In photos, they’re an unlikely pair—one, the world’s greatest sex symbol; the other, a diminutive radio announcer with a hooked nose and raccoon eyes. But George Klein, or “GK,” as Presley called him, knew Elvis better than anybody—at least better than any male. In Elvis: My Best Man, Klein details the history of their relationship, from years together at North Memphis’s Hume High School through Klein’s acceptance, on behalf of Presley Enterprises, of Elvis’s 1986 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Klein first noticed Presley in an eighth-grade Music Appreciation class. Elvis was a thirteen-year-old loner who’d brought his guitar for a Christmas sing along—a very un-cool act. Several years later, when Elvis had taken to wearing black slacks with pink piping and a jacket with the collar turned up—in defiance of the requisite blue jeans and plain collared shirts at the time—Klein saw the future. “The look … was pure Elvis,” he says. “Like a velvet hammer.”
It wasn’t until after graduation, however, that the two became close. Klein had fallen in love with radio—and the integrated Memphis music scene that spawned two-toned bands like Booker T and the MGs. As a protégée of Memphis radio wild man Dewey Phillips, Klein rose to become one of Elvis’s favored DJs. But as Elvis’s star rose, Klein’s fell. When his station, WMC, came under conservative new management, Klein, Elvis, and rock ‘n’ roll were out.
Noticing that Klein was no longer on the air, Elvis offered him a job with his entourage. “What exactly am I going to do for you?” Klein asked. “Nothing,” Presley replied. “You’re a traveling companion.”
So began Klein’s official relationship with Presley. He was a member of the “Memphis Mafia,” as Elvis’s retinue was called, and his responsibilities were dictated by the King’s many whims. From serving as target practice (with roman candles; not firearms) to helping wrangle Elvis’s growing stable of willing females, Klein was called to be protector, promoter, fall-guy, and, increasingly, confidant.
In many ways, Klein’s version of Presley’s meteoric rise and shocking decline follows the party line. (One of his book’s blurbs—”Elvis would be proud”—comes from Priscilla herself.) Accordingly, Elvis often adopts a fawning tone: “Elvis was the most talented man I’ve ever known, he was the most generous man I’ve ever known, and he was the smartest man I’ve ever known.” What distinguishes Klein’s story, however, is how his background in Memphis music ultimately changed Presley’s artistic legacy.
After a decade of increasingly banal films and soundtracks, Elvis was frustrated. His bottom-line-obsessed manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a former carnival hustler, refused to accept projects with even a whiff of artistic merit. But during a 1969 business meeting, Klein broke ranks, suggesting that the group record at North Memphis’s funky American Sound Studios instead of fancier digs in Los Angeles or Nashville. The resulting record, From Elvis in Memphis, which contained the hit songs “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain,” is considered by many to be the King’s crowning achievement.
Aided by veteran entertainment journalist Chuck Crisafulli, Klein tells his tale compellingly, often inserting insight into radio and television work, with which he remains intimately involved: Klein currently hosts a show on Sirius XM Radio’s Elvis Channel, as well as several other Memphis-related programs. Most striking, however, is Klein’s obvious affection for his subject, a complex man who, despite world-class megalomania, remained throughout his life a charming and worthwhile friend.
George Klein will read from and sign copies of Elvis: My Best Man at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on January 13 at 6 p.m.