by Molly Gloss
From Fall 2016
Recorded at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the occasion of the induction of Elvis and Jesse Presley into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, January 23rd, 1986
[Elvis Presley]: Well, the last record Jesse and I made together was twenty five years ago now, so I wouldn’t have blamed y’all if you’d forgot all about The Presley Brothers. But it’s an honor to be up here with the rest of these fellows [gesturing], all these men we sung with and admired, and the ones already passed, Bob Johnson, Jimmy Yancey, who we listened to when we were kids, and took after as much as we could. [applause]
We were always singing. When we were two years old, we’d be at church and we’d slide off Momma’s lap, run up the aisle to the stage so we could try to join the choir. At home, the radio was always playing—Momma loved music—and we’d join our voices to whatever we heard coming out of that Philco she kept on the kitchen table. But then I think we were ten when we gave our first public performance. This came about because one morning at school—I don’t recall the reason—we stood up and sang something for our fifth grade class and then Miss Osborne who was our teacher at the time encouraged us to enter a singing contest at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. Momma dressed us like cowboys and we climbed up on a chair together so we could reach the microphone. We sang Red Foley’s country song “Old Shep,” and I believe we placed fifth. [laughter, applause] So, for our eleventh birthday, Daddy and Momma gave me a guitar and they gave Jesse a bicycle, and we were told to share. We always had shared everything anyway, right from the start.
When we were born Daddy was just 18 years old and Momma was 22. They were living in Tupelo back then and Daddy was working for a lumber yard. We were born in a two-room shotgun shack he built himself from lumber cadged from that yard. Jesse came out first and I was born thirty minutes later. Jesse was blue and cold—the midwife thought he was stillborn—but she blew air into him and pinched his little cheeks and slapped his little behind and just about the time Momma had quit hoping for a miracle he took in a big gasp and pinked right up. Jesse always said he remembered it all. He remembered a string of longing tightening suddenly between him and me, and the plucked note, the sacred note, calling across space, and he said it was God hearing that note who reached out and touched him and gave him life, so I wouldn’t have to come into the world alone. [sustained applause]
Every wall-eyed uncle and yard cousin seems to make it into Tupelo [laughter]. It creates a peculiar culture, I will say that, but it wasn’t a bad place for kids to grow up. We lived in a mostly Black neighborhood and we heard a lot of what we used to call “race radio”—Black gospel music and blues—coming out the windows when we were walking home from school or playing out in the yard or the street. At home we listened to Mississippi Slim’s radio show, which I guess you would say was hillbilly music, but we didn’t hold one kind of music above the other, we were just crazy about all of it. Hank Snow and Sister Rosetta Tharp: we admired them equally.
We learned how to play that birthday guitar from our daddy’s brother and from the pastor at the Assembly of God church. We watched other people playing, too, and picked up a few things that way. We hung around the record shops that had juke boxes or listening booths—do y’all remember those? [scattered applause, whoops]—and we learned to sing harmony mostly by listening to the Delmore Brothers over and over again. Being twins, we had the same voice, you know, and “parallel thirds” is not something we had heard of back then, but we figured out for ourselves how to arrange a song so each line would stand alone as a melody line, and we took turns singing the solo bits. We both of us studied and played by ear. Jesse never did learn to read music and I was thirty-five or better before Roy Orbison sat me down and taught me the notes. [laughter, applause]
Mississippi Slim’s little brother was a classmate of ours, and after Slim heard us singing he booked us for a couple of on-air performances. Jesse wasn’t shy but I was, and we weren’t but twelve years old. The first time we were to sing I had such a case of stage fright that I didn’t think I could go through with it. Slim said Jesse should go on the air without me but Jesse shook his head. We had our own twin language, which they tell me is not uncommon, but ours was a language mostly without words, and Jesse that time looked over at me and he told me without words that I should not be afraid. That I was not alone in the world. And I remembered it was true: God had reached out and touched Jesse so I wouldn’t have to be alone. So I went ahead and sang, and that was the first time anybody ever heard The Presley Brothers singing on the radio [applause].
