Go to main content

Stories From A Friend

By Michael Donahue, August 13, 2006 | People
Jerry has an insight...He was one of the few guys who would tell Elvis the truth (George Klein)

Jerry Schilling remembers the moment his life changed. He was 12 years old and in a football huddle on a hot July afternoon in 1954. The guy facing him had a neat, greased pompadour with duck tails and was wearing a pair of blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a little smile.


"It was the coolest attitude without trying to have an attitude," said Schilling, 64. "From Roy Rogers to Marlon Brando -- I was trying to be like anybody who was anything all my life. And there it was."

That began a 23-year friendship Schilling recounts in his new book, "Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley." The book, which will be released nationally Thursday, now is available in Memphis at Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Schilling will share his Elvis stories during several appearances here this week.

Schilling, the youngest member of Elvis' Memphis Mafia -- a mixture of friendship, support system and bodyguard unit -- also has been a music manager, a film editor, TV and documentary producer and president of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission.

He gives Elvis credit for making him who he is. "I was a shy kid who didn't talk much, who has certainly made up for it since. Elvis gave me a certain amount of confidence."

Schilling became friends with Bono, John Lennon and a host of other celebrities. "Elvis gave me that backstage pass."

The book, written with freelance music writer Chuck Crisafulli, combines the story of Elvis' rise to entertainment superstar with Schilling's personal, backstage stories about the King and himself. He writes about Elvis' happy moments, including when his daughter, Lisa Marie, was born; his anger when Schilling was involved with women Elvis also was interested in and vice versa; and his ever-present frustration -- not being able to star in serious movies and move ahead creatively.

Longtime Elvis friend George Klein said, "Jerry has an insight a lot of people don't have. He was one of the few guys who would tell Elvis the truth. I think he has a different angle because he had a lot of quality time with Elvis and Elvis respected his opinion on a lot of stuff."

Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, "This book shows Elvis as a real guy who was a true friend. There are stories -- you think you've heard them all -- and all of a sudden you're hearing stories you've never heard before."

Schilling, whose mother died at 27 of rheumatic fever when he was a year old, basically lived with his grandparents until he was 12 and moved in with his dad. Jerry and his older brother, Billy Ray Schilling, former Chief of Police and Shelby County Sheriff, were estranged for a long time.

"I had such simple dreams back then," Schilling said. "One of my dreams was to go to Humes High before I met Elvis. The band marched down Leath street practicing for the Christmas parade. That was the most exciting thing I'd ever seen in my life. I remember those orange-and-white uniforms."

Schilling, who went to Holy Names because it was within walking distance of his grandparents' house, also loved to listen to the wild deejay Dewey Phillips play rock and roll music on his "Red, Hot & Blue" radio show. "It was this exciting sound that was dangerous, forbidden."

One night, Phillips introduced a song recorded by a guy named Elvis Presley who went to Humes. "Today, every city block somebody's got a CD. Back then I didn't know anybody in Memphis, Tenn., who had a record. But a guy who lived down the street from me? That was exciting."

Phillips played the record, "That's All Right (Mama)," more than once and then interviewed Elvis. "The little stutter -- I don't know if it was James Deanish or Brando. That's when I said that little prayer, 'Hey, I'd like to meet that guy sometime.'"

Schlling's prayer was answered a few days later when Red West, an All-Memphis football player at Humes, asked if Schilling wanted to play football with him and some other older boys at Guthrie Park. "I'm listening to everything Red's saying. He's the hero. The other guys were just kind of a blur. Until the huddle.

"The interesting thing -- and this stayed after the first impresson for a long time -- was Elvis was not easily approachable. He had this kind of a edge and then he had this kind of little look in his eyes or maybe a little smile. You think of James Dean, where you wouldn't go up and slap him on the back and all that.

"People make movies and records and start acquiring this image, this star persona. Elvis had that in 1954. Nineteen years old and without a hit record."

Ten years later, Schilling went to work for Elvis instead of finishing his last semester at college and becoming a history teacher. He worked for him on and off for 11 years. He was a pallbearer at Elvis's funeral in 1977.

What made Schilling finally write a book about Elvis? "I never said I wasn't ever going to write one, but there were so many. It was a real important thing to me after Elvis left us that I continue on with my life, as difficult as that was 'cause he was always there for me. I wouldn't even do interviews for two years after he passed away. It was too hard in the beginning."

Schilling decided to write a book 31/2 years ago. "My feeling was there's this huge iconic image out there and that's a good thing in a lot of ways. But the human, personal, sensitive, friendship side of Elvis has been lost in this big, huge picture. I decided to write my story with my friend from my point of view."

An arresting image in the book is when Schilling sees Elvis in an oxygen mask walking arm-in-arm downstairs with his father, Vernon Presley, at Graceland. "I was 21, 22. I'd known him for 10 years. Playing football in the mud. All-night movies. The amusement park -- dodge 'em cars with the black smut on our faces from the floor. But I'd never seen Elvis look anything but great. And here I am by myself at Graceland and there I see Vernon and Elvis walking down the stairs. Vernon was holding this oxygen mask of Elvis's. He looked so weak. Vernon looked so concerned. I later found out that he had been in the hospital to have some test X-rays a week or so before that. He could see I was shocked. He takes the mask off and with a little smile said, 'Man, this California smog will get you.'"

Elvis never told Schilling what was wrong with him. "He didn't ever want anybody to think there was anything wrong with him. He wanted to take care of everybody else."

The human side of Elvis is shown in Schilling's story about the time they got drunk in Las Vegas. "He was fun-loving. He would laugh. He would laugh so hard he would fall on the floor and sometimes he did. If I had to choose a drunk to be around, it would be Elvis Presley."

But Elvis rarely drank, Schilling said. "The two or three times that I saw him and I participated with him, he just could not handle the hangover. More important, I think he had seen what had happened to some people -- not in the immediate family -- but relatives. He didn't discuss it, but I had felt it."

"Me and a Guy Named Elvis" isn't a lurid or racy book. "Yes, there's some rare situations I could have put in, some scene that would have grabbed headlines. You can always go to this extreme or that extreme, but I wanted people to know my friend as I knew him on a day-to-day basis with love, anger, temptation, generosity, with all those things. That would have been good if I was writing about the iconic image. I was writing about the human image."

Schilling and his wife, Cindy, still live in the hillside house off Sunset Boulevard Elvis bought for him in 1974. After giving him the house, Elvis 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."

Was Schilling Elvis's best friend?

Related links

Buy at Amazon.co.uk
Narek wrote on August 14, 2006
I certainly want to have it!
vinny wrote on August 14, 2006
sounds very interesting. look forward to reading the whole thing
boris wrote on September 11, 2006
A very good book. Great effort to recapture the real memories and put aside the additional memories born after Elvis passed away. Moving and captivating. No gossip but a fair portrait by a true friend.