Ronnie Tutt interviewed by Arjan Deelen
”On the drums from Dallas, Texas, is hard-working Ronnie Tutt”, is how Elvis usually introduced Ronnie on stage, but I don’t think that any kind of introduction is really necessary for our readers. Not only did he play drums for Elvis from 1969 to 1977, but he’s also a highly regarded session-drummer that has worked with the likes of Neil Diamond, Gram Parsons, Jerry Garcia and Elvis Costello. The following interview was conducted on March 25th of this year in Randers, Denmark.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I started at about the age of three, singing to the record player and the radio, you know. My mother put me in dancing lessons right away. I started playing instruments… I think my first instrument was a ukelele, which is a great little instrument. And I went from that to four-string guitar and violin. When I started school, I started playing trumpet, and I played trumpet all the way to my senior high school. I switched over to drums when I was 17 or 18 years old.
What appealed you in playing drums?
I’d been a dancer all my life. When I was three I started dancing. So the rhythm of everything was more important to me than the melodic. I was frustrated with playing trumpet and guitar, because I wanted to express myself rhythmically. It was a very easy transition.
What kind of music styles were you listening to?
Oh, I grew up playing all kinds of pop music, and country music, the real old country & western and western-swing.The first band I ever played with was a western-swing band. It had some very famous American players in it, so I was very fortunate to start out with a good band. And then I went from that to dixieland, to jazz, played classical music… I mean, I’ve played a lot of different kinds of music.
What did you think of Elvis Presley in those days?
In 1956, I was playing with the western-swing band I told you about, and we were the house-band for a band that was playing at the Northside Coliseum in Forth Worth. They had a radio-show much like the Louisiana Hayride, so every Saturday night we’d drive over to Fort Worth. One Saturday night, I had my girlfriend with me, and they told us this young guy named Elvis Presley was coming that night. And sure enough, in comes Elvis with Scotty and Bill, no drums. Elvis looked his typical way as he did in ’56, and I didn’t like him for two reasons: One, my girlfriend went crazy (laughs). Two, he borrowed our guitarplayer’s beautiful old Martin D-18 classic guitar after he’d already destroyed all the strings on his, and he just trashed it, marked up all the wood on it, you know. So we thought: ”Ah, this guy is just… ”. I told him that story later on when I met him. But I was never really a big fan of his until 1969, and I met him. Once you meet him and you understand the charisma that the man had, you just can’t help but love what he does. We immediatly had a great rapport. Visually, our eyes were constantly watching eachother.
I heard that you were competing with the staff-drummer of Motown at that audition in ’69.
Oh yeah, everyone… I was sinking slower and slower in the chair as the night went on, because I didn’t even think I was going to get a chance to audition. My friend Larry Muhoberac was playing keyboards (for Elvis), and we were both running a studio in Dallas, and we both wanted to move to the West-Coast to be session-players. He said basically: ”I know we’re gonna start auditioning drummers, and if they can’t find somebody, I’ll be happy to put your name in. I’ll throw your name in the hat”. I said: ”Yeah, great!”. So, sure enough, one Friday he called up and said: ”Ronnie, we’re gonna send you a ticket. We’ve been auditioning drummers for two weeks. Can you get on a flight tomorrow night?”. So I take my drums, haul ’em on the airplane, and there I go. I set them up, this drummer walks in, goes to my drums and starts playing around, thinking they are a rental. They were my own drums, you know. And he starts playing, and somebody says: ”Hey, that’s that guy’s set”. So he says: ”Hey man, is it okay if I play your drums?”. And I said: ”Well, I guess so”. As the evening started, they’d play a song, and I could see everybody going: ”Yeah, we found the guy!”. And I’m sinking slower and slower in the chair, thinking: ”There’s no way I’m gonna get a chance to play”. They all stopped the song, and started packing their instruments. So Larry goes over to Colonel Parker and says: ”You know, this guy that you just bought a ticket for, he’s right over there”. And that got his attention, because it cost some money! (laughs). The Colonel went over to Elvis, and I could tell they were all reluctant to play more. But they did, and…
What was Elvis’ involvement like on those auditions?
