Southern Sounds

There they were. The President and The King. Richard Nixon, President of the United States, and Elvis Presley, both smiling for the camera. Nixon looked very happy. After all, he might have reasoned, this could help with the youth vote. Nixon knew the backing of America’s young was important, yet difficult to claim when sending so many of them to war. Not surprisingly, Nixon’s perspective on the early ’70s youth vote proved hazy. While young people were thinking Woodstock, Presley was playing Las Vegas. That represents more difference in values than in distance. Still, even without a political pay-off for Nixon, the hastily arranged Oval Office meeting on December 21, 1970 made for a great footnote in 20th century American history. Two men, with little in common, but perhaps the two best known men in America at the time, discussed the nation’s challenges, getting on quite easily.

Presley had words of support for Nixon, but he also had an ulterior motive. The impulsive trip he made to the nation’s capitol was to acquire a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge. He went straight to the top in making his request. Upon reaching Washington, Presley took a limo to the White House and left a 6-page letter for the president. In his letter, he sought an appointment as a federal agent at-large and a visit to the Oval Office, perhaps that day. Nixon set aside the time. Elvis Presley got his audience with the president, and most importantly to him, the badge. It’s good to be King.

Trapped In A World . . . The Nixon administration was known for keeping a wall around the president, one so effective that Dan Rather’s book (written with Gary Gates) on the Nixon presidency was entitled The Palace Guard. But Presley, being the King and all, wasn’t intimidated by the apparatus at the White House. Besides, he might have been able to share security measures he, his Memphis Mafia, and of course, Colonel Tom Parker had set up to keep him at a safe remove from his public.

Presley glided into the Oval Office as quickly as someone with a check to cover the national debt. Senators from Nixon’s own party weren’t likely to get attention in such quick order, but we’re talking about Elvis. Even though his stunning achievements in the rock and roll world were more than a decade behind him, he was still Elvis Presley. And people knew that. John Lennon once told an interviewer, “Before Elvis there was nothing. No nothing. Whatever the people say, he’s it”

To his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and members of the so-called Memphis Mafia, Elvis was the cash cow. The records, the movies, publishing royalties, concert fees and Elvis memorabilia brought in the big bucks. Elvis Presley was the talent, the genuine article who made it all possible. Then there were the “courtiers,” people like Colonel Parker, who derived great wealth from Presley’s talent and energy.

In September ’80. John Lennon expounded  on what he believed happened to Presley, three years after his passing. Remembering his own life as a Beatle, Lennon related to Presley, saying, “I was used to a situation when the newspaper was there for me to read and after I read it, somebody else could have it. I think that’s what killed people like Presley… The King is always killed by his courtiers, not by his enemies. The King is overfed, over-drugged, overindulged, anything to keep the King tied to his throne. Most people in that position never wake up. They either die mentally or physically or both.”

Not to say Lennon was short of people to run his errands, but he did feel free, even as one of the world’s most famous people, to walk the streets of New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, experiencing and observing the world around him. Lennon showed up at IHOPs and for an interview with Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football. All the while, the “courtiers” sealed off  the world from Presley, even keeping him from spending time with people he would’ve enjoyed meeting.

Trying To Get To You . . . Doc Pomus really wanted to meet Elvis Presley. And why not? He had written or co-written over 20 songs for Presley, among them “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister,” “A Mess of Blues,” “Suspicion,” and “(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame.” Presley would have loved talking with Pomus and learning of his gritty and courageous life.  Pomus could have regaled him with stories of his days as a teenager, leaning on his crutches, belting out the blues in a Manhattan night club. Pomus showed just as much grittiness in trying to meet Presley on June 9, 1972. Presley was holding a press conference that day at the New York Hilton. Determined as ever, Pomus wheeled his chair toward the podium but was stopped by the all-controlling Colonel Parker. Acting as if he just wanted to talk, what Parker really wanted was to keep the rotund guy in the wheelchair from his boy. By the time Parker ceased with the stalling tactics, Presley was headed elsewhere.

Michael Jarrett understands the frustration Pomus felt. Jarrett had co-written “I’m Leavin’,” recorded by Presley in ’71. “I’m Leavin’” didn’t soar the charts like other ’70s Presley hits such as “Burning Love” and “Separate Ways,” but he was especially fond of the song, telling concert audiences it was one of his favorites.

Journalist Arjan Deelan spoke with Jarrett about the time he believed he would meet Presley, only to be so close but so far. Jarrett was at the Hilton Las Vegas in ’71 to see Presley perform. “I’m Leavin’” was part of the show that night. Jarrett was seated on the 7th row center with Presley aide Joe Esposito. He remembers, “Joe must have told (Presley) I would be sitting in front with him because he looked right at me and smiled real big and winked at me as he was singing my song.”

The biggest thrill seemed right ahead. Esposito invited Jarrett up to the suite “to meet Elvis.” Jarrett said he was “beside myself with anticipation.” Then he was brought back to earth, because as soon as they got out of the elevator, Sonny West took Joe aside, and mumbled something to him and then left. Esposito turned to Jarrett and the others, explaining, “I’m really sorry, but the Colonel doesn’t want Elvis to have any visitors because he’s running a 103 temperature and he needs to rest.”

