I said kaddish for Elvis
George Klein was closer to Presley than almost anyone — close enough to tell him the truth when it hurt
By Jonathan Wingate • Jewish Chronicle
George Klein is probably in a better position than anyone to talk about Elvis Presley - he first met the singing legend in 1948 when they were classmates at Humes High School in Memphis.
"We were friends from the age of 12, and we bonded from the moment I first met him in eighth grade music class," Klein recalls, sitting in a private room in Graceland, the iconic mansion Presley bought in 1957. "He got up and sang that day, and although he didn't really know that he wanted to be a big-time singer at that point, I certainly knew that he was different to everybody else around. He was the only boy in our school who could really sing and play the guitar. In the 12th grade, I remember, he got up and sang in our school talent contest, which he won. I said to myself: 'Well, maybe this guy's got a chance to make it'."
The young Presley was mocked by his schoolmates for his appearance - but not by Klein. "Some of the guys would kid Elvis about his hair and the way he dressed in school, but I never teased him, and he never, ever forgot that. "
Presley's career began when, at the age of 19, he entered Sam Phillips's Sun Studios in Memphis to cut some demos, including a version of That's All Right (Mama). Sam Phillips took a recording of the song to local radio DJ Dewey Phillips, who immediately broadcast it on his show. Listeners inundated the station with calls, with Phillips responding by playing the song 14 times in a row.
The guys would kid Elvis about the way he looked. I never did.
It was at this time that Presley and Klein became even firmer friends. "After we left school, I got a scholarship to Memphis State University," Klein explains. "I would go down to the radio stations and watch the DJs do their stuff. Eventually, I got my way in as a gofer for Dewey Phillips before eventually becoming a full-time radio DJ, which is what I'm still doing all these years later.
"Elvis and I became even closer after we got out of high school. I'd be on air and Elvis would drop by and we'd hang out together and go partying after my show. I saw a whole lot of him from that point. He was even my best man when I got married in 1970, and I continued to see him regularly until he died in 1977."
Was Klein in the studio with Presley when he recorded some of his most seminal singles? "Oh yeah," he beams, "I was there when he cut a lot of those songs in the late '50s and the early '60s. I remember being in the studio when he recorded things like All Shook Up, Return To Sender and Don't Be Cruel. When he cut Jailhouse Rock, I said to him: 'Little Richard would kill for that song,' and he just said: 'Yeah, but he's not getting it, 'cos I'm gonna cut it.' I can still remember getting goosebumps as I was standing next to them in the studio when they recorded a lot of those killer songs."
Klein grew up in observant home, the son of immigrants who had fled antisemitism in Europe. "My mother and father were both Orthodox Jews," he says. "She was from Russia, he was from Poland, and they both fled their homes in the 1920s as antisemitism spread across Eastern Europe. After my parents met, they settled into a little home in north Memphis, and had my two sisters and I."
His friendship with Presley continued through the successful years and became even more important when "the King's" career went into a slow decline. Presley was virtually sealed off from the outside world, surrounded by the self-styled "Memphis Mafia" - his gang of sycophantic employees and friends who kept him happy and invariably put their own interests before those of the ailing star. Klein was one of only a handful of people around him who was willing to tell him the truth, and speak out against his controlling manager, Colonel Parker.
"It's hard to tell a superstar what to do," Klein says sadly. "But it wasn't hard for me to speak to him honestly because we'd been buddies since high school. We were all having dinner one night after he'd done his come-back concert in '68 and I made a big speech. I said: 'Elvis, this is ridiculous. You're recording in Hollywood and it's not happening. You need to come back home to Memphis to record and you're being given inferior songs because Colonel Parker wants half of the publishing rights.'"
"Elvis outgrew Colonel Parker. He was a genius at getting Elvis to be a superstar, but the Colonel wouldn't go that next step with Elvis. He wouldn't take him to a foreign country, he made him record inferior songs and he kept him making those formula movies, which Elvis got tired of. The Colonel would say: 'Well, we don't want to step out and try to do something else, because if it bombs it'll hurt Elvis' career.'
"I said to him: 'Well, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando made some movies that didn't make it big, and they're both still popular.' I think all of that stuff damaged Elvis badly."
Presley's inability to handle his fame ultimately led to his downfall, and he died at the age of 42, a sad, bloated shadow of his youth. Klein was badly affected by his death. "I had never been a particularly Orthodox Jew, but after Elvis died, I followed the Jewish tradition of yahrzeit – a year of mourning marked with daily morning and evening prayers. I didn't wear the diamond ring that Elvis had given me and I don't think I even listened to any of his music during that year, because they were reminders of the loss that was just too painful for me."
Had Presley lived to celebrate his 75th birthday this year, he would surely have been astonished at the seemingly limitless fascination surrounding both his life and his work.
"I'm actually amazed that people are still talking about Elvis," says Klein. "I thought it would die down eventually, but people love him more than ever. His legacy was his voice. There really was nobody else like him. Having been one of his closest friends is an honour I will always feel proud of. I still miss him every single day."
George Klein's memoir is "Elvis: My Best Man."