Then, just about the time we were going into high school, Daddy moved us over to Memphis, which took some getting used to. We were in rooming houses to start with and then public housing, and the high school kids teased us for that, and for liking hillbilly music and Black music. When we pulled a C minus in music class [laughter], it made Jesse mad. He came in the next day with our guitar and tried to prove our teacher wrong. He sang a Rufus Thomas song, “The Bear Cat,” and the teacher said she just didn’t care for that type of song. She said she knew better than to ask where Jesse had learned that music, or where any of it came from. We both knew what she meant: that he shouldn’t be singing Black music, or listening to it. But Jesse just said to her, “Ma’am, I learned it from Mr. Thomas singing it on the radio, and where it comes from”— he tapped his chest—“is inside of me.” [applause]
After a while, we made some friends in Memphis and we formed a hillbilly group with a couple of other kids from The Lauderdale Courts where we were living, and we started playing around The Courts some, for birthday parties and that sort of thing. One of those boys had a washtub bass and the other had a fiddle, and Jesse borrowed a second guitar from one of the neighbors. Me and Jesse did the vocals, singing tight harmony. We knew pretty much all of Hank Snow, and we could play Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rogers, Bob Wills.
We split off from those boys, though, after we said we wanted to sing some blues, some R & B and Black gospel ballads, and they said we were turning colored. It was after that, we took to styling our hair with rose oil and Vaseline and we grew sideburns, which was a look we had seen on blues players hanging around Beale Street. Y’all know Beale is the downtown Memphis strip? [whoops] Neon-lit shops, jazz joints, all-Black night clubs. We met B.B. King down on Beale, did y’all know that? [applause, whoops] We knew him before any of us had a name. Well, he was on the way to getting a name, and it might have been him we were trying to look like.
Everything was segregated in those days but the blues clubs had “white nights,” and after we turned eighteen we went to those shows as often as we could. We were just nuts for the sounds we heard there—screaming, shouting, wailing, reckless. The white gospel groups had monthly singings downtown, too. We figured some of those fellows must have been going into the blues clubs on “white nights” just like we were, because you could hear those white groups trying to come close to the way the Black groups sounded. Some of them would even jiggle their legs around like the Blacks did, and they’d wear wild, flashy suits like the ones in the windows at Lansky Brothers.
In Memphis, we were listening to WDIA which played all Black music, and then late at night we listened to Dewey Phillips’ “Red, Hot and Blue” show on WHBQ. Dewey was like us, just crazy about all kinds of music. He mixed up R & B with country boogie, he played blues and gospel, and love songs from harmony groups. LaVerne Baker and then The Drifters, Big Joe Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, then Ruth Brown and maybe an old gospel song from Sister Rosetta.
People have said it was The Presley Brothers who opened up the door between Black music and country music, but we just saw the open door and walked on through it. We never had a music lesson or a singing lesson, it was Beale Street and the radio and all, that was our musical education.
There is a story you might have heard about our first record, how we recorded it as a gift for our mother, and how we got accidentally discovered by Mr. Phillips [gesturing toward Sam Phillips] [whoops, applause]. We told that story ourselves so many times I think we almost came to believe it, but here’s the truth: If all we had wanted was to make a record for Momma for her birthday we could have gone on down the street to the drug store where there was a little record-making service for a lot less money. [laughter] But we had singled out music as our future, and we went into Sun Records and paid for studio time so we could record a two-sided acetate disc because we were hoping Mr. Phillips would hear us singing. We were hoping to catch a big break and be famous: That’s the real story. [laughter, applause]
Sun was mostly recording Black musicians in those days and Mr. Phillips will tell you, he was particularly looking for a white man who had a Black sound and what used to be called a “Negro feel.” A white singer who could bring in a broader audience for that type of music. Mr. Phillips wasn’t looking for close harmony when we walked in but after he heard us he was interested enough to bring us back to the studio a couple of times and finally we had a session with Scotty Moore on bass and Bill Black on steel string guitar [scattered applause] to see if we could come up with something. It went all day into the night with nothing much taking hold. We were tired, just about to quit, when Jesse, messing around, started belting out Arthur Crudup’s old blues number “That’s All Right.” And I jumped in, but it wasn’t any stacked harmony, I was just coming in rough, and then the others picked up their instruments and it was gritty as all get-out. But Mr. Phillips happened to have the door to the studio standing open, and he stepped in and said, “Go back and do that again” and he recorded it. [applause]
Maybe you know the rest of that story, Dewey playing the song on his radio show a bunch of times and everybody thinking we were Black at first, and then playing a show at Overton Park and all the girls screaming when we shook our legs. [shouts and prolonged applause] A lot of the Black groups on Beale Street shimmied around some, and it was always a natural thing for both of us, just like it was for them. Feeling the rhythm, and feeling like we just couldn’t stand still, and I was nervous, besides, so in the instrumental parts I would back off from the mike and be playing and shaking and the crowd would just go wild. It wasn’t a calculated thing, but as time went on we both started being conscious of what would get a reaction. One of us would do something and if it provoked the audience then we’d both take it up, and maybe take it a little farther.