He was very active. It was his idea to have a band behind him like that. No one had had that kind of a band, and had singers the way he had it. It was a dream. He had the vision in a dream. He told me that. It was something that he wanted to do, and he told Colonel Parker that that’s exactly what he wanted to do. The Colonel said ”no”, because he wanted Elvis to go on there with dancing girls, like the ’68 special. But Elvis said: ”I’ve done enough of those stupid movies. I don’t want any more part of that. I just had this dream. I wanted a hard driving rhythm section, a rock ’n’ roll band, a big orchestra in the back, but no dancing, but all singing, with a black soul group and a white gospel group”. So he called the Colonel up in the middle of the night, and said: ”This is what I want to do”. And the Colonel said: ”No, no, no”. Elvis told me: ”That’s the only time I ever hung up on the Colonel. I said: ’We’re gonna do that, or I’m not going to Las Vegas’, and I hung up”. So he won! (laughs)
When you went to the auditions, did you go with an idea of what your drumming should be like, and did you listen to Elvis’ earlier drummers?
No, not at all. Never. He wanted me to do what I did.
What do you think made you get the job?
Well, number one, I think it was my own understanding of being a competent studio player, and I’d done a lot of R&B playing in Memphis with all the great rhythm sections. All that experience was good. But more than that – because this drummer from Motown was good – it wasn’t just a matter of expertise, but a matter of rapport. It was a matter of sensing, and watching his eyes, and watching everything he did. I emulated and accented everything that he did just instinctively. Every move, almost like a glorified stripper! And he loved that. And that’s why no matter who would play with him – a few other drummers had to play for other reasons through the years – he was never happy because of that reason, no matter how great they were. And they were some great players, Larry Londin included.
The players in Elvis’ rhythm section all came from very different backgrounds. How did you ”connect”?
It was instantly connection. It was something about the energy. The difference in the musical styles made it an interesting contrast. I don’t know how to describe it, but it worked.
Do you remember Opening Night?
Yeah, I’ll never forget it. It was the most important thing that he’d ever done, obviously. It was all going to be recorded. RCA had the remote truck there. That’s part of that album, FROM MEMPHIS TO VEGAS / FROM VEGAS TO MEMPHIS.
RCA made those recordings later on in the month, but what was it like on Opening Night?
The energy was incredible. He was like a cat let out of a cage. Like a big cat, a panther. He had such energy and power. It was an amazing thing. Unfortunately, it never got transmitted to recording. They never captured that kind of energy that the man had. ’cause we’d go down and listen. We couldn’t wait till the show was over to go down and listen to the tracks. Later on, we were so discouraged because of the fact that the Colonel was responsible for messing up those tracks. They’d put Elvis’ vocal like 70% of the sound, and the rhythm section way down. Elvis didn’t know enough about producing to understand why his records really didn’t have that power and energy that he felt. Because he stood right in front of me so that he could feel the power and energy from the drums all the time. Even when we recorded in a studio, he’d take the microphone off the stand and go over and stand in front of me. He’d stand in the middle of the musicians. He was really a purist when it came to that, you know.
What did you think of Elvis as a musician?
Well, I didn’t have much respect for his musicianship as a person that played an instrument, but as a singer I had a lot of respect for him. He had a very powerful voice, and he was very rhythmical. Even while doing this new project, ELVIS THE CONCERT, I learned to rely more on his rhythm and his feel for music, more than anything else. Because we can’t hear… I’m listening to a mono track of the TV mix, and sometimes you hear the crowd louder than the rhythm section. So I’m relying more and more on his voice, and I’ve gained even new respect for his ability to have feel for music.
You were not back for the second Las Vegas engagement in February 1970, and was replaced by Bob Lanning. Why was that?
That’s because the Colonel did not let us know. He did not inform us that Elvis would be coming back. One of the first things I did after August of ’69 was, I got an opportunity to play on the Andy Williams TV show from Los Angeles. That was a one-year contract for the Mike Post Orchestra. I had a verbal agreement to play. I replaced a great drummer named Jim Gordon through Jerry Scheff’s recommendation. Colonel Parker never said a word about having to go back ever again to Vegas. For all we knew, it was a one-time thing. The interesting thing about it is that Elvis always expected his same people. Once he liked what you did and respected you, he had no reason not to think that you would always be there with him. Those were part of the games that happened with his manager.
