Major Bill Saw Elvis

July 21, 2015

 Paul and Paula (Ray Hildebrand & Jill Jackson) writers/singers of Hey Paula., produced by Major Bill Smith. The record sold more than 2 million worldwide. 

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The record business was full of characters at all levels; Phil Spector was considered crazy long before he shot that lady in the face, but he was also a genius producer.  Major Bill Smith, was strange and funny, but also had achieved a modicum of success.

 

In the early 60’s he produced hit records titled: "Hey Paula" ( recorded by Paul and Paula), "Hey Baby," (Bruce Chanel) and "Last Kiss," (J. Frank Wilson), the latter an ode to early teen death. All of these tunes were successful on Top 40 Radio at the time, and established the Major as a  player in the business.  But then the hits dried up.

 

It’s not that he didn’t keep trying, when I first met him in the late 60’s he’d be haunting radio stations bringing new records that he’d always proclaim were, ‘Cotton Pickin’ hits.’  Everyone played along but he couldn’t get airplay to save his life, and his frustration was evident, he did not look happy.

 

 

 

The "Major" in Major Bill Smith was his rank when he left the service and he just kept it, much like Colonel Tom Parker, who’s title was Honorary from Governor Jimmie Davis of Louisiana used his. 

 

Anyway, Major Bill faced a real problem, how to come up with new hits; one day I saw him and he excitedly told me that he’d discovered the problem was, Stereo…"I'm going back to Mono,' he exclaimed; but it really didn’t help.  So years passed, and we’d still run into Major Bill at various radio stations, always with a new, ‘Cotton Pickin’ smash.’

 

And then he saw Elvis.

 

It was at some event in a posh hotel, probably an awards ceremony, when I exited the Rest Room and was grabbed by Major Bill, no longer a spring chicken but still wearing his pork pie hat.

 

 

Major Bill, sans pork pie hat

 

"Sundeen, I've got to talk to you," he whispered, dragging me into a corner.  "I just saw Elvis, Vernon called me from a hotel and asked me to come up to a certain room, and when he opened the door, there was Elvis about 300 pounds, wearing Bib Overalls, and playing the piano."

 

Well, the King had been in the ground for quite awhile and I expressed a certain amount of doubt.  But the Major interrupted me and said he's cut a new record, and I’m going to release it on my label, Le Cam, soon. I didn’t know what to say, and I had to get back to the table, so I told him that was very exciting and to please keep me informed.

 

Bruce Channel, Hey Baby

   

I’d pretty much forgotten about it until I was checking into a hotel in St. Louis one day and turned the TV on with, I think, Merv Griffin, and sitting in front of him with his signature hat was, Major Bill Smith.  I turned up the volume and there he was telling America that Elvis was alive, and he had an album to prove it…I was breathless.

 

The host was very skeptical but Major Bill doubled down and said he’d try to arrange for Elvis to do an interview there if he could, but for obvious reasons the obese Mr. Presley was shy about being seen in public.  It was about a month of so later that I once again ran into the Major in a radio station, and he had a 45 rpm record that had Elvis Presley on the label, only it looked kind of home made.

 

I imagine you can see how this is going to turn out, radio wouldn’t play the record and the guys at RCA, Presley's old label, were getting apoplectic. There was the strange scene of a guy in a suit on TV saying, of course Elvis is dead and this is upsetting the family.

                                                        

I think that may have been why the Major suddenly backed off, he did know the family, and I think realized he was hurting Priscilla and especially the young, Lisa Marie. He never admitted to it; but eventually the Elvis Impersonator, Johnny Herrera, fessed up in an interview, and basically said he had thought it was a gag, and had no idea what the Major was up to. 

 

I never saw Major Bill Smith again and when I saw his obit in the paper considered going to the funeral, but then I thought: No. Let Major Bill explain his actions to Elvis and Vernon in Rock and Roll Heaven.

 

Thank you, thank you very much - Johnny Herrera, Elvis Impersonator

 

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