The Night the Beatles Met Elvis - the Greatest Gig You Never Saw
In a world where 'celebrities' clamour for media attention like orange-hued Oliver Twists around a bowl of camel foot-infused gruel, here's a salutary lesson from some genuine superstars.
Please, please me by allowing me to take you back to one night in 1965. The 27 August, in fact, and it was an august night indeed, for this was the night when the King of Rock'n'Roll met the monarchs of Merseybeat for the first, and only, time. But - gasp - the media was banned. No photographs or recordings were made of this momentous night, which included an impromptu jamming session, far less any twisting or shouting about it. Lawdy, Miss Clawdy.
"If there had been, they'd be priceless today," Tony Barrow tells me. He was the Beatles' press officer between 1962 and 1968, and one of the few witnesses to that memorable get-together. "It's a terrible shame that a unique jam session has been lost forever."
The story of the clandestine rendezvous and Elvis's influence on the Beatles is told in a new exhibition co-curated with archivists from Presley's Graceland home. Thousands of visitors have already poured through the doors of the Beatles Story museum in Liverpool since the Elvis and Us exhibition opened last month - including Elvis's co-star in The Trouble with Girls, Marlyn Mason. Many of the artefacts have never been on display outside of Graceland, including the shirt Presley wore in Jailhouse Rock and his Las Vegas rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit.
At the time of the meeting, the biggest stars in music found they were staying near one another in Hollywood. Elvis was renting a mansion on Perugia Way while filming Paradise Hawaiian Style, and the Beatles were staying in a rented Benedict Canyon home during their second US tour.
"I remember the main reaction of The Beatles was initially yes, they'd love to meet him," explains Barrow, a charming former journalist from Merseyside, who also happens to have coined the phrase 'The Fab Four'. "He was their idol, a god, and one of a number of major American music stars they were in total awe of and had been influenced by. However, they were put off the idea by the fact that they assumed the press would be involved. I remember George saying: 'We'd love to do it, but if it's going to be one of your big media shindigs, we don't want to know'."
Elvis's manager Col. Parker picked up the Beatles, Barrow, Brian Epstein, and two roadies, and they travelled in a convoy of three limos. After being waved through the gates by members of the 'Memphis Mafia' and passing a Rolls Royce and Harley Davidsons, the small group entered Elvis's mansion and found Elvis in a huge circular room, surrounded by about 20 people.
It was an awkward start, according to Barrow. "It was a fairly boring affair: when it came to the crunch, neither had all that much to say to one another. It was inevitable they'd be lost for words - they were such big personalities, they didn't quite know how to handle one another."
"The conversation dried up after a while and a weird silence fell as the two teams faced each other. Drinks were offered and smiles were fixed, but the atmosphere was tense. John tried to bring controversy into the situation, as was his wont, and awkwardly blurted out a stream of questions to Elvis about his change in music, saying: 'Why do you do all those soft-centred ballads for the cinema these days? What happened to good old rock 'n' roll?' Elvis didn't have an answer."
The atmosphere remained tense until Elvis called for guitars and a piano. "Lennon's wit helped to break the ice, but the real icebreaker was the introduction of music," says Barrow. "At that point, the atmosphere became electric as soon as they started to jam."
"The boys found they could make far better conversation with their guitars than their voices. Music was their meeting point. Even Ringo, who without his drums could have felt left out, joined in. I remember them playing I Feel Fine and Ringo was enthusiastically tapping out the backbeat with his fingers on nearest bits of wooden furniture."
As the supergroup played rock 'n' roll hits, including their own, Epstein and Parker discussed business. "Epstein hoped to persuade Parker to let him present Presley in a series of UK concerts," Barrow reveals. "Parker pretended to leave the door open, saying he'd think about it, which pleased Epstein. There was no mention of them ever performing together, which is what made that jam session so special. It was the concert that would never have been able to take place; two such enormous acts could never have fitted on bill together, but were able to do so only at a private party."
The Beatles knew the party was over when Parker handed out presents of Presley albums. "As we went out to the limos, John's special brand of humour surfaced and he put on his Adolf Hitler accent and shouted: 'Long live ze king' and said he thought Elvis was stoned. George muttered: 'Aren't we all?'"
"There was a strange silence in the car coming away because I think none of the Beatles could believe what had happened. It was as if were all a dream. It was a marvellous occasion not one of us would have missed for anything."
"I think they were all disappointed in the man. He wasn't the huge personality his professional reputation suggested; but the disappointment made no difference in a way. I consider myself to be extremely lucky and proud to have been part of such a momentous episode in music history."
"As they were leaving, it was Elvis that said: 'See you again' or 'see you around', as you would when waving someone off. But the meeting was never destined to happen and they didn't. In a way, this exhibition is creating a new meeting, if you like. It's bringing the Beatles and Elvis together in Liverpool, something that never physically took place - as much as Epstein wanted it to."