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David Briggs

Martin Kloster met with Elvis' former piano player David Briggs while he visited Denmark to play two shows in December 2006.

Martin Kloster (MK): Why did you choose to play the piano?
David Briggs (DB): My mother made me! No, I started out playing drums and a little guitar and I really wasn't that good on either one of them. And I really wanted to play drums, really. My mother made me take piano lessons as a kid. So when we started the Muscle Shoals rhythm section I played guitar in a couple of bands. But everybody wanted to play guitar and they played better than me. So I played piano because nobody else could. I didn't intend to be a piano player. It just happened that way.

MK: You started out as a session musician as a teenager. Why so early?
DB: I was about 14. Well, see I played in a band and went into a studio and did our track and the guy who was the engineer and producer there in the studio liked the way I played and he started hiring me for sessions. I was young, they had to come and get me in a car and drop me off for sessions for two years. At the time it was a lot of money. $5 an hour. That was in the 50's. So that was a lot of money then. Yeah, I did it because it was fun. And I wasn't any good!

MK: And then what?
DB: There weren't many people there who played piano. That's the thing about it. I was almost the only one who knew anything about it. There was one other guy that played piano and he wasn't that good.

MK: In 1966 Floyd Cramer (Elvis' former session piano player) was late for a session and you were chosen to play. Do you remember that?
DB: Oh yes! Very well. I was a substitute. I was just hired really in case Elvis came in early before Floyd came. That's what happened. I was really a hired substitute for Floyd. Chet Atkins (Elvis' producer at the time) approved it. And Floyd approved it. He just happened to come early and I stepped in. That was thrilling. 

MK: Then you just stood there and saw Elvis in person for the very first time. And you once said: "I was shaken in my boots when I met Elvis." How come?
DB: Well, because at the time he was the biggest artist in the world. And I was new in town. I came there in December 1964. So I had been there for about a year. I played with a lot of rock'n'roll stars at Muscle Shoals, but nobody like Elvis. So it was a nerve-racking experience. Especially being there taking someone's place like Floyd Cramer's who was one of my favourite piano players. 

MK: Do you remember what Elvis said to you when he met you in the studio?
DB: Well, I think the first I heard him say was: "Where is Floyd?"

MK: And what did you say?
DB: I didn't say anything! Somebody said: "Floyd had another session, he's gonna be here later and we got this guy here to stand in. He was nice to me. Shook my hand and said, "Let's gotta work". And we ended up sitting down and started on "Love Letters." I was on the session and he and I figured out all the changes to it. That was the first time I met Elvis. And then he sat down at the piano with me as we rehearsed it. So I was kind of nervous! I had all the pressure and it was all piano. If you listen to that song there are nothing but piano, bass and a little bit of drums and the guitar just playing a chord and a little organ.

MK: And he liked you?
DB: Yeah, he must have liked me because he used me later quite a bit.

MK: You worked for Elvis for 11 years?
DB: Yes. From the time this was in 1966, I did some of the movie things and something in Vegas when he asked me to come. He wanted me to come and play on "Promised Land."

MK: Being on tour with Elvis. How was it? 
DB: I enjoyed it. I used it to get sane and actually had more time.

MK: How come?
DB: I worked three or four sessions a day, all the time. It was a rest for me because instead of work all of a sudden I had a lot of free time. All we had to do was show up 30 minutes before Elvis came. So all of a sudden I had nothing do in the daytime. So I started work out and exercising a lot and it was good for me in a healthy way. I got a lot of rest when I worked on the road.

MK: Is it true that Elvis paid you $3,000 a week?
DB: He actually paid me a bit more than that.

MK: Can I ask how much?
DB: He paid me $3,500 a week minimum. It was pretty good. Everybody in the band was paid different. I think James Burton got $4,000 a week.

MK: Why do you think Elvis wanted his musicians to play all those solo numbers during the concerts?
DB: I think it gave him two things. It gave him a break and a little time to rest. And it gave him a way to introduce everybody. 

MK: Wasn't it also because he was too sick to be on stage?
DB: No, I think he needed to rest. Like anybody does. He usually did it after all the medleys and all the fast moving stuff and the karate things. So it gave him a chance to rest. He didn't allow anybody to play solos. The solos were basically played by James, Glen (D. Hardin) and me. And Ronnie Tutt would do a little drum thing. And the rest of them he just introduced them. But he liked the crap and that's why he let me play. I played crazy stuff. And I could make effects for his karate movements with all my machines. He loved that shit! So I did all the karate effects for him.

MK: Are you proud of your years with Elvis?
DB: Oh yeah, it was fun! 

MK: What did Elvis say to you if you met him backstage or after the show?
DB: We didn't see him a lot backstage except for Vegas. Usually when you're on the road like in a "normal" city we didn't see him. But in Vegas we saw him every night. There was a little area by the dressing room where everybody could come and see him. I have seen a lot of big stars like Cary Grant and people like that. I was there when Barbra Straisand tried to get him that part (in the movie "A Star Is Born"). I got to know a lot of people just to be around him.