Jarrett says he still doesn’t know what the truth was that night as “Elvis looked fine to me and was doing all his karate moves and was brilliant on stage all the way through the show, so if he was running a high fever, we never knew it.”

There was still determination on Jarrett’s part to meet “the man who changed my life.” As he said recently,“I tried to reach out to Elvis when I lived in Palm Springs in ’74…even went to his house and put a letter in his mailbox telling him who I was and asking if he’d like to get together and hear some tunes. I felt too that he needed a real friend…we never really know in this crazy business who our true friends really are. Sad.”

Richard Nixon Has Left The Building . . .  Perhaps Presley would have found comfort in Michael Jarrett’s friendship and perspective. He certainly could’ve used encouragement the year Jarrett reached out to him. It was ’74, after all, that much to his chagrin, Presley’s label, RCA, released Having Fun With Elvis On Stage, an album of  jokes and chatter made between songs during his concerts. Although Presley was still a dynamic concert attraction, there was next to no interest in the album, as it peaked at #130 on the Billboard charts. Also in ’74, Presley’s Good Times album, recorded at Stax Studios in Memphis, was released, proving a disappointment, only making it to #90 with Billboard.

A two-hour drive from Presley’s home in Palm Springs, California is San Clemente, which was the home of the “Western White House” during the Nixon administration. If ’74 was tough for Presley, it was tougher for Richard Nixon. He resigned from the Presidency in disgrace on August 9, and then had to sweat it out another month before he was pardoned by President Ford of any crimes he might have committed in the Watergate scandal. Had Nixon and Presley met at the time, they could have discussed their respective hard times and the irony of it all. Fewer people were interested in Presley’s recordings that year while there was a great demand for Nixon’s, namely the White House tapes, which he worked to keep from congressmen and prosecutors. They could’ve discussed it for hours, but there’d be no solace for Nixon. Because of his wrongdoings, he was no longer president while Presley, despite any bad years, was still the King.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

  1. Rumour has it that Lennon and Phil Spector also had designs on getting Presley in the studio to make some music and lets not forget Bowie wrote Golden Years with him in mind. By ’74 his record company had bought all his old masters and repackaged them, thereby competing for chart space with his fine Stax recordings. The beginning of the end. The mind boggles to think of what direction Elvis would have went if creative musicians like Jarrett, Pomus and all the others could have got past the Colonels yes men.

  2. What a masterful comparison! I have a soft spot for Richard Nixon ’cause he’s one of only two famous people who ever answered my letters in person. The other was John Kenneth Galbraith, who told me I had a good point. Nixon didn’t think his abandoning the gold standard was particularly significant.

  3. Jeff, a very unique perspective all the way around, especially regarding the Elvis/Nixon parallels.

    Thanks for writing this very interesting piece.

    I’m sure there were many other songwriters whose songs Elvis had recorded, who would have loved to sit down with him and shared life and the love of music, I know I would have.


  4. Tim Oliver

    There was another interesting element to the King and that guy who wasn’t a crook’s meeting. Big E actually brought a .45 caliber pistol into the Oval office, to trade for that DEA badge, if need be. Who was going to search the King? But, Elvis deserved that badge. To quote Pinkard & Bowden, ” He knew that everyone he’d eat, would be one less on the street / Elvis took ’em all for you and me !”

  5. Jeff, another gem, fun and informative. nostalgia and news! what a great beat you’ve created for yourself.

  6. Hmm. I always realized that the Badge thing was both a hustle and an expression of faux power. I had thought it was more a family thing because he had just had a bbig fight with his father. I never thought about Parker in all this, oddly. Clearly the new laws that used “scheduduling” of drugs threw Elvis into a kind of panic (his sudden change in behavior in the days immediately following Hendrix’s death is very clear). And he soon started coming up with this crack-brained (no pu intended) scheme based on Agnew’s speeches.
    What I never considered was your very wise insight: in the last analysis, it was an explosion in response to the frustration he felt in being so deliberately isolated.
    Right after the initial comeback, a number of industry people wanted to not just speak with him but actually work with him. Bob Johnston of Columbia tried to get him together with Dylan and not just for a chat. It not only fell apart but Johnston calls it his biggest regret. Steve Binder who directed the 68 Comeback show couldn’t get backstage even as Elvis kept asking “where’s Steve?” In rehearsals captured in 70 Elvis was adding verses to songs, gingerly but clearly eager to express himself. Col. must have known about all of this and felt quite threatened so he gave orders to cut him off from what might have been a “perfect storm” of independence and new creativity in tune with the times.
    When it all fell apart, so did Elvis. Other people in the business seemed so free.
    The “Caped Crusade” makes much more sense now. False euphria through drugs and a grand display of false power.
    On his own turf he was powerless, so he’d “show him.”
    High five.

  7. Seeing as Nixon recorded all conversations held in the Oval office, i wonder was the famous meeting with Elvis recorded. Who now has the tapes, the Nixon museum perhaps,, it would be great to have clarification on this.

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