The Presley Brothers: A Rock and Roll Fable
The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville
January 8, 1985
A spotlight illuminated a man in a tuxedo from the waste up. The auditorium, packed with 2,000 people in formal attire, many with rhinestones, was silent.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” announced the man in a deep voice with a slight southern accent. “The Ryman Auditorium and the Turner Broadcasting System in conjunction with the United Way proudly presents ‘The Birthday Concert’ with Jesse and Elvis. Yes, here they are, the Presley Brothers.”
The crowd stood and applauded. The curtain remained closed. The applause grew. The curtain remained closed. The crowd began to shout and whistle. The orchestra in the pit in front of the stage played parts of Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The crowd, now growing feverish for a show instead of impatient, roared in contrast to their dress and their $10,000-a-seat tickets.
The curtain opened. The fifty-year-old Presley Brothers stood next to one another in 1950s style tuxedos with large acoustic guitars strapped to their chests. They each approached a microphone stand topped by a large microphone. The stage lights revealed a three-piece combo behind.
Jesse Presley nodded to his twin brother Elvis; Elvis needed nothing else. Without rehearsal, without a note to place the pitch of the song, Elvis closed his eyes, cocked his head, punch a hip, aimed his guitar, and exploded with, “Well since my baby left me.”
The three-piece band fired two shots.
Jesse took his turn with, “I found a new place to dwell.”
The band produced two more shots, and the brothers alternated lines to their 1956 smash hit. The crowd did not sit until several minutes after the song ended. Out of embarrassment, Jesse Presley raised his hands and waved for the people to sit.
“Please,” said Jesse, barely heard above the crowd. “Please, folks, you keep this up and an old man like me’ll just leave the stage and call it a night.
Elvis shot a glance at his twin brother and said, “Don’t do this. Not again. Not tonight. Play it, brother.”
The crowd sat. The applause stopped for an occasional whistle and scream. The relative silence was short-lived as was the audience staying in their seats. For the next hour, fifteen minutes longer than planned, the Presley Brothers performed songs from their 50s era of 1955 through 1962. Every song had sold several million copies.
The curtain finally closed. The crowd sat, but buzzed. Johnny Cash walked on stage in front of the curtain accompanied by his backup group. They played a few songs while the stage was changed behind the curtain.
Across America, in one hundred million homes, people sat glued to their televisions watching on TBS and local stations that had paid a hefty price tag to broadcast the concert. They didn’t see Johnny Cash perform. Instead, David Walker of CNN sat across from Jesse and Elvis in blue jeans under a large oak tree in Memphis. The interview had been recorded on New Year’s Day the prior week. Walker spoke with the polished voice of a news anchorman. Jesse and Elvis spoke as men about to turn 50. They had the southern accents of being raised in Memphis. From time to time, they fell back into the boyish gestures and slang of the 1950s south.
Walker: “Describe this event, this concert.”
Elvis: “You’re lookin’ at the wrong one. He’s the business guy.”
Jesse: “Well, next week, we turn 50, you know. And we thought,”
Elvis: (interrupting as was his habit) “You thought, brother. Don’t blame me unless this works.”
Jesse: (giving his brother a childish “I’m still your older brother and when we get home I’m gonna’ get you” look) “We thought it would be a good occasion to have a big show, a big charity show. We, I, talked with Colonel Parker, he called in a few chips, and here we are.”
Walker: “Ten thousand dollars a seat.” (pause) “That’s pretty steep. have you ever sold tickets like that?”
Elvis: “No. You crazy?”
Jesse: “No, never. That was the Colonel’s idea. He always had bigger ideas than we did.”
Walker: “Did you think you would sell the tickets, the 2,000 tickets?”
Elvis: “Sure, why not?”
Jesse: “I’ve never thought we would sell out anything we did. Just me, I guess.”
Walker: “Okay, so $20 million at the gate and then Mr. Turner steps in.”
