing in negative vibes. But he did want spontaneity, freshness. He'd say to the musicians, 'You guys got ideas? Pitch in.'"
Like Presley, Klein had his own ideas for his book: 40 years of memories scratched out on legal pads and scraps of paper. But how to shape them into a narrative? He went through a number of writers until he met with Chuck Crisafulli, an entertainment journalist who'd already helped Jerry Schilling with Me and a Guy Named Elvis.
For three to four hours per week, Klein dictated over the phone. A rough draft and several rewrites later, and Elvis: My Best Man was done. "Labor" is how Klein described the making of his memoir; a "labor of love" is how he went on to describe it.
"It wasn't tough to talk about myself," Klein added when asked about any misgivings he had. "I'm an entertainer too. I can talk, as you can tell. I've got my stories down. Writing this book was a coming-out, if you will."
January 5th: That's the official coming-out (read: publication) date for Elvis: My Best Man. Klein's got nationwide radio interviews already lined up. A booksigning event at Graceland. A bookselling event on QVC. Davis-Kidd on the 13th. Horseshoe Casino later in the month. And all three branches of the BBC in England are on board to publicize the memoir.
Which makes it hard to believe George Klein needed an agent. But he did. And golfer John Daly was there to help: He recommended his agent, Scott Waxman. Klein asked him, "Why would you be interested in me as a client?'
"Scott said, 'You were there in the early days.You knew Elvis Presley before he was Elvis Presley. You were a pioneer in rock-and-roll yourself. You knew Dewey Phillips. You opened the door for black entertainers in the South on TV. You worked with Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. You can bring your own career into it.'"
"I said to Scott, 'NOW you're talking.'"
Priscilla Presley is talking too. "You told your story with class, mister. Elvis would be proud," reads the blurb from Priscilla on the book jacket. But according to Klein, she had one reservation.
Priscilla: "George, you left me out in some places."
George: "I didn't wanna step on your toes."
Priscilla: "That's all right. We're friends. We're family."