The second Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick suggests that you couldn’t come to a financial agreement with the Colonel’s office.
That’s not correct at all. Not at all. That was purely a matter of what I just said to you. If they would’ve said to me: ”We’re gonna come back here in February”, then we would have worked something out. They never let us know, and that’s the reason Glen D. left the group. They waited till the last minute. The Colonel guarded Elvis’ image so hard and so carefully. Even in the pictures, most of us were always blacked out. The same thing with contacting us for playing. We were individual contractors, we were never considered part of Elvis’ entourage. That’s the reason Glen D. left after several years. He got tired of waiting around. The Colonel also, I believe, would wait until the last minute to let us know, just hoping that maybe we wouldn’t do the job, so that he could tell Elvis: ”Oh, they weren’t available”. I think that’s how that rumour got started, you know, like: ”He wasn’t available, he wanted too much money”, or something like that. If we had a great rapport with Elvis: fine. If we didn’t: also fine. Jerry Scheff had to leave the country at one time, and went to Canada. We had to hire Emory Gordy to come along and play for a while. Of course Jerry was welcomed back when he made the decision to come, but the Colonel always tried to disassociate. If I may read further into it, I think it was because of the problems they had with Scotty. Scotty was Elvis’ manager at one time, and I think the Colonel resented anyone having any influence on Elvis. He wanted to be able to control him.
Around that time, it became quite common that all musicians were given credit on the albums, but Elvis’ musicians never did. Was this ever discussed?
We were told that the Colonel didn’t want to do that. He only mentioned the singers, because their union requires it to file a contract. The AFFM, where our contracts were filed, does not require you to do that. So therefore, if he didn’t have to do it, the Colonel wouldn’t do it. So nobody would know that we played with Elvis, unless Elvis introduced us live on stage, on the record itself, or in the film. That’s the sad part of that aspect.
It’s interesting to note that in my previous interviews with Elvis musicians, none of them has much good to say about the Colonel.
The good thing I can say about the Colonel is that he always did what he said he would do for me, or with me. If we had only worked for a few days, and had a one-month contract, and Elvis was sick or had a throat problem or something, the Colonel would never say: ”Well, now that he’s sick, we’re gonna maybe have to discount, we’ll pay you most of it”. Never a question of that. It was always: ”Here’s your cheque for the whole thing”. So he was an honourable man when it came to business associations and contractual agreements. And that’s the best thing I can say about him. But on the other hand, he was also a difficult man in the sense that… I can count on my hands the times he said ’hello’ to me. We’d be walking down the same hallway of a hotel, and he’d just walk right by you like he never saw you. We’d joke about it and say: ”drummers are a dime a dozen”. When you look at the old picture and look at all the experiences, maybe that was his problem, you know. Maybe he felt like there was only one star, and that’s true. We’ve always laughed about that Elvis could’ve done the show with ten monkeys, and people would still come to see the show. But there’s other people that have another view on those things, and say: ”You guys were very much a part of the sound and feel that he had”. Those concepts are far beyond a businessman’s concept. Only musicians and real appreciaters of what was going on would understand that kind of thing.
You came back in July 1970, and by then the repertoire was shifting more towards ballads. Did you notice any differences?
I honestly don’t remember. Some of the things are vague to me, some of them are very clear. I don’t remember anything about repertoire at that particular point. I do know that he had a lot of pressure on him to record a lot of songs from a lot of his gofer people that were around him. Everybody had a deal going, and were constantly trying to get him to record their songs. Not necessarily that they were good songs for him. But of course he had the final say, so he had to like it or he wouldn’t do it. We were constantly trying to get him to play more rock ’n’ roll, but over the years he became more interested in doing more big sounding things. He liked the emotion that it brought forth.
In August 1970, MGM filmed several Las Vegas shows for the TTWII movie. Did the cameras annoy him?
No, I don’t think so. I think he had some kind of a premonition that… It could be great to have a documentation of what he was doing at that point in his life. He was far-sided enough to have done two documentaries, instead of trying to do more of those crazy stupid movies that he did, and that he was embarrassed by. I think he was very serious about being an actor, but he never got the chance.
