Elvis Presley's Right-Hand Man Reflects on the King's Presidential Medal of Freedom

Elvis Presley
Earl leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Elvis Presley backstage at the Milton Berle Show in Burbank, Calif. on June 4, 1956. 

Music industry veteran Jerry Schilling still remembers the day he met Elvis Presley -- and the last he spent with his close friend. He’d met the future King of Rock & Roll playing in a pickup football game as boys; they grew up in the same Memphis neighborhood. By his telling, nobody knew what Presley would become in just a few years. “He couldn’t even get six kids his own age to play football,” he remembers.

That neighborhood boy would go on to become the most recognizable Western entertainer of the 20th century. In fact, the King just received a much-overdue White House honor. Today (Nov. 16) the iconic singer and actor was awarded with the Medal of Freedom, courtesy of President Donald Trump. He was posthumously selected along with baseballer Babe Ruth, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and other American notables.

As his business partner and confidante, Schilling was there until his death in 1977. During the funeral procession to the Meditation Garden at Graceland Mansion to lay the King to rest, Schilling saw something astonishing: people of all races and creeds paying their respects.

“Whether it was a black person or a white person, an old person or a young person,” Schilling recalls to Billboard, trailing off. “Everybody was standing there in real honor and respect for Elvis Presley.”

The King went through a whirlwind of creative phases over the years in order to secure this eclectic audience: from his fiery run of early singles to his 1973 Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite comeback and beyond. The King’s star began to fade in the late-’70s, and Schilling would carve out his own legacy in the record industry, as manager for the Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Joel.

But through it all, Presley and Schilling remained tight; Schilling still lives in the Los Angeles home the King bought him in 1974. And he never lost sight of the boy he met on that football field, who, in his words, “took me and the world on a great ride.”

In honor of Presley’s Medal of Freedom, we spoke with Schilling about the presidential honor, the two friends’ storied history and why the King could only happen in America.

For readers who may be unaware, can you describe how your association with Elvis Presley first came to be?

I grew up in the same North Memphis neighborhood as Elvis did. It started July 11, 1954 at a local pickup football game. Elvis wasn’t popular at this time, because he didn’t have a hit record. He couldn’t get six people his own age to play football, so they let the little kid play, which was me. That started a 23-year friendship and a professional relationship of many years.

I knew Elvis before he became the iconic Elvis that we know today. I was very privileged. He was very kind to me and took me on a great ride. I think he took America and the world on a great ride. It’s called the Medal of Freedom, is that correct?

Yes, the Medal of Freedom.

Well, I’ll say this. Especially growing up in the South in the ‘50s, in segregation, if anybody did something for freedom that was realistic, not just talked about, but was shared and enjoyed, it was Elvis Presley. He dared to be different. He wasn’t trying to make a statement, but when he did make a statement, he didn’t give up.

He loved rhythm and blues music. It was the first time, maybe in history, I don’t know. I’ve only lived my life. But it was the first time that young kids started having their own music. I remember prior to that, music I listened to was the same music that your parents listen to, because that’s how it was.

It was the hit parade with people like Snooky Lanson and people singing “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” And Elvis took that and changed it to “Hound Dog.” As lovable as he is in getting this medal, I don’t want to forget his rebelliousness, which started it all. That was the beauty of Elvis. He was a lovable rebel.

And the people who criticized him very strongly, the politicians, even religious leaders, Elvis Presley even won them over. I think this medal is the prime example of how, without doing anything but giving a lot of enjoyment and love with his music, that he won America.

Look, I know how important it was to Elvis when he and I went back to Washington and he got the badge from President Nixon. The fact that we were in the room with the President of the United States was a big deal to Elvis. It didn’t make any difference who the president was. It was that office. And I think this tops that.

I just wish he was there to receive it. But knowing this guy, somehow, he’ll know about it anyway.

You were so close to Elvis for many years. How does it feel to see him get his due from the White House in 2018?

I would love to see him realize that he was thought that much of, you know? It’s hard during the time of innovators or history-makers for the world to catch up. I understand why there’s a time lapse. But more importantly, I know why his legacy and memory will have such an honor. I think it’s very appropriate that Jack Soden, who opened up Graceland with Priscilla Presley, is going to accept that on behalf of Elvis Presley.

Elvis would have been 84 this year. If he was still with us, how do you think he’d have developed as a performer?

I think Elvis would have had challenges, and I base this on when he did. He worked very hard in those early years, establishing his record career. You look at his first four movies in the ‘50s, and they’re pretty damn good. Then, he went to the Army. Which was a wonderful thing, in a way, because without him serving his time and doing it so honorably and respectfully, he more than likely wouldn’t be getting this honor.

A lot of the people that I mentioned before didn’t quite understand him and worried about their kids following in those wild, sexual rhythm-and-blues footsteps. But he came out of the Army and served his time so well, and was exposed there for the first time, coming back along with Frank Sinatra, who was the establishment. I think those people said, “Hey, he must be a pretty good guy. He served his country, he was proud of it, and he’s back.”

He also was a very intelligent, leading-edge type of guy. We got used to seeing him in the ‘60s movies, when he was the guy next door, singing his songs and smiling all the time. Elvis really wanted to stretch, and creatively, he did not get that freedom, unfortunately. As Elvis said, “I don’t think anyone was trying to hurt me, but they did.”