Walker: “Ted Turner. He…”
Jesse: “We know Ted Turner. Yes, that was one of the Colonel’s chips he pulled in. Ted Turner owed him something from somewhere.”
Walker: “But, $20 million? That’s a lot of chips.”
Jesse: “Yes, it is. But, that is the Colonel. That is why we still work with him.”
Elvis: “Doesn’t he work for us yet?”
Walker: “So, you bring in $40 million for one event. And you get nothing?”
Elvis: “Wait a minute. Is that true?”
Jesse: (giving Elvis that older-brother look again) “Yes, that’s true. This is a charity event. The Ryman Auditorium is donated for the evening. TBS is donated for the evening. Everyone on stage is donated for the evening. Even the company that is collecting the money is donated. One hundred percent goes to the United Way.”
Elvis: “And the Colonel has some of his Memphis boys watching them.”
Walker: “On television, the first set has just ended—the 1950s set. How do you describe that era in your careers?”
Walker: “Elvis, would you describe any other era of your life with any other word?”
Elvis: (shrug and a laugh)
Jesse: “‘Fun’ is a good word. There are others that are apt.”
Elvis: (trying to imitate his twin brother, but coming off as more of a serious version of himself) “There are others that are apt.”
Jesse: “Yes, it was fun. It was exciting everyday. Everything we did was the first time we did it. Performing, going on the road, writing, meeting other performers. It was a thrill.”
Walker: “But the thrill ran out.”
Elvis: (after a long pause and looking at the ground) “Yeah, it ran out.”
Walker: “The two of you went your separate ways. Wouldn’t even talk to one another.”
Jesse: “That was difficult. We’re twins. We were with each other everyday of our lives. People study these things, twins and such. They can explain it all. Neither of us could explain it at the time, but we suffered through it.”
Walker: “For those at home, for those live in the Ryman, the next set is about to begin. The Presley Brothers call it ‘The Split Set’ since the music is from the time 1962 through 1968 when they performed and lived separately.”
Johnny Cash and his band bowed to a standing ovation and waved as they walked off the stage.
The curtain opened to show Elvis on stage with a band to one side and a line of dancing girls behind him. Elvis sang “Blue Hawaii.” The audience gave yet another standing ovation, this time with tears swelling in the corners of eyes. Elvis left the stage.
Jesse walked on stage with a guitar. Before he stopped, Glen Campbell joined him. Campbell approached a microphone and sang a song that Jesse had written for him in the early 1960s. The song sold a million copies, made Campbell a star, and also made Jesse a million dollars.
The second set repeated the sequence. Elvis sang a song from one of his two dozen 1960s movies with dancing girls and flourishes from his touring band and the pit orchestra. Jesse stood on stage next to a singing star who had recorded one of his forty hits of the era. After Glen Campbell came Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
The set ended with a surprise. Elvis returned to the stage and stood conspicuously in front of one of two microphone stands. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said to a hushed crowd. “Just to show that I have a friend left from that time, please welcome someone for me.” Elvis faced offstage and beckoned with his hand. “Come on now,” he started. “Come on Ann.”
Ann-Margret walked on stage wearing a sequined red gown with a slit up the side that ended somewhere near her arm and a plunging neckline that ended just above her belly button. She beamed with a “so you didn’t think I could wear a gown like this, did you?” expression. The crowd gasped on the inhale and exploded with an exhale while leaping to its feet.
“Okay, now,” said Elvis. “We hear ya’. You gotta’ quiet down a bit or you won’t hear the number.”
The crowd hushed. The women blushed, and the men tried to catch their breath. Elvis and Ann-Margret sang the duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for the first and only time together. At the end of the song, they hugged innocently, and the curtain closed.
Willie Nelson stepped out from behind the curtain with two other men holding guitars. Willie sang for twenty minutes while the television audience rejoined David Walker and the Presley Brothers under the oak tree.
