The national press takes notice whenever a celebrity visits Graceland. None, however, has received as widespread coverage as Paul McCartney did following his trip to Graceland on May 13, 2013. While in Memphis for a concert on his “Out There” tour, the former Beatle dropped by Elvis Presley’s former home for the first time. The Associated Press’ brief article on the event was featured in a multitude of print sources and online sites across the U.S. and around the world.
Rather than his mere presence, though, it was something McCartney did during his tour of Graceland that triggered widespread media coverage. He placed a guitar pick on Elvis’ grave. On his Twitter account, McCartney said he was “paying his respects.” The AP added, “so Elvis can play in heaven.” He also posted the two accompanying photos that were taken during his Graceland visit.
His display of respect for Elvis at Graceland was just the latest of many such public expressions of admiration for Presley by McCartney dating back to the early 1960s when The Beatles exploded on the music scene. That’s when the press first became interested in what the Fab Four had to say about Elvis, whose popularity the group was challenging. What follows is just a sample of what Paul McCartney has said about Elvis over the past 50 years.
Barry Miles’s 1997 McCartney book, Many Years From Now, is based on 35 taped interviews of Paul from 1991 to 1996. In it, Paul recalls his initial introduction to Elvis and how it changed the course of his life.
“I nearly did very well at grammar school but I started to get interested in art instead of academic subjects. Then I started to see pictures of Elvis, and that started to pull me away from the academic path. ‘You should see these photos …’ Then you’d hear the records – ‘but wait a minute, this is very good!’ – and then the tingles started going up and down your spine, ‘Oh, this is something altogether different.’ And so the academic things were forgotten.”
• “Heartbreak Hotel” started McCartney’s “Elvis experience”
The young McCartney first became aware of Presley’s image when he saw a picture of him in a British magazine advertisement for “Heartbreak Hotel.” When the record was released in England in May 1956, it had a profound effect on Paul. Years later, in the music magazine UNCUT, he explained how listening to his first Presley record jumpstarted his “Elvis experience.”
“They weren’t playing much of Elvis’ stuff on the radio in those days. To hear ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ I had to go into a record shop in Liverpool and listen to it through headphones in one of those booths. It was a magical moment, the beginning of an era.
“Elvis is a truly great vocalist, and you can hear why on this song. His phrasing, his use of echo, it’s all so beautiful. It’s the way he sings it, too. As if he’s singing it from the depths of Hell. It’s a perfect example of a singer being in command of the song. Musically it’s perfect, too. The double-bass and the walk-in piano create this incredibly haunting atmosphere. It’s so full of mystery, and it’s never lost that for me. The echo is just stunning. When The Beatles were recording, we’d often ask George Martin for ‘the Elvis echo.’ I think we got it down perfectly on ‘A Day in the Life.’”
In the Miles book, Paul spoke of the falling in “love” with Elvis’ music in 1956 and 1957. “If we were feeling lousy,” he recalls, “we’d go back and play ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ and we’d be right up there again. It could cure any blues.” Presley’s music even had the power to cure Paul’s physical ills.
“The healing power of music is serious. I remember I had a mate called Ian James, just my little teenage mate, school mate, and we used to go down to the fairs together and things. I remember one day I went back to his house and I had a headache, steaming headache, and I thought, ‘Oh God.’ But we put on ‘All Shook Up’ by Elvis. By the time that record had ended I didn’t have a headache.”
• Lennon and McCartney played Presley songs early on
When he hooked up with John Lennon, the young McCartney had a partner who shared his admiration for Elvis. In their first band together, they played many Presley tunes before they started writing their own songs. In one of the Miles interviews, Paul recalled Elvis’ role in an early Lennon-McCartney writing session.
“We’d often get in the little glass-panelled porch on the front door looking out on to the front garden and Menlove Avenue. There was a good acoustic there, like a bathroom acoustic, and also it was the only place (John’s Aunt) Mimi would let us make noise. We were relegated to the vestibule. I remember singing ‘Blue Moon’ in there, the Elvis version, trying to figure out the chords.”
While still acknowledging the early influence Presley had him, Paul was honest about his disappointment when Elvis’ music headed in a different direction. As he explained in a Miles interview, it started with a Presley hit single in 1958.
“‘Hard Headed Woman’—great title, we thought; Oh, this is going to be great! Then there’s a dreadful great big trombone right in the middle of it, and we thought, Good God! What in hell has happened? We were very disappointed about that, and we never really thought he got it back.”
Paul doubted that The Beatles would ever have made it if the British government hadn’t repealed mandatory public service for young men in the early 1960s. As the oldest, John and Ringo would have had to go first. Paul would have gone a year later, and George the year after that. The lack of continuity would have been fatal for the band, Paul judged. He felt lucky to have escaped the fate that over took Elvis when he was drafted in 1958.
“I always thought it ruined Elvis. We liked Elvis’s freedom as a trucker, as a guy in jeans with swivellin’ hips, but didn’t like him with the short haircut in the army calling everyone ‘sir.’ It just seemed he’d gone establishment, and his records after that weren’t so good.”
• “ … who were we to dare to want to meet him?”
