Elvis Week Day 6 – The Legends I Met Yesterday

By Jon Waterhouse

As a dyed-in-the-wool king fan, the gift of being the Elvis Week blogger never goes unnoticed. Being the eyes and ears of the Elvis faithful means I get the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the people who not only helped Elvis change the face of music, but also had a personal impact on me.

Yeah, I’m a lucky Peabody duck.

THE LEGENDS I MET YESTERDAY

Ray Walker of the Jordanaires

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Through the backstage door of the Main Stage at Graceland, my first visual of the day proved to be a roundtable of rock icons. D.J. Fontana, Elvis’ original drummer; Estelle Brown of the Sweet Inspirations, Elvis’ backup singers; and Ray Walker of the legendary singing group the Jordanaires sat together engaging in conversation. As each of them were awaiting their turn to chat with emcee Tom Brown during the Official Graceland Insiders Conference, I snapped myself out of fan boy disbelief and asked each for a photo for the blog. Making it over to Ray Walker, I quickly became aware of his quick wit and sense of humor. “Yeah, you can have a picture with me,” he said, “but no selfies. I’ve never taken a selfie, and I never will.” Later, Walker hit the stage with Brown, telling colorful Elvis stories, tossing jokes and jabs with ease, and even putting Brown through the same vocal lesson Walker gave Elvis. Brilliant.

Estelle Brown of the Sweet Inspirations

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If a vocal group ever had a more fitting title, it would have to be the Sweets. Estelle Brown oozes peace, love and contentment. Her gorgeous smile, her warm handshake and eternal optimism proves contagious. And let’s not forget the glass-shattering voice that helped bolster songs like “Polk Salad Annie” and countless others. When Estelle made it onstage, she told Tom Brown that Elvis refused to be called “boss.” “I’m your brother,” Estelle said Elvis told her. And she quickly reminded everyone Elvis saw the world as one race, the human race. Estelle continues to remain ever-so-lovely, both inside and out.

D.J. Fontana

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The quintessential rock drummer and one of the genre’s earliest architects, Fontana remains the last surviving member of Elvis’ first touring band. He provided the king’s backbeat for more than 14 years, laying down the rhythm on more than 450 cuts. Just sharing the same air as D.J. is a privilege. Sense of humor still firmly in tact, D.J. had a playful time onstage with Tom Brown, especially when relaying the story about tossing Elvis’ shoes out the car window. I’ll never forget the moment during Elvis Week 2013 when I stood next to D.J. and his drum kit as the skin man pounded through “Hound Dog.” Priceless. Thank you, D.J.

Terry Blackwood

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As a member of the Imperials, Blackwood shared stage real estate with Elvis during countless live shows and on recordings including the 1972 Grammy-winning “He Touched Me” album. The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley Concert Sunday night saw the Main Stage sold-out and filled to capacity. Blackwood, along with Darrell Toney and Lynn Royce Taylor, took to the stage singing new and classic Imperials numbers. A rousing rave-up of “The Old Gospel Ship” had nearly all hands clapping among the sold-out audience.

Former members of J.D. Sumner & The Stamps Quartet

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With Elvis singing “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” on the big screen behind them, this quartet (Donnie Sumner, Bill Baize, Larry Strickland and Ed Hill) emerged onstage in the darkness crooning along with the king. This set the mood for a fantastic set, equal parts entertaining, emotional and energizing. Backstage, I posed next to my Elvis Week doppelgänger, Bill Baize, the fantastic tenor responsible for vocal gymnastics on many Presley records, including the high note yelp at the end of “Burning Love.”

