Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling
Living Legends: Elvis Presley's Friend, Confidante & Business Partner Jerry Schilling On His Lifelong Relationship With The King
Jerry Schilling's tender friendship with the King is a core component of his identity, but his story wouldn't mean much if he wasn't a fascinating character in his own right. In this interview, he goes deep on how Elvis Presley irrevocably shaped him.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Jerry Schilling, who enjoyed a decades-long friendship and business relationship with Elvis Presley — and has worked as a manager of other pillars of American music, like the Beach Boys and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Jerry Schilling holds a rare distinction in the music business, and in the human race writ large: he's possibly the one living person closest to Elvis Presley without being bonded by blood.
But as compelling as that story is — as Schilling lovingly detailed in his 2006 memoir, Me and a Guy Named Elvis — it's just as fascinating to wonder what Schilling would be doing had he never met the King, or if Elvis had never existed.
By the time he was quarterbacked by Presley at a 1954 touch-football game, Schilling had been throttled by circumstance. His mother died when he was a baby. A succession of illnesses stymied him at school. But he got physically and educationally back on track, with dreams of being a football coach and a history teacher.
All the while, the sounds of rhythm and blues inspired and galvanized him, charting the course for a life in music that would provide deliverance from his circumstances.
In other words, Schilling was made of stern stuff — which the perceptive Presley arguably picked up on early. That quality is partly what made Schilling a compelling character in his own right, rising from very little to work so closely with a foundational American figure. And after Elvis passed in 1977, he continued to carve out his unique place in music history.
Schilling went on to have fruitful business relationships with Jerry Lee Lewis, the Beach Boys and Lisa Marie Presley, and was depicted by Luke Bracey in Baz Luhrmann's 2022 film Elvis. (Note: this interview took place prior to the film's release.) But if you're curious about what it was really like to be around the King at pivotal points in his career, pick up Me and a Guy Named Elvis, which provides an exquisite glimpse into the King at his most human and vulnerable.
For a crystallized version of that story, read on for an interview with Schilling about his hard-knock origins, what it felt like to meet Presley and how he continues to carry the King around in his heart and mind.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Meeting Elvis was a fundamental pivot point in your life. But I'm curious: if you'd never met him, or if he never existed, where do you think your life would have gone?
My early childhood was so bad. Not having a mother, being sick all the time, missing so much school in the first grade that I had to repeat it, which was embarrassing. My grandparents were poor, just very poor — lower class, white, but just wonderful human beings.
I met Elvis about the time that my older brother had kind of forced me into football. I was playing grade-school football and I made the team in the fourth grade — fourth to eighth grade. And I don't know what's the chicken or the egg, but it's about the same time as when I met Elvis.
All of this is when I was 12 years old, between getting into sports, getting healthy, and becoming a friend of Elvis, before he was Elvis. Which, I guess, gave me a lot of confidence, too. That this guy took off immediately — the week that we met was the same week he recorded his first record.
So, if I hadn't met Elvis, to answer your question, I think because I became good at football through school, my scholastic [career got] better. I was president of the class for all four years of high school. I always wanted to go work for Elvis back in the '50s, but I was in grade school and high school. He went on the road and we kept a relationship.
When he came back to Memphis, we'd hang at the movie theater at night. When he bought Graceland, I was always welcome at Graceland at nighttime. I kind of went on with my own life. Forgot about working for Elvis. I got a football scholarship at Arkansas State University and majored in history. I was planning to be — hopefully — a football coach and history teacher.
You know, nothing wrong with that life either.
No, no, but I think I made the right choice. I got hurt in my junior year playing football, so I came back to Memphis and went to the University of Memphis for about a year and a half to finish my education.
I was chosen to practice teaching. They take one student out of education, and you practice teaching the last semester, a grade-school class. So, I was chosen to do that. I was loading trucks at night. I worked at the airport at the ticket counter in the daytime because my family didn't have money to send me to college.
So, when I would go home from the trucking company — which was 9:00 at night, or whenever — I would pass by the Memphian Theater. If Elvis and the guys were in town, I would go to a service station, change [out of] my trucking clothes, and act like I just showed up for the movie.
One night, Elvis was at the screening. He just looked really tired. He was down in front of the screen — these private showings at night. I walked in and thought, "You know what? I'll see them tomorrow. I'll come back tomorrow night." I didn't want to bother him.
One of the guys that worked for him said, "Jerry, do you want to go back to the film exchange with me, and then we'll have an early breakfast?" Elvis had access to the mid-South film exchange, and he could pick movies.
We got to the film exchange, and Elvis called Richard and said, "You know where I can find Jerry?" He says, "Well, he's here with me." He said, "Would you ask him if he'd come out to the house?" We never called it Graceland. It was always "the house." I go out there; Rich is living at Graceland. He goes to bed, and Elvis and his father walk down from upstairs.