Then Bob Neal signed on as our manager and we played the regional circuit for a couple of years, calling ourselves The Hillbilly Cats [a few whoops]. Some of those teenaged boys in the audience got to hating us [laughter] which I guess was on account of the girls screaming. They were worried we were out to steal their girls, I guess. There were occasions in some towns in Texas when we’d have to be sure to have a police guard because somebody was always trying to take a crack at us, or get up a gang and try to waylay us. I never heard of that happening to the Everly Brothers [laughter], but I happen to know it was those squeaky clean Everlys [gestures toward the Everlys] that the kids should have been worried about. It was always Phil and Don who were out to steal the girls. [applause, laughter]
We were making records for Sun, ten sides or so by then, but not getting much radio airplay, which Bob always said was because our music was hard to pin down, hard to put a name to. The country music disc jockeys said we sounded too much like Black singers, and the R & B guys said our blues had too much hillbilly sound. Rockabilly was what everybody called it later, but there just wasn’t a name for it right then.
We were a bit too wild for the Grand Ole Opry but Bob got us a regular Saturday night gig on the Louisiana Hayride, and then Colonel Parker come along [scattered boos, Mr. Presley’s hand raising to quiet them] and he got us signed with RCA. Well, we were still minors, just 20 years old, so it was our daddy who signed for us.
The first song we did with RCA was “Heartbreak Hotel” [applause] and they put some money behind it, promoted it pretty heavy, got us some radio airplay, which is what we’d been needing, and I guess you could say that song did fairly well for us [applause]. Everything went pretty crazy after that. I don’t know if y’all remember, but we had ten number one hits, I think it was, and did all those TV shows—Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan—and that silly movie, Double Trouble, all of it in those first couple of years. Not even two years, it was 21 months from when “Heartbreak” hit the charts to when I went off to the Army, just 21 months, and we were touring all that time when we weren’t recording or making a movie or flying off to do some TV show. Amazing to think about, even now, how much happened in such a short time.
Well now I think I’d better wrap this up. They told me I could talk for ten, fifteen minutes, about whatever I wanted, and I wanted to talk about those early times, the way we started, because the rest of it, the last twenty-five years and what all, has been talked just about to death.
We were a couple of poor dumb Southern country boys who got lucky, that’s what folks used to say [boos]. But luck is just life coming together, working itself out the way it will do, this is what Momma always said.
So I will finish up by telling you this one time life worked itself out: It was after we did the first Milton Berle show and we were flying back to Nashville, flying over Arkansas, when one of the engines died and the plane heeled over pretty hard and started to drop. Now this was 1956 and we were just getting started—there was just the one album and it had just come out. So I think of that sometimes, that if that plane had gone on and crashed y’all would have “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” but that’d be all of it. We’d have been nothing but a footnote to the history of Rock and Roll, not anybody you’d think of voting into the Hall of Fame.
All our lives Jesse and I wondered about the way he was born, which was a kind of miracle and a mystery. We both of us had these dreams where we were separated but we went on believing in each other even though each of us was sure that the other must be lost. We dreamed we were in a place all dark and without shape, and we were waiting there for the other one to show up. And this felt like it was only part dream and the rest was part memory.
