George Klein first met Elvis Presley when they were both students at Humes High School in Memphis, Tennessee. And when Elvis’ music career began, George was right there with him, spinning Elvis’ records on radio, as his own career in radio and television took off. George still regularly works on radio and TV (including a three hour show that airs each Friday on Sirius XM Radio’s Elvis channel), and he finally sat down and shared his memories of Elvis in his new book, Elvis: My Best Man, co-written with Chuck Crisafulli.
Your book is interesting in that it’s not just about Elvis, but also the early days of rock radio and the other artists you’ve worked with; you have so many stories to tell.
Well, I didn’t want to write a book to be quite frank. When they came to me and said, “George, we want you to write a book on Elvis,” I said, “Man, there’s 50 books on Elvis, why do you want me to write a book?” And they said, “Well, number one, you knew him before he was Elvis Presley. You knew him in the 8th grade, and you were very close to his family, and we don’t have any of those stories. And number two, you were a pioneer in radio and television, especially radio, because you and Dewey Phillips were the first two rock ‘n’ roll disc jockeys out of the South. And you were the first white guy to let Fats Domino break the race barrier on your TV show.” And I said, “You mean I can work that into the book?” They said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.” And I said, “Well, now you’re talking! Okay, I’ll do it.”
You worked with the legendary DJ Dewey Phillips; it sounds like he was somewhat challenging to work for.
It was. It was most challenging. I could write a book on that! I should’ve kept a diary of working with Dewey. What happened was I wanted to get into radio, and I’d met this guy, Harv Stegman, who was doing the play-by-play of high school sports in Memphis — recreating the games in the studio as if you’re really at the stadium but you’re not. I worked some with Harv as a go-fer, getting my foot in the radio station. Then the program director [of the station] came to me and said, “Hey George. When Dewey signs on the air, we need someone to be his helper. Your ball game is on from six to nine, Dewey comes on at nine. You’d be perfect.” I said, “Oh man that’s great!” So I became Dewey’s go-fer and flunky and runner and helped him produce his radio show some.
What was it like working for him?
Well, Dewey came out of a five and dime store in downtown Memphis; he worked in the record department and he’d play records. And people would come around and listen because he was kind of crazy and funny. Dewey was a very bizarre disc jockey. And WHBQ had a little show on from nine until 9:15, called Red, Hot and Blue, and Dewey talked them into letting him do that show. It was nothing but black records, and he caught fire. And he went from 15 minutes to three hours, nine to midnight. The thing that I learned most about from Dewey was he had a great ear for music. He said he could be the best disc jockey in the world, but if he didn’t play the right records he wouldn’t have an audience. Back in those days, the disc jockeys selected their own records. The middle of the road jocks, their music was laid out for them in the control room; they would play Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and all the acts that were happening at that time. But they didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll, so we had to program our own show. And what I learned from Dewey was to go by the record distributor and get the records before the other stations got them, and then you were the first to play the hot new records on the air. So I learned from him that number one, you had to have an ear for music. And number two, you had to have a little excitement in your show, you just couldn’t do a blasé show.
And he was the first to play Elvis.
Yeah. I worked for a couple years with Dewey, but I knew I had to get some on-air experience. Finally I got a job in Osceola, Arkansas, and I’d come home to Memphis on the weekends. I came home one weekend and I went up to the station and said, “Hey Dewey, what’s happening man?” And he said, “Hey GK, come here. You ain’t going to believe what happened last night. Sam [Phillips, producer and owner of Sun Records] came in and brought me a new record and I want you to hear it.” So he put it on the turntable, but he put his hand over it so I couldn’t see the label. He said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “I don’t know who that is, Dewey.” He said, “Well, you oughta know man, you went to high school with him.” And I said, “You mean Elvis has got a record out?” ‘Cause Elvis was the only guy in school who could sing. And he said, “Yeah, Sam brought it up last night. I played it seven times in a row. It’s a smash.” And he gave me an extra copy and I took it back to that little radio station I worked for, KOSE. And I think until this day they tell the story about me bringing Elvis’ first record, “That’s All Right,” to be played on the air there. I was very pleased because it gave me a chance to talk on the air about a guy that was hot and I went to school with, and it kind of made me feel important.
You probably hadn’t thought about Elvis for some time.
No I hadn’t. I’d see Elvis around town once in a while. I’d see him walking down South main way and I’d go over and say Hey Elvis, what’s up? And that’d be the gist of the conversation. And I hadn’t even thought about Elvis cutting a record.
For more info: Order the book Elvis’s website Interview with Elvis author Alanna Nash