Walker: “Okay, now we move into what is the toughest job in the history of journalism. I want to learn something about the two of you that nobody knows. Is there anything that nobody knows? Is there anything that your hundreds of millions of fans doesn’t know?”
Elvis: “The theory of relativity?”
Jesse: “I don’t know what people don’t know.”
Elvis: “That’s too deep for me, brother.”
Walker: “Okay, let’s start with marriage.”
(both Presleys shifted uncomfortably in their seats)
Walker: “You both married in 1960. Those marriages both resulted in one child—a daughter for you, Elvis, and a son for you, Jesse. Then in 1967, both of you were divorced. Thoughts?”
Elvis: “It sucked.”
Jesse: (sigh) “Again, people study these things and can explain them. I guess at this time, looking back, we can explain what happened to us. Then, however, then we didn’t know. The world was spinning too fast. We couldn’t hold our lives together, couldn’t hold our wives and children close enough so that the whirlwind didn’t blow them away.” (pause) “And those were lyrics of a song.”
Walker: “Yes, those were the first words of a song you wrote in the early 1970s. But…”
Jesse: (interrupting) “But I couldn’t find those words in 1966, in time, in time to hold it together.” (he closes his eyes for a moment and shakes his head)
Elvis: “It sucked, bad.”
Walker: “Christmas of 1968 you met at your mother’s house. It was the first time in how many years that you saw each other face to face?”
Jesse: “Well now you get to the part that nobody knows. The myth is that we never spoke to each other, never were in the same room at the same time, all that. That wasn’t true. I mean, he’s my twin. I was there when his wife gave birth. He did the same for me. We met on Mother’s Day every year. Things like that. Christmas every year. We’re a family. The agents, the managers, the producers, they ran the myth machine. They thought it helped the cash register. What did they know?”
Walker: “But the Christmas 1968 meeting was true.”
Elvis: “It was Christmas. It wasn’t a ‘meeting.’”
Jesse: “More of the cash register spreading a myth, but yes, on Christmas of 1968 we thought we should do some shows together.”
Elvis: “Mom got us drunk and…”
Jesse: (shooting Elvis the big-brother look) “The world had changed. Look at the history books and what all that happened in 1968.”
Elvis: “Baseball lowered the pitching mound…”
Jesse: “Assassinations, Vietnam, riots on college campuses—music went louder, drugs among performers came to the front. The times changed. If we didn’t get back into something, life would pass us by and we would live comfortably on royalty checks and sip iced tea under oak trees.”
Elvis: (staring down Walker with a ferocity that people had only seen in Jesse) “I didn’t want to wake up one day in a Holiday Inn outside of Lincoln, Nebraska with a hangover and a hundred extra pounds on my gut trying to clear my eyes so I could sing ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to a bunch of blue-haired old ladies at the Municipal Auditorium. Now I’m sorry if I insulted Holiday Inn, Nebraska, old ladies, and the movie ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ All those things and more had given me a great life, had given me everything and everyone a trashy kid from the wrong side of the Mississippi-Tennessee line could ever imagine. Still, it was 1968, I was still short of the halfway point of my three-score-and-ten and I wanted to make the second half as good as the first half. Jesse had some ideas and so did Colonel Parker. I pushed for it. I pushed hard for it.”
Jesse: (nodding yes) “Elvis tells it right. I had grand ideas. He had the passion. He made it happen. He made the phone calls. He visited the people in person. He did it, and the rest of us rode along.”
Walker: “But Berlin? In 1969?”
Jesse: “Didn’t make any sense, did it? Elvis knew something about Germany, knew something that would click with what we had been doing separately. It all came together in Berlin.”
Elvis: “I, we, had never done a world tour. So we did it.”
Walker: “Europe, Africa, Asia, Hawaii, South America, ending in Memphis.”
Elvis: “What are you doing, reading the back of a T-shirt or something?”
