Interview by Arjan Deelen
"On the drums from Dallas, Texas, is hard-working Ronnie Tutt", is how Elvis usually introduced Ronnie on stage, but I don't think that any kind of introduction is really necessary for our readers. Not only did he play drums for Elvis from 1969 to 1977, but he's also a highly regarded session-drummer that has worked with the likes of Neil Diamond, Gram Parsons, Jerry Garcia and Elvis Costello. The following interview was conducted on March 25th of this year in Randers, Denmark.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I started at about the age of three, singing to the record player and the radio, you know. My mother put me in dancing lessons right away. I started playing instruments... I think my first instrument was a ukelele, which is a great little instrument. And I went from that to four-string guitar and violin. When I started school, I started playing trumpet, and I played trumpet all the way to my senior high school. I switched over to drums when I was 17 or 18 years old.
What appealed you in playing drums?
I'd been a dancer all my life. When I was three I started dancing. So the rhythm of everything was more important to me than the melodic. I was frustrated with playing trumpet and guitar, because I wanted to express myself rhythmically. It was a very easy transition.
What kind of music styles were you listening to?
Oh, I grew up playing all kinds of pop music, and country music, the real old country & western and western-swing.The first band I ever played with was a western-swing band. It had some very famous American players in it, so I was very fortunate to start out with a good band. And then I went from that to dixieland, to jazz, played classical music... I mean, I've played a lot of different kinds of music.
What did you think of Elvis Presley in those days?
In 1956, I was playing with the western-swing band I told you about, and we were the house-band for a band that was playing at the Northside Coliseum in Forth Worth. They had a radio-show much like the Louisiana Hayride, so every Saturday night we'd drive over to Fort Worth. One Saturday night, I had my girlfriend with me, and they told us this young guy named Elvis Presley was coming that night. And sure enough, in comes Elvis with Scotty and Bill, no drums. Elvis looked his typical way as he did in '56, and I didn't like him for two reasons: One, my girlfriend went crazy (laughs). Two, he borrowed our guitarplayer's beautiful old Martin D-18 classic guitar after he'd already destroyed all the strings on his, and he just trashed it, marked up all the wood on it, you know. So we thought: "Ah, this guy is just... ". I told him that story later on when I met