(Note: This interview was conducted by Trevor Cajiao for the British Elvis Presley fanzine "Elvis - The Man and His Music." It appeared in the June 1996 edition.) INTERVIEWED FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME...
DUKE BARDWELLDuke Bardwell played bass for Elvis from January 1974 through until early April 1975. He's on the 'Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis' album, part of the 'Elvis Today' set and he's even featured on the recently discovered 'The Twelfth Of Never'. During his time spent with The King he performed almost 200 shows with him in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and at venues all over the States. These days he's in the restaurant business in Florida, but late last year he took the time to write a superb introduction for Joe Tunzi's 'Enter The Dragon' book and it was through Joe that I was able to track Duke down for a chat about his days with Elvis. After our initial contact it was discovered that he hadn't heard a lot of the unofficial releases on which he plays, so after sending him tapes and copies of things like the 'From Sunset Boulevard To Paradise Road' and 'Spanish Eyes' CDs, we set about a series of interviews that took place over a few weekends in April and May of this year. A composite of those interviews is what you're about to read - the first time Duke Bardwell has ever spoken in-depth about his time spent with Elvis Presley.
TC: There's virtually nothing written about you in any of the many Elvis reference books, so perhaps the best place to start would be with some basic background information on you.
DB: Okay, Well my full name Is Duke Kane Bardwell and I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on August 19th 1943.
TC: You were a teenager when Elvis first came on the scene; what are your memories of that period?
DB: My first awareness of him was when I was in the seventh grade - that's when I first heard 'Old Shep'. I mentioned that briefly in the introduction I did in Joe's book ('Enter The Dragon'). This was when all the girls were just crazy over him, and I remember that the girl I was seeing at the time, she asked me over to her house one Saturday morning. She said she had something she wanted to play me. Well, I had a dog at the time and she knew I was very fond of it, and she sat me down and played me 'Old Shep. And that was the first time in my life that I'd been honestly moved by a piece of music and heard a piece of music that I could really personally identify with. It reduced me to tears to start with and then it made me a complete fan of this one person who'd shown me that music could touch you emotionally. I'll never forget it, 'Old Shep' was my first introduction to Elvis Presley.
TC: Once you became a musician yourself was it ever a dream of yours to play with Elvis?
DB: It never entered my mind. I was already playing music at that time - I'd been playing music since I was six-years old, when I was given a ukulele. Shortly after that I went to the trumpet, then to electric guitars. At that time, where we were, there was a strong influence of black music and rhythm and blues - all the music out of New Orleans. I joined a group and we were playing the rock n roll hits of the day, but it was mainly rhythm and blues. The fact that something would evolve from that to where I would end up playing with Elvis was just absurd. It wasn't something that ever entered my mind. In fact, the way I ended up with the job was really pretty much of an accident.
TC: How did it all come about?
DB: Well, back in the mid-to-late '60s I left the band I was with and moved up to Connecticut and New York and started playing bass with a very popular folk singer called Tom Rush. Tom's influence on me was tremendous and it was really because of him that I started songwriting. I played with him for almost two years then moved back South and got together with some guys who wanted to form a band - a racially integrated group with five white guys and three black girl singers called Cold Grits, I wrote some songs for them and to cut a long story short we ended up in L.A. and signed up with Lou Adler who had Ode Records. In an unprecedented deal for the time, he gave us a nice fat amount of cash up-front and he was gonna let us record an album back in Louisiana and he was gonna let us produce it ourselves.
Well, the first thing they did was put a single out on us and it did pretty well, but there was trouble in the band with drugs and stuff and the band actually split up before the album was ever completed - leaving Mr. Adler and his investment strung completely out there. And he was pretty mad about it, and I don't blame him. But it meant that he still had control on what I did because I was under contract to him for five years - for all my writing and publishing.
Anyway, after that my wife and I moved out to Los Angeles and we lived with a friend of mine called Casey Clark who had just released his first album on Electra. He had just started with a management company that also handled Loggins & Messina. Well, Loggins & Messina needed an opening act. so as an acoustic duo we started traveling with them. That lasted a fair while, then another friend of mine who was associated with Jose Feliciano called me and asked me to come over and sing some of my songs to Mrs. Feliciano. She pretty much looked after all of Jose's business for him and everything, and they'd just built their own studio there in Orange, California.