Walker: “The act itself also made no sense. Rockabilly, country western, scenes from Broadway plays, songs you wrote while on tour. And the locals.”
Elvis: “You had to bring that one up?”
Jesse: “Yes, that was odd. Never been done before. We brought local talent on stage with us to do numbers with us. We sang their original material with them.”
Elvis: “Some of it was pretty bad.”
Jesse: “Yes, but who is gonna’ boo their next door neighbor when they are part of a world tour.”
Walker: “Every concert was sold out. And you tried this thing called ‘pay per view.’ No one had done that before.”
Elvis: “It worked. The money flowed.”
Walker: “You played Shanghai, in Communist China, in 1969.”
Elvis: “Worked, didn’t it?”
Elvis: “I got confused. I had Hong Kong in mind, but confused the names, so we told the pilot to fly to Shanghai.”
Jesse: “Liar. We knew what we were doing or we didn’t know what we were doing. I think more of the latter.”
Elvis: “Worked, didn’t it? Two hundred million Presley Brothers fans can’t be all wrong.”
The curtain rose on the third set, called “The 70s (before disco).” The Presleys sang duets, danced soft shoe, recreated Broadway, and played instrumentals. Jesse sang solo on songs Elvis wrote. Elvis returned the favor. The crowd mellowed a bit. At the end of the set, the Bicentennial banner covered the back wall of the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Elvis. “Here is a friend to help us sing the last number of the set.”
Kate Smith walked on stage. The three of them led the audience in “God Bless America.” The handkerchiefs and Kleenex came out of pockets and purses.
The curtain closed to a recording of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” with a disco ball spinning in front of the curtain.
Walker: “Disco arrived, and the two of you split up again.”
Elvis: “No, we didn’t split up again.”
Jesse: “There you go with those myth makers again. The split up routine helped their cash registers.”
Walker: “So you didn’t break up?”
Jesse: “We hit 40. Disco hit the airwaves.”
Elvis: “And I wasn’t going to wake up in a Holiday Inn outside of Lincoln, Nebraska trying to remember the lyrics to Jailhouse Rock.”
Jesse: “We went underground. We played dates together without any notice, not even a poster stuck to a telephone pole. We wrote songs, put them in the can, and waited.”
Elvis: “And I made a few movies, remember those? Even acted in them this time.”
Walker: “You both married again…”
Elvis: “In a double ceremony mind you.”
Jesse: “That wasn’t my idea. It was yours.”
Elvis: “Worked, didn’t it?”
Walker: “You’ve both adopted two kids.”
Elvis: “Worked, didn’t it?”
Jesse: “You know this is going to be called the ‘worked didn’t it’ interview sessions. They’ll even rename the event to that. You know that, don’t you.”
Elvis: (starting to open his mouth)
Jesse: “Yes, you do know that and that is why you are doing this. Didn’t get your way in the planning sessions, so you steal the show now.” (giving Elvis the big-brother look, again)
Elvis: “Yes, we’re both married again. This time we have the whirlwind stuffed in a cloud and we’re holding onto the kite string with all four hands.”
Walker: “Is that a song title or something.”
Jesse: “He couldn’t keep it quiet, could he.”
Elvis: “Worked, didn’t it?”
Jesse: “Yes, we’ve adopted kids. We’re happy. I wish our mother and father could see us, but they didn’t make it this far. The people who study it can explain diets in the Great Depression and things like that.”
Walker: “You didn’t play any big concerts, until tonight.”
Elvis: “We’re old men. We’ve got enough frequent flyer miles to last us the rest of our lives.”
Jesse: “In the last five years, our television specials are the five highest rated shows. We even beat the Super Bowls each year. That’s something, right?”
Walker: “And now you spend most of your time writing.”
Jesse: “I’ve always spent most of my time writing.”
Elvis: “You think by now you’d be good enough at it that you could do it faster?”
Jesse: “I’m not as quick-minded as my brother. I never have been.”
