Joe Guercio Lost His Fight
After the premature news earlier this weekend, we just came to know that Joe Guercio passed away this morning. May this kind man rest in peace.
Joe Guercio, who has died aged 87, was Elvis Presley’s band leader from 1970 to 1977; he devised the bombastic theme music that greeted the singer’s entrance on stage, an adaptation of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra that segues into the opening bars of the blues song See See Rider.
Presley had returned to live performance, after nearly 10 years of churning out formulaic films, in the summer of 1969, with concerts at the newly opened International Hotel in Las Vegas (later renamed the Hilton). The following summer, before embarking on another month-long engagement at the International , Presley hired Guercio, who at 42 had just started a job as musical director at the hotel.
Guercio – bearded, plump and balding – was a rock and roll sceptic. He had worked with Patti Page for years and played piano on her sugary novelty hit How Much Is That Doggie in the Window? (1953). He was, in the words of Presley’s biographer, Peter Guralnick, “a well-travelled music business hipster from the old school”.
Guercio was dismayed at first by the shambolic state of Presley’s band. But he grew accustomed to the singer’s spontaneous style. “He’d just turn around and start a tune,” Guercio recalled years later. “The rhythm section knew him backwards, but when you’re up there conducting 26 guys, what’re you going to do? It was all eye takes. I’d get one second: I knew if it was right, I knew if it was wrong, I knew if he was getting off on it.”
When Presley’s old army buddy, Joe Esposito, asked how the rehearsals had gone, Guercio replied that it was like “following a marble falling down concrete steps”. Presley was a keen practical joker, and the next day Guercio arrived at his dressing room to find that it had been filled with marbles – even the sink and his tuxedo pockets were stuffed with them. A note stuck to the mirror read: “Follow the marble – EP.”
Guercio was not a fan of Elvis until he worked with him, but witnessing his live performance for the first time had a powerful effect on him: “Elvis Presley was a happening, and what he had going will never be again. There was a vibe you could pick up in the audience… I’m not going to say that musically it was the best in the whole world. It was charisma… You’ll talk to a lot of people who’ll say discipline makes a star. Horses---! Charisma makes a star.”
Guercio’s refashioning of the fanfare from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra as an opening for Elvis’s shows was prompted by its use in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It reminded Guercio’s wife, Corky, of Elvis: “My wife and I were in the movies. This Strauss thing started. And she said, 'Don’t you get the feeling Elvis is about to walk out?’?” As it happened, Elvis had had a similar thought, so Guercio worked on the idea with his orchestra.
Building to a frenzy of pounding drums, the theme became a musical expression of Elvis’s omnipotent stage persona. With his jumpsuit and cape he was a sort of comic book hero, in the mould of Captain Marvel. “He didn’t want to be just a guy walking out there,” said Guercio, “he wanted to be a god.”
Joseph Guercio was born in Buffalo, New York, on July 16 1927. He attended Lafayette High School, after which he was engaged to play the piano at the Town Casino, Buffalo’s main nightclub at the time.
“It was a tough job,” Guercio recalled. “You’d sit there with three girl singers, trying to attract people and playing what they wanted to hear. You had to know a lot of songs, or be able to fake them.”
Eventually he was spotted there by Patti Page’s manager and recruited as her accompanist. On his move to New York City he soon realised that there was no shortage of piano players; conducting and arranging, he thought, might prove more lucrative.
Guercio settled in Las Vegas in 1967, setting up a music production company and later doing a stint as house bandleader at the (now defunct) Bonanza Casino. Among the other performers he worked with were Julius La Rosa, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Diahann Carroll and later Gladys Knight.
Many of the stars who passed through Las Vegas worked with Guercio at some point. Barbara Streisand’s 1972 hit Sweet Inspiration/Where You Lead was based on a live medley that Guercio had arranged for her, and the duet of Unforgettable which Natalie Cole performed with the voice of her late father, Nat King Cole, was inspired by Guercio, who had persuaded her to sing accompanied by a video of her father in her stage shows.
He continued as the Hilton’s musical director from 1970 to 1977, taking time away to travel on Presley’s tours, which would involve as many as 160 concerts a year.
After Presley’s death in 1977, Guercio toured with Diana Ross (1978-84) and arranged music for Las Vegas showrooms such as the Golden Nugget. He worked for several years as an entertainment booker for Arizona Charlie’s, a Las Vegas casino.
In recent years Guercio was a star feature of Elvis: The Concert, a travelling “virtual” show in which film of Elvis performing is played to live accompaniment on stage by musicians who toured with Presley.
In 2001 he was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame.
Joe Guercio spent the past 15 years living in Nashville. He married, in 1956, Corinne “Corky” Wolfram, a dancer and choreographer; and, secondly, in 1998, Penny France, a British singer-dancer. Both predeceased him.
Joe Guercio, born July 16 1927, died December 4 2014
I got to see Joe at Elvis The Concert in St. Louis in 2001 along with TCB band. The crowd went bananas when the orchestra played the opening bars of Thus Zarathustra. Joe was responsible for that. When the orchestra played the six bar that defined Elvis concerts in the 70's, the crowd went nuts again. Joe was responsible for that too. Joe contributed to the Elvis legacy, and he seemingly lived an amazing life. Not a bad run, not at all. Thank you, Joe.
This is such very sad news and Joe Guercio will be truly missed. According to CMT, he was born in Buffalo, New York on July 16, 1927. CMT says that he passed away at the age of 87. R.I.P. Joe Guercio
A critic once described 'the Joe Guercio Orchestra' as like having an elephant in the room, basically Vegasing up Elvis' sound and contributing to his throwaway treatment of Rock 'n' Roll but one only has to view trilogy from Aloha to witness how integral the orchestra was to Elvis' most dramatic visual and musical performance ever captured on film. A poor boy from Tupelo leading his own orchestra, amazing musical chemistry.
Yes another good friend of the Elvis world goes but he will not be forgotten. Elvis introduced Joe as being from Omaha in the July1 1974 concert in Omaha - they seemed to have fun playing about - nice to see.
So Joe Guercio RIP my friend you and Elvis had put out great music together there will never be another one like you .
shoesuedeblues, that so many people in the "Elvis world" died is because we all grow older..people just die everyday...even people that were around Elvis...
Does anyone know what his age was ? I cannot find it on the internet.
Thanks for the beautiful music, R.I.P.
So sad that so many of Elvis' contemporaries have passed away in the last year.
Joe Guercio RIP - I loved his enthusiasm at the "Elvis in Concert" series. Whatever opinions about the material, Elvis was a great musician who put on a great show - Guercio as his conductor must have been one of his closest allies.
R.I.P. Joe. Thanks for everything ! Always El.
So sad.. this actually became a fact.
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