Well, they started using me as a bass player on recording sessions with Jose, and one day the drummer that we normally used was not available for this particular session, so when I got to the session I heard that Ronnie Tutt was coming. Somebody said, "Man, we're gonna use Elvis' drummer!". Well I just couldn't believe that; it just blew my mind. And funnily enough, shortly before that I'd played at a songwriter's showcase at a club called The Icehouse in Pasadena, and was back in the dressing-room and I saw this thing sticking out from behind a pile of chairs in the corner. It was a record sleeve and I could see a leg on there in gold pants, so I moved the chairs away and pulled it out and it was that Elvis hits album where he's got the gold lame suit on...
TC:'Gold Records' Vol. 2...
DB: Yeah! There was no record in it, but it was signed, so I took it and put it in my guitar case. Man, I just loved him. I was disappointed with all the movie stuff and what Colonel Parker was doing with him, but he had come back out in '69 with Ronnie (Tutt) and James (Burton) and all those guys and was out there kickin' some butt again and I was real tickled for him. But I took that sleeve and every time I opened my guitar case, there it was. It stayed there for the longest time 'cause I was an avid fan. So when we got Ronnie Tutt playing on that session it really tickled me to death. Ronnie's drums were delivered to the studio by the Drum Service - he was much in demand as a studio drummer, and still is - and I thought that was pretty cool.
He finally showed up and he was into a lot of south-western clothes with a lot of turquoise - that was real popular back then and man, I thought he was just the coolest thing I ever saw! He carried all of his cymbals in a custom made leather carrying case that had Indian work on the outside of it, and I just thought he was something else. Well we set up and played a little bit, things were going pretty good, then we took a break and I kinda went up to him and said, 'Hey Ronnie, what's Elvis really like?" He started laughing and he said, "You won't believe how many times people ask me that!". I told him, " I'm sorry but I can't help it. I'm crazy 'bout him and I'm just curious to find out what kind of person he is." After he finished laughing we talked a bit about it and he told me everything I asked him about Elvis.
Then a few months after that, Jose had a birthday party at his house and he asked me to play bass in a band he'd put together. There was Steve Cropper and Jose on guitars, Ronnie was the drummer, I was the bass player, there was a fine studio piano player called Larry Muhoberac who I had no idea had played with Elvis until I read that interview with him in your magazine - and the guy who did most of the singing was David Clayton Thomas from Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was really great, we played until our fingers bled - must've been four or five hours. It was a big time and I think everyone ended up naked in the swimming pool!
Then I guess it was just a few weeks after that, I got a call from Ronnie Tutt. He said, 'I just wanna let you know that Emery Gordy has quit the band and I'm puttin' your name in the hat". I was just blown away. I couldn't believe that he would do that. I mean, I was literally nobody. People liked me and I seemed to be able to hold my own okay, but I think Ronnie was interested in what most drummers and bass players are interested in - hopefully there's a good marriage there. If that bass player can't play with his foot and that kick drum, then it just doesn't work. Well Ronnie told me some of the other boys who were kinda in line for the job or were interested in it, and they were some of LA's best studio bass players. Jerry Scheff had been Elvis' bass player but then he quit and Emery Gordy took over, but Emery stayed less than a year or so because he had his own studio and he was busy with that, so that's when they needed another bass player. Well I asked Ronnie what I could do to show out good and he sent me a bunch of records. He told me that if I learned all of the songs and turned up for a rehearsal knowing the songs, who knows what could happen. He knew it was a long shot, but I did as he suggested and I just played and played and played those records until I knew 'em. I was listening to Jerry and Jerry was a pretty 'busy' bass player, he moved around a lot - but of course playing with Ronnie Tutt and playing in a show that had that much energy had a tendency to make you play around a lot.
TC: Presumably Ronnie had given you the live albums to listen to...
DB: Yes I learned all of those songs and then it came time to do the rehearsal and meet Elvis, so I loaded up and went on up to RCA Studios in Los Angeles. Of course, I was the first one there, being so nervous and everything, and John Wilkinson was the first one that I met. He came in and I had no idea who he was; he stuck his hand out and said, 'Hi. I'm John Wilkinson, rhythm guitar for Elvis Presley. I thought that was pretty cool. Then everybody just started filtering in, and I just can't tell you how nervous I was. I don't know how to describe it. My heart was up in my throat, then all of a sudden the doors bust open and the bodyguards come in...I think Red West was probably the first one I saw, then Elvis came in wearing one of his outfits, his glasses and one of those little black cigar/cigarettes that he liked to chew on every now and then. I felt like I was watching a movie, I swear to God I did. It didn't seem real. It was like surreal.
