Johnny Wilkinson: Elvis's Right-Hand Man
How a 417-land kid gave Elvis Presley a piece of his mind… and then found himself on the road with The King.
I’ve got a pair of tickets to see Elvis Presley and Hank Snow at the Shrine Mosque tonight for the 13th caller,” announced Springfield radio DJ Jim Stanley. “They have a dress rehearsal and sound check this afternoon. You can’t go to that, but I’ve got tickets to the show tonight.” Johnny Wilkinson, 9 years old at the time, had been left at home for the first time ever that weekend and heard all he needed to hear. He didn’t care about making the show that night. He needed to find his way into the Shrine to speak to Elvis in person. Wilkinson didn’t know it yet, but the circumstances that came together that Saturday in 1956 would prove to be life-changing.
“The minute my folks rounded the corner at Grand and Weller, I got on my bicycle and rode all the way down to the Shrine Mosque, parked my bike, and went up to the second floor where the dressing rooms were,” says Wilkinson. “I’m looking to the right and the left; nobody there. Then in the very last dressing room on the right, there he was. I thought, ‘Okay Wilkinson, here’s your chance, are you going to do it or not?’ So, I knocked on the door. His hair was neatly combed and brushed. He had a on a pair of Levi’s. His boots were shined, and he had a red-and-white checked Western-style shirt.”
After exchanging some pleasantries, Wilkinson told Elvis why he was really there. With his characteristic boldness, present even at 9, he said: “There’s a reason I come looking for you today. I come to tell you that you can’t play guitar worth a damn.”
Wilkinson had watched Elvis enough on television to determine that he was a better guitar-player than Elvis. Taken aback, Elvis pointed to his Gibson guitar in the corner and told Wilkinson to show him how it’s done. Wilkinson had been playing since he was 5 and managed to impress Elvis with a couple of songs before Elvis’s bodyguards came in, putting an end to the impromptu child-to-musician guitar lesson. Wilkinson left that day, but not before Elvis predicted that he would see him again. In most cases, a story like this might be told by a man reminiscing about the one time he met Elvis Presley. But for Wilkinson, this was just the start. Elvis’s prediction had been right.
A Chance Encounter
Wilkinson now lives in the same home he grew up in, but he’s been just about everywhere else in the 40 years between. He returned to Springfield just a few years ago, and his playing days are over due to a stroke in 1989, which forced him to exchange his guitar for a cane. The screaming fans are gone, but in their stead he has two equally adoring dogs, Pugsley and Sammy. To meet Wilkinson now, there are just hints to his rock ’n’ roll past. His sideburns and mustache remain, as well as his gold necklace featuring Elvis’s band name, TCB, with its characteristic lightning bolt. Yet, most telling are Wilkinson’s stories, rich with detail that could only come from someone on the inside of landmark moments in music history.
Wilkinson with Elvis. (Photo courtesy John Wilkinson
After first meeting Elvis, Wilkinson continued to work on his music. “Springfield was a crossroads for just about every country singer there ever was,” says Wilkinson. “I’d watch them on TV or when they played the Shrine Mosque. I learned guitar by watching and listening. I’d hear them play a guitar chord, I’d come home and find that chord on the piano, and then I’d take that knowledge to a guitar.”
Soon after graduating from Greenwood Laboratory School, Wilkinson left for Los Angeles to pursue music. “When I got out to L.A. in late ’63, I haunted every club,” says Wilkinson. His hard work paid off as he was soon discovered, playing for such varied groups as folk singers New Christy Minstrels and the Greenwood Country Singers, to Jefferson Airplane, among others. Wilkinson developed a reputation as a great studio musician. So, when Jethro Tull had to pull out last-minute to open for Jefferson Airplane at Whiskey A Go Go, it was Wilkinson they called to fill in. He got his band together, and they headed down to the club. Walking in, he noticed a roped off area to the right of the stage, but he didn’t think much of it. Wilkinson remembers after his show, “I was down in my dressing room changing out of the show clothes into my regular civvies, and I looked in the mirror and this huge form filled my dressing room, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I’m in trouble. I dated somebody I wasn’t supposed to, or I kissed somebody’s wife that I wasn’t supposed to.’ I turn around and this guy says, ‘There’s a man that wants to see you right now.’ I follow him up by the roped-off area, and there’s Elvis.”
Astonishingly, Elvis remembered Wilkinson from years earlier. “He looked at me and said, ‘Are you the same Johnny Wilkinson who told me I couldn’t play guitar worth a damn?’” says Wilkinson. The two old acquaintances sat and talked at the club before driving to Elvis’s home in Beverly Hills.
Getting to Know Elvis, on and Offstage
It wasn’t until four years after that encounter that Elvis called on Wilkinson again in 1968. After a couple of phone calls, the first of which ended with Wilkinson hanging up on Elvis thinking it was his friends prank-calling him, Wilkinson went back to Elvis’s house to jam. Elvis asked him to be his rhythm guitarist, but Wilkinson expressed some hesitations, as he was more of a folk picker than a rock ’n’ roll guitar-player. “Elvis pulled out a piece of paper, wrote something on it, handed it to me, and it was a money figure. He said, ‘Now will you be my official rhythm guitar player?’” With eyes wide, Wilkinson explains in a way only he can, “I looked at it and said, ‘You bet your ass.’”
For the next nine and a half years, Wilkinson traveled the world as a member of the TCB Band, compiling inimitable experiences and seeing an Elvis few people got close to. “He was a wonderful guy,” he says. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you different. He had his faults like everybody else. But he was a wonderful, nice, caring, compassionate and giving person. Outside of my own father, he was probably the most compassionate, giving and caring guy I ever met in my life.” He hasn’t forgotten the time in Memphis when Elvis saw a woman on the sidewalk longingly staring into the showroom of a Cadillac dealership. Elvis jumped out and bought the woman a car on the spot. Wilkinson also remembers Elvis as a prankster who once shot a water pistol at him while playing electric guitar, accidentally sending 1,200 volts of electricity through his body.
Over the years, Wilkinson developed a friendship with Elvis, making his death in 1977 that much more devastating. “Even to this day, Elvis’s death still hurts me,” he says. “I’m sorry he’s gone, not just because he was my employer. He was my friend. He was like the brother I never had.” Wilkinson thought about quitting music altogether after his friend’s death, but he managed to continue playing before meeting Terry, his wife of 27 years. When he did eventually quit music he picked up a “regular job” managing Radio Shacks in the Los Angeles area. Wilkinson says proudly: “To this day, I still have the record of having the best bottom lines of any Radio Shack on the West Coast.”
Wilkinson has the unique capacity to speak with the same pride about the ordinary things in his life as he does the extraordinary. He is as equally fond of telling about his 60-year friendships from Greenwood Laboratory School, as he is about telling of the time that the band had to race off stage to a nearby limo to escape rabid fans. Reflecting on it all, Wilkinson says: “If everything just all of the sudden ended today, and I dropped over dead, I would not have a regret in the world. I wouldn’t change a single thing. I’m happy.”