Elvis and Elvis Presley are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises
1969 was a busy year for John. Not only did he join the TCB-band for Elvis, he also released his first single on RCA, July You’re a Woman /City Sidewalks.
John remembers the very first live show he did with Elvis, like it was yesterday. “It was July 31st 1969, and we played at the old International Hotel, now the Las Vegas Hilton . My first feeling was: here I am, on stage with the great Elvis Presley. I wanted to do the very best job possible, I didn’t want to screw up. When I walked by his dressing room, Elvis was nervous. Anxious I should say, ‘cause we had worked so hard during the rehearsals. And his whole desire was to not have a replay of what had happened at the old New Frontier in December 1956. He wanted to be seen as a serious entertainer, telling his audience Hey, I’m alive and I’m better than ever. He wanted to be taken seriously but at the same time he wanted the audience to have fun. I remember he was like a caged lion before that show, pacing back and forward. When we started the show, I kept my eye on the left hand side of the stage, where he was ready to come out. Of course at that time, we didn’t use the 2001-theme, we just started playing the vamp for Blue Suede Shoes. Then all of a sudden, the lights went down, the drums started going, the guitars were ringing, and there he came! The people didn’t know what to expect. But they looked, and stood up. They cheered and clapped. The look on his face was just wonderful. As if he was thinking “I’ve made it, I’m alright. They still love me.” It was so exciting. The whole night was filled with electricity. It was like grabbing an electrical wire. I don’t think we ever played better than those few opening nights.
“Early Morning Rain” will forever be the song that first comes to mind when you hear Elvis Presley introducing his rhythm guitar player. Over the years, it became John’s signature song. As far as we know, Elvis included the song for the very first time in his live set on August 29th of 1974. Of course, by that time, the studio version of the song was long released on the Elvis Now Album (February 1972) and another year later, Elvis re-recorded the song as a bonus for the Aloha Broadcast. “I really can’t remember the exact date I played it for him on stage for the first time”, John says. “I can tell you it was in Las Vegas. He walked over to us, introduced me, and wanted me to play something. “Play it, John”. And I’d go: “Play what?” So the first song that came to my mind, such as it is, was Early Morning Rain. And for a good portion of those concerts in the Seventies, that’s what I did when Elvis would point at me, and say “From Springfield Missouri…” He loved the song. You know, for a long time, Elvis had been introducing the band and everybody was taking a solo. But for me there was no indication that he wanted me to play a solo. I didn’t think anything of it. I was just thrilled and happy to be on stage with him. One night, Red West came up to me and said: “John, don’t think that Elvis doesn’t appreciate your rhythm guitar. He doesn’t mean to forget you on stage.” I remember telling Red “Hey, that’s okay. I’m here. People would kill to be in the same situation that I’m in." After that, Elvis sent word down to my dressing room, telling that he wanted to see me. He said “John, I just apologize, I know you can play and during the next show, I’m gonna ask you to play something. And I’m going: Yeah, right. But he did…”
On August 16th 1977, John and the rest of the band were on route to Portland, Maine, for the start of another tour. Halfway, the plane landed. “That’s funny”, I thought. “This plane should be able to go further without refueling.” But it was there and then that John heard the dramatic news. “Everybody was crying. Kathy, the Sweets, some of the guys… It seemed so unreal. We all thought that Elvis Presley was bigger than life. He wouldn’t do that to his fans. Not Elvis.” But Elvis did. “We were shocked. By far, it’s the most horrible day of my life. I lost a friend. The news was so upsetting. It broke my heart.”