It was like watching a Fellini movie or somethin'. There was this big flurry of activity...I had already met everybody in the band as well as some of the business people at this point... Well, Elvis takes his cape off and slings it to the side, then he pulls this gun out of his belt and hands it to one of the boys which I thought was odd. Then he goes round and says 'Hi" to everybody. He looked real antsy himself: he was bigger than I thought he'd be. They had been off for I think four or five months and he had gained a bunch of weight. They had him on one of those in-fad diets that they had back then where you're on about 500 calories a day just to keep from starving, and they give you injections...and he didn't like it. You could tell he was real irritated. It's not that he was unhappy and angry, there was just an anxiety about him that as it was explained to me was the result of this crash diet he was on. The man just wasn't gettin' any real nutrition certainly not compared to what he was used to. That's a funny thing, y'know: for all the money he had that guy had the worst eating habits of anybody I ever saw. I don't think he ever gave a thought about getting real nutrition from food.
Anyway, we started playin' and I don't even remember breathing, man! I was really kinda choked 'cause I was so excited and everything. We played a few things just to get everybody loosened up, and remember that I had a tape recorder that I'd put on top of my amplifier. Well somebody noticed it and Tom Diskin, who was involved with the management staff, he came over and said "You're gonna have to give me that tape recorder. You cannot record any of this." I told him, "Mr Diskin all I'm trying to do is that once we get the structure on these songs is to record it so I can have a reference so I can learn 'em". He said, "I'm sorry, you just can't". I said, "Well how am supposed to remember this shit?" He said, "You're just supposed to remember this shit!" And they made me put that tape recorder to one side. I didn't understand then but of course I understand now - I didn't know the bootleg business was so big on Elvis.
But later on we were taking a little break and E.P, was standing around, so I just saddled up to him and I said, "I'd like to ask you something. When you came in here I saw you take that pistol off. With all these guys around you why do you carry a gun?" He thought that was kinda funny, and he said, "That's to take care of anything from six feet out. From six feet in, I got it taken care of." And he started to walk off when he turned around and threw a punch at me. He stopped his fist when it was actually touching my nose, and it happened so quick I didn't have time to react. I'm not even sure I had time to blink. It was just his little graphic demonstration about how he could have shot my nose bone up through my brain without me ever knowing that it was coming. It happened so fast I didn't have time to jump, jerk or anything. In fact, one of the other guys thought it was so cool that I didn't move or nothing, but I just didn't see it coming.
But y'know, watching him over the next period of time with his karate stuff, he really didn't have the discipline that you think someone with all those degrees of black belt would have. And I don't know how many of those were actually earned and how many were just given to him because he was Elvis Presley. He probably earned the first one, and he did enjoy all that kind of thing, but I was with him when he promoted himself to 9th degree black belt that was in front of everybody in Vegas. He had an official 8th degree black belt. 10th degree is like that's the master, and there's not many of those people around. But he just decided that he wanted to move on, so on one show in Vegas he came out in a brand new black gi and announced that he was a 9th degree black belt. Of course he was getting a little delusionary at that point, and that's really funny saying somebody like Elvis who is almost an illusion - could be delusionary.
Anyway, that first day at RCA was almost indescribable. There was a blur of activity, of music, of new people and faces and stuff, and all I was trying to do was hold my own. And really it was just a jam, it wasn't a rehearsal. Nothing was really being rehearsed, it was just a case of getting everybody back together after they'd had so much time off.
TC: So after that initial meeting and jam session, it was off to Vegas - this was in January 1974...
DB: Yes, but there was a clothing problem. I had to inherit Emery's stage clothes, and Emery was a good bit smaller than I was! But they had to fit 'cause the woman who made 'em had died. So they literally had to fit! I lost weight, they got somebody to let the clothes out as much as they possibly could and I had to actually wear my bass a little bit lower because they looked like men's ballet pants with the bulge in the front, y'know... But Vegas was my first official job with him.
TC: And how did that feel?