We were both always interested in the spiritual side of things, the meaning of life, those soulful questions, which was on account of our dreams and the way Jesse was born. And we were readers, both of us, we carried around a trunk full of books when we were on the road, and we’d read certain parts to each other out loud. While we had been waiting to go on the Milton Berle Show he had read to me something about the Buddhist way of thinking—how people have all these lifetimes, and how the dead meet up in this place called the Bardo, which is some kind of state of existence between lives. You meet up there with the ones you love, and you talk things over before being born again. Or anyway that’s how he understood it, and he thought our dreams might be some memory of being in the Bardo, each of us waiting for the other one to get there.
So that time over Arkansas, when the plane looked to be going down, there was a minute when we thought this might be it, this might be all of this lifetime we were going to get. I looked over at Jesse and he just smiled and said, “Look for me, Elvis. I’ll be waiting.”
And I said to him, “I will, Jesse. I’ll look for you.”
And now he’s gone I think often about how he used to say he would be the one to go first—that he had been the one to go first in all our lifetimes. So I think of him waiting for me. And I know when I get there I will go looking for him and when we find each other, the string that joins me to him will play such a note, y’all will hear it all the way up here in the world.
Excerpted from citations for The Presley Brothers on the occasion of their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
The Presleys reshaped [those] old R & B songs—infused them with their own vocal character—but they never softened the wailing, reckless edges, as so many white artists were doing in the 1950s. And it was the cover image of their first album Elvis and Jesse!—the brothers’ faces transformed by the music, their guitars lifted high—that crucially placed the guitar, not the piano, at the center of this new music known as Rock and Roll.
–Music critic Robert Rodman
The Presleys, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture.
–Historian Marty Jezer
Their early recordings, more than any others, contain the seeds of what rock and roll was, has been, and most likely what it may foreseeably become.
–Critic Dave Marsh
Hall of Fame Series Interview. Recorded in the Foster Theater, Rock and Roll Museum, Cleveland, Ohio, February 22, 1997
John Halliman: Welcome Mr. Presley. Thank you for being here.
Elvis Presley: It’s my pleasure.
JH: You yourself—that is, Elvis, the singer-songwriter—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, twenty-nine years after your first solo album [applause] but I want to start by talking just a bit about you and your brother, about The Presley Brothers. As a duo, you were in that very first group of musicians inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986. Bob Dylan, speaking at your induction, said when he first heard The Presley Brothers “it felt like busting out of jail.” Fats Domino, also in that first group, called you and your brother “The Kings.”
EP: I’ll tell you who the kings of rock ‘n roll are, it’s those guys we heard growing up, those Black singers we took after. It’s Arthur Crudup, and all the rest.
JH: Arthur Crudup was a well-known Black musician in Memphis, is that right? You heard him sing in the blues clubs there?
EP: Yes sir, we did. If I ever got to the place where I could feel all that old Arthur felt, I’d be a rocker like nobody ever saw.
JH: Little Richard, who was inducted in that same group with you and your brother, has said that The Presley Brothers opened the door for Black music, allowed Black musicians to make it into the mainstream. But there have been a few critics over the years who’ve accused you and your brother of “stealing” Black music.
EP: Well, we did steal it, I guess. It was the music we liked to listen to, and we liked to sing it, if that’s stealing. Rock and roll is just rhythm and blues, or it sprung from that, mixed up with old-timey country music, hillbilly music, and we always tried to show respect for all those artists we listened to when we were kids.
JH: The Everly Brothers were also inducted into the Hall of Fame that year. You and your brother are most often compared to the Everlys, and I wonder what you think of that comparison, what differences or similarities you see.
EP: Well, it’s what they always used to say, we were the rowdy boys and they were the good boys. [laughter] No, all of us come out of the country tradition some way or other, but I would say Don and Phil stayed closer to it than we did. They could get to rocking pretty hard, but it was always with a steel-string guitar, strumming or finger-picking, kind of a bluegrass instrumentation, and that tight, melodic vocal harmony. I guess we took it more toward a backbeat-heavy R and B. We got away from stacked harmonies into kind of a raw, slurred vocal style. And we always jiggled around a bit more than they did [laughter, applause]. But you know, rock ‘n roll is a big old tent and there’s plenty of room in it for all of us. We were big fans of the Everlys.
JH: After you were discharged from the Army, you and your brother only briefly performed as a duo and then split up. Would you talk about that?
EP: Well, that’s been talked about til the cows come home.