Did he talk about that?
Oh yeah. We were studying karate, and at one time he talked about us doing kind of like a Bruce Lee international thriller, where we’d all be part of the cast. You know, like a guy and his group, kinda like Bruce Lee had with his guys, that went to this big tournament. He was very impressed by that movie. He talked about wanting to do a karate movie, and he was starting to write a script. I saw some pages. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition or reality, but I thought it’d be a great idea. There were quite a few of us involved, you know.
Was there a big difference between playing in Vegas and playing on the road?
Big, big difference. All the difference in the world. He tolerated, and only tolerated, playing in Vegas. The first year was great, and then he became very bored. He was like a caged animal. Because he had this penthouse at the top, and he was like ”the prince in the tower”, you know. It was very difficult for him to do that. He was too much of a free spirit to be hung in one place and having to do two shows a night. It was very difficult for all of us.
Then why did he keep himself ”caged” so much?
Well, that was only a rumour, but there we go back to the Colonel again. The rumour came about in the last few years that the Colonel had tremendous gambling debts in Vegas, and that he constantly manipulated Elvis to come back again and again. I do know in the last year or two that we played Vegas, that Elvis insisted that he only do one show a night. Which was realistic, and which is what he should have done in the first place all those years.
How did the playing itself in Vegas compare to playing on the road?
There was a big difference in the reaction. If you think about it: we’re doing a dinner-show in this big showroom, and there’s plates clattering, and there’s waiters dropping glasses, and people sipping their soup and eating their steaks, and there’s a clamour going on, and he’s out there singing his heart out, we’re trying to reach out to these people. The second show was a big step up, because all that was gone. People were sitting there ready to be entertained. It had a better concert feeling, but it was nowhere compared to the major arenas of the United States, where thousands of people had payed money to sit undevidedly and watch every move we made. You can image the difference in response from people.
Before this interview we discussed that Opening Night in August 1974, where he did a totally different set-list, got disappointed with the feedback and went back to the old format one day later. Do you think the reaction would have been different if he had tried this on the road?
Possibly, but he was a very impetious man. He’d try something once and if he didn’t like it, it was gone. He was very impatient when it came to this kind of thing. He was so secure in one way, and yet very insecure – almost like a small boy – in other ways.
On March 3, 1974 Elvis played two shows at the Houston Astrodome, both without the orchestra…
It was very unusual, because we were out in the middle of 45.000 people at each show. We were on a kidney shaped stage that revolved very slowly. It wouldn’t go all the way around, it kinda rotated, you know. It was a strange shape, so in order for the sound to be proper or as good as you could make the sound, we were in plexiglas. What happened was that we tried to do it all plexiglas, every individual instrument. Elvis didn’t like that. So after a few songs he said: ”Get that plexiglas out of there!”. So they got it out of there. And only just a few of us had it. And then he came over, and he just stood there again. He stood right in front of me, and he forgot about trying to turn and face the people. He just turned and faced us. So we did our own show, almost like a rehearsal. We couldn’t have cared less if there’d been 45.000 people, because we couldn’t see them. They looked like little tiny antheads out there anyway. He’d make a move, and two-and-a-half seconds later you’d hear a ”wooosh” sound. The reaction, you know. So that got to be humorous to him, so he started playing on that (laughs). That’s the way he was, you know, he had a crazy sense of humor. That was the fun part about it, but as far as music and feedback from people, there was none at all. We could have been on Mars, you know (laughs).
Are there any concerts that stick out in your mind?