His father leaves, and Elvis and I are out on the front porch. He said, "I need you to come work for me."
Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling.
Yeah. I said, "When?" He said, "Well, now." I thought for about 10 seconds, and said, "Well, can I go home and get some clothes?" He said, "Sure."
The next day, I had to quit two jobs. I had to tell the university that I wasn't going to practice to teach. I had to tell my father, respectfully, and he was so proud that I worked my way through college — because he only got through grade school.
He said, "Well, I've always trusted your judgment. You sure this is what you want to do? What are you going to do with them?" I said, "I don't know."
That night, I rush back to Graceland. Everybody's sleeping all day because they're very nocturnal — and what's now called the Jungle Room was a screened-in porch. I stood out there all day, and then people started loading up this little bus that Elvis drove. A Winnebago, believe it or not. And we set out for the 2,000-mile journey from Memphis to L.A.
That pretty much changed my life. We stopped at truck stops at nighttime. And when there were lights, Elvis would throw football passes to me, and we slept at the motels in the daytime. I went from the poor section of Memphis, and when we got to L.A., I was living in Bel-Air.
I couldn't go to sleep when we got there. There was a pool in the backyard There was this indirect lighting, and stuff I'd never seen in my life — not even at Graceland. That was the start.
And to flash back to that first football game, it seems like Elvis's personality and drive were immediately on display. The guy you would know for the rest of his life was right there.
Absolutely. I was unconsciously looking for a role model. I was a big fan of James Dean and [Marlon] Brando. When I went to the park by myself on a Sunday afternoon, the park was nothing but dirt, a little wading pool, and horses. A very poor part of Memphis.
I was there by myself, and one of the older guys, Red West, I knew was a big high-school football player. He said, "Hey, Jerry, do you want to play?' They only had five guys and needed a sixth player. They were all six or seven years older than me. So, I said "Yeah." It was three-on-three, go into the huddle.
Jerry Schilling and Elvis Presley. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling.
I had been listening to Dewey [Phillips'] "Red, Hot and Blue" since I was 10 years old, because he played rhythm and blues records — which was exciting. It was dangerous in the '50s, in the South, [and this was] Black music.
That night, before this day, Dewey played this record from a boy from Humes High, where my cousins went and my mother had gone. From my grade school, you could physically see Humes High, and vice versa. Dewey said "A boy from Humes High" when he played the record, to distinguish that Elvis wasn't Black.
The record kept getting requested, so Dewey got in touch with Sam Phillips, and they made a connection with the Presley family. Elvis knew they were playing the record that night. He was very nervous, so he went to this little movie theater in north Memphis. When this fellow went to interview him — that people liked his record — he just kind of stuttered, which was cool.
When I went into the huddle — me, Red and Elvis — I went, "Wow, that's the boy from Humes High. He had the rebel-ness of James Dean. If I remember correctly, he was in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. There weren't the rhinestones or anything. He didn't have a hit record.
Elvis didn't even have a hit record in Memphis. But he was somebody that I went, "Wow, I want to be like that guy." He would laugh if he heard me say that today. He had Dean, Brando, and a quiet little smile that was on the warm side, so you could like him. "OK, I know you're the young kid. Can you catch the ball?"
He made me feel comfortable. That was my first impression, and over the years, I got to meet, work with, be friends with a lot of well-known entertainers and actors and whatever. Elvis was the only one without credentials.
(L-R) Richard Nixon, Sonny West, Jerry Schilling, Elvis Presley. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
As a figure, Elvis has been unfortunately been flattened with time, but I think that's changing. Can you talk about how he was an absorber and fuser of disparate styles?
He was so eclectic. He got stuff from everybody, and then he made it his own. He was the most eclectic human being I ever met in my life.
He could see somebody walking and go, "Hey, Jerry, look at that guy!" It might have been on a movie set. Now, I'm remembering this specifically. He said, "I'm getting ready to do the '68 special. I'm going to use that guy's walk." It was a good actor named Billy Murphy, who was quite a character.
By the way, Elvis loved characters to be around sometimes. You can think of a person that would get something from a famous person, right? But, a person that gets something from somebody that's not famous and puts it into his whole makeup? That was Elvis.
What about him would you like to correct? What do we get wrong about him today?
I think, most importantly, his genius in music. He was a very smart guy. I think what he didn't get were the opportunities to fully be the entertainer and actor he could have been.I've said this before — and I don't like to say the same thing twice — but I think I lost my friend at an early age because of creative disappointments.
I'm not blaming Colonel Parker. Being a manager is a big part of my career. If somebody can come in and make a deal with your artist, you're not going to be a manager for very long.