JH: But if I may say so, not very often by you. You spent two years in the Army, which some of your biographers have said was the beginning of your split. I wonder if you could start by just saying a little about that, about being out of the music business for so long, separated from your brother both musically and physically for the first time in your lives.
EP: Well, you know, I got a draft notice and Jesse didn’t. The Memphis Draft Board had a lot of leeway in those days, and people say they were trying to split us up, that they thought we were a bad influence on their children. We never did see how any type of music could have a bad influence on people when it’s only music, but we did think maybe my going into the Army would be the end of our career. RCA had us into the studio to record some songs to put onto the radio while I was gone, and then Jesse kept on touring, paired up with different fellows, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, which the Colonel billed as Jesse Presley and Friends. So it worked out all right.
JH: Ten of the songs you recorded together before you went into the Army hit the top of the charts while you were away.
EP: Well, you know Jesse had some hits too, singing solo. “Hard-Headed Woman,” that was his. And he had made that one picture while I was over there in Germany—
JH: King Creole.
EP: Yes sir. And a couple of hits came from that.
JH: And when you came out of the Army you and Jesse made only the one album together before you each went off to separate careers.
EP: Well, he enjoyed making that picture, and he wanted to get into making more movies. There’s not much call for identical twins in the movies, [laughter] and I guess we had used up about all the ideas they had for it when we made that first one.
JH: Double Trouble.
EP: Yes sir, that’s the one. So Jesse started making movies, and sometimes, you know, it would interfere with our recording schedule and our touring schedule. So after a while we just each of us went our own way.
JH: It was amicable?
EP: Yes sir, it was.
JH: Is there anything more you’re willing to say about the breakup?
EP: No sir, that’s pretty much all I want to say about it.
JH: Nothing about Priscilla or—
EP: No sir, that’s all I will say.
JH: You broke up in 1961. Your brother made 27 movies in the 1960s, almost three a year, which most critics have said were no more than vehicles for soundtrack albums. There were some good songs in the first few movies but it seemed like they were more and more a watering down of the music that had made The Presley Brothers so famous. And in those same years, you were out there playing small town clubs and fairs, very small venues. Colonel Parker had stopped managing your career to focus on your brother, and you weren’t recording at all. So each of you in your different ways had fallen from the heights, so to speak. Were you in touch with Jesse during that time?
EP: We were in touch, yes sir. But I want to say something else about Jesse’s movies, and about his not being at the heights. You know they offered him Jon Voight’s part in Midnight Cowboy but Fox was making quite a bit of money off those other pictures, and they had him locked into them.
JH: I didn’t know that.
EP: West Side Story is another one that was offered to him, back when we first split up. But he had that contract with Hal Wallis and he couldn’t get out of it.
JH: Did you and Jesse talk about the track your careers were on? Did you talk about getting back together? Jesse’s movies were making money but was he concerned about what had happened to his music? And were you concerned that you might never have a solo song make it onto the charts?
EP: Jesse always said, “I’m making these silly movies so you can go off and be a poet.”
JH: A poet?
EP: I had started to write songs, that’s what he meant by being a poet.
JH: He said he was making movies so you could write songs?
EP: It was something like that, yes sir. It seemed like everybody was focused on him, and they were pretty much leaving me alone, and he’d say, well, you need to get away from the bright light, get some quiet so you can work on your writing.
JH: Of course eventually he did get away from, as you say, those silly movies. He started touring, he had a whole other career in the 70s, filling those big arenas, and by then you were beginning to record again, singing your own songs, you went down a very different path from your brother’s. And you are now, along with Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, maybe Leonard Cohen, often mentioned as one of Rock and Roll’s first generation of singer-songwriters.
EP: I don’t know if you’re asking me a question. [laughter]
JH: [laughing] I guess I’m not. Well, I will just say that “poetry” is not a bad way to describe the songs you write. Even when the melodies are simple the lyrics are complex; sometimes, to my ear, opaque. You’ve written quite a lot about loneliness and separation, death and loss, about drug use, about faith and religion, you’ve written about the toll taken by celebrity. I don’t want to say all your songs are dark, but even your love songs are shaded with something I would call worry, or maybe yearning, or regret.
