Interview: Jerry Scheff (Elvis Presley, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash)

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HIT CHANNEL INTERVIEW: October 2012. We had the great honour to talk with one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bassists of all time: Jerry Scheff. He was member of Elvis Presley’s TCB Band from 1969 until King’s death in 1977 and has also played with The Doors (“L.A Woman”), Bob Dylan (“Street-Legal”), Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison , Johnny Cash,  John Denver, Sam Phillips, The Everly Brothers and others. Recently, he released his critically acclaimed autobiography “Way Down: Playing Bass With Elvis, Dylan, The Doors & More” (published by Back Beat Books). Read below the very interesting things he told us:


Are you satisfied with the feedback you got so far from fans and press for your autobiography “Way Down: Playing Bass With Elvis, Dylan, The Doors & More”?

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Yes, very much so.


How much difficult emotionally was the writing process of “Way Down”?

I don’t live in the past, so I don’t have many emotional difficulties while reliving it.


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Was there anything you’d like to include in “Way Down” and didn’t happen for any reason?

Well, certainly. For example: I would like to have included my times playing with Jimi Hendrix, but, he never called me. Those kinds of regrets have always filled my mind.


Are you doing any recordings this period?

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A few sessions in London now and then. Also, a movie that is about to be released at the Austin Texas film festival 2012, which I have been working on in Canada. It is called “Sample This”. It is about an album that was made in Canada in the early seventies called “The Incredible Bongo Band”. I was the original bass player on the album along with Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos, George Harrison, co-writer of “Layla”) on drums, Mike Deasy (Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Chet Baker) on guitar, Mike Melvoin (Beach Boys, John Lennon) on piano, and King Errisson (Neil Diamond, Etta James) on percussion.  Anyway, some top Hip Hop artists in New York have been sampling the album for a while now and the movie is about the meeting of 1970s studio players and 2000s Rap stars. All but Jim Gordon (ed: he murdered his mother with a hammer in 1983) of the original band have been doing some new recording in Canada for the movie.


What do you remember the most from the shows which were recorded in “Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden”? It’s one of the best live albums in music history.

I am glad you think that. That time for me was when I knew I could play whatever I wanted to play behind him. I knew that he was happy with the new approach we were taking with his music. There were a lot of music critics and musicians who thought we were ruining Elvis by not copying Scotty Moore (ed: the original Elvis Presley guitarist) and the rest of his old band. But Elvis had done that. It was time to go on.


During these four shows at Madison Square Garden, many great musicians were in the audience: all the members of Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After, George Harrison, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Did you meet anyone of them during these shows?

No, I didn’t even know they were there. I went on to meet Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen later on.


I ‘m very curious to learn this: Do you know how Elvis decided to cover Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”? Whose idea was?

I don’t know exactly whose idea it was but, Ike and Tina turner were playing in the lounge at the same hotel we were at. We all used to go to listen to them between our shows. I am sure Elvis heard it there. “Proud Mary” was a hit for them right at that time and they were doing it in their show.


Did Elvis realize what was happening in the “real world”? How easy was for a common person to approach him?

Elvis was a very nice man but the “common person” usually couldn’t get close to him because of his body guards and entourage. Of course there were times when he would have been torn to pieces without them.


Did you have memories from the recordings for The Doors’ “L.A Woman”? How was Jim Morrison as a person and as a collaborator? 

I was only with The Doors for six weeks. Morrison and the guys were very comfortable to work with. The remaining Doors have since said that I was a “hired gun”, brought in to build a fire under Jim. I had heard that Jim’s enthusiasm for being a leather pants rock star had dropped. My book tells a little more about it. After the album came out I was asked to join the Doors. I went to meetings with them at the record company. Then Jim went to Paris and died. That was the end of that. It was like someone put the hook around my neck and pulled me back to reality. Yes, I would have quit Elvis to join them.


Which are your feelings today about Bob Dylan’s “Street-Legal”? It received some very negative reviews when it was released.

