Q: When did you first start writing songs for Elvis?
A: I was under contract to a gentleman name of Jean Aberbach. And Hill and Range publishing company. I was in New York at the time. And he said, 'Ben, we have a new talent, we want to be publishing his work. We want you to listen to him'. So in 1956, I watched the Tommy Dorsey show where Elvis performed for the first time. And it was fantastic. And then I went back to the publisher and he said, 'Okay Ben, now I want you to write for him.' He wanted me to write different styles. So I was able to write for any style. So when I studied Elvis, I knew just how to approach it. And so in 56 I wrote a thing called 'First in Line' which he recorded.
And I was very pleased about that.
Q: Tell us about your first meeting with Elvis.
A: I first met Elvis in Hollywood. I flew from New York to Hollywood, and they were doing a movie called 'Loving You'. And I wanted to meet him. So we sat in the control room. Aaron Schroeder, who was my co-writer, and we just sat there and waiting for him. So he was recording, he wasn't doing my song, called 'Got a Lot of Living to Do', so I got scared. So what happened was, in between the takes, I ran out. He was playing his guitar next to the piano. And we sat down and started playing the blues with him. And he looked up and said, 'Who are you?' I said my name is Ben Weisman. He said, 'Wait a minute, didn't you write a song called 'Got a Lot of Living to Do'?' He says, 'Hold it, Ben'. And he got his musicians together, and they recorded the song right on the spot.
Q: You wrote quite a few songs for each picture. How did that come about?
A: Well, what happened is that living in New York, they would mail the scripts to myself, Leiber & Stoller, a lot of writers. And we all had to fight for each song in the movie. So we'd all make our demos, and then a gentleman named Freddy Beanstock would take all these demos and go to Hollywood. And they would play for the producers. And the producers picked maybe seven or eight songs for each scene. And then they would present them to Elvis, Elvis would pick maybe two or three and decide which one he would try first. So it was really a scramble. It was really wild times in those years.
Q: Did Elvis tell you what type of songs he really liked to sing?
A: No, what I did was I studied his albums. And I kind of got into his head and what he wanted to hear. And so, also the songs I wrote -- I tried to stretch him a little bit. Instead of the typical rock and roll things. He loved ballads. He loved singers like Perry Como and Dean Martin. So I wrote songs that would fit in that style. And he wanted them. He recorded most of them.
Q: When did you get the chance to see Elvis? Was it quite frequently?
A: Well, I usually saw Elvis in the studios. Because in case something didn't go right, you know, it didn't go right, I'd have to come and help out. The demos in the studio. And they listened to them. And they would actually emulate what they heard. And so I made sure that the demos were pretty good.
Q: How was Elvis to work with?
A: Elvis, well he had different moods. He'd kid around sometimes. Sometimes very serious. Many times he would cut as much as 32 takes just to get the right feel for it. He was very serious. But he also kidded around.
So it was -- he had different moods to him, in the studio.
Q: Were you ever privy to any of Elvis practical jokes?
A: He used to call me The Mad Professor. And a few times he'd tickle me when we were in the studio, fool around a little bit. Terrific guy. I really miss him a lot.
Q: Why did he call you The Mad Professor?
A: Well, I don't look like a rock and roll guy. Typically you know, with the looks. Actually, my background was actually classical music. Which helped me to write a lot of songs. 'Cause Elvis liked the classics. He used to play 'Clair de Lune' on the piano. And he loved the classics, which helped me a lot.
Q: One of your most beloved Elvis songs is 'Wooden Heart'. Can you tell us a little about that?
A: Well, there's a scene in 'G.I. Blues' where Elvis with Juliet Prowse watching a puppet scene. They needed a song to fit it. So we had the idea of wooden heart, which is a puppet. And so it was based on an old German folk song, which is what they wanted. So it worked out great. As a matter of fact, when I was in Gstad in Switzerland, I did an Elvis concert thing there. And we did that song, and it actually tore down the house. They just wouldn't let me off the stage. They loved that song.
Q: What set Elvis apart from other performers?
