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Email Interview With John Wilkinson

May 20, 2002 | People
As you may have read, John Wilkinson is visiting Belgium next month. John has been invited by the Belgian United Elvis Presley Society to do a show in Mol, at the Cultural Center of the city. Just like in 1999, when he did two sold out shows in a row, John will be backed by the wonderful King of Belgium Live Band (named after the book). Special guest is Miss Barbara Dex, Belgium’s leading Lady of Country Music. Three weeks before the concert on June 8th, the Cultural Center is completely sold out. About 400 tickets were available, and at this moment, the fanclub is taking names on a waiting list.

By popular demand, there’s a special Question and Answer-session the day after, on June 9th, in Nivelles (Hotel Nivelles) close to Brussels.

Not all fans will be able to visit one of these events, www.ElvisNews.com and John’s official website www.johnwilkinson.net joined forces, offering their visitors a chance to ask John the questions to which they wanted to know the answer for so long. The response was overwhelming, but luckily some questions could be combined. We narrowed the list down to 15. Here goes:

Hi John. Thanks for taking your time to talk to us and answer some of the questions we have for you.

No problem, glad to be of service.

First of all: what are you doing nowadays?

Well, I’m trying to honor invitations of the Elvis Presley fanclubs throughout the United States and in Europe, to go and talk to the fans, sing some songs that they like and tell the true story of Elvis. I want to let them know that Elvis was NOT what the American tabloids made him out to be. That he was a good and decent man. I love being with the fans, and finding out about them. I like to know what they are doing in their lives. They know what I do, they know that I sing, they know that I like to talk about my late friend and boss, but I’m mostly interested in what the fans do, what their lives are like.

If you could do it all again, would you?

Absolutely, I wouldn’t change a thing. Except that I would somehow let Elvis know that there were more people around him that really cared for him. There were a few, as we all know, with their hands out so to speak, and I would have liked to let him know that there were quite a few people like myself, Kathy Westmoreland, JD Sumner and the Stamps that were there for him, that would do anything for him. I would do everything the same way, I wouldn’t change a thing – except for that.

Elvis was always known for his wit and candour. What was the most profound or interesting thing that he said to you or the company you were in?

I think the best way I can answer your question there, is to tell you that my most precious memories of Elvis were our single times alone, when there was no guards, no girlfriends, no hangers-on, when we would just be talking. Sitting on a couch in Graceland or one of the homes in California watching old John Wayne movies or a football game, and just talking about everything there was to talk about: religion, politics, people, mostly music. And I think the most profound thing he said to me, that I really remember and that really means a lot to me today, is: ‘John, no matter what happens – always remember: if it wasn’t for the fans, I’d be just another damn lounge singer.’ He’d be sitting behind me on a stool, trying to play acoustic guitar and he said: ‘Remember always man: take care of the fans and they will sure as hell take care of you.” And that has proved out true over the years, so many times. If it wasn’t for the fans, we’d be nobody.

Jerry Scheff, Ronnie Tutt and Glen Hardin didn’t play every show from 1969 to 1977. Yet you did. Even James Burton threatened a couple of times to leave the band unless he got paid more. Did Elvis ever comment on this fact to you?

Yes he did. He said, literally: ‘John, you’re the only one that didn’t betray me.’ That’s what he said: ‘you’re the only one.’
What was it like after the opening show in 1969 backstage?

Well (laughter), how much time do you have? You see, Elvis was so nervous that day. He was afraid that people would laugh at him. After the show… He had worn himself out so well. He had put a thousand percent in the show. Backstage, when we walked in the dressing room, he looked like a drowned rat. He was covered with sweat, he was obviously tired because he’d put so much in into the thing. But it was pandemonium back there. So many of the big movie stars were there, congratulating him. Bobby Darin, Tom Jones, the list goes on and on. They were congratulating him on his wonderful show. They told him how good it was to have him back in the fold as it were, back in the entertainment community. It looked to me that he could barely stand on his legs because he was so tired. It was only about two hours, and then he told somebody: ‘Let’s call it off, I got to get some rest’. But it was a wonderful experience just to see him so happy, and to see his fears of not being liked or being laughed at blown away.

Was it frustrating for you and your band mates to keep playing with Elvis, especially at the end when he wasn’t what he had been?

It was obvious that he wasn’t in real good health. I think we started noticing that about September 1974, at the College Park Maryland show. It began to show that something was terribly wrong. And yes, it was frustrating because he was not having fun anymore, and it became clear that he was very ill. At least for my part it broke my heart to see him have to appear when he didn’t look his best, even though now we know that there were so many physical problems that Elvis had. Yes it was. You know, we played our hearts out and it was obvious that he just wasn’t able to get into it, as it were.

What’s your favorite song by Elvis, the most fun to perform with him.

Golly… Shall I say my signature song Early Morning Rain? (laughter) I think I will. Favorite songs… there are so many. But I loved ‘Can’t help Falling In Love With You’ that he used to close out all of his shows with, but one that I wish that he had done on stage that he never did, except in 1968 on the Come Back Special as they call it, was ‘If I Can Dream’. So often I wished that he would do that. We did rehearse it once, you know. We could have done it if he wanted to. Had he turned around and said ‘C’mon boys, let’s do it’… We were ready to go with it. But sadly it never happened.

About the band members solos: could you play whatever you wanted?

You mean the solos when Elvis would introduce us? O yes, we could have played anything we wanted.

When did you first realise that Elvis’s health was getting bad?

It appeared to me the last part of 1974. Something was not right when he walked out on stage at the College Park Maryland show.

This question may seem a bit silly, but I’ve always wondered… how on earth did you fit everyone in the Jungle Room in February 1976 for the jungle room.

(laughter). The questioner is correct. The den is not that big. What they did is, they moved all the furniture out and – where that went I’m not sure but I think they might have moved it up the stairs and in the music room – they replaced it with folding chairs. There were chairs for the guitarists and the bass player. Of course the drummer had his own, but once all the furniture was cleaned out, there was enough room. It was somewhat crowded but it worked fine. Everybody fit in somehow or another.

Have you ever considered doing a book on your years with Elvis and telling the fans the things that you wish people knew about Elvis?

I have been approached many times about writing a book. And I would just like the readers of this interview to know that if I ever do decide to do a book, the only way I’ll do it is if I do it with my friend Peter Verbruggen. So many people have written books. Some were good, others were terribly bad. I don’t need to tell you the ones that were bad. Albert Goldman’s book is one th