The Day Elvis Offered Eric Clapton Guitar Lessons

Eric Clapton, 1974There may be more interesting Elvis Presley stories than there are stars in the universe.  Perhaps the most famous story involves his storming the White House with guns and demanding a DEA badge.  There are numerous accounts of his using that badge to pull over people who disregarded the speed limit.  Still other stories involve his bizarre encounters with Led Zeppelin and The Beatles.  Not to mention the infamous Hamburger James moment!  Haven’t heard those tales?  Keep following my articles – they will all be written about in due time…

For now, I’d like to share a less well known Elvis story.  One involving guitar legend Eric Clapton… and the moment Elvis offered him guitar lessons.  There are only a few accounts of this event – all from first hand witnesses.  Unfortunately, the accounts of this night in Memphis differ slightly in detail.  For my retelling of the event, I’m pulling primarily from two first hand sources who were there (David Stanley’s and Jerry Schilling’s) and combining the events into one narrative.

In July of 1974, Eric Clapton came to Memphis  to perform at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.  He arrived a day early as he had perviously asked – or pleaded – to meet Elvis Presley.  Jerry Schilling, one of Presley’s Memphis Mafia members, was contacted by tour manager Richard Cole to request the meeting for Clapton.  Cole had previously sent Schilling some VIP tickets to meet Led Zeppelin and he was asking Schilling to, in turn, set up a meeting between Clapton and Elvis.  And so it came to pass that Schilling set up the meeting with the King of Rock ‘n Roll.  It would happen at the movie theater where Elvis would often go with his inner circle for all night private movie marathons.  The theater at night was an intimate place for Presley.  He personally invited and granted entrance for anyone who showed up at these private showings.  It was his place of solace.  So when he spotted a “long, black limousine” parked outside the General Cinema, he was understandably miffed.

“Who the hell’s limousine is that?” was Elvis’ response at first sight.  Schilling explained to Elvis that it probably belonged to Eric. At this news, it appeared that Elvis had forgotten that he agreed to the meeting.  It’s not even clear that Elvis knew who Eric Clapton was!

“We just don’t need a limousine parked in front of the cinema!” Elvis replied.  He felt it would draw too much attention to Elvis’ place of peace among his tight circle of friends.

To make matters worse, when Elvis entered the theater he spotted an unknown man (Eric Clapton) sitting in Elvis’ seat on the 12th row of the cinema.  The 12th row was off limits to anyone other than who Elvis requested to sit with him on that row.  And the middle seat was reserved for the King.

Yet there sat this foreigner named Eric Clapton, seated in the King’s throne.

Elvis was not happy.  Schilling’s heart sank as he prepared for the worst.  Would Elvis deride the British gentleman who idolized him?  All the elements were in place for a train wreck.

David Stanley, Elvis’ step-brother, called for Clapton to come meet Elvis. Schilling made the introduction between the guitar legend and Presley.  Picture the scene:  Eric Clapton was a worldwide superstar dressed in the most appropriate rock star attire.  Elvis had spent the day at a horse ranch south of Memphis and was wearing western digs, a cowboy hat, and boots.  He probably smelled of horses because the had left the farm and drove his pickup truck straight to the theater without a stop at Graceland for a shower or change of clothing.

Everyone braced for Elvis’ first words.

Fortunately, Eric Clapton was overwhelmed at meeting his idol and acted like a proper English gentleman.  Or perhaps like a fanboy.  Elvis was touched with Clapton’s sincerity.

After a moment, as conversation relaxed, Elvis inquired, “What do you do?”

“I play a little guitar,”  Eric replied.  Either David Stanley or someone else in Elvis’ circle had forewarned Clapton that by the 1970s, the man who practically invented Rock ‘n Roll didn’t keep up with many of the current stars of the genre.  Clapton, holding no ego, didn’t mind.

Elvis shouted across the room.  “James!  Come here.”

James Burton, who was, of course, Elvis’ guitarist at that time, heard his summoning and came over.

“James, I’d like you to meet this kid from way over in England or somewhere like that.  He says he plays a little guitar.”

James Burton’s face went flush as he held out his hand to shake Eric’s.  “Nice to meet you.”

Elvis continued, “James, maybe you can give him some guitar lessons on me? Show him some of your stuff.”

James Burton, being put terribly on the spot, had no idea how to respond.  He didn’t have to.  Eric was always the gentleman.

“I’d like that,” said Eric with a wink.  “I’d love to have lessons from the great James Burton!”

In the end, Elvis approved of Clapton.  He even let him sit with him on the coveted 12th row of the General Cinema.




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