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Elvis Presley Remembered by Country Musicians on 35th Anniversary of His Death

Hulton Archive

Elvis Presley was only 42 when he died at his home in Memphis, Tenn., exactly 35 years ago today (Aug. 16), yet the man who changed the course of music still has legions of loyal followers and countless entertainers who are influenced by his music.

“I love Elvis, and I’m very proud of him and that whole Tennessee connection, even though he was born in Tupelo (Miss.),” says Dolly Parton. “Elvis had an influence and certainly an impact on everybody, including me.”

Jerrod Niemann wasn’t even born when Elvis passed away, but he’s hugely grateful for the musical doors knocked down by the icon. “It was good to have people like that who weren’t scared to take chances back then,” Jerrod tells The Boot. “You don’t take chances to do it in vain; you take chances musically because you care, or you want to be different, or you want to see what would happen if you mix this with that. It takes an open mind, but Elvis was one of those people that whatever he did, it was right.

“I love the fact that Elvis is a country boy,” Jerrod continues. “He obviously is the King of Rock ‘n Roll, but Elvis was on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La., next to guys like Johnny Cash, Slim Whitman or Faron Young at a country show.”

Elvis’ Nashville connection was strong. He not only recorded in Music City, he had numerous acquaintances in the music community. Jerry Chesnut, who had several Elvis cuts, remembers that once the King cut one of your songs, he never forgot you. Jerry was part of a panel discussion titled “Songs Fit for a King,” held at the Country Music Hall of Fame in honor of Elvis. Along with Mac Davis, Dallas Frazier and Billy Swan, Jerry talked about the singer and the songs he had recorded.

“Lamar Fike pitched my songs to Elvis, and the first one he cut was ‘It’s Midnight,’ co-written with Billy Edd Wheeler,” Jerry recalls. “From that point forward, anytime Elvis was cutting he would tell Lamar, ‘See what Chesnut’s got.’”

Jerry said when he met Elvis for the first time, he didn’t know what to expect. “Here was the King of all music, this man who was supposed to be so big, and I didn’t know how I would react or what I would say,” Jerry remembers, explaining that the two met at a movie theater in Memphis. “We got to the movie and Lamar introduced us. We shook hands and he said, ‘How ya doin’?’ I don’t know to this day what I said.

“I realized all of a sudden this is a kid, this is no king. This guy is so simple. It amazes me to this day how simple greatness is. From that day on, I stopped trying to write hit songs and started trying to write great songs. It changed my whole life meeting him.”

Elvis also recorded “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” another of Jerry’s songs, but it was actually written specifically for Little David Wilkins. A demo of the song was on a tape that Lamar played for the icon, who sent word to Jerry not to play it for anyone else because it was going to be his next single. Elvis predicted it would be a standard and sure enough, the tune has been cut numerous times, memorably by Travis Tritt in the country market.

Watch the Celebrations at Graceland

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Mac had several cuts with Elvis, including the hits “In the Ghetto” and “Memories.” He also had a song that details the first time he heard Elvis, as the opening to his hit “Hooked on Music.”

“I was 14 and I was out with a group of older kids around 4 in the morning,” Mac recalls. “This song came on and it just blew us away. It was ‘That’s Alright Mama.’ I had to have it so the next day I went looking for it. The only problem was I’d never heard the name Elvis before so I went into record stores asking for Alvin Parsley. Finally one guy looked at at me and said, ‘Do you mean Elvis Presley?’ I said ‘yeah,’ and bought the single.”

Mac said he finally had the opportunity to see Elvis when he played in Lubbock, Texas, a few years later. The singer and his band performed on the back of a flatbed truck at a local Ford dealership. Mac remembers that even then, the girls were screaming. “I went home and tried to do those moves like he was making,” Mac says with a grin.

At the time, Mac wasn’t even a songwriter, so how could he know that years later he would have songs recorded by Elvis? “In the Ghetto” was a tune he wrote about his experiences as a child, being a friend of an African American boy, the son of one of his father’s employees. “I always wondered why he had to live in one part of town and me in another, even as a child,” Mac said. “When the term ghetto came out, I was able to use it to write the tune.”

“Memories” was written specifically for Elvis. Billy Strange called him and said he was producing the 1968 television special that many consider his comeback moment. Billy said he needed a song to play at the beginning and ending of Elvis’ acoustic part of the show. He had 24 hours to write the song and he didn’t sleep until he had it written.

Billy had a hit with “I Can Help,” but the tune also attracted the attention of Elvis, who recorded it himself. Billy says he was blown away by the King’s version. “I don’t know if you’d call it rockabilly or bop,” he reflects. “It’s like soul music to me; it made me feel good. It’s still therapeutic for me when I go back and listen to it. I’ve been an Elvis fan ever since.”

Dallas never met Elvis, but still says he “grew up” with him. “I was just really getting started good when he came out. I loved his work,” he says. “He was one of a kind. People talk about somebody being big, and people will compare them to Elvis, but there’s never been another Elvis.

“I never got to meet Elvis, but I talked to him on the phone one time. He was looking for a song, and he told me he loved ‘Chain of Fools’ and he asked me if I could write a similar song for him. I tried, but all I could think about was the other song and I never could write it. That’s the closest I got to meeting him.”

Jerry was with Elvis a few days before he died. “I got a call that Elvis was doing a session in his house and he was cutting a couple of my songs. (My wife) Pat and I drove down. Elvis recorded two of my songs and he said, ‘I’m tired, I’m going to bed. We’ll cut some more tomorrow.’ Pat and I came on back to Nashville. He never went in the studio again. One of the songs he cut, ‘Love Coming Down,’ is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.

“I was standing there when they opened his casket. I knew one thing then, that my life and the music world would never be the same. Once you met him, he changed your life, whether you liked him or not. He was something else; it affected you.”

There are numerous events in Memphis this weekend to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ passing, including the unveiling of rare footage from the singer’s 1972 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The footage will be part of RCA/Legacy’s upcoming CD/DVD box set, Prince From Another Planet, releasing on October 30.

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