[Elvis] wasn't in good shape before the '68 special. Nobody would know that, but with that special, he went into training like Muhammad Ali and he looked great. Lost 25 pounds, got a suntan. Obviously, there were other problems, but they were caused by his embarrassment by some of the stuff he was doing.
He was 19 years old when all of this started to happen. By the time he was 21, he was the biggest star in the world. When he came back from the army and wanted to do meaningful stuff, the machinery was set up. He really didn't have an attorney; the attorney was controlled by the Colonel. The film companies, RCA, and the publishing companies were all controlled by the Colonel, who was doing what he thought was best.
The Colonel's going to get trashed, and has been. He was controlling, he was manipulative, but he was honest and hardworking and he had a lot of polish. No doubt about it.
Jerry Schilling in 1981. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images
Colonel Parker gets painted as the source of these disappointments and angst, but the more I read, I realize he was a genius who had the lion's share of the responsibility for all this success in the first place.
You're one of the few people that get that, Morgan, and you're right on it. I'm hoping everybody's going to get that at some point. I hope Peter Guralnick can do a book on the Colonel someday, since he got to know the Colonel quite well.
The Colonel's wife said that I was the closest person to him for the last 20 years of his life. The Colonel felt he could talk to me because I was the manager later on. Yeah, I miss the old guy very much.
You're reading my book, and it was one of the things that I'm so glad somewhat worked out. Loanne, his wife, had a problem with the book. I flew to Vegas just to meet with her, and she was a really good, smart lady. She said, "Jerry, I love your book, but when you talk about the creative disappointments, the fans will tend to think that the Colonel killed him." I said, "That was not my intent. That's not how I want it. We spent a whole day, and that was a really rough one."
I've spent a lot of time more recently with Tom Hanks, who played the Colonel. [The film] explains the other side of the Colonel. He was a good friend. If it was your birthday, he'd call and sing "Happy Birthday." Remember the answering-machine days? It was the Colonel singing "Happy Birthday" to you.
I was a loan-out to the Colonel one day a week, which I used to dread. It was just so different from my life with Elvis. He got up early and there were meetings. But every time I did that, I realized I really enjoyed it. It was really interesting.
I probably got a lot of who I am from Elvis, and from the Colonel — and a little bit from Sam Phillips, as well, who was the original genius.
Photo: Randy Holmes/DISNEY via Getty Images
New Holiday Songs For 2023: Listen To Festive Releases From Aespa, Brandy, Sabrina Carpenter & More
With the Christmas season in full swing, it’s time to deck the halls and load up those holiday playlists. Check out 14 new songs and projects to add to your 2023 festivities.
It's the most wonderful time of year! With every holiday season comes a new outpouring of festive music, and this year is no different.
From pop and R&B to K-pop and country, artists from all genres revel in the season as they pen new, original Christmas songs and reinterpret well-loved classics. This year, GRAMMY winners like Brandy and Samara Joy deliver full-length albums, while rising stars like Sabrina Carpenter, Mimi Webb and Coco Jones add their own contributions like shiny new baubles on a sparkling Christmas tree.
Below, GRAMMY.com rounded up 14 new holiday releases worth checking out, from Alanis Morissette's first Christmas EP to new projects by Aly & AJ and Gavin DeGraw, and even a posthumous duet between Elvis Presley and Kane Brown.
aespa, "Jingle Bell Rock"
Need some K-pop for your holiday playlist? Look no further than aespa's take on "Jingle Bell Rock." The girl group takes Bobby Helms' 1957 hit to the metaverse by giving it a slinky edge punctuated by handclaps, toy piano and glitchy undertones. Members GISELLE and NINGNING even add their own laid-back rap verse to the proceedings, casually tossing off lyrics like, "Ring, ring, ring, jingle bell rock/ Play like a spell/ I won't tell, jingle bell talk" partway through the track.
Aly & AJ, Lonesome Dove
Lonesome Dove isn't Aly & AJ's first Christmas project — that would be their excellent 2006 LP Acoustic Hearts of Winter — but the siblings have come a long way from the Disney days of their last holiday record. Just look at "Greatest Time of Year," which they've plucked from the Acoustic Hearts track list and transformed from into a delicate slowburner perfect to be sung by the fireside. Then there's the pitch-perfect cover of "Sisters," which proves the only way to improve upon Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen's eternally iconic number from 1954's White Christmas is for it to be recorded by, you know, actual sisters.
Brandy, Christmas With Brandy
Considering she's been called the "Vocal Bible" since she rose to stardom in the '90s, a Christmas album makes all the sense in the world for Brandy. On Christmas with Brandy, the R&B sensation — and star of Netflix's new holiday flick Best. Christmas. Ever. — eschews the scriptural in favor of the romantic ("Christmas Party For Two"), the hopeful ("Someday at Christmas") and the celebratory ("Christmas Gift" with daughter Sy'Rai) — all with her trademark gossamer runs and riffs in full, glistening effect.
