The Night John Lennon and The Beatles Met Elvis
No photos were taken. No recordings were made. Less than twenty people were present. All of which helps to explain why the greatest summit meeting in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history has remained a relatively little-known bit of rock trivia. But the facts are this: on a balmy August night in 1965, inside a rented mansion up in the tony hills of Bel Air, Elvis met The Beatles.
The mansion was Elvis’s, and The Beatles (in a caravan of individual limos) came to him — a fitting protocol for young superstars seeking to pay tribute to the older star who’d been such an inspiration for the group, and for John Lennon in particular. Lennon and Paul McCartney had both expressed a desire to try to meet with the King when The Beatles first came to the U.S. in February of 1964 and Beatles manager Brian Epstein reached out to Presley’s manager, the wily and formidable Colonel Tom Parker. But schedules could not be aligned and the only star-to-star contact was by way of a congratulatory telegram from Elvis and the Colonel that Ed Sullivan read on-air to the group after their debut performance on his show.
Towards the end of The Beatles’ ’65 tour, though, everything fell into place. The group was in L.A. for shows at the Hollywood Bowl, and Elvis was in town after having completed the filming of Paradise, Hawaiian Style in Hawaii. Epstein and Parker quickly worked out some crucial ground rules: a low-key get-together at Elvis’s place with no pictures taken and no press present (though Parker would make sure to leak word to a few fan clubs so that there’d be the requisite screaming throng outside Elvis’s gates). The four Beatles would be accompanied by Epstein and road manager Mal Evans. Elvis would be with his wife Priscilla, and a few trusted members of his “Memphis Mafia.” For diversions, there’d be a pool table, a Colonel-provided roulette wheel, a craps table, and (Elvis not being much of a drinker) a lightly-stocked bar.
A little after 10 p.m. on August 27, the line of limos containing John, Paul, George, Ringo, Epstein and Evans rolled through the crowd and onto the grounds of Elvis’s Perugia Way home. Within minutes, the two greatest forces in rock ‘n' roll were face-to-face. Introductions were made and seats taken. But what was supposed to happen now? The Beatles themselves seemed a little star struck, and there was a moment of awkward silence.
“You walk into Elvis Presley’s house — it’s different,” said Jerry Schilling, who was present as one of Elvis’s inner circle of Memphis Mafia guys. “No matter how talented or confident you are, his presence put things on a certain level. You could see The Beatles felt that. But Elvis knew just what to do. He looked around the room and said, ‘You know, if you guys are just going to sit there and stare at me, I’m going to bed.’ Everybody laughed and that broke the ice.”
Elvis and John Lennon soon discovered they shared an appreciation of Peter Sellers, and began reciting lines from Dr. Strangelove, which had come out earlier that year. “Elvis loved crazy, almost absurd humor, and I think that really surprised The Beatles,” recalled Schilling. “He loved doing the move where the doctor can’t stop from choking himself with his own artificial hand, and I remember John had a pretty strong Dr. Strangelove impression, too. Personality-wise, John really reminded me of the more cutting side of Elvis — the side you never saw in his movies. Elvis was sharp and fast and could cut through you with a remark, but usually only the few of us who lived with him ever saw that side of him. It came out that night with John, though.”
As cocktails were sipped and a comfortable vibe settled over the proceedings, Elvis indulged in one of his musical habits — he put on a favorite current record (Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam”) and played along with the tune on an electric bass, run through an amplifier set up next to his stereo system (“You could see Paul’s eyes light up,” recalls Schilling. “Now he had something to talk to Elvis about.”) George Harrison drifted outside to smoke pot with Larry Geller, an Elvis insider with the unusual role of hairdresser and “spiritual advisor.” Jerry Schilling teamed up with Ringo to take on Mal Evans and one of Elvis’s cousins at the pool table.
Over the years, there’s been a fair amount of speculation about what may have happened after a few run-throughs of “Mohair Sam.” There were other guitars at Elvis’s place, and it’s possible that he and Lennon traded a few licks of favorite ’50s tunes. But there were no drums around, and nothing strung for a left-handed player, so rumors of an incredible all-night Elvis-Beatles jam are sadly far-fetched. “Uh, I was kind of paying attention that night,” laughed Schilling. “If they’d really started playing, I would have dropped my pool cue in a hurry.”
The evening eased along, with Elvis and the four Beatles all seeming to relax enough to truly enjoy themselves. “Here were the only five guys in the world who could understand the level of fame that the other was at,” said Schilling. “The five biggest entertainers in the world were in one room, and there weren’t any ego problems at all. Without ever talking about it, I think they all appreciated what the other had experienced, and there was nothing but respect there. Everybody was down to earth, and nobody was trying to impress anybody. The Beatles had the same ‘no bulls---’ quality Elvis had, and that made it a really enjoyable night.”
Just before The Beatles left for the night, Lennon extended an invitation to Schilling. John said he knew Elvis couldn’t get out to come to their place, but wondered if Jerry might like to spend some time there. So, the next day, Jerry found himself sitting on a patio overlooking a steep canyon, at a table with John, Paul and George (Ringo was inside on the phone with his wife). The three Beatles had their heads wrapped in towels, getting their moptops ready for that night’s show in San Diego. At one point, Lennon leaned towards Jerry with a message he wanted him to deliver to Elvis. “He said, ‘I didn’t have the nerve to tell Elvis last night, but when I was in high school I wanted to do everything I could to look like him. I almost got kicked out of school for it. Tell Elvis, without him, we’d be nothing.”
Schilling accepted an invitation to come back to The Beatles’ pad the following day, too, and in the late afternoon found himself riding in a limo with John Lennon and Joan Baez (!), on his way to The Beatles’ show at the Hollywood Bowl. As the limo got to the Bowl, however, Schilling began to think about the premium Elvis put on loyalty within his inner circle. “I had a great life going, and all I needed was one of the other Mafia guys to say to Elvis, ‘Guess where Jerry is,’” says Schilling. “Elvis chose to be a nice guy most of the time, but that’s the kind of thing he would not have been happy about. So I’m probably the only guy that was ever driven to a Beatles concert in a Beatles’ limo and walked out before the show started.”
To this day, Schilling doesn’t regret the lack of audio, video, or photographic record of Elvis meeting the Beatles: it’s more special as a treasured memory. He does sometimes regret the timing of that meeting, though. “I only wish they could have met when they were both at the peak of their abilities as artists,” says Schilling. “We had a really nice time, but a few years later The Beatles would have been coming off of Sgt. Pepper and Elvis would be working on his ’68 special. That would have been a very interesting night.”