You can’t take a creative giant like Elvis Presley and not let him stretch his wings and experiment. Not let him do A Star is Born. Not let him tour around the world, when he wanted to so bad. He didn’t get to do it. He didn’t get to tour overseas. I think the Colonel certainly did what he thought was right for Elvis. They were a great team for a period of time, but there was a point where Elvis creatively outgrew the Colonel.

But the bottom line to your question, what Elvis was trying to do, and I was working with him on this, is that he could have been a Clint Eastwood, or if you will, a Barbra Streisand. He had all the right stuff. The business and the machinery had gotten too big and too profitable. They thought all they had to do was sign Elvis Presley, throw in 12 songs and maybe not have any challenging co-stars.

I think Elvis would have gotten through that period before the ‘68 Comeback Special, of which we’re about to celebrate the 50th anniversary. He was not a happy guy. He was overweight. He was bored. And then he got this challenge, and he went into training like Muhammad Ali. He went from 220 pounds to 178. And all people have to do is look at that special and see.

He could always come up to a challenge. He could even invent them. It was when people let him. But all that being said, and what’s happening today, I think Elvis Presley did what he set out to do.

The thing that sticks out in my mind so vividly is being a pallbearer at the funeral, and driving the few miles from Graceland to the cemetery. And along the road, everybody was stopped. Whether it was a policeman with his hand over his heart, whether it was a biker, whether it was a black person or a white person, an old person or a young person, everybody was standing there in real honor and respect for Elvis Presley.

I think he just wanted to be loved and make the world a little better. And he certainly did that. I wish he was able to realize that more during his lifetime.

Do you think Elvis was able to fully grasp what he meant to the nation and the entire world during his lifetime?

Did he know, from time to time, that he was loved and admired by a lot of people? Yes. He saw it at his concerts. But to the extent? No. There hasn’t been anybody loved in so many nations, so many languages around the world, at least in a little over 2,000 years. I’m probably going to get the John Lennon stigma on that.

Anything you hope young people in 2018 can take away from Elvis’ life, music and story?

Yes. We do have a considerable young audience. I have to give some of the credit for that to some of the movies that weren’t that great, but the young little kids sort of grew up and liked that. But also, there’s the HBO special I produced with Priscilla and Thom Zimny, Elvis Presley: The Searcher, which I’m hoping is going to be nominated for a Grammy Dec. 3. We’ll see. HBO’s doing a big campaign on that.

When you look at that, which is the most in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at Elvis Presley, you see his influences and what he had to go through to be an artist. Certainly for young artists, it’s like the textbook. You must be an individual. But you must also love what you’re doing, first of all. If you’re setting out to be a rock star, good luck. If you love music and want to do music, that’s great. If something happens as it did with Elvis, that’s wonderful.

As I wrote in my book, I think the basics don’t change. Maybe the difference with Elvis is the pioneering. That’s the hardest thing. That’s the thing that’s not as readily acceptable. Look, without Elvis, we wouldn’t have punk bands. Also, if you look at great artists like Sinatra or Dean Martin, they had a great discography. It wasn’t just one genre. Elvis could go to Vegas, do a rock & roll, gospel or country song. He brought down so many barriers.

I see people struggling to do that today, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. There’s still a lot of barriers to be brought down. But he did it in such a way that it was entertaining, and he was enjoying entertaining. Isn’t that what the arts should be about? Lift us up from the day-to-day prejudices and wars and conflicts. As he said when he accepted his award for The 10 Most Outstanding Americans, “I’m just an entertainer, and I’ll go on singing my songs.” And that’s what he did.

You knew Elvis before he even took off. Could anybody back then have had any cognizance that this humble country boy would win this prestigious honor over 60 years later?

I knew him pretty well. I went through most of the stages of his life with him. I was pleasantly shocked, in one way, when I got the call that he was getting this a couple of weeks ago. And in another way, I was thinking “It’s about damn time!” But none of us would have thought that. Elvis would have never thought he’d still be remembered some 40 years after he’s passed away.

I keep seeing his father. Vernon worried so much about Elvis. He gets somewhat thrown under the bus because Elvis was known to love his mother so much, which is true. It certainly didn’t mean he didn’t love his father, too. They were good people, that little poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, that moved to Memphis when Elvis had just turned a teenager.

For young people today, certainly in my day, music gave us a voice. It gave us our own type of music, first. And Elvis gave us that. As teenagers, the more dangerous something was, the better it was. Because for most teenagers, it’s part of going through rebellion. We had something to do. Then, the Beatles, Dylan and others came along, and started writing.

If you take that early rock & roll and put the pen to it, then you’ve got a young society that has a voice in the world. I can’t think of anything more important to freedom than having a voice.

Given that Elvis is receiving this award from the White House, wouldn’t you see him as embodying quintessentially American attributes?

I think Elvis Presley could have only happened in America. And that’s the beauty of our country, and why he loved this country so much. Even when he was younger in the ‘50s, with the harsh criticism that he got, it really hurt him. But he was able to continue what he wanted to do, and as I said earlier, he won everybody over. With all of the division and faults and whatever, this is still the best country. And Elvis is still one of the best examples of what America should be.

He wanted to share his success, and did. He wanted to make people happy. He wanted to help people who were sick, and did. He did so much stuff that people didn’t know. People caring about other people if they were influential or had no influence, or whatever color they are, or what language they spoke. That’s what Elvis’s music was about, and what he was about. I think that’s what America, deep down, is about.