Kane Brown and Elvis Presley, "Blue Christmas"
Fresh off his performance in NBC's "Christmas at Graceland" special, Kane Brown turns his live version of "Blue Christmas" into a full-blown duet with Elvis Presley himself. The King famously released his iconic version of the holiday classic in 1957 — as well as a live version more than a decade later — and Brown wisely sticks to Presley's tried-and-true formula on their duet by trading verses, while letting Elvis' iconic voice shine.
Sabrina Carpenter, Fruitcake
Sabrina Carpenter created a recipe for a holiday hit last year thanks to "A Nonsense Christmas," a cheeky seasonal remake of her top 10 pop hit "Nonsense." This year, she doubles the recipe on Fruitcake, a delectable slice of Christmas goodness that's equal parts sweet and sour.
On the winking "Buy Me Presents," the pop chanteuse demands the undivided attention of her lover while "Cindy Lou Who" turns the sweetest character in Dr. Seuss' oeuvre into a man-stealing Jolene of Christmas nightmares. "Is It New Year's Yet" revels in an irresistible spirit of pessimism that'll have all of Carpenter's fans saying "Bah humbug!" with glee.
Gavin DeGraw, A Classic Christmas
Eighteen months since Gavin DeGraw's last album, 2022's understated Face the River, the crooner turns up the yuletide cheer — with all the trimming and trappings — for his first holiday record. Each song on the six-track EP stays true to the title, as strings, sleigh bells and tradition combine with DeGraw's soulful timbre on standards like "The Most Wonderful Time of Year," "Silent Night" and "White Christmas."
Kirk Franklin, "Joy To The World"
Kirk Franklin cooked up an extra-special gift for his Spotify Singles Holiday rendition of "Joy to the World." Enlisting a buoyant backing choir, the 19-time GRAMMY winner adds a thoughtful spoken word element over the music, telling listeners everywhere, "This year I offer you the gift of unity. The gift of harmony. Bring us together like never before this holiday season. Find room in your heart. Listen. Can you hear it?"
Coco Jones, "A Timeless Christmas"
Determined to make 2023 a year to remember, Coco Jones follows her five 2024 GRAMMY nominations — including one for Best New Artist — with "A Timeless Christmas." On the original song, the R&B breakout aims to unwrap a holiday filled with family, joy and love as she intones, "Cherish the moment with the people that surround you/ Live in the moment today/ Let's have a timeless Christmas/ Let's just come together in harmony as one forever."
Samara Joy, A Joyful Holiday
Just months after releasing Linger Awhile Longer — the deluxe edition of her 2022 studio album — Samara Joy returns with A Joyful Holiday, a festive EP filled with jazzy originals and standards alike. The 2023 Best New Artist GRAMMY winner taps jazz pianist Sullivan Fortner on "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me" and turns on the feels on opener "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." But perhaps the most special moment of the record happens when three generations of her family join her for a gospel-fueled take on "O Holy Night," filled with stunning harmonies.
Ingrid Michaelson, "This Christmas"
Ingrid Michaelson has supplied plenty of cozy and nostalgic Christmas tunes ever since releasing her 2018 album Songs of the Season, but she doubles down on the warm fireside sounds with her new single "This Christmas." Though it shares a title with the beloved Donny Hathaway track, Michaelson's original song finds beauty in the stillness and small details of the season — from the wonder in a child's eyes as snow falls swirls to the ground to family gathered around the piano.
Alanis Morissette, Last Christmas
After gifting fans a string of holiday singles over the past few years, Alanis Morissette has finally compiled the songs into a full Christmas-themed project. The four-track EP Last Christmas contains three of the alt pioneer’s past releases: 2020’s rousing and poignant “Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and pandemic-era take on “What Child Is This” as well as last year’s “Little Drummer Boy.” However, she saved a shiny new toy for last in the form of a surprisingly peppy cover of Wham!’s modern classic “Last Christmas.”
Jon Pardi, Merry Christmas From Jon Pardi
It's a full-blown Christmas Pardi, ahem, party on Jon Pardi's fifth album, the aptly-titled Merry Christmas From Jon Pardi. The recent Grand Ole Opry inductee appoints Rudolph a designated driver on "Beer For Santa," is unfazed by a ferocious blizzard thanks to "400 Horsepower Sleigh" and sheds his ugly Christmas sweater to celebrates the holiday on the beach with "Merry Christmas From The Keys." But he's also unafraid to put a country spin on the likes of Mariah Carey's timeless smash "All I Want for Christmas Is You," and holiday classics like "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" and "Please Come Home For Christmas."