A: Well, first of all, Elvis never forgot his roots. You know, he was a truck driver as a kid. And he worked in different jobs and things. And he never changed. He never forgot his roots. Matter of fact, his friends that worked with him, half of them I think were from that area where he lived. And he wanted to keep that part of it around with him so he could still have the feeling of being at home. So great relations to people and people just loved him.
Q: You wrote 57 songs for Elvis. Which ones are you the proudest of?
A: Well, there's a movie called 'King Creole' was my favorite movie. And I wrote a song called 'Crawfish', 'As Long As I Have You', 'don't Ask Me Why'. Those are my favorite songs. I think one of the best pictures he ever did. You know, he could've been a fantastic -- he could've done much more, acting-wise. But they wanted to keep him kind of lightweight, you know. People would criticize his movies, but they shouldn't, because he did what he was asked to do. And besides that, all his movies were big sellers. They sold very, very big. And, and very successful. So I think his movies are very, very clean. They were wholesome. No cursing or anything. They were really very inspiring movies, as far as I'm concerned.
Q: Could you talk about Elvis spiritual side and the songs you wrote for him in that vein?
A: Elvis was a very spiritual gentleman. And he had a great love for God. Very spiritual.
He was gonna do a movie called 'Change of Habit'. And it was about three nuns, and he was a doctor. So I wanted to make sure that I got the right songs for him. So there was a church in Westwood called St. Pauls Church. And I went there with my wife and I listened to songs, and to how they would pray. And they would say -- one of the ministers would say let us pray. I said, what a wonderful title. So I used that as one of the songs. And also 'Change of Habit'. And 'Let Us Pray' was, I think, one of my favorite gospel songs I wrote for Elvis. It was terrific. And 'We Call On Him' was another song which he did a beautiful job on. And I was able to capture what he wanted to hear. Very spiritual gentleman. And people don't realize what a good heart he had. You know, there's too many things about him. Not the right things.
And he was just a good-natured man and loved God. A very, very spiritual man.
Q: Why is Elvis still so popular?
A: You know, Elvis is a phenomenon. We don't have many singers like that anymore. I mean, they're wonderful singers today, but I don't think they reach the statue of Elvis. Because he had that certain magic about him, that comes once in a lifetime. Like you have Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Temple, you know. Very few come along. He had that certain magic about him that you won't find nowadays. He'll live forever.
Ben Weisman's Song Stories
First In Line
'As I look back, it seems like yesterday...in the summer of 1956 I received a call from my music publisher, Jean Aberbach to come to his office to discuss Elvis Presley, a new singer he was about to represent. He asked me to watch the 'Tommy Dorsey Television Show' on which Elvis would be performing. He said, 'Study his style'. Elvis, who had just signed with RCA, was going to be recording an album, and Aberbach wanted me to write for him'.The first song I submitted for the project was entitled 'First In Line' and Elvis recorded it!'
Don't Leave Me Now
'For my next assignment, I received a script called Jailhouse Rock for a new movie that Hal Wallis was going to produce at Paramount, starring Elvis. I soon found out that other writers under contract to my publisher had received the same script. The competition was fierce! 'After my collaborators and I completed the songs, we submitted them to Freddy Bienstock [now the head of a mega-publishing empire], who was in charge of selecting the ones to be sent to Hollywood, where they would be screened for Elvis. 'There were many songs competing for each scene. Finally I got the call from Freddie saying, 'Good News', Don't Leave Me Now is in!'
Got A Lot O' Livin' To Do
'In 1957, I flew to Hollywood to finally meet Elvis. Our meeting was at Paramount Studios where he was recording the soundtrack for his film, Loving You. It was late in the day, and Elvis had already recorded quite a few songs. 'During a break in the session, I noticed Elvis sitting alone in the corner, adlibbing some blues on the guitar. I wandered over to the piano next to him, sat down and joined in. He didn't look up, kept on playing and even changed keys on me, but I followed along. Then he looked up with that smile he was famous for, and asked who I was and what I was doing in the studio? I told him I was invitedto the session and that I composed one of the songs he was about to record called 'Got A Lot O' Livin' To Do'. He immediately called out to his musicians, 'Got A Lot O' Livin' To Do', and they recorded it on the spot.