We were rehearsing in Bob’s rehearsal studio. I was learning his show. All of a sudden, I walked in one day and there was a mobile recording bus parked outside. Bob said, “We are going to record a new album”. We would rehearse a new song and of course we, the musicians, and the singers had to make up our parts on the spot, so it was very impromptu. It turned out that the recorded sounds were not the best, and the production values were lacking. The album was released anyway to poor reviews. Years later someone got the idea to remix it with modern equipment and it turned out that there was a lot more on the tapes than anyone thought. However, some reviewers didn’t like it because it had horn and vocal arrangements. They said it was too “Vegas” sounding. I think it has a few great cuts.


You played on “Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night”, a TV special with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits joining Roy and the TCB Band. Did you have fun playing with those people?

“A Black and White Night” is one of my favorite things I have ever worked on. I had been working with Elvis Costello for a few years, both recording and on the road. I had worked with Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt as well, so I was very comfortable being there. We had a lot of good fun despite the producer going back on her word a few times. But, all of us were there because of our live and respect for Roy, and would have done it for nothing if need be. Roy was a lovely person and great singer.


Have you ever regretted for a work offer you rejected?

I think I have already mentioned one or two. Naturally there were some offers which conflicted because of schedules. I was asked to join John Lennon’ s band in 1971. I was with Presley at the time. I was asked to do a train tour across Canada (ed: watch the film “Festival Express”) with Janis Joplin. It sounded like fun but I wasn’t a big fan of hers. She tried a little too hard to sound black when she sang. No regrets.


How did it happen to play with Johnny Cash?

When I was a very young man and a Jazz snob, I used to see and hear him on television in So. California. I could not understand why people could like this out of tune hick. That was before I grew up. 🙂 By the time Elvis died, I had turned into a huge fan of Johnny Cash. The producer of “Johnny 99”, Brian Ahern, knew me and he was going to produce the album in Los Angeles so that was how I came to work on the Album.

By 1983 I was not impressed with too many people in the music business, but when Johnny Cash walked into the studio for the first time he lit up the room like nobody I had seen before, and it was all good things he and June Carter projected. Easy to work with and definitely not primadonas. On the last night of recording the tracks, he came in and handed out gifts to all the players, Brian Ahern, the engineers, he forgot no one. He gave me a hand woven Navaho rug which I still have. You asked me about regrets. At this time of my life, I wish I had gotten Johnny Cash to sign my rug. As a matter of fact, I have no autographs from any of the people I have worked with except for Elvis Costello, and that is because my wife Natalie asked him for it.


Did you feel comfortable playing the music of Elvis Costello? I guess you have many different influences.

Costello is one of my favorite people that I worked with. Great guy, great songwriter, and more credibility in his little finger than most people have in their whole body. You are right, I have influences from most kinds of music and I got to use them all with Costello.


Who musicians from the younger generation do you like?

My taste in music is a little dated. I like Radiohead. I have thought I might take the time to seek out music I like, but I have too many other things that have to be done. That and the fact that my hearing has dwindled to the point that I really don’t hear the music like I should.


Have you ever been to Greece?

I have only been to Greece once with John Denver. We checked into the Hilton in the evening. I went to my room and, being tired, ordered dinner in my room. I took a shower and waited for my dinner. I answered the door and the waiter brought my dinner in and set it up facing the window. The curtains were closed so I wondered why I was facing the curtains. He opened a bottle of retsina, handed me the glass, and flung the curtains open and there before me filling the window, was the Parthenon. ‘nuff said!!!


Are you aware of the Greek music?

I have long been a fan of Greek music and food. There was a well known actor, bouzouki player in Los Angeles in the 1960s, named Peter Bravos who owned a Greek restaurant in Hollywood. My wife ex wife, Vivian and I used to go there and eat meze and drink Retsina while listening to Peter and his band play. Peter was actually a fantastic player. We got to know him and on my 27th birthday, unbeknownst to me, Vivian got Peter Bravos and his group to come as guests with their instruments to a surprise birthday party at my house. The other guests were like some of the best studio players in town. Vivian hired Peter’s restaurant to cater the food. Fantastic! He didn’t have a bass player so I sat in a few songs with them and wound up doing a few gigs with them. Vivian and I used to drive out into the desert with the car windows open and Greek music blaring from the speakers so I had heard enough of that style to play my own version. Peter liked that.


A huge thank to Mr Jerry Scheff for his time and Valentino, his webmaster for his help.

Please check and can buy his book through Amazon here  .

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