ELVIS AT PARAMOUNT
by RAY CAMPI
As originally printed in Now Dig This. Used by permission of Ray Campi.
As a follow-up to his memories of meeting Elvis in Killeen in 1958 (see last month's NDT), RAY CAMPI looks back to 1960 and recalls being present at the Hollywood rehearsals for G.I. Blues - The King's first post-Army movie.
"C'mon, everyone, have some more spaghetti and meatballs, there's plenty!"
Gathered around our apartment at 1220 N. Gardener in Hollywood were the two guys that I shared the place with, "Doc" Shrylock, my college buddy, and Bob Parr. We had also invited friends and relatives such as Doc's co-worker, Joe Pizarusso, who was doing studio property work with Doc, my father's first cousin, Adele Broderick, my earliest contact in southern California, as well as Doc's friend, Mary Hoffman, who helped us cook up the food. Little did I realize that one of the people sitting with us all at the table was to soon direct me back to Elvis Presley.
James Drury was a good friend of Doc's and he and his wife and young son were enjoying the get-together as well. There was no important reason for this party, although my birthday had recently passed. Doc, Bob and I were doing better and we wanted to celebrate a little. When I first arrived in town six months earlier, Bob had steered me to the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills where I got an assistant manager's job. Bob had been working steadily in the theatre ticket business. Doc was in the property master's union and was getting in lots of overtime on "The Dennis O'Keefe Show" on TV. I also had had released my first 45 recorded in Hollywood with Gil Garfield and Perry (Bunny) Bodkin Jr., also known for this one record as The McCoy Boys. We were paying the rent and doing okay.
The acting career of James Drury was on the way up. "I just finished a part in a new Disney film called Pollyanna starring a young girl from England called Hayley Mills," he revealed. We were impressed. He had also done a lot of television work and had been "up" a few times to star in his own TV series.
Years earlier, when Doc had been working toward an acting career, he had been in a stage play in Hollywood called The Lonely Ship. Jim was also in the play along with others such as Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek" fame. Doc would often reflect, "Yeah, we were all starving back then and I'm the only one who didn't get my name in lights!"
"THE RENO BROTHERS"
Elvis fans know the name of the Reno brothers from his first film, Love Me Tender. Well, James Drury was in that one also. He played Ray Reno, one of Elvis' brothers. A few short years later he was signed to star in "The Virginian," a hit western series on NBC.
"Guess who's coming back to town in a couple of days?" he asked. "Elvis will be back at Paramount to start a new picture. I'm going over to visit, want to come along?" - his question being directed to me as he knew I would be interested. "I sure do!" I blurted out. I was working nights then and I didn't have to be at the Fine Arts until 6 p.m., so I had all of my days to dedicate to "Elvis watching."
The following Tuesday morning, Jim pulled up to the N. Gardener apartment in his blue 1957 Pontiac hardtop. "C'mon, let's go," he chimed as I jumped in the passenger seat. It was only a seven-minute ride over to the Paramount lot on Melrose and before we knew it we were pulling into the visitor's parking lot gate where a guard was standing in front of a small booth. "May I help you?" he asked. "Oh, it's you," he interrupted himself as he recognized Jim, who had worked on the lot many times. "Yeah, my friend and I came over to see Elvis Presley today, I heard he's coming back to work on a new film," Jim went on. "That's right. The Colonel has already moved into a production office and Presley will be rehearsing some of the songs to be recorded for the movie. He's on the stage right across from where Nick Adams is shooting."
Nick Adams. That name reminded me of a funny incident. When Nick first came to Hollywood from New York, detemined to become a big film star, he, like me, got a theatre job in Beverly Hills on Wilshire Boulevard. It was at The Music Hall, and part of his job was to change the marquee letters. One day, just to see what it would look like in lights, he put his name up in big plastic letters on the sign. The title of the film was correct, but underneath he had arranged "Starring Nick Adams."
He was fired for that stunt, but soon got a small part in the John Ford production Mr. Roberts; all was not lost, for Nick Adams did become a "movie star." He was also a friend of Elvis and was shooting his western series "The Rebel" just a short distance from where his old buddy was to be rehearsing that day. Jim and I got out of the car and started walking in the direction of the sound stages. Strangely, I did not see him again that day - April 26, 1960.
Before coming to the West Coast in September of 1959, I had made the friendship of Gabe Tucker in Houston, Texas, where he was managing the "D" record label, owned by Harold "Pappy" Daily. I recorded a tribute record to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper for "D" in 1959, "The Ballad of Donna and Peggy Sue" / "The Man I Met." Gabe was experienced in all aspects of country music as he had been a bandleader, trumpet player, singer, comic, manager, disc jockey and record label operator. Over the years, he and Tom Parker had developed a close relationship as Gabe had been the comic on the Eddy Arnold stage show when The Colonel managed the country crooner. "If you ever get out to Hollywood, look up some of my old contacts," he said to me shortly before I left Texas. He wrote letters of recommendation for me to some of those contacts such as Gene Autry, for example. "I think I'll go over to the production office and meet Colonel Parker," I said to Jim as we were walking. Jim responded and kept on toward the sound stage. That was the last I saw of him.