There’s a few. There’s that one, and we played a New Year’s Eve at the Pontiac Silverdome, for a New Year’s Eve Party. There were 80.000 people there. We played in the round again, but it was solid people everywhere. From the first step down there were chairs all the way, as far as you could see. That was pretty exciting. And I remember one night in Buffalo, N.Y., where the fans rushed the stage at the end of the show. They were so excited that they just came right over the front of it. That was scary. Funny and bizarre, but scary at the same time. I remember the high ’highs’, speaking on a level of consistency of doing concerts, and I remember the low ’lows’. In the South of the United States, the people are much more courteous, so they may not respond quite as enthusiastic as they might in some other part of the country. He would take that personally, as if they were not enjoying it. So he’d turn around to me about halfway through the show, and and say (in a low voice): ”Let’s get the hell out of here, Ronnie”. That’s what he’d do. Then it’d be ’Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and ”Elvis has left the building” again! (laughs). So those were the low ’lows’… there were nights where he came out, and where he didn’t seem to be into it to begin with, but there were also nights where there were just tremendous ’highs’, because everything was right, he felt great, the audience was responding, and people got the show of their life.
The ’Aloha’ show must have been one of those ’highs’.
Now that was incredibly exciting. To think that a major part of the world was watching you live. He was very keyed up for that.
What about you, weren’t you afraid to make any mistakes?
You just try not to think about the mistakes. You just try to play through it. Get as excited about it as you can, and play controlled. That’s part of being a professional, on an instrument or you be an athlete or whatever it is, you work for consistency in what you do. That’s the way you look at it. If you even make a small mistake you can’t stop and think about it. If you stop and think about it, then you’ll make another one. I just think you have to think of the positive things when you’re doing a big thing, a big occasion like that. You have to think about how many people are watching you, rather than think like: ”Ooh, my God”, you have to think: ”Wow, this is really amazing!”.
In March 1972, you recorded with Elvis at RCA Hollywood, which was the first time you recorded in a studio with him. What were your impressions of working in the studio with him?
A studio environment is a much more sterile environment. There’s no acoustic resonance in any way at all, and everything you do, you look through the microscope at it. I don’t think any of his recordings ever did him justice. I don’t think he lent himself to recording very well. Felton Jarvis was constantly pulling his hairs out. Because of the recording technique he’d have him in a booth off somewhere. Elvis would take about ten minutes of that, take off his headphones, grab the microphone, go over and… Everything would be bleeding into his mike. Yet he didn’t want to go back in and do the vocal again later on. He’d say: ”Hey, I did the f***ing song. That’s the way it is, that’s the way it should be…”. He was a purist when it came to that. He believed that… These are my own words, but he believed that recording is an art of recording a live performance, not an art of a recording studio. You see what I mean? There’s a real differentation between the two. He was very puristic when it came to that.
But in the early years, he’d sometimes do 20 or 30 takes of a song, while during for example the Stax sessions in ’73, he was often already satisfied after only 2 or 3 takes of a song. Some of the songs from these sessions sound unfinished and a little rough around the edges to me.
That’s because none of it had the excitement and the energy of the live things. He liked the way the live things were. Even though he read a lot of books, he was an unedicated man. There were a lot of ways in which he didn’t know how to express himself. That was one of the things he didn’t know how to express. He didn’t know how to say to a producer or a record company or whoever: ”Look, I don’t feel what I need to feel in the studio, so let’s just take it to the live stage”. There would have been many ways to get around that. We could have rehearsed the songs for two or three days or a week somewhere, and then take and done them live. A whole week of recording live of all-new material. And he would have been much happier. He would have been excited about the crowd’s response. Because he was very sensitive to how people perceived him. Like you said before, if he would have tried new material on a live audience, it could have been a totally different thing.
Did he express his dissatisfaction with recording in a studio?
He was always frustrated with the sounds, with the mixes. From what I understand, everything that he did, after it had already been mixed, got taken to New York, where it was remixed.
Then what about Felton Jarvis’ role as a producer?
They totally went around Felton. Felton’s job was basically to make Elvis happy. It’s as simple as that. To be his friend, to make him happy. That’s what he told me.
Do you have any favorite songs of the ones you recorded with him?
Well, ’Burning Love’ kind of has a soft spot in my heart. I remember that Felton Jarvis was sick as a dog… He had a kidney transplant, and he was very, very ill the day that we recorded that song. He was lying on his back in the control-room at RCA, and I produced the record. Emory Gordy came up with the bass-line, and I produced the record for Felton, you know, the whole session. It’s been a very successful song. It more described the kind of music that we were trying to get him to do at that time. So I take a little pride in that.