Meghan Trainor, "Jingle Bells"
Meghan Trainor has delivered Christmas goodies in the past (2020's A Very Trainor Christmas, last year's "Kid on Christmas" with Pentatonix), but this year she teamed up with Amazon Music for an exclusive rendition of "Jingle Bells." There's only a 30-second preview available without Amazon Music, but in the event you're not a subscriber, check out Trainor's other holiday offering of the season: her duet with Jimmy Fallon titled "Wrap Me Up."
Mimi Webb, "Back Home For Christmas"
In the wake of her debut studio album, Amelia, Mimi Webb tackles her first original holiday track in the form of "Back Home For Christmas." The lovelorn single is filled with church bells and yearning galore as the rising pop starlet wails, "Just like that, first of December/ Counting down 'til we're together/ Only one thing on my wishlist/ Bring my love back home for Christmas/ Mistletoe making me lonely/ Santa Claus just can't console me/ Only one thing that I'm missin'/ Bring my love back home for Christmas."
Clearly, the Christmas season can make you feel all sorts of ways, from nostalgic and cozy to lonely, filled with hope and back again.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Varela Media
Living Legends: Frankie Valli On The Four Seasons' Biggest Hits, Impressing Bob Dylan And Inspiring Billy Joel & Elton John
Between a new box set and a Las Vegas residency, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons aren’t slowing down in 2023. Hear from the falsetto king himself about how hits like “Sherry” and “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!) came to be — and how they live on.
With one of the most recognizable voices in music, a generation-spanning array of hit songs and a life story that has become stuff of legend, Frankie Valli has staked a claim as one of the music industry's most indelible artists. One of the few acts that steadily navigated from the doo-wop age through the disco era, Valli's improbable trajectory with his group, the Four Seasons, was propeled by a golden ear for hits, aided by the songwriter/producer power duo Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe.
That's not to say the 89-year-old is resting on his laurels. His astounding career is on full, vibrant display in the immense new box set aptly dubbed Working Our Way Back to You — The Ultimate Collection. Consisting of 45 discs of every song Valli and the Four Seasons ever recorded — from beloved hits to deep-cuts, demos and other rarities — the set also includes a biographical book filled to the brim with rare images that track their rise from a fledgling New Jersey singing group to Broadway sensations in the form of Jersey Boys.
In addition, later this month Vailli is heading to Las Vegas for a residency at Westgate Resort and Casino where he and the Four Seasons will be appearing until well into 2024.
Valli spoke to GRAMMY.com about his astounding run of hits, the artists he's influenced, the modern covers of his tracks and how his big year started off with a bang during GRAMMY weekend.
You were a surprise performer at the Clive Davis GRAMMY Gala earlier this year and, in a very special moment, everyone in the audience, from Cardi B to Joni Mitchell, jumped up and sang along with you to "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." What was that moment like for you?
Oh, it was incredible. I never expected it. When Clive first invited me, he said "I want to invite you to my GRAMMY party, but I want you to do a song." I said, "With the generation gap, should I really do a song?" But I was in shock when everybody stood up to sing along.
It was a really a moment I'll never forget. It's a good thing we have people like Clive who really has an insight on what's happening and where it's going.
That night, the Italian rock band Måneksin covered your song "Beggin'" which was their breakout hit. The band was just the latest in a long line of artists who have covered Four Seasons music, with "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" done by everyone from Lauryn Hill to Shawn Mendes, to name just two examples. What do you think of all of these artists wanting to cover your work?
It's quite complimentary. When you've been around a long time and people find value in what you've done, it just makes you feel good about what you've done.
In your career, you've also covered so many songs from Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)." How did you go about choosing which songs to cover, and how would you put your own spin on these classics to make them your own?
It was really more or less music that we listened to and we loved. We tried to pick songs that were very meaningful for us, but the trick was to be able to do them a little differently than they had been done.
We were quite successful with it, we did it with songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" We did a version of "Book of Love" and so many others.
Your version of "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)" is probably one of the most unusual songs in your vast discography considering its subject matter, your exaggerated falsetto, and those background harmonies. How did that come about? I also understand you heard from Bob Dylan himself about it.
We did it in a very campy way, and it really was quite by accident. I was in a studio, and the guy at the soundboard asked me to sing a little bit to get a level on me. So I was clowning around singing in a falsetto like that.
The next thing I know, the button clicks and I hear [Crewe and Gaudio's] voices saying, "Do it like that." I said, "Do what like what?" They said, "Sing it just the way you're singing it." I said, "Come on, you're kidding!"
We did it and that version of it was a take-off on a singer named Rose Murphy, who had several hits. Many years later, I was shopping at Fred Segal in LA and Bob Dylan came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. We shook hands and he said, "I love the version of 'Don't Think Twice' that you guys did."
Speaking of your singular vocal stylings, I'm wondering how you and the group went about plotting how you'd all harmonize. For example, in a song like "Candy Girl," there's your iconic falsetto, and then suddenly we hear in a very low baritone voice the line "Our love is real!" Is something like that written out? How does it come together in the studio?