'During the early period of those sessions, he would get so carried away, he would forget to sing directly into the mike. His close friends, the studio musicians, would start dancing around him, creating a great deal of excitement. It made a tremendous impression on me, and the feeling is still with me today. Little did I know that because of that meeting, I would end up writing fifty-seven songs for Elvis - more than any other songwriter. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined the impact he was about to make on the world.'
'I was so into Elvis that I was always looking forward to the next assignment. The project that came next was a movie called Danny based on Harold Robbins' book, A Stone For Danny Fisher. The story took place in New Orleans, so I immediately did research on the street cries and sounds of that city. 'The first song I submitted was 'Danny' the title song. It was approved by the producer and recorded by Elvis. However, after the film was completed they decided to change the title to King Creole, and 'Danny' was eliminated from the film and putin the 'can' (recordings of unreleased material).
As fate would have it, I changed the title of the tune to 'Lonely Blue Boy' and, to my delight, Conway Twitty recorded it and made it the #1 hit in the country. It sold over a million records. 'Later, fate stepped in again, and the original version of 'Danny' sung by Elvis was released in his Legendary Album #3. To this day, my songs in King Creole are among my favorites'.
Fame And Fortune
'My next meeting with Elvis was in Philadelphia at his last concert before he entered the Army. Backstage, there were police standing by to escort him to his car. Before leaving, he said to me, 'Keep writing those hits'. Emphasizing hisstatement again with that very infectious smile. He was gone for a few years, but during that time I wrote with him in mind - waiting for his discharge. When Elvis returned from the service, he decided to record two of my songs. Oneof them, 'Fame And Fortune', was his first post-Army single release. He introduced it on the 'Frank Sinatra Television Show', which had a record-breaking rating. The people had missed him and loved him more than ever'.
'G.I. Blues' was the first movie Elvis made after leaving the Army. As usual, we all received scripts, and once again the [songwriters] race was on. In this film, Elvis was in the service, stationed in Germany. There was a particular scene in the movie for which I thought it would be fun to write. In it, Elvis, who is in love with his leading lady, tries to convey his feelings to her by becoming the puppeteer at a puppet show, and singing, 'I don't have a wooden heart'. Hence the song 'Wooden Heart'. (An interesting side note: the big hit version of 'Wooden Heart' was sung by Joe Dowell, because RCA decided not to release Elvis'version in the U.S.)'
Summer Kisses, Winter Tears
'Summer Kisses, Winter Tears' was written for Elvis' movie Flaming Star. It was a lovely ballad written to be sung by Elvis to his leading lady during a love scene. Unfortunately, the powers-that-be decided to have him sing it to a group of Indian sitting around a campfire smoking a peace pipe! At the preview, the audience broke into laughter when the scene occurred, and I don't blame them. As a result, the song was cut from the film. Over twenty years later in 1992, as fate would have it again, Elvis' recording was released in a Wim Wenders' film entitled 'Until The End Of The World', directed by David Lynch'.
'Music for the film Blue Hawaii was a challenge. Because of the locate, I thought the music should have a Hawaiian flavor, but with a rock beat. At the time, the twist was very hot, and I found that the twist and the hula were perfect together. Out of that combination 'Rock-A-Hula Baby' was born'.
Follow That Dream
'Follow That Dream' was one of my favorite songs because of its upbeat message. It seems Bruce Springsteen, who is a big Elvis fan, agrees with me, because it is also one of his favorite Elvis songs. He sings his version of it at many of his concerts'.
'I had just moved to Los Angeles, when I received a call from the producer of It Happened At The World's Fair to write a rousing song for the closingscene of the movie. It had to be ready overnight and recorded the next day! This was one of the rare 'Elvis' assignments without competition. Why? Because I wasthe only songwriter living in Los Angeles! So 'Happy Ending' closed the film in a marching band sequence'.