Can you tell us a little more about your friendship with Elvis? Did you see him often in private?
I didn’t see him too often, because I didn’t want to be associated with the hangers-on, you know, the guys that were constantly laughing at all of his jokes. I had too much respect for him. We saw eachother anytime karate people were around. He’d always call me up and want me to be involved in that. And on a couple of occasions I’d come and talk to him at his place in L.A., and of course, when we were in Memphis, we’d come and hang out at Graceland, and a few very precious times at Christmas. I was at my mother’s house one time. I was thinking about him and I called him up. I told him that I was at my mother’s house, and he said: ”Well, is she there?”. I said: ”Yeah”, and he said: ”Well, let me wish her a Merry Christmas”, ’cause he had met her once before. So he was very gracious with that. My mother was thrilled that Elvis wanted to talk to her and wish her a Merry Christmas. Oh, she was… (laughs). She just thought that was the greatest thing in the world. Just on a personal level, he was that way to my father later. When we’d go and play in Texas, my father would go and see the show. Elvis would talk to him, and my dad was so proud! He was so honoured. Elvis was wonderful at those things. He had a great ability to be able to keep those kind of things important and sacred in peoples’ lives. We miss his humor, just the laughing and the craziness… He was just like a big kid, you know. One year, he was doing those ol’ movies, he was ”playing” cowboy. We always called it he was ”playing” something, just like he was playing karate. He was playing cowboy that year, so he had dirt brought in from Texas around Graceland! Real dirt from Texas! (laughs). And then he’d buy everybody golf carts, and then he’d do this, and then he’d do that… He was just like any of us would be if money was no object, and we had a circle of friends… and we’d just have a good time all the time. That’s the way he did it, you know.
Did you talk to him man-to-man about personal things?
Yeah, I did. I wish we’d talked more about some things…
You mean about drugs?
Well, I’ll never be able to throw a rock at anybody, because I did my share. And everybody in this group is… but ’for the grace of God, go away’ as we say. But I was never aware of anything that he was actually doing, because we never hung out and did drugs together. That wasn’t our thing, you know. And I don’t know that he ever did any serious kind of drugs other than the fact that… just uppers and downers. He needed something to relax, he’d have to wind down after a show. And he was a very impulsive man, as I have eluded to before. He’d take a sleeping pill, and if it didn’t work in five minutes, he’d take a handfull of sleeping pills. That’s just the way he was. And when he got out, he’d have to get something to maybe get him up, you know. And that was the drug thing. I don’t think that’s good for your heart. I don’t know that he ever did any hard drugs in his life. There’s one conversation with him in particular that I remember, because it was a very touching moment. He invited me out to his place, and he was very concerned about what was going on with his divorce. And because I had gone through a divorce, he wanted to talk to me and my companionship. That’s one thing I always prided myself in, I always tried to tell Elvis: ”Whatever you ask me, I’ll give you my best answer I could possibly give you”. Not just what I thought he wanted to hear. So with that in mind, I think he wanted to know… He was very, very concerned about the divorce. He couldn’t understand why a woman would want to divorce him when he was the idol of millions of women all over the world. It was an image in his mind that he could not… He said: ”I can’t, I just can’t understand it”. And I said: ”Well hey, sometimes that’s the way it goes”.
Did you see a difference in him after the divorce?
Yeah, I think I could. Even though he did have other women that cared for him, in particular Linda Thompson cared for him. She loved him a lot. My wife Donna and her, they were friends. They hung out a lot, and watched the shows together. And I talked to Linda a lot myself. She definitely wanted to get married. And I was also very close with Kathy Westmoreland, who was very close with him. He also wanted Kathy to marry him, and Kathy and I were pretty much engaged when I met my wife now! So, it was a close family! (laughs)
It seems that Elvis’ concerts started getting sloppier after the divorce. He’d hold these long monologues and so forth.
I think he was searching for… He was the kind of guy that needed new things. He needed to be inspired about certain things. And I personally feel that management was not doing that for him. I personally feel that at that point of his life he should have travelled. We should have taken that show to where we are right now. He should have gone all over Europe, he should have gone to Asia, he should have gone around the world. No other artist in our time could have gone every place that he could have gone. I mean, there’s no place where the man couldn’t have gone. There’s no place that wouldn’t have welcomed him. Even in the most remote parts of Russia I think they know Elvis Presley! Just think about that. And I think deep down… there again, because he couldn’t express himself… but I think that deep down he knew that, and that was part of his frustration.