It just comes naturally. A lot of credit goes to the fact that we were never chased away from a song because we didn't know what to do with it. We toyed with it until we found what we thought was right for it. There were no direct plans; everything was done from within the group.
Nick Massi had his job doing a lot of the vocal arrangements, and Gaudio did most of them after Nick had left. We worked together until everybody was satisfied with it. Does it fit? Does it work? It's like a puzzle. You don't want to overdo anything, and you don't want to under-do.
So then let's say in a song like "Walk Like A Man" when the harmonies sing that iconic "Oo-Oooo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Ooooo." Where does that come from?
It comes from Bob Gaudio, who wrote the song to sound like that. The first three songs we did were more like a chant, and that's what we created to make what everybody knows as our sound.
We wanted to be very easily identifiable. If you heard something by us on the radio, you knew that it was us. We were constantly looking for new ways and new things while having fun doing it. We weren't following or listening to anybody else on the radio; we weren't a copycat group.
First of all, I'm a big Billy Joel fan. There isn't anything he's ever done that I haven't liked. My favorite of everything is "Just The Way You Are." It sounds so honest and lyrically it's so right, it had to be a hit.
I loved it. He's another guy who has done very little wrong musically. He's an amazing writer and performer.
You and the group have a lot of name songs: "Sherry," "Marlena," "Dawn." Was that conscious effort, or was it just natural?
It was natural. Bob wrote the songs… He and I have been partners now for over 50 years and he never ceases to amaze me. He's so tuned into everything that's going on, it's really amazing.
Is it true that "Sherry" was originally called "Jackie" in honor of Jackie Kennedy?
No, it was originally called "Perry." Before "Sherry," we weren't signed to a label, so this small independent company owned by a millionaire had a daughter named Perry. And that's what he wanted us to call it, but it was written to be "Sherry" and we just felt very strongly about that and kept it.
What did the owner think of that?
We ended up going with a different company. So we never heard much after that.
One of your biggest hits was "December 1963 (Oh What A Night!)." I always wondered if that was a random date, or if you chose it because that period was a unique moment in history: a month after the Kennedy assassination, but two months before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.
It was originally a song with lyrics about the '20s, '30s and '40s. The lyrics were "Flippers flopping on the floor." It was a totally different song. When Bob brought it into the studio, he was disappointed we weren't crazy about it and he wanted to junk the song. We said, "No, you can come up with something better than this," and he rewrote it to fit the time.
Is there one song that you thought should have been bigger than it was?
The funny thing about records during the days when we recorded, and the record business was as big as it was, to become a hit it was important that the record company do the legwork and get radio stations to play it, or try it for two weeks. I thought there was a lot of what we did that was overlooked because the record company wasn't that crazy about it.
For example, I put the single "We're All Alone" out, and the record company didn't want to work it. I did mine with the London Symphony Orchestra. Later, Rita Coolidge came out with the same song and it went to No. 1. Sometimes things like that happen.
A song like "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" was in the can for two or three years. We had to force the record company to release it and hire independent promotion people to work the record and get it on the radio.
"My Eyes Adored You" was recorded for Motown Records and that one was in the can for three years because they weren't too sure about it. Finally, when we left Motown, we asked if we can buy back the track, and they agreed for us to purchase it. We did and we brought it to every record company in the business and they all said no.
Eventually, we found Larry Uttal with a brand new record company, Private Stock Records, and he said, "That'll be my first No. 1 record for my new company." And it was!
From when you first started recording in the early '50s to when "Sherry" hit No. 1 was a period of nine years. That's a long time. Why did you stick with it?
It was always music first. If I had no success at all, I'd probably still be doing music somewhere in New Jersey or New York. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and wanted to be.
At first, I rejected the fact that I might have to do pop music, but as I started to do it and it became successful, I realized it was a music that people could understand. And what are you doing music for? You're doing it for people. Without an audience you wouldn't have anything.
My love of music started out for the very first time with me seeing Frank Sinatra as a boy when my mom took me to the Paramount Theater in New York City. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I was so inspired; I made up my mind that that's what I wanted to do.
Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage
Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music
Burning Spear is one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years into his career, the roots reggae artist continues to share messages of Rastafarianism and resistance, all through impeccably crafted rhythms.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with reggae icon Burning Spear. His latest album, No Destroyer, is his first release in 15 years.
Fifty years ago, venerable Jamaican artist Burning Spear released his debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear. While not as well-known as the Wailers’ Catch A Fire and Burnin’ (both of which were also released in 1973), Burning Spear is nonetheless a pillar in the construction of roots reggae’s foundation.
Produced by Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd and released on Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, the album’s solid rhythms are anchored in thunderous basslines (played by the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles) and embellished with cascading horns that majestically frame Spear’s mesmerizingly intoned vocals.