EP: That’s the blues, I guess. There’s joy in the blues, but it’s always a little bit sad, a little bit shaded—that’s a good word—with worry, with regret. That’s where my music comes from, the blues. That’s where we started, Jesse and me.
JH: The “white nights” in blues clubs, as I’ve heard you say in interviews. But I want to get back to how things changed for you when you became Elvis, just Elvis. You made a comeback as a solo act and then you won several Grammys—
EP: We both did. Jesse had three.
JH: He did, yes. Not for rock and roll, but he did win in the spiritual category.
EP: It was gospel that we loved before anything, growing up. He was always proud of those albums.
JH: I think you know Dave Hilbrun? I heard him saying the other day that Jesse Presley was the greatest white gospel singer of his time. That he was the last rock and roll artist to make gospel a vital part of his music. But let’s shift gears now, and before we run out of time I want to ask you about who is on your list of favorite singers. You have often talked about the old blues singers but who is it you admire among your peers, your contemporaries?
EP: Oh, that’s a long list. A real long list. [Pause] Well, I’ll just tell you to listen to Roy Orbison. He gets up there on those high notes and he doesn’t back off, he doesn’t go soft like most of us do, he takes it high and sings it stronger than he does in his natural voice. Nobody else does that. And he writes some great songs, great storytelling, so much nuance of emotion.
JH: You’ve sung with Roy Orbison.
EP: I met Roy the first time back in 1955 when Jesse and I were just getting started, when we were all just kids. And later on, when Roy and I were both living in Tennessee we hung out some. He had lost his wife and two of his kids, you know, in terrible accidents, different accidents, his boys drowned in a swimming pool and his wife was in a motorcycle crash. This was after Jesse had passed, and we were both interested in spiritual matters, we talked quite a bit about what it all means, the purpose of our lives and all, what death means, we were both trying to find some insight I guess you could say. And then I hooked up with Roy again in the late 80s, and one time we were jamming in his basement with George Harrison when Bob Dylan come by and he wanted to sing with us but he had left his guitar over at Tom Petty’s, so we trooped over there to get his guitar and Tom came back with us. We had a pretty good time singing each other’s songs, so then we made a record together and did a little bit of touring—
JH: The Traveling Wilburys.
EP: Yes sir. Roy died just about the time we were bringing out our second album. So that was it for the Wilburys.
JH: Well, now I have to ask: Where do you go from here? When you’re at the top, what does the future look like to you?
EP: My brother always said there wasn’t any such thing as the future really, it was just now and now and now. He got that from the Buddhists. And I know there’s no top to any of it, to life or to music. So I’m just trying to be here now. Trying to stay sane. Trying to be a decent husband and father. Trying to make good music. But I know that’s not what you’re asking me, you want to know what I’m doing these days. I guess what I’ve been doing is reading through some letters Jesse wrote to me. You were saying earlier, about the two of us being separated from each other that first time, but we wrote back and forth every day while I was over there in Germany. The only day we didn’t write is the day we buried Momma. And after I got back we just went on writing, we wrote even on the days when we were sitting right there in the same room.
JH: It’s hard to picture what you’d find to write about when you were both in the same room.
EP: We wrote just as if the other one wasn’t there. I would write, “Jesse sounded good at rehearsal today,” and he’d write, “Elvis is sitting here fixing a broken string on his guitar.”
JH: Like keeping a diary almost.
EP: It was. And we copied down things we were reading, things we wanted to share with each other. When I started writing songs I’d send them to him and ask him what he thought. And he’d do the same.
JH: Jesse was writing songs?
EP: He said he was just writing what was in his mind. But what was in his mind was beautiful, and I would tell him, look here, you are writing poems, same as me. He just never thought so.
JH: Have you saved them all? You have 20 years of letters in a box somewhere?
EP: I still write to Jesse every day, so I guess it’s more than 40 years of letters now, and I know he’s still writing to me, from wherever he is. I just haven’t seen those yet.
JH: That’s astonishing. Forty years, writing every day. That’s a lot of letters.
EP: I’ve been reading through them, which I can tell you is taking quite a while. [laughter] I want to put some of them into a book.
JH: How are you choosing which ones to include? Will you be telling the story of your lives?