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Donnie Sumner, also known as Elvis’ personal gospel jukebox, teased me before he stepped into the spotlight. “I’m Captain Kangaroo,” he told me. Larry Strickland’s warm bass vocals impressed me, and his personality proved equally warm as we chatted backstage. In the midst of our talk, someone caught my attention. “Don’t I know you?” she asked. Suddenly I realized the voice belonged to country music legend Naomi Judd, Strickland’s wife. “Well, I kinda look like Bill Baize,” I replied jokingly. Naomi laughed and a wonderful conversation followed. Naomi and her daughter, actress Ashely Judd, then stepped out front to watch Strickland and company perform. The show wrapped as both groups joined forces for “Bosom of Abraham,” which tore the house down. Estelle Brown sat in on vocals as Donnie Sumner danced by her side. Only at Elvis Week.

Q & A WITH DJ FONTANA

I could spend limitless hours listening to D.J. Fontana talk. The man who sat behind the drum kit on the front lines of a world-changing phenomenon has seen it all. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog” and more than 450 Elvis cuts feature D.J.’s drumming. And the Rock Hall of Famer continues receiving his due with endless accolades. A surprise presentation yesterday found Fontana being presented with a musical note that will be embedded on the Beale Street sidewalk.

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On Elvis’ sense of humor:
He was funny. We were in San Antonio, Texas one time and we zig-zagged around for about 30 minutes trying to lose the cars full of kids who were following us. We thought we lost them all. We got to our motel, and there must have been 10 or 15 cars behind us. I said, “Oh, man. Here they are.” They all got out of the car, and they were all nice kids. We were all talking to them. I was standing on one side of Elvis and Bill Black was standing on the other side, and we were all next to the motel pool. And I nudged Bill, and we both pushed Elvis into the pool. The next thing you know, all of those kids jump in the pool. And the lady who ran the place came running out saying, “Who the hell do you think you are? Elvis Presley?” And Elvis said, “Yes, ma’am, I am.” She didn’t believe him. Then I ran one way and Bill ran the other. If Elvis would’ve caught us, we were going in that pool.

On his first meeting with Elvis:
A promoter called me in to listen to a record to see what I thought. I think it was “That’s All Right.” I said, “Man, that’s a good record. How many pieces are on that record? Four or five?” The promoter said it was three guys. I said, “You’re kidding. This guy is good.” So they invited me in to play with Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black on “The Louisiana Hayride.” They wanted to know if I’d work with them. And I said, “That’s why I’m here.” And we lucked out. It really worked. I just learned a lesson. I thought, “They have a good sound. Let’s don’t get me in there and clutter it up.” I just played quiet and easy, just a little bit of the cymbals, not much noise. I went straight ahead, and I guess he liked me. I stayed there 14 years.

On the ring Elvis gave him:
Elvis had just gotten out of the Army, and we were in Nashville recording again. I was sitting there, and I saw this ring. There were 11 diamonds in it. He was sitting over at a podium under the lights so he could see the lyrics. I kept looking up there at the (ring) and I said, “What’s that?” I had never seen it before. So we got through that first take and I said, “Elvis, what’s that shining up there?” And he said, “It’s a ring I just bought a couple of days ago.” I said, “It sure is a pretty thing.” He said, “You want to wear it a while?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll wear it a while.” So he gave it to me. I said, “In the morning, I’ll give it back to you.” He said, “OK.” When we got done (the next day) I said, “Here’s your ring back.” Elvis said, “You keep it. When I go broke, I’ll call you.” But the story is I saw him about a year later at RCA in Nashville. I wasn’t working with him by then. He had a whole handful of rings. I said, “You got some pretty rings there, Elvis.” He said, “You got me once. You’re not going to get me again.”


2 Comments

  1. Rosalee

    I loved the stories that JD told about Elvis, I would love to read more of his memories with Elvis.

  2. Milica Djukich

    Wonderful stories, Elvis was truly one of a kind!GOD created him for a reason! He was a humble man who loved all kinds of people and all he wanted to do was intertain them! the only person that is loved all over the world ad his desire was to see people happy and united to show them the love of the LORD!AND he did it with GOSPEL music! Elvis is the only inertainer who could sing every kind of music, no other intertainter could do that than or now!

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