Rife with mystical lyrics steeped in his Rastafarian way of life, uncompromising words of resistance, and supported by impeccably crafted bass-heavy reggae beats with flourishes of jazz and highlife accented horns, Burning Spear’s debut album established him as one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years on, those characteristics resonate just as strongly on Spear’s latest release No Destroyer.
Recorded in 2011 at the Magic Shop in New York City, Spear decided to release No Destroyer — his first album since 2009’s GRAMMY-winning Jah Is Real — in August because "the time was right."
"I think people will enjoy this album, I am saying things I never say before," Burning Spear told GRAMMY.com in a recent Zoom. "The people, the fans, will find something to hold on to, to take them places or to certain situations. The album shows you where you are coming from, your tribulations, the distance you are traveling. When I listen back to it, I didn’t quite know I was putting out all that energy, sending out lyrics not only connecting musically but connecting to all the people."
Burning Spear announced his retirement in 2016, though his time away was brief. He returned in 2021 with a new single "Mommy," which honors women who hold their families together, especially in challenging times; "Mommy" was No Destroyer’s first single. In 2022 Spear returned to the concert stage and has since performed at festivals across the globe and onboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock reggae cruise.
"I wasn’t thinking about coming back but my wife, Sonia Rodney, thought I should do a few shows here and there, for the fans who have supported I man for so many years," Spear acknowledges."So I did some shows for the people who really wanted to see me again and it was great." Spear, however, has not performed in his native Jamaica in nearly 20 years. "I do go back to Jamaica to spend time and have a little fun but that is about it," he says.
Born Winston Rodney in Jamaica’s rural St. Ann’s Bay, Winston took his moniker from African freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, who was previously known as the Burning Spear and later became the president of Kenya. Kenyatta and Spear were deeply influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the St. Ann Jamaica born pan-Africanist and fiery orator who preached self-reliance and political unification for all African descendants. Garvey’s teachings have exerted a tremendous influence on the Rastafari way of life and the United States’ civil rights movement.
More so than any Rastafarian reggae artist, Spear has used his music to create an ongoing awareness of Garvey’s philosophies. Spear’s international breakthrough arrived with the release of his Marcus Garvey album in 1975; Spear has continued to invoke Garvey’s name on all of his subsequent albums. Prior to reggae becoming the island’s most recognized global export, Marcus Garvey "opened the door of Jamaica and spread Jamaica all over," sings Spear on the No Destroyer track "Jamaica."
"Marcus Garvey is our hero, he stood firm, he opened the gate for Jamaica, Rastafari spread the roots and the culture," offers Spear. "I would especially like Jamaican people to listen to the track 'Jamaica' and as Jamaicans of African descendents, question themselves. Of course, the whole world needs to listen to the album, too."
Burning Spear was referred to Studio One — largely considered Jamaica’s Motown due to the label’s consistent output of hit records and the many reggae luminaries who launched their careers there — by another St. Ann native: Bob Marley. Spear’s first single for Studio One, 1969’s "Door Peep Shall Not Enter," sounded unlike anything released by Dodd. Along with vocal trio the Abyssinians’ "Satta Massagana" issued the same year, Spear’s song was critical in shaping the Rastafarian roots reggae movement that came to prominence in the next decade.
Spear’s spoken intro on "Door Peep" — "I and I, son of the Most-High, Jah Rastafari"— resounds like a direct announcement from the Messiah. The song’s biblically laced lyrics caution informers who attempt to interfere with Rastafarians, considered societal outcasts at the time in Jamaica; Spear’s repeated call to "Chant down Babylon," supported by Rupert Willington’s evocative, deep vocal tone, creates a spellbinding effect.
"When Mr. Dodd first heard 'Door Peep' he was astonished; for a man who’d been in the music business for so long, he never heard anything like that," Spear. recalls. "I went there on a Sunday and the next day I recorded it, my first song, my first time recording. Mr. Dodd made a lot of income off of that song. A lot."
Spear released another solid roots reggae set with Dodd, the soulful Rocking Time, in 1974. His next album, 1975’s Marcus Garvey is considered a benchmark of Jamaica’s 1970s roots reggae golden era. Marcus Garvey features Willington and Delroy Hinds’ sublime supporting vocals and the extraordinary musical accompaniment of the Black Disciples band.
The magnificent title track was originally intended for exclusive play on producer Lawrence "Jack Ruby" Lindo’s Hi Power sound system. However, the song was so popular at Ruby’s dances, he released it as a single and it became an immediate hit. Spear followed that with another stirring reggae anthem, the haunting lament, "Slavery Days"; the Marcus Garvey album soared to the top of the Jamaican charts, which led to a deal for its wider release via Island Records.
Burning Spear would go on to release Man in the Hills, again featuring Willington and Hinds, for Island. Yet his subsequent albums on the label throughout the 1970s were released as a solo artist. Spear released albums for a variety of labels throughout the 1980s before signing to Island again, issuing just two albums with them in the early 1990s.
Spear contends he didn’t make money from any of these recordings, and only started to see returns when he and his wife took control of his catalog circa 2002 and began releasing Spear’s music through their Burning Music Productions.
"When I started out, a lot of us was getting nothing from what we been doing musically," Spear explained. "People listening to all those beautiful songs thinking that we, the artists and musicians, were well taken care of but we were not."
Spear rails against the shady deals and corruption within the music industry on several of No Destroyer’s tracks. "Independent" is Spear’s story of persevering despite experiencing many unethical business transactions; "No Fool" lashes out at record companies "committing fraud and they think they are so smart." "They Think" calls out individuals who doubted that Spear could succeed as an independent artist. "Talk" takes aim at the "musical sharks" who "eat up the small fish," whom he dismisses with the unyielding refrain: "No more slave trade, no more surrender."
"Sometimes we as artists can’t explain ourselves just by talking. Through the music we explain how much we hurt, the things that hurt us, what’s been done to us," Spear says. "As artists and players of instruments, we have to talk of these things, so the world will hear fully what we’ve been through in the music industry, things I have gone up against, things that shouldn’t have taken place, but they happened."
Like so many young Jamaican artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Spear perhaps did not have a full understanding of the international record deals he was signing. More than likely, it was never explained that the advances artists receive are intended to cover the cost of recording their albums and that money must be recouped by the label from album sales before an artist will receive any revenue. During that era, recording companies owned the master recordings and required artists to give them their publishing rights, too.
After decades of receiving little financial returns for his albums, Spear and Sonia sought to identify the specific barriers that prevented the money from coming in. Sonia taught herself the nuances of the music business by reading books, attending seminars and talking to seasoned professionals. One of the first things she did was launch a Burning Spear merchandise line, which immediately generated revenue. They also learned how to manufacture their own albums/CDs, and handled their own distribution.
"We started making connections with other people, give them our works on consignment and right away we see that independence is not so easy. There are a lot of sharks, unreasonable people with dirty business practices who come at you because you are independent, saying, ‘how dare you be independent,’" Spear says.
Spear now owns the copyrights to most of his songs. After some research and a subsequent lawsuit, he bought back some of the copyrights to his earlier music from the estate of a deceased former manager who had never purchased those rights. Spear is especially proud of his 2009 Best Reggae Album GRAMMY Award for Jah Is Real, a significant accomplishment for Burning Music Productions.
No Destroyer also addresses the struggles endured by musicians that came up with Spear, while recognizing their efforts in establishing reggae as a globally embraced music. "Robert Nesta Marley built his foundation the hard way," sings Spear on "Open The Gate." The song also honors Culture, Alton Ellis, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, ska pioneers the Skatalites, Peter Tosh
and Delroy Wilson, among the many Jamaican music legends who "opened the gate for reggae music."
"The artists and musicians who were there before us and those who were there before them, opened the gate and the gate is still open, or else you wouldn’t have a new generation of reggae music," Spear remarks. "It was just the love of reggae music, coming from mento, ska, rocksteady, (that kept us going). We all went through the same thing before we stood strong and saw that we weren’t being taken care of properly."
Spear’s taking control of his music and becoming an independent artist is a present day fulfillment of the self-reliance Marcus Garvey advocated for over a century ago. In his concluding comments, Spear appealed to the authorities to clear Marcus Garvey’s name of all criminal charges. Garvey had been a target of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI for several years and aAs his following increased — on Aug. 1, 1920, an estimated 25,000 delegates gathered at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for the first international convention of Garvey’s Negro Universal Improvement Association — the FBI intensified their efforts to subdue him.
In 1923, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in the United States after his Black Star Line shipping company — founded with the aim of providing passage for Africans in the diaspora who wanted to return to the continent — sent out advertisements showing a steamship that the company was in the process of purchasing (but didn’t yet own.) Garvey was fined $1,000 and received a five-year prison sentence that was later commuted; he was then deported to Jamaica. Garvey’s descendants, political leaders and others have petitioned President Biden for a posthumous presidential pardon, following an unsuccessful petitioning of President Obama.
"Marcus Garvey’s record should be set free," declares Spear. He also implored Jamaica’s government to institute a public holiday honoring Garvey and include him in the curriculum for all Jamaican students.
"I am a musician; I don’t want to sound like a politician, but the time is right for a Garvey subject in school. We want the upcoming generation to have a full understanding of who Marcus Garvey was and what he stood up for," he says. "Jamaica must come together and make sure that it is done. The time is right to let the people’s voices be heard."
So, too, the time is right for Burning Spear’s voice to be heard, again.