A friend of Elvis Presley’s up to the King’s death in 1977, country singer T. G. Sheppard long held off on singing about his buddy. That changes with his new single “I Wanna Live Like Elvis.”
The upbeat tune, which Billboard premieres below, comes out Tuesday, on what would have been Presley’s 84th birthday. “I had found this song, which was written by Chip Davis, Billy Davis and Doug Graham, and it was so comical,” Sheppard tells Billboard over the phone. “It was Elvis’ life story told in four minutes. It made me want to go in the studio and record more music. It was just something I felt compelled to do.” It also led to Sheppard’s decision to record his first country solo album in more than 20 years, expected in April.
“I Wanna Live Like Elvis” lightheartedly details the often glamorous life that Presley lived at Graceland with Priscilla Presley, amid his many Cadillacs, private jet, entourage and blue suede shoes. In fact, it was the lyric about lying around with Priscilla in silk pajamas that got a laugh out of the late singer’s ex-wife, as well as her approval.
“’I Wanna Live Like Elvis’ has a catchy beat, great lyrics and is cleverly written,” Presley tells Billboard. “Don’t feel alone, T. G. … I’m sure there are others who feel the same way.”
Sheppard’s decision to release “I Wanna Live Like Elvis” this year came simply from his desire to add more joy to the world.
“There’s a little sadness in life. There’s a lot of anger. But what’s good in life and what’s needed in life is laughter,” he explains. “Sometimes it can come in the form of a song, and this song just makes you chuckle.”
Sheppard knows what people want to hear, having amassed 14 No. 1 hits on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart during the ‘70s and ‘80s, including such smashes as “Slow Burn,” “Only One You” and “War is Hell (On the Homefront).” He says it took a while for him to finish recording “I Wanna Live Like Elvis.” As he studied the track for several days after recording it, he finally realized the song needed a brass section.
“I was missing those horns that Elvis used to have, the big brass,” he recalls. “There’s a horn section that Kelly Clarkson uses on her tour. My best friend, Leif Shire, he is the horn leader and he’s the one that came up with those incredible horn lines and put them in there for me.”
In celebration of Presley’s birthday, Sheppard, 74, shared his five favorite memories of Elvis with Billboard. “When I would sit with him, I always knew to drink it all in… to remember the moment because I knew each time that I was in the presence of greatness,” Sheppard admits.
Skating until daylight with Elvis: “When I first met Elvis, I was 16. I was at a skating rink one night in Memphis and about midnight I walk outside thinking that they were closing the roller rink down and a couple of Cadillacs pull up. Elvis gets out from behind the wheel of the first Cadillac and walks over to me and looks me right in the eye with those blue eyes and he said, ‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘Well, they’re closing the rink down.’ He said, ‘Oh, no. They’re opening it up for me.’ I was in shock because Elvis Presley was talking to me. I’m standing there and he said, ‘Would you come in and be on my team? I’m a man short on my team.’ I said, ‘Team? What are you doing?’ He said, ‘We play a little game in here called Kill. It’s football on skates.’ So I went in and skated until about daylight and then afterwards he put me in the car and drove me up to Graceland and we ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches and I gave him my phone number. I was his friend from then on until the day he died.”
Singing in the Jungle Room: “When I first started out my career, my real name was Bill Browder. I was a record executive and a promotion man for RCA. Elvis was my artist so I got a chance to tour with him. I got a contract from Berry Gordy at Motown who discovered me. I kept thinking, ‘Well, if I’m going to be recording for [Melodyland, Motown’s short-lived country label], I am drawing a paycheck from RCA. That’s kind of a conflict of interest with different labels.’ So, I picked an assumed name to record under, T.G. Sheppard. Lo and behold, my first record [“Devil In the Bottle”] went No. 1 and Elvis would run around the house singing it because he listened to country radio…One day I walked in the back door of Graceland and Elvis was sitting in the Jungle Room with his feet propped up on the table. I heard, ‘Bill?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir?’ He said, ‘You know, you could have told me that you were that T. G. Sheppard guy on the radio with that song I like so much. Why didn’t you tell me it was you?’ I said, ‘Well, Elvis, I couldn’t tell anybody because I was afraid that if anybody found out that I would lose my job at RCA.’ His answer to me was, ‘Well, you fool. Don’t you know that I am RCA?’ And he was. He was the biggest artist they had.”
On the road and in the air with The King: “He actually gifted me with my first tour bus. He had just bought a small jet that is parked next to the big Lisa Marie jet at Graceland now. In midair in this small jet, we were sitting knee to knee, and he looked me straight in the eye and he said, ‘You know, your career’s starting to do really well. I bought you a bus today…It’ll be at Graceland tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Elvis, I don’t even have a band.’ And he said, ‘Well, now, look, I’m going to pay for the bus, but I ain’t paying for no damn band.’ I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe that he would buy me such an expensive gift. The funny part was he said, ‘Come on, let’s take it to your house.’ So he gets behind the wheel and drives the bus to my house, running over every stop sign and fire hydrant between Graceland and my house in East Memphis. He actually drove it to my house and then got in the limo and went back to Graceland. It was just an incredible day.”
Christmas at Graceland: “I was in and out of that house daily for seven years. There are so many memories, but I think the greatest memories of Graceland for me were at Christmas. Because Elvis, he loved Christmas, that was his favorite time of the year. Graceland was always so decorated, so beautiful, and I think it gave him the okay to give expensive gifts away. He turned into a kid at Christmas time and he loved to give gifts to people. He was so giving. I asked him one day, I said, ‘You give people extravagant gifts. I know you must enjoy it, but what do you enjoy the most?’ He said, ‘When I give someone something really big I enjoy the reaction on their face when they find out what I’ve given them.’ That was the payoff for Elvis. He loved that immediate reaction from people when he would give them a Cadillac or a house or a bus. What an incredible human being he was…I think people would have been surprised to find out how down to earth he was, that he came from humble beginnings, Mississippi, and didn’t have anything. He was still, even when he was so big, he was so appreciative and kind to people. He’d never let the ego control him. He always had it intact.”
Elvis, the Dreamer: ”I asked him one day, ‘Gosh, Elvis, how does it feel to be you?’ And he said, ‘Are you crazy? It feels great!’ And he just laughed. I don’t think he ever got used to it. I asked, ‘How did you get to be who you are?’ He said, ‘I would drive around Memphis in the old Crown Electric truck, because I was an electrician apprentice. Whether I was driving the truck or whatever I was doing, I always imagined walking out on stage and there would be a lot of people there to hear me sing… I thought about it so long and so hard and for so many years that one day, I walked out on stage and there they were. You might say that I willed it because it became everything to me.’ He never gave up. He never stopped dreaming. He kept thinking about what he wanted and lo and behold, one day he walked out and there the people were. [His success] shows us all in life that you should never quit dreaming because when you stop dreaming, you die.