FROM ELVIS TO ELVIRA
The First Time I Met Elvis
The only member I hadn’t yet met was Elvis himself. As I’ve said, I was certainly familiar with his music—and liked much of it—but I wasn’t what would be considered a huge fan. When I met him, though, I immediately understood the attraction that fans had to him. I thought, “Wow, there’s a reason this guy is the biggest star in the world.” It sounds like a fantasy or a cliché, but I swear you could almost sense him before he walked into a room.
On this occasion, he was “fashionably late.” Everyone was ready, even anxious to begin but, as we would learn, rehearsals—like recording sessions and sometimes concerts—would begin only when Elvis was ready for them to begin. Eventually, we heard footsteps coming down the hall and then, suddenly, the door to the ballroom opened and in walked “the guys.” It seemed as if there were six or more guys who came in and then parted, like the Red Sea, to reveal Elvis strolling in behind them, looking every bit like the King of Rock. He was dressed exactly like one might expect to see him: a dark two-piece suit with his signature high, Napoleonic collar, a patterned high-collared shirt, and carrying a black cane with a gold ornament on top. He immediately came over to J.D. and grabbed him in a bear hug.
While it’s been told many times, J.D. had been somewhat of a hero to Elvis when he was growing up. As the bass singer for The Blackwood Brothers, he had allowed Elvis to come in the back door of various Memphis all-night gospel sings—long before Elvis could afford to buy a ticket, let alone became famous himself. Also, when Elvis’s mother died, J.D. and the rest of the Blackwoods sang at her funeral. Elvis never forgot J.D.’s kindness, and as he did with so many others, he seemed to make it part of his life’s work to repay such kindnesses many times over.
Standing in that hotel ballroom, Elvis and J.D. quickly caught up, and soon J.D. began introducing each one of us to him. Elvis interrupted him to say he didn’t need the introductions because he felt as if he already knew us. He hugged me and then we shook hands. I still remember looking into his eyes that first time. The magnetism was indescribable. I couldn’t believe that he knew my name and knew that I was the bass singer. I don’t know how we gathered ourselves well enough to sing at that rehearsal, but apparently we did. I just kept thinking over and over that there was Elvis Presley, and here we were singing with him. It was a feeling that would continue every night; it never got old to me.
I’m often asked in interviews to talk about the other guys in the group, which I gladly do. But that’s mostly about the performers with whom I’ve shared a stage for the last forty years. The obvious reality is that we’re performers for a couple of hours each day, but we’re men—and we’re friends—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I think one of the reasons we’ve had success, and experienced the longevity that we have, is due to the foursome that we are. As Johnny Cash convinced us so many years ago, there’s no denying that we have been blessed with something special. And part of that “specialness” is that we’re so different, yet at the same time, we’re able to come together as one group.
I think we realized more than ever just how special this foursome is during those years when Golden was gone. Steve Sanders, in replacing him, did a fine and admirable job, and we still made some Number One records with him in the group, but there was always that nagging realization—sometimes buried deep and other times just under the surface— that without Golden, something just wasn’t quite right.
Though not anymore, for a long time, the most frequent questions we’d be asked had to do with the timeframe when Golden was no longer a member of The Oaks. Friends and enemies, reporters and fans all wanted to know what happened and why. While it was a very major upheaval in our lives, and while it became the most public of breakups, simply stated, it was about everything and nothing, all at the same time.
We were seasoned performers. We were all high strung. We were on top of the world, and were making more money than we’d ever imagined possible. We probably felt invincible, and thought that it was going to last forever, which probably contributed to our breakup. We all had egos, of course. We all had big personalities, and we all occasionally had ideas that might have differed from one or all of the other partners. We had always been able to work those out. For some reason, though, this situation just grew beyond what we could manage.
The Grand Ole Opry
On July 8, we’d been asked to perform in a guest slot, as we had done many times before. Though I noticed several old and important friends milling around backstage, I still didn’t quite sense that anything different or special was about to occur. After our first song, as Joe was addressing the audience, we heard a ripple of laughter from the crowd, and turned to see ninety-year-old Opry legend “Little” Jimmy Dickens standing amongst us dressed as Golden, complete with long beard, cowboy hat and sunglasses. We still weren’t sure what was happening but, after a few jokes, he floored us by announcing that the following month we would become the newest members of the Grand Ole Opry.
The next month passed quickly and, in addition to tour dates and photo shoots and recording sessions, it was filled with many interviews to talk about the honor. When the night finally arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that I was nervous. I asked my partners about it and discovered that we each were feeling the butterflies of the moment. After all these years that’s a pretty rare occurrence; it emphasized how special this night was for us. We attended a reception, did more interviews—with our good friends, Charlie Chase and Lorianne Crook, and for several other outlets—and then, at 8:50 pm, during the Cracker Barrel portion of the show, it was time to be introduced onto the stage, by one of the grand ladies of the Opry, Jeannie Seely.
We hit the stage running and opened with “Bobbie Sue.” For some reason, the house lights were up—something else that doesn’t often happen—so, we could see the sold-out crowd, and they were all up and dancing, fueling us even more. Next, after a few words from Joe, we went straight into “Elvira,” and again, the crowd was on its feet. After “Elvira,” Pete Fisher, the Opry’s General Manager, joined us onstage and said some kind words. He, then, introduced Little Jimmy again, and, together, they made the official induction. I know my partners well enough to know that, like me, they were all trying to keep their emotions in check.
The point at which it became a losing battle was when Pete directed our attention to the huge video screen onstage, for there was “our president,” George H. W. Bush. He had taped a video message to honor our induction. Among his remarks, he said: “I cannot think of any group or any person who deserve this honor more. I think of the Opry and the Oaks, both as American icons, beloved from coast to coast and known around the world. I can’t think of a better union. I love you boys, and my best to everyone at the Grand Ole Opry, one of my favorite places in America.”
We became close with Glen Campbell in the early days of Branson, in 1992, when we both performed at The Grand Palace Theatre. After the first season, he came into the dressing room one night to tell us that he was opening his own theatre the following year, and he asked us if we would consider appearing at his theatre on the days he wasn’t working. We jumped at the chance, and never regretted our association with this class act.
James Keach, who produced the great Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line, decided to chronicle Glen’s “Goodbye Tour” in a documentary film. In addition to following Glen on the tour across the United States and Europe, James wanted to conduct interviews with some artists who had been close to Glen. Of course, we were honored when he asked us to participate. As happens so often, our talking turned into spontaneous singing. After we shared some memories, we broke into an acapella version of “Farther Along.” It touched even us, and the words took on an even more poignant meaning. Alzheimer’s is such an insidious disease, striking people from all walks of life; the famous and those who will never receive any credit for their brave battles. Hopefully, as the song says, “we’ll understand it all by and by.”
I was proud of my friend for the way he chose to face this challenge: on stage in front of his adoring fans, doing what he loved most to do. And though he was all but completely reliant on on-stage prompters for even his most familiar and famous lyrics, somehow those synapses that control the melodies and the guitar breaks were still firing and remained at the ready for him. It was an amazing thing to witness.