Maybe another part of it is his insecurity that you mentioned earlier, you know, like: ”Are they gonna like me down there?”.
That’s true too. That’s definitely true too. But I know for a fact that he was willing to take the chance. I know that he wanted to go. But he was evidently getting bad information somewhere.
I guess it was difficult to go from a ’high’ like the Aloha show straight into another routine engagement in Las Vegas. That must have been a downer.
I think so. There again, he was like a caged animal, going from this big upper, this powerful thing to just… He needed to move along. He didn’t need to keep doing the same thing he did. Back to my statement: why did he keep going back there? Somebody was telling him that he had to do it. It’s a shame. I do know for a fact that there was a group of management called Management III, and they had Three Dog Night, Led Zeppelin and others, and they were also working with Elvis. They didn’t have exclusive control, but they were working with the Colonel’s office. One of their partners was travelling with us, and I do know from talking to him that they were trying to buy his contract away from the Colonel, because they saw exactly what was going on. He needed to go around the world. He needed a complete change back from that mentality that we discussed earlier. And I think that’s part of the thing… I personally feel that in a way he died of boredom. He had very little to look forward to. I saw it in his life too. I had dinner with him. I saw the girl that was with him. She was just there for the ride. She didn’t care about him in my opinion, in my observation. When you’ve surrounded yourself with people like that, then I think… He didn’t know how to become seriously depressed, because he wasn’t that kind of person… I think it had a major effect on him. Another part of the tragedy is that he was trapped in the image that he had created. He wasn’t even allowed to have his real hair colour! He was influenced to dye it jet-black. And his hair was snow white, as white as my beard. It was just beautiful. He would have been beautiful with snow white hair. But he was never allowed.
Was never allowed? By whom?
I don’t know by whom. Maybe those who tried to influence him, saying: ”Hey, you look younger this way”. That was the real tragedy about him, because he always had to look like Elvis Presley. That was reinforced by people such as hairdressers and those kind of people. He dyed his hair, he dyed his eyes. I used to look up, and the black was just pouring down his face. He was sweating and working hard, you know. It was black just pouring down his face. Cheap mascara. He’d look like Alice Cooper, he really did! (laughs). Then I’d go to Charlie: ”Charlie, what in the hell are you putting on the guy’s eyes? Can’t you see that black is pouring down his face?”.
People often say: ”hindsight is no sight at all”, but looking back on the final years now, it’s not really difficult to see why it ended the way it did. Back then, were there any signs for you that maybe he would end in an early grave?
I could only see that he was one of the most resilient men I have ever known. There were times where he’d be out of shape, we’d have two weeks before a tour and we were rehearsing or something like that, and we’d say: ”How is he going to look good for the tour?”. Sure enough, two weeks later he’d show up the first night, he’d come out and look just great. It was like he’d jumped in a convenient telephone booth and put on his ”Elvis Presley Uniform”, you know, like Superman. He’d be great, ”up” and just wonderful. I saw him do that, up and down, so many times that by 1977 and that CBS Special… I can’t even watch that thing. I won’t watch it. That was somebody at their worst instead of their best, and my memories of him are always of his best. I prefer not to think of the bad ones. My point is that he obviously was a lot more seriously ill than people understood, even than I understood. Because he was not a winer. He wasn’t the kind of guy that would say: ”Oh, I don’t feel good, I can’t go out…”. I can remember going in to see him before a show, and he’d be sitting there. He’d have a cold towel on his eyes. Because we found out later that he had some… So many flashbulbs, all the light… So much strain for the eyes. We didn’t have good lightning people back then. They would have four spotlights, and they would just be right on him all the time. They didn’t know how to diffuse the light properly, and the lightning properly. So he always had direct powerful force spotlights right in his face. You’d come in before a show, and his eyes would just be pouring water out. You feel sorry for him, but you think: ”Hey, it comes with the territory”. But as I say, we all agree that he was much more ill than any of us really had hoped that he was, or even really could understand that he was. But you always think: ”Oh, he’ll be okay, he’ll snap out of it”, because he always did. But he couldn’t do it anymore. He did it too many times.