The Beatles wanted to be bigger than Elvis, and by 1964 they were. They continued to acknowledge Presley’s early influence on them, however, and hoped their new fame would allow them to meet Elvis someday. In the Beatles Anthology book, published in 2000, Paul explained how it almost didn’t happen.
“We'd tried for years to, but we could never get to him. We used to think we were a bit of a threat to him and Colonel Tom Parker, which ultimately we were. So although we tried many times, Colonel Tom would just show up with a few souvenirs and that would have to do us for a while. We didn't feel brushed off; we felt we deserved to be brushed off. After all, he was Elvis, and who were we to dare to want to meet him? But we finally received an invitation to go round and see him when he was making a film in Hollywood.”
The legendary meeting between Elvis and The Beatles finally took place on August 27, 1965, at Presley’s Perugia Way home in Los Angeles. At that time, Elvis was trying to learn to play the electric bass, the same instrument Paul played for The Beatles.
“That was the great thing for me, that he was into the bass. It was a great conversation piece for me. I could actually talk about the bass, and we sat around and just enjoyed ourselves. He was great — talkative and friendly, and a little bit shy.”
Through the rest of the sixties, Elvis and The Beatles traveled diverging roads in the entertainment industry. By the time Elvis quit Hollywood and made his triumphant return to the Las Vegas stage in 1969, The Beatles were nearing the end of their remarkable career as a group. After the breakup in 1970, Paul McCartney fashioned a successful career as a solo artist.
In the years since Elvis’s death, McCartney has continued to comment respectfully on Presley’s legacy. During an interview for an article in Mojo Collections magazine in 2001, Paul was asked to list his favorite records. The first one he mentioned was “Louisiana Hayride: Elvis in ’55.”
“[It] is just unbelievable, the sound on it. It was recorded live at the Louisiana Hayride, and it’s got all his stuff, like ‘I Was The One.’ It’s got him doing comedy, being funny, which I remember Elvis being. It all got deadly serious later. Well, in people’s minds it did. I don’t think he ever took it seriously.”
• Bill Black’s bass gave Paul McCartney a direct link to Elvis
In 1976 Paul McCartney made a tangible connection to Elvis when he acquired the standup bass that Bill Black used on stage with Presley in the fifties. In a PBS performance a few years ago, McCartney unveiled the bass before a small studio audience. With the instrument in his hands, he visualized himself being on stage with Elvis. “If I were Bill Black, then Elvis would have been right there,” he observed, pointing to a spot just a few feet in front of him. Then McCartney played the bass while singing “Heartbreak Hotel.”
In his UNCUT magazine article, Paul explained how he came to own the historic instrument.
“Funnily enough, I ended up owning the double-bass that Bill Black played on ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ Linda bought the bass for me as a present. We knew this guy in Nashville who knew Bill Black’s family. At that point, Bill had died and the bass was sitting in his barn. They didn’t know what to do with it. So Linda got hold of it. When it arrived, I was astonished. It was all intact, right down to the white trim around the sides, except that the letters spelling ‘Bill” had fallen off.”
In the same article, McCartney explained how that bass has created for him a physical link to the Presley recording that helped change the musical world.
“I can’t honestly say that ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ is Elvis’ best record. I love Elvis so much that for me to choose a favorite would be like singling out one of Picasso’s paintings. What I will say is that it’s Elvis’ most alarming performance. When I hear it, I always get this image in my head … Elvis driving his Lincoln down the interstate on a clear night in Tennessee. The stars are twinkling. The air is balmy. They’re on their way to a show, Bill Black and Scotty Moore in the back, with Bill’s double-bass strapped to the car roof. And now that bass belongs to me. It’s my link to ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’”
Elvis has always had his detractors, but Paul McCartney’s steadfast respect has done more to preserve Elvis’ legacy than the efforts of a thousand critics to diminish it. McCartney’s recent visit to Graceland reminded us again how the glow of musical genius passed from one cultural icon to another in the early days of rock ’n’ roll. — Alan Hanson | © June 2013
Addendum (December 2022): In his 2021 two-volume book "The Lyrics," McCartney made the following observations about Elvis:
"We'd see 'Holly' under Buddy Holly's songs, and we'd think, "Wow, he wrote it.' Then we saw him on the telly at the London Palladium, and replay guitar and sang. But Elvis didn't write his own songs, and he couldn't really play guitar; we watched his fingers and saw that he couldn't play too well. In 'Love Me Tender' we could really tell that he wasn't playing. He was, of course, an amazing performer, but he was playing only a few basic chords."
"Often I think, 'Oh my God, I really met Elvis Presley. I was really in his house, and it was a moment in time that really happened.' That's all there is to it. It just happened. Sometimes I pinch myself and think, 'Was I really on the same couch as Elvis, talking about this stuff?' I want to remember it three hundred per cent more; I want to bring it back: 'Were we there, was it real?'"
“Elvis is a truly great vocalist, and you can hear why on ['Heartbreak Hotel']. His phrasing, his use of echo, it’s all so beautiful. It’s the way he sings it, too. As if he’s singing it from the depths of Hell."