I located the room that had the sign reading "G.I. Blues Production Office" painted above the door and walked in. I immediately was facing a large balding man with papers in his hand standing behind a desk. I stuck out my hand. "I'm Ray Campi," I blurted out, "I worked with Gabe Tucker last year and met Elvis in Killeen." The big man shook my hand and we talked for a few minutes and then he suggested that I go over to the sound stage and say "Hi" to his protégé. "I sure will," I responded, thanking him for his time before leaving the office.
I began scanning the studio lot, fascinated I was walking down the same streets where once travelled such stars as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Mae West and George Raft - all heroes of my childhood. Before I knew it I was on the stage where "The Rebel" was being shot. Nick Adams, dressed in his Confederate costume, was only a few feet in front of me. It was between takes and I knew Nick would have a few minutes to talk. I introduced myself and we chatted. Being interested in drama and film-making, I hung around for a while and watched Nick shoot a scene. Jim and Elvis had vanished from my mind. My few minutes of gawking soon expanded into 30 or more. When eventually I got over to Elvis' rehearsal stage I wondered if I could even get in. I quickly sprinted to the stage; the red light was off. I pushed in the thick door with a number painted on it... The "Virginian" and his guitar-picking friend were nowhere in sight!
When looking back on the music and film career of a superstar like Elvis Presley, it comes to mind that little of his success could have ever been achieved without help, and on that Paramount lot that was one thing Elvis had going for him. He had help from scores of people from Hal Wallis and The Colonel on down. There was music arranger Charles O'Curran and a score of sound technicians, and of course, his own personal entourage, not to forget the band musicians.
When I entered the sound stage at around 10 a.m., I witnessed many people doing many things. Players like Scotty Moore were positioning their instruments and amplifiers. Others were gathered around D.J. Fontana who was getting his drum legs lined up just right. Charlie O'Curran was pulling a stack of song sheets from his briefcase and setting them on the piano. He had been hired by the film company to direct and conduct the music rehearsals of all the songs that were to be recorded in Hollywood for RCA later that very night. Learning the songs had to be done first, of course, as the exact song lyrics were needed on tape so that when filming began Elvis could lip-sync along with the song playbacks.
Gordon Stoker and the rest of The Jordanaires were the first group of people I talked with. Gordon was a friend of a girl who lived in our aprtment building called Billie Medlin. Billie knew Gordon in Dallas, and I knew talking to him would help to "break the ice" for me. There were stools placed around the area where the musicians were going to work, so I picked one up and sat down to observe the historic events of that day.
Soon a man came over to my corner with an acoustic bass in his hands. It was obvious with only one glance that he was not Bill Black, but a union studio musician and that Bill's success in his solo recording career had put him out of the "Elvis scene" forever. I talked with him for a while, as he was sort of an outsider like myself, but soon realized that a young man in black slacks, wearing two-tone shoes and a colorful shirt was sitting on the stool beside me not two feet away.
He was just as intrigued as I was by all of the movement going on by everyone and we two appeared to be the only ones in the room that had little to do. It was at that moment that I introduced myself to Elvis Presley for the second time in my life.
We talked about "Mr. Tanner," Bobby Reed and Killeen where we first met. He was extremely cordial to me and I displayed a low-key approach toward meeting him again. Within a few minutes Charlie O'Curran came over from his piano which was on the opposite side of the sound stage and showed Elvis copies of the songs they were going to rehearse that day. He picked up one copy, said, "We'll start with this one," and walked back to the piano on the far side of the room and pounded out a few chords of music.
Once the instrument levels and tunings were set, Charlie went on with his chord run-throughs for all to hear and to follow on the music sheets before them. When the musicians felt at ease with the tune, Elvis got up and started to sing in a mike along with the players a few times. I'm not positive if these rehearsals were recorded on tape, but I think they were as there were engineers who stayed in the booth the entire time and mikes were placed around the stage in various places. But, if recordings were made, I don't recall for sure. I don't think anyone called out the "take" numbers, and I don't think the tape was turned off for any reason. I assumed the tape was kept running and the contents used for reference at a later date.
I stayed at that rehearsal until about 5 p.m., when I had to leave for my job at the Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills. During that day I sat next to Elvis the entire time, and talked to him briefly between his singing chores. Others would come up and talk with him as well. Charles O'Curran was a very efficient bandleader, little time was wasted and about six or seven songs were rehearsed with Elvis being able to sing all of them through without hesitancy.
That night at the theatre I told my envious co-workers about my experience and decided that I would try to return to the Paramount lot the next day, and as many days following as I could.
Late Wednesday morning I excitedly drove to the Paramount lot but had no idea how I'd get past the studio gate. James Drury had "flown the coop" the day before, so how could I manage to get in?
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ELVIS AT PARAMOUNT - PART TWO
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