On some of those 8mm films that fans recorded during concerts it seems like he’s barely awake…
There were nights where I basically had to – WHOOOMM!!! – with the bassdrum as hard as I could. You know, like: ”come on, come on!”. These are the parts that I don’t like to talk about. That’s one of the good things about doing ELVIS THE CONCERT that we do now, because it’s all beautiful, he doesn’t have off-nights, he looks perfect and sings great. He never sang better because they have isolated his vocal, so there’s no bleed and no spill-over, so the soundman can sit back and just perfectly mix his voice in there. It’s a thrill to do that show every night. I don’t think about 1977 or those few other bad occasions. Only talking about them now do they even come into my memory. All my recollections are the good times. One of my favorite moments in ELVIS THE CONCERT is that wonderful piece, ’Sweet, Sweet Spirit’ and watching his face. I remember those nights watching his face like that. He was like a little boy, you know.
One of the major topics of discussion among European fans is bootlegs. How do you feel about them, and have you ever listened to one?
Only because fans or somebody has given me one. What do I think about them? Well, to give you a little background: as I mentioned to you before, we’re all professional musicians. We work in recording studios in L.A., now I work in Nashville… We are involved in an industry that is controlled by the unions. Otherwise, it would be absolute chaos. There are regulations and laws governing recording. When somebody bootlegs a record, they are breaking the law. I don’t mean to sound like I am stiff and strictly for the law. I mean, I’m as rebellious as anybody, but at the same time, there’s an economic side of it too. Somebody has made some money – maybe not so much, but at least money has changed hands – without the talent getting the benefit of it. That’s the thing I have against it. You know, I’m sending children through college, and I’m having to work whether I want to work or not. That’s all I know to do, is to play drums. You have to remember that musicians have no retirement. There’s no retirement funds like when you work for a business. Musicians have to save their own money if they’re gonna have a retirement. So if all the monies from bootlegs and all the things that… I don’t mean to sound like a bitter old man, I’m not… but those are the things I have against it. You can’t control it, you can’t go after it with attorneys with people that do bootlegs in Europe, not from the United States. It’s like trying to chase the wind. You can’t do that. The good thing about it is that it’s giving Elvis’ music, or anybody’s music, to the fans. I was involved for a number of years with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and you can go on the Internet right now and buy all kinds of recordings from the sound desk of the gigs that we did with the Jerry Garcia band. And I know that I’ve never gotten a penny from any of that. You can say: ”Well, that’s part of the money you made”, but it’s the opposite of the way it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to get residuals, not get ripped off! (laughs). It’s like a writer, a publisher or anybody that has written a song, we all have it set up to where, if money is gonna be made, they share in the profits a little bit. But because of bootlegs we don’t share any, only the person that wants to break the law.
Are you aware of the many ’70s soundboards that have been released on bootleg?
I know that they are out there. There were several different sources that those came from. I do know his engineer had soundboard recordings, and I know that he has sold some. And I know that Tom Diskin’s wife recorded every show in Vegas with a little personal recorder. I don’t think it was soundboard, but I know that she has recordings. So there again, somebody’s pockets got lined (laughs)… poor musicians! No, I am not going to cry over spilt milk, but you understand my principle about it.
One final question: do you have any souvenirs of your years with Elvis?
I’ve got all my jumpsuits, wanna buy one? (laughs). A few items that he gave me… He gave me a gold watch in 1969, at the International hotel. That was the first gift he gave me. I still keep it, it’s a beautiful solid gold swiss watch. On the back is an inscription. If you’ve listened to some of the ’69 / ’70 concerts, he calls himself ”the original squirrel” or ”squirly”. On the back of it, it says: ”To Ronnie – from ’Squirly’ EP”, he didn’t even say ”Elvis”. And he mis-spelled the word ”Squirly”. It’s real special to me, you know.
Ronnie, thanks for the interview.
You’re welcome. I enjoyed it.