DB: Oh, it was just amazing! But there was another little problem, and I wrote about this in the intro to Joe's book, and that was concerning my bass. There was a real bad buzz comin' over the sound system and nobody could figure where it was comin' from. But we started playin' and everything was great during the songs, but when we stopped playing you could hear this buzz and Elvis was beginning to get irritated by it. Well out of habit I reached for the volume knob on my bass and rolled it down just as he turned and was lookin' at the band - and the buzz quit. And he watched me as I realized it was me, but he wasn't sure and I wasn't gonna let on. But then I rolled the knob up again and the buzz came back - and he caught me. He watched as the blood drained from my face and thought I was gonna die. Of course the show had to go on, so I had to play with my finger on the volumn knob - keep it low on the slow quiet songs and turn it up a little on the fast loud ones...boy, I thought I was gonna get fired that first night for screwing up the show! I'll always remember that night 'cause I received a telegram from my family back in Baton Rouge and everyone thought I'd died and gone heaven 'cause they knew how much playing with Elvis meant to me. It was a real special night. As far as the music business goes, it was the biggest thing I'd ever been associated with.
TC: Were you disappointed at how he was rushing through and virtually throwing away a lot of his earlier material at that time?
DB: I was pretty much disappointed in the fact that he wasn't rockin' as much as he was. He was doin 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'- 'You Gave Me A Mountain' and stuff like that, and those were my least favorite part of the whole time I spent with him. That's why that Houston livestock Show & Rodeo gig that you had the pictures from in your magazine, that's why that was by far my absolute favorite musical show that I ever did with him because that orchestra wasn't there and they just couldn't do all those big orchestrated show tunes. Maybe I'm full of shit, I don't know; maybe it wasn't as much fun as I thought it was, but I remember Houston as being the best gig I did with him. Nothing but guitars, pianos, drums, Elvis and two big handfuls of singers. I thought it was one of the most fun things I ever did in my life. Being in the middle of that big ol' arena with 44,090 people, and I realize there are much bigger crowds than that to play for, but that was contained. It was all around you, everywhere you looked were people, and the energy in there was just incredible.
TC: That was shortly before they recorded the live album in Memphis...
DB: That was on the same tour, yeah.
TC: You're immortalized on that album. Just before 'Love Me'. Elvis says, "Anyhow, Duke, I'm not talking to you personally, Duke, just killin' time so I can drink water".
DB: Ain't that funny? I get immortalized on an album by somebody tellin' me they're not really talkin' to me. My family think that that's real funny, but it's great to hear that. The night they recorded that live album in Memphis was a real important night for me personally. I hadn't gotten my TCB yet and until you got that you were pretty much just filling time, y'know. (Note: TCB refers to a necklace with a gold insignia with the initials TCB on it which stood for ‘Taking Care of Business.' Elvis gave these to his band and inner circle.) And that's the night I got my TCB. None of us knew about the album being recorded. We were going up onto the stage and they had the release forms for the union for us to sign. They called me and said, "Hey Bardwell, you gotta sign this. I said, "What is it?". They said "These are the union forms, so you can get paid for the session". I said, "What session?". That's when they told us they were recording the show for a live album, and I almost lost it, I swear to God. I was all excited and nervous about being in his hometown for the first time in 13 years, and I wanted my part to be perfect, wanted him to do good and for everything to go real well, but when they told me it was being recorded for an album, man I almost peed on myself. I couldn't believe it! But the show went real well and everything turned out okay.
Afterward they bussed us all over to Graceland and to say that it was exciting would be an understatement. I never ever thought I'd make it to Graceland 'cause I'd already heard that pretty much no-one made it or there - not usually people in the band anyway. But here all the whole crew, orchestra and everybody was being taken over and they had some food laid out back there in the souvenir room. There were lot of people there 'cause our show was big - we travelled with about 89 people - and I remember walkin' around lookin' at all the memorabilia and his gold records and stuff. I was pretty much overwhelmed. So I walked on out by myself and walked on back into the house, into the living room and there was the biggest gold-plated piano I ever saw. I'd never seen anything like it before. I thought it was kinda tacky but what the hell, it seemed to fit where it was. So I sat down at this piano and just started doodlin' around on it - really sounded good.
Then off to the side, Elvis and Linda Thompson came down the stairs - he was livin' with her at the time and I just loved her to death. I thought she was just as sweet as she could be. She dressed kinda funny, kinda outrageous,'cause I think she was expected to, but I thought she was a real nice lady. Well Elvis told me to stand up, and I thought he was mad because I was playin' his piano. Then he said, "Turn around", and I thought he was gone pull one of his karate moves or somethin' like that I didn't know what in the hell was goin' on; and he reaches over me and I see the TCB comin' down front of my face - and that's the way he gave me my TCB. That was my official entry into the fold. I had been accepted, I had gotten my fraternity pin, as it was.
TC: Tell us about what life was like on the road...