EP: No, no, it’ll be Jesse’s poems, that’s what I’m doing. I’m looking for the ones where he’s talking about what’s in his mind, and then I put in some line breaks and maybe take out the little words, I try to put them on the page so you can see they’re poems.
JH: Have you thought of putting any of them to music? Making them into songs?
EP: I have thought of it. We’ll see what happens.
JH: Well, Elvis, thank you. I would like to keep on talking, I feel like there’s a lot we haven’t touched on, but we always want to have a Q and A session with the audience before we finish, and I’m afraid we’ve already gone on so long, we’ve only got time for three or four questions. Those of you with questions for Mr. Presley, there’s microphones up front here, at the top of both aisles, so come on up and we’ll get started.
Q1: Hello, Mr. Presley.
Q1: Mr. Presley, would you talk about your interest in karate.
EP: I met up with karate in the Army. I liked what it had to say about tapping into your inner strength. The preciousness of the chi life force, the power of restraint, of stillness and concentration. I felt like I could apply some of that to my singing, and later on to my song writing and recording. I still practice it. And ta’i chi. I do ta’i chi on the days when I’m feeling too old and crackly for karate [laughter].
Q2: Mr. Presley, I love your song “Losing You.” But honestly, I don’t know what it means. Could you say what it means?
EP: [singing softly]
Only when I think past memory,
in all the ways I learned to miss you,
call to you beneath my breath,
whisper in the language of children,
then I think you can hear me,
silence recognizes the silence it calls to,
this grammar of longing,
a book lying open as twilight deepens,
and shadows cover the gray pages.
EP: I’m sorry, honey, what was your question now? [laughter]
Q2: I just wondered what it means. It’s just so sad.
EP: Well, I guess it just means that. It means sad.
Q3: Hey. Thanks for taking my question, Elvis.
EP: Sure. Have I heard it yet? [laughter]
Q3: Well, not to be mean or anything, but your brother pretty much went downhill there at the end, he had all these fans but they were like all these blue-haired grandmothers, like he was Liberace or something, he was bloated and drugged, a joke. And then there’s you, with this serious reputation and all. Do you feel like commenting on how two men with the same DNA wound up so different, having these different lives?
EP: No sir, I don’t feel like commenting on that at all.
Q3: If you–
JH: Well, I think we just have time for one more question. Miss? Over on the left.
Q4: Mr. Presley, I guess I have two questions. Do you have a title for the book, the one with Jesse’s letters? And could you tell us one of the poems you made from his writing, if you can remember any?
EP: I guess I’ve been calling the book The Foreseeable Future, from something he wrote to me once. I won’t tell you that one, but here’s one I think I can remember:
I come awake this morning
So damn early
Barest gray between the blinds
Heard geese calling
Wild, unruly, keen.
This is January.
Are they going south so late
Or already turning north?
Afraid to know
Which it was
I went on lying still
Didn’t open the blinds
Listened to my heart in my ears.
If there is a purpose
To me being Jesse Presley
I wonder what it is.
Then I had this worn old thought:
That time is a river
The past not finished yet.
I once was lost
But still upstream
Not yet met.
EP: I think always of you waiting, brother. I will look for you when I get there.
From Annie Leibovitz At Work, discussing her iconic photograph of The Presley Brothers—last known photo of the brothers together—taken the evening of August 11, 1977, six days before Jesse Presley’s death at age 42:
“This was taken while I was on assignment for Rolling Stone, shooting Elvis Presley at the start of his “Way Down In the Heart” tour. We were backstage before the first concert at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon, when his brother Jesse came in unannounced. He had flown up from Memphis on a momentary impulse just to wish his brother a good show, and he flew back the same night. He usually went around with a large entourage but that night there were just two men with him, and they stood back and watched us all in silence. (Their shoes are visible at the lower left edge of frame.)
I took several dozen shots that night during the few minutes the brothers were together. While I was shooting, I was struck by how different the brothers looked from each other, not like twins, certainly not identical twins, and I thought I was capturing the different ways they had lived their lives, and how it showed in their faces. But afterward, I saw what the camera had seen: How alike their expressions were—a kind of tender regard, as if each thought the other was the one needing safeguarding.