June 28, 2018

A Message That Resonated Loudly and Clearly

By this time in our careers and after the second release, Imperials Now, we had really begun to establish a reputation. That can be good and that can be bad! Fortunately, it was mostly good. Yes, we had long hair and were a bit unconventional in appearance but our music spoke to a wide variety of listeners. With every Imperial release, you didn’t know what you were going to get. I remember well, going to a very conservative Christian college which shall remain nameless. We were warmly welcomed by the students and tentatively accepted by the faculty. While the students loved us and our music, the faculty endured us. Though they didn’t understand the music, they couldn’t argue with the message contained in the songs. I think they couldn’t get past our clothes! No suits, no ties, but a message that resonated loudly and clearly to all the listeners.

We got the call from Colonel Parker’s office in the spring of 1969. We were singing with Jimmy Dean, working in huge venues around the country as a supporting act for Jimmy and getting great reviews. National television was opening up for us and it seemed that God was smiling on us. I think our appearance on the Merv Griffin Show when we got a chance to sing, we chose He Touched Me. We could have chosen a more contemporary song with a watered down message but we decided to go with our heart. It seemed that God smiled on us that night. Unsolicited positive responses from the actress, Greer Garson, only served to enhance our appearance. So, in June of 1969, we flew to LA to begin rehearsals with the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations at Universal Studios in Hollywood. You can witness some of those rehearsals in Elvis’ movie, “That’s The Way It Is”. We would arrive in the morning and spend two to three hours on vocals and then Elvis would drive up either on his motorcycle or his Mercedes Benz. Elvis always made a statement when he walked in.

May 9, 2018

Our Second Year With Elvis

While we were actively working with both Elvis and Jimmy Dean, it became increasingly difficult to work with both artists and fulfill the gospel dates we had contracted. We not only worked in Las Vegas with Elvis, we toured with him as well. Our very first west coast tour took us to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco’s Cow Palace, two shows in the Forum in LA, and a venue in Long Beach. We also went inland on that ten-day tour and did a show in Denver. Every arena was sold out. There were at least 10,000 to 20,000 at each show.

Our second year with Elvis took us to the Astrodome in Houston. I remember it so well. We flew in on a private jet. The Sweets, Imperials, TCB Band, and crew were on one plane and Elvis came in on a separate jet. When we arrived in Houston, we were met with throngs of people at the airport. I’m sure they were hoping Elvis was with us. We were escorted to a bus and taken to the hotel. After freshening up, we got back on the bus and with a police motorcade, we were whisked right into the side entrance of the Astrodome. It was HUGE! After changing into our stage uniforms, we were driven to the middle of the arena with thousands of screaming fans surrounding us. I finally felt like a star, though I knew they were there to see Elvis.  We were part of history on that night. The sound was terrible as it bounced around the building and you heard yourself three seconds after you had sung your note. It was built for rodeos, not for concerts. It’s very difficult to keep a beat when the echo was so loud. You tended to slow down to get in sync with yourself. Still, it was one of the greatest nights in my life for excitement and nobody does it bigger and better than Texans!

March 22, 2018

Elvis Walked On Stage

Opening night, July 31, 1969, was the place to be. Every movie star, every singing star who could be there, was there. I remember very well seeing Cary Grant sitting with his friends in a booth straight back from center stage. Center stage right by the front of the stage was Sammy Davis, Jr. He was so close you could touch him. He drank in everything Elvis did. He was so “into it” that Elvis acknowledged him from the stage and between songs he walked over to him, took off one of his rings, bent over and handed it to Sammy. He was so taken with that generous gesture and showed such appreciation to Elvis for this unexpected gift from the king of rock and roll. Shirley Bassey (Goldfinger) was there, Juliet Prowse as well.  Meanwhile, backstage we were making our way to the side of the stage as the comedian was finishing up. We stood around and Elvis was nervous. He didn’t know how that audience would react to him and he needed reassurance. We all were very supportive and encouraging to him. This was a huge gamble on his part but he was always a risk-taker. He blazed trails no one had ever traveled before. True legends like him are willing to take those risks. So he was there and ready to walk on stage as he was torn between the bold and creative man that got him there and the timid and insecure man that held him back.

The comedian walked off stage with a tepid response and there was dead silence for what seemed like an eternity. The lights were out on stage and we walked onstage with the TCB band and the Sweet Inspirations to get in place. Then that plaintive sound of the 2001 A Space Odyssey began. At the end of that last chord, Ronnie Tutt began his drum rift. He had two bass drums and the largest drum kit I’ve ever seen. He used every one of them for this opening. Then James, Jerry, Larry, John, and the orchestra kicked in.

Elvis walked on stage, and you have never seen such an ovation in your life!  Every flashbulb in the house went off. It had gone from total darkness to lights flashing everywhere. The Elvis return to live performances had begun.

March 9, 2018

We Got a Call From Elvis

After a year with Jimmy Dean, we got a call from Elvis. He had decided to return to live performances as he was not enjoying the movies as much as he did when he started. When he decided to put together his group, he called James Burton, the greatest guitarist available at the time. He asked James to put together a band for him. James hired Ronnie Tutt on drums, Jerry Scheff on bass, John Wilkinson on rhythm guitar and Larry Muhoberac on piano. I’m told he originally wanted the Blossoms as his black female backup group but they turned him down. The Sweet Inspirations were available and the group that opened with Elvis consisted of Myrna Smith, Estelle Brown, Sylvia Shemwell, and Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston. Elvis had called Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires for his male quartet. At that time, the Jordanaires were very busy in the studio recording backup for almost every country artist in the country music world. They feared that if they accepted his invitation and went to Las Vegas, these artists would find other backup singers and never call them again. They weren’t sure Elvis had a long-term plan for concerts and so they turned him down. The next call he made was to the Imperials. Joe Moscheo was the manager at that time and with very little persuasion, the Imperials said yes.

On July 31, 1969, Elvis came back to live performances to rave reviews at the Hilton International Hotel, the largest showroom by far in Las Vegas. The band named themselves the TCB Band, the Sweet Inspirations, the Imperials, Millie Kirkham on the soprano parts, and a huge 40 piece orchestra behind him. The original conductor of that orchestra was Bobby Morris.

The order of the show brought the Sweet Inspirations out for three songs.  Elvis had a comedian that came on next named Sammy Shore. I will never understand how he got there, but I think the Hilton had him under contract so they had to use him. There was a short intermission and then the one everyone was waiting to see walked onstage to the 2001 Theme song. It was electric every night, but especially opening night.