MK: Did you like Elvis' jumpsuits?
DB: I don't have an opinion about it.

MK: Why?
DB: It's just a showman thing and I didn't think anything about it really.

MK: It seems like only Elvis could wear these jumpsuits?
DB: Yeah. He's probably the only one that has gotten away with it. 

MK: Why do you think that?
DB: Because he was Elvis. Mr. Charisma. 

MK: Tell us more about that charisma
DB: Well, it's hard to explain to anybody who hasn't met him. He was so charismatic. He was a very magnetic guy. You got used to it after a while when you where around him. But I didn't get used to it for years. It was only in the last couple of years before he died when I was at his house seven days a week when we did all the recordings that I got used to it.

MK: Was he a "one in a million guy"?
DB: I think he was. I have never met an entertainer that was that exciting or inspiring. But I was some sort of a fan anyway. So if I haven't had liked him I might not have felt that way. I worked with a lot of big stars but I never had one I have enjoyed working with that much.

MK: Is there a special night you remember on tour?
DB: Not that I can tell! They were all exciting. Every night was pretty much fun. I enjoyed it. Because it was easy. It was easy work. They came to see him, they didn't come to see us. We had to show up and play and smile.

MK: It is no secret that you had a romantic relationship with Elvis' girlfriend at the time, Linda Thompson. It lasted two and a half years, right?
DB: Three years, I think.

MK: Are you still friends today?
DB: Yeah. We wrote some songs together. A Kenny Rodgers' cut and a Lionel Richie cut. She's a great lyricist. She's turned out to be a great writer. She gets about $1 million a year from Warner Brothers as a writer now. More than I get! 

MK: The romance you had with Linda. Did Elvis know about it?
DB: Well, actually that was coming at the end of their relationship. And actually he put me with her. The way I got to know her he introduced me to her. And when we were in town like San Francisco he couldn't go out and he would send me to send her out. He would ask me: "Would you take her out somewhere?" He would send the limo and everything. So he actually put us together. We were friends first and you know it just started. It just happened naturally.

MK: Was it a deep relationship?
DB: Pretty deep, yeah.

MK: You have played for a lot of famous artists. Who was Elvis compared to all the others?
DB: I don't know. That's a hard question. I just think he was the most exciting. I enjoyed working with a lot of other people. One of my favourite people I ever worked with was Dean Martin only because I was kind of a fan of his too. And I know Elvis was a fan of his. He is probably second to Elvis.

MK: What is the best memory you have of Elvis?
DB: The best memory...? This is not long before he died I guessed it was January or February 1977. He just got three new motorcycles and he said: "I want you to go out and ride on these things." And it was like nine degrees outside. And he didn't even have a coat on. He had a shirt on and was undone. It was cold like hell. And Tony Brown came out. And I said: "If I go you have to have Tony go also." And he said "okay" and it was a three-wheeler and I got behind Elvis. And we go down that drive and Uncle Vester's down there operating the gate. And Elvis knows how long it takes to get there. It's still five in the morning and there were hundreds of people down there screaming and we go down the driveway and the motorcycle just scream in and Vester's trying to open the gate in time and jumping around scared. I was sweating and Tony Brown was scared too as we thought we couldn't get through there in time and Elvis was just laughing! I can still see him: His hair was flying. His shirt was open and he was looking back and laughing and all the fans were taken these pictures. We roll around, it was cold like shit, but after a while you get used to it and didn't notice that we rode round about two hours. That's one of my best memories of him.

MK: When was the last time you saw Elvis?
DB: I guess it was two or three months after the motorcycle thing. 

MK: August 16, 1977. Do you remember the news?
DB: Yeah. I was in my office and Linda called me and I went down there, Tony Brown and me, I sat in the living room with Felton (Jarvis) the first night beside his casket. 

MK: Was it a big shock?
DB: It was a shock for you never thought he was going to die. But I've been on road with him that year before and he was looking pretty bad. So we were afraid something could happen to him. So yeah. It was still a shock. I felt really bad. He was good to me.

MK: Can you tell us about a secret you and Elvis had when you made those recordings at Graceland?
DB: I knew the house well as I was there a lot. I knew how to hide my vodka!

MK: What do you mean?
DB: He didn't care. Elvis knew. They had rules that nobody could drink. But I could and Elvis knew I could and he said I could. And he said: "Don't let anybody see you". So I kept vodka down in the den, in one bathroom in the commode, kept it in the room where the pool table was over in the corner behind those curtains and in the hall. Elvis knew it was there. Nobody else did. Nobody else knew I was drinking. 

MK: Only Elvis?
DB: He didn't care. He knew that I wouldn't have been there if I couldn't drink. Because in those days I liked to drink.

MK: And today David you only play the piano. Thanks for the chat!

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