Elvis: “But yes, we spend most of our time writing. You don’t have to get on a plane or reserve a room at the Holiday Inn to write. So we write. We write alone, we write together.”
Walker: “Do you run out of ideas?”
Elvis: “No. I mean, look up. We’re sitting under this old oak tree. Do you know how many songs are in the oak tree? Why, can you imagine the songs people were singing the day an acorn sprouted in this spot? Can you imagine all the songs all the people on this world have sung since then? How about all the music in all the hearts of people on just this morning?”
Walker: (silently stares at Elvis)
Jesse: “You got him started. I think that’s what this fiftieth birthday thing is all about. We’re fifty years old next week. The years are passing. Maybe we’re trying to catch up for some time we wasted along the way. People who study these things tell you that we all go through this sort of thing. Perhaps on this one we understand now what we are supposed to understand now. Perhaps we took a breath and are ready to charge ahead for the next twenty years or maybe more.”
Walker: “What’s next?”
Elvis: “You tell me, Mr. Cable TV and satellite TV and all that. People have computers on their desks now and carry phones in their coat pockets. What’s next for the world? Maybe we’ll go to Berlin in the next five years and walk from one side of the city to the next. No wall. Wouldn’t that be something? Wouldn’t that unleash a thousand songs? What would the world do with all the songs coming from behind that wall?”
Jesse: “You did get him started. Look out world. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis Presley.”
The curtain rose for the final set of the concert. Jesse and Elvis were sitting on two chairs at a small dining room table. There were two empty chairs at the table.
“This table is from our mother’s kitchen,” said Elvis. “She would sit at it most of the day shelling beans and peeling potatoes.”
“We would sit in our chairs watching her and singing little tunes we learned in Sunday School,” added Jesse.
“This is where life began for us,” said Elvis. “Sitting at a table in the kitchen with our mother and sometimes our father. This is life. We have a ways to go.”
Stagehands rolled a piano onto the stage behind them. Billy Joel walked out, sat at the piano, and began to play. Jesse started to sing. The first line of the song was, “This time we have the whirlwind stuffed in a cloud and we’re holding onto the kite string with all four hands.” They alternated singing verses and sang harmony on the chorus.
Les Paul walked on stage with a guitar. He sat in one of the empty chairs next to the table. After the applause died, Chet Atkins walked on stage with a guitar and sat in the fourth chair.
“I think it’s time for the amateurs to leave the stage for the pros,” said Jesse.
People in the crowd screamed, “No!” loud enough to be heard above the thundering applause. The four performed a couple of new songs co-written by the brothers for this quartet. One surprise act after another paraded onto stage and took turns sitting at the table with the brothers from Tupelo. This went on for an hour.
The event ended with the four children the brothers had adopted sitting on the table. Their wives sat in the other chairs.
“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,” said Elvis with boyish charm. “Please sing this last song with us. Keep your seats please. This is the kind of song a family sings together seated around the table or in your den or garage or under your oak tree where you sit together.”
The show ended with the Presleys and the two thousand people who paid $10,000 a seat singing the first verse of “You are My Sunshine.” The curtain didn’t close. The Presley families stood and walked off the stage while the audience stood and applauded softly.
Walker: “There is something the two of you want to say to end the evening.”
Elvis: “Yes, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, we hope you’ve enjoyed the show.”
Jesse: “This has been a charity event.”
Elvis: (interrupting at a time that was not rehearsed) “Colonel Parker’s boys will make sure no one has a hand in the basket.”
Jesse: (shooting one last big-brother look to Elvis) “Please take whatever joy you’ve gained from the show and spread it in your neighborhood and especially in your own home.”
Elvis: “We, at least me, have learned slowly over the years. Some of you grew up with us, grew up much faster than us and learned much earlier than us. Please bear with us. We hope you do much better than we have.”
Jesse and Elvis: (in unison) “May God bless.”