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Living Legends: Elvis Presley's Friend, Confidante & Business Partner Jerry Schilling On His Lifelong Relationship With The King
Jerry Schilling

Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling

interview

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.

GRAMMYs/Sep 1, 2022 - 06:21 pm

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."

JerrySchillingElvisPresley

Elvis Presley and Jerry Schilling. Photo courtesy of Jerry Schilling.

Incredible.

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.

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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.

JerrySchillingElvisPresleyRichardNixon

(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.

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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.

5 Ways Elvis Presley Forever Changed The Music Industry, From Vegas Residencies To Cultural Fusion

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

Living Legends: Electronic Music Pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre's 50-Year Odyssey Of Audio Experimentation
Jean-Michel Jarre

Photo: Francois Rousseau

interview

Living Legends: Electronic Music Pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre's 50-Year Odyssey Of Audio Experimentation

"I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character," the French musician says of his decades-long desire to democratize sound.

GRAMMYs/Dec 8, 2022 - 03:30 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Jean-Michel Jarre, whose work has greatly influenced the scope of electronic music and broken multiple records.

Jean-Michel Jarre is living proof that age is a construct.

The 74-year-old electronic music legend is just as curious and excited about music as artists in their 20s heading out on their debut album tour. For 50 years, Jarre's resume has overflowed with a spirit of ingenuity.

Jarre first sparked international attention with his 1976 album Oxygéne, which was one of the first to solely utilize synthesizers in the creation of three-to-four-minute pop songs. The LP’s second single, "Oxygene, Pt. 4," merged then-unheard bubbly synth sounds with a clear sense of melody and song form — launching both the technology and electronic music to new heights.

In the decades that followed, the global music community took note of Jarre's innovation and the artist became a sought-after collaborator. He’s worked with classical composers including Hans Zimmer, dance music stalwarts such as Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills and trance legend Armin Van Buuren, collaborated with Moby, and partnered with burgeoning talents like the anonymous music project, Deathpact

But the reach of Jean-Michel Jarre extends beyond his discography; he continually redefines what electronic music can be in both the listening space and the live space.

He’s invented hybrid instruments like the laser harp. He’s broken records with his performances, playing for audiences of over a million people on multiple occasions. Jarre has also broken geographic and cultural boundaries with his performances; in 1981 he became the first Western artist to perform in China in the post-Mao Zedong era. On Nov. 25, Jarre celebrated the 40th anniversary of these historic performances with The China Concerts, a remastered edition of the live recordings from those five concerts.

But Jarre is doing more this year than looking back into his extraordinary past. His 22nd album, Oxymore, came out in October and is billed as the "first commercial release of this scale" to fully utilize multichannel and binaural sound in the production, composition, recording and mixing processes. This spatial 3D audio allows listeners to feel as if they are physically inside the music — a concept Jarre has wanted to bring to life since he first saw Chet Baker play trumpet in Paris when at age 10. The album was developed in the "Innovation" studios of Radio France and is a homage to the late composer Pierre Henry, Jarre's mentor and a pioneer of electronic music.

Jarre created an Oxymore-based VR world, Oxyville, and has hosted several performances in the metaverse. During a digital meet and greet with fans and avatars, "one girl was very excited. Asking lots of questions and moving and bouncing everywhere," Jarre says from his home in Paris. "I discovered by talking to her that she was quadriplegic and it was her first time she attended a concert and danced all evening."

Such an interaction is what keeps Jarre excited about what’s coming next in his career. It’s not technology. It’s the magic he can generate by sharing creative, physical experiences with other human beings. 

"Who cares about the technology? When you are in a restaurant you don’t care so much about the kitchen and how it’s done. You just enjoy the food or not, and it’s the same with music or art," Jarre says. "I think mystery is key. I have a son who is a great magician and the last thing I want to know is how he is doing his trick. It’s a magic killer."

Jarre is still finding that magic. He spoke with GRAMMY.com about his two new albums, his continuing relationship with experimentation, and how the role of art and culture in the world has changed (or stayed the same) over the last five decades.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I read that you started your musical experimentation as young as age 11 with a secondhand tape recorder. Have your feelings towards musical experimentation changed or stayed the same over that time?

When I started at the age of 11-12 with this second-hand tape recorder that my grandfather gave me I became obsessed with the machine. I was basically recording everything all day and sometimes at night, but I had no idea that it could be a link to any future linked with music.

One day, I played the tape backward and I had the feeling that some aliens were talking to me, and from that moment I started to record. I was starting to play in some local rock bands with friends, and so I was recording some of my guitar and organ and playing [the recordings] backward, changing the speed, just doing experiments with sounds but with no preconceived ideas. 

And then when I discovered [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] in Paris, one of the origins of French electro-acoustic music, I discovered that some people were considering music in a different way. Thinking about integrating noise and sounds into music, and it became very obvious that it was really a revolution — a revolution in music. 

I was listening to American rock bands or British rock bands, and it was a revolution globally around the world, but I felt that something else could be explored. These days were right in the middle of the student revolution where it was cool to rebel against basically any kind of establishment and, in a sense, electronic music was a way to rebel against the establishment of rock. We tried to find a different voice in a different way, and at that moment I was experimenting with very limited technology…. doing field recordings and processing sounds, or stealing some oscillators from radio stations to create the first DIY type of synthesizer. 

Today whatever you do — hip-hop or rock or pop or techno — we’re all integrating sound effects into our music. We all became sound designers as well as music producers. Today, the emergence of immersive technology and immersive worlds are two other disruptive moments very potent in my career.

Does that drive to revolutionize music still play a role in how you move forward as an artist?

I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character. I’ve always been interested in new ideas or new tools. I’ve always considered that technology is dictating styles and not the reverse. 

It’s because we invented the violin that Vivaldi made music with it. It’s because we had 78s in Elvis Presley’s time that you could only cut three minutes on the 78 and it was the only way to put a record in a jukebox. The pop single as a format started to be played on the radio and not the reverse. This link between tech and culture has been always something quite essential in music production. 

I’ve always been curious about new techniques because the beauty of lots of music productions is the idea of hijacking technology — to take technology which has not been devised or designed for us, but stealing from them. We are all robbers. 

It brings us back to the idea that great art goes against what’s come before.

[Electronic music is] probably the most popular music in the world, but it still has its underground feel, its underground image. 

Every emerging movement in music has been rejected by the previous one. The first jazz was quite rejected by classical musicians. Then the first rock musicians were rejected by jazz. 

When I started with electronic music it was really against the establishment of rock. Lots of rock artists [were saying] "What’s all these machines with knobs? They are not real instruments," and a few decades later these instruments are still called machines.

All these signs are showing that electronic music is still underground. It’s still truly something linked with a kind of rebellious approach about sound production and music production. 

Considering the "machine-instrument" relationship, you built the laser harp, which no one can deny is a machine, but no one can deny is an instrument either.

Exactly. It’s all a cultural thing. What is an instrument? A saxophone is a fantastic piece of technology. A clarinet is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s quite sophisticated. And then it’s a machine. It’s an acoustic machine. It’s a manual machine. It’s not electric but it’s a machine also.

For Oxymore you were the first person to conceive and compose an album from beginning to end using 360-degree audio. What’s it like for you to use different forms of technology in your music today?

[I don’t consider] myself a geek. I’m not really interested in technology for the sake of it. The same way you don’t ask a pianist to fix a piano. It’s the same thing, but I’ve always been interested by the relationship between my music and space. Even in times of Oxygéne, I was  …finding delays or reverb to try to enlarge, widen the soundscape in a sense. 

We have, culturally, this kind of frontal relationship with music. When you compose for a symphonic orchestra you visualize the orchestra in front of you. When you’re producing music in a studio you have two speakers in front of you. When you are in the festival or concert hall you still have the PA system in front of you. 

So our relationship is more a kind of representation of music than an immersion into music. Stereo doesn’t exist in nature. When I’m talking to you I’m in mono. When a bird is singing it’s singing in mono. It’s the environment around us and our ears which are creating the perspective in audio. 

And then modern technology is allowing us to go back to a very natural way of experimenting and experiencing sounds, and for the first time, we can be inside the music. This is a total disrupting moment. 

At the moment, lots of spatial audio is conceived and composed in stereo but then spatialized later on. I conceived and composed the music [for Oxymore] in space. Putting every element of my arrangement in speakers that go all around me is a totally different approach. It’s like going from painting to sculpture.

How did you conceive of and compose this record in spatial audio?

I started in my own studio in 5.1 [speaker setup] because only 5.1 was allowing me to put the sound in space. Then I went to Radio France Internationale, the French BBC, and they have a very sophisticated studio with 36 speakers where you can really adjust sounds by degree. 

Then you could say "that’s interesting, but who can listen to that?" And the answer is important. 

Binaural — the multichannel audio version translated for headphones —  was not devised for music at the beginning, but more for movies. We had to twist the system to get a convincing binaural version [that would sound] very close to the experience you could have with real speakers around you. 

The binaural version, for me, is essential because it’s the real democratization of immersive sound. With just your standard headphones and any kind of smartphone or laptop, you can have access to the immersive experience. With the development of the metaverse and VR, with the development of electric cars that are more equipped with immersive sounds, we know that this technology is going to be the next step. 

I’m actually convinced that in maybe in five years’ or six years' time, we’ll probably consider stereo with the same nostalgia that we are considering the gramophone of our grandparents.

I’m also convinced that new styles and new artists in hip-hop, punk, and the pop of tomorrow will depend on this new technology. As all the previous genres of music have been depending on the tools we were using as music producers.

Read more: What Is Immersive Audio?: How Engineers, Artists & Industry Are Changing The State Of Sound

You’ve said your first physical experience with music came when Chet Baker played his trumpet for you at the age of 10. Fast forward to today and you are performing in VR worlds with 360 audio where people are literally surrounded by the music. How does that physical experience of VR and spatial audio compare to your experience with Chet Baker?

In a sense, it’s very similar. I always consider our relationship with any kind of art form to be organic and based on emotions and feelings, physically. When I think about what happened with Chet Baker and this physical feeling I got with the air of the instrument on my chest, it was absolutely purely physical and the feeling was from an organic process. 

It’s the same thing with VR. The first VR object is a book; you are projecting yourself and you imagine the face of the characters and you become inside the fantasy world as a watcher or as an actor. VR is one step further where you are sending your digital twin into a VR world. But it’s still emotional; it’s still very organic.

When I was playing in VR I have my instruments in the physical world, but if I’m in front of an audience made of avatars, these avatars are digital twins of real human beings, a real audience. So after five minutes, I’m sweating. I’m nervous or I’m enjoying it in the same way. It’s even strange to think that after five minutes you forget you are in a virtual world because you are still feeling, physically, emotions.

There is a social dimension that we forget when we’re talking about the metaverse because lots of people these days are mixing the metaverse and cryptocurrencies and saying the metaverse is linked only to business. 

Actually, there is a fantastic creative potential, poetic potential, a kind of Romanesque approach to creating your own world even from your living room. For the last 20-30 years you can produce, compose and distribute your music from your living room with a laptop. The same thing is going to happen with VR. A young artist could create his own fantasy world with some tools from his home.

This month you will celebrate 40 years of your performances in China, which remain an astounding testament to how music can generate unity. In today’s world, we are seeing so much division and turmoil. What do you think your role is as a musician with a huge audience to address that?

I was raised by an extraordinary woman. My mom used to be a great figure in the French resistance and after the war. When I was a child, she told me about this idea that we shouldn’t mix ideology and people.

I think we have to go everywhere where people don’t have the same freedom of speech and freedom of expression as we have. And I think that more than ever culture should be considered as a trojan horse. 

The beauty of VR is tomorrow you can have people from Iran or from North Korea — if they have a headset or even a laptop — and they can have access to the concert we can do in New York or in Paris or in London.

When I look back, I think that China concerts are very special to me because it was like playing on the moon for both sides. At that time people had absolutely no idea about what was going on in the West.  I went there with a stage project that was even revolutionary from the Western point of view —with electronic music, with lasers, things that were totally new. But you can imagine from the Chinese point of view, in those days, it was a real shock.

That your career has lasted so long to allow for a 40th anniversary album is kind of unbelievable. When you think back on your decades as an artist, what are your key takeaways?

What I learned is the importance of curiosity. Every time you start a project is to touch reset. I’m starting again as a beginner. I’m not really interested in what I’ve done before. It doesn’t really belong to me anymore. I’m more interested by what’s next  —  not to try to beat records, but as a kind of excitement. As long as this excitement exists, I think you go on. 

Living Legends: Roger McGuinn On The History Of The Byrds, His One-Man Show And Editing His Own Wikipedia Page

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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