WHEN ELVIS MET THE BEATLES
Next Thursday, 27th August, will mark the 55th anniversary of the one and only time the Beatles met Elvis Presley. It was billed as perhaps the most legendary meeting in rock and roll history. But when Elvis met the Beatles in his Bel Air mansion in Perugia Way, Los Angeles, on 27th August 1965, it was under a blanket of tight security. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, insisted that there should be no photos and no press, apart from Chris Hutchins of the UK’s NME or New Musical Express, who had been instrumental in organizing the meeting. Both sides were nervous; the Beatles, because they regarded Elvis as the undisputed King of rock and roll and Elvis and his manager Colonel Parker, because they considered these longhaired Liverpool louts as threats to their hard-won kingdom. Elvis wanted to figure out if the ‘so-called’ Fab Four were really going to step on his blue suede shoes.
As a handsome southern white boy steeped in the traditions of black rhythm n’ blues, country music and pop, Elvis had conquered the pop world. But Colonel Parker, was more interested in commercial success than musical creativity. He kept Elvis on a tight leash, so that by 1965 he was largely singing the soundtracks to his movies. Brian Epstein, on the other hand, wanted to help the Beatles develop their creativity. He knew that the boys were well educated, artistic and had an appealing rebelliousness, which was directly in tune with the youth of the 1960s. Elvis had reached the summit of his career and was on the descent. The Beatles, in contrast, were about to plant their flag on the mountaintop.
The NME journalist Chris Hutchins had tried several times to get the King of Rock and Roll to meet the Fab Four. In 1964, he had introduced Colonel Tom Parker to John, Paul, George and Ringo and the Colonel had given them gifts of Western belts and holsters. Paul had even spoken to Elvis briefly on the phone. But until now, no meeting had taken place. Colonel Parker’s reluctance to broker a meeting was understandable. These young, longhaired British upstarts were taking America by storm. Presley himself was scared. He could see his own popularity drowning under a tidal wave of Beatlemania.
Finally, on Friday 27th August 1965, around 10pm, Colonel Parker and Elvis’ road manager Joe Esposito, drove to the Beatles’ house in Benedict Canyon to collect John, Paul, George, Ringo and Brian Epstein in a Cadillac limousine. As they headed back towards Elvis’ house in Perugia Way the Fab Four were in hysterics, smoking joints and laughing and joking until they pulled up in front of the big gates, outside his Bel Air mansion. John said: “We were all nervous as hell. Elvis was surrounded by minders and his so-called ‘Memphis Mafia’ – motorcycle friends”. Inevitably, hundreds of screaming fans were waiting outside the mansion when the Beatles arrived.
The evening began awkwardly after John Lennon and Elvis clashed. Although Lennon had idolized Elvis since his teenage years, his first blunt remark to the King when they met that night in Bel Air was: “What happened to the old rock n’ roll Elvis?” Then, John spotted a couple of heavy table lamps inscribed with the words: “All the Way with LBJ”. He told Elvis that as an anti-war pacifist, he hated President Lyndon B. Johnson for raising the stakes in the Vietnam War. It was the wrong thing to say to someone who had served for two years with distinction in the US Army. The comment incensed Presley and sparked a dislike of Lennon that grew over the ensuing years into outright hatred. It was the start of a bitter feud between the two.
A violent storm was rumbling across the mountains outside and rain was lashing down on the mansion’s roof tiles. Elvis plugged a bass guitar into a “massive big bass amplifier” and began strumming away to records playing on a jukebox. The boys grabbed whatever guitars and instruments they could find and plugged them into an array of amplifiers. Unfortunately, there were no drums for Ringo, who could only tap his fingers on the side of his chair, but soon they were all jamming happily.
According to Paul it was around eleven o’clock before Priscilla, Elvis’ teenage girlfriend, finally made an appearance. He said: “She came in and I got this picture of her as a sort of Barbie doll – with a purple gingham dress, and a gingham bow in her very beehive hair, with lots of make-up.” Around midnight, Elvis asked his cook Alvena Roy to prepare supper. Alvena had worked for Elvis since 1963 and was accustomed to late night orders like this. The Beatles finally departed at around 2am, leaving Elvis’ mansion to screams and popping flashguns from hundreds of waiting fans.
After their one and only meeting, Elvis contacted J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director and even President Richard Nixon, telling them that: “The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music while entertaining in this country during the early and middle 1960s." Elvis. claimed they had: "poisoned young minds by disparaging the United States in their public statements and unsavoury activities.”
It was some years later before the Beatles learned that Elvis, collaborating with the FBI, had tried to have them banned from coming to America, culminating in an abortive bid by Nixon to have John Lennon deported in 1972 because of his anti-war activities. In the end, it was Nixon who was driven from office following the Watergate scandal, while John Lennon remained in America. It was perhaps a great irony, not lost on the Beatles, that Elvis died on his bathroom floor in Graceland, his bloated body riddled with prescription drugs. The King of rock and roll, who had invited the Beatles to dinner in 1965 and went on to denounce them as dirty, anti-American drug abusers, ultimately, on August 16th 1977, fell victim to his own dissolute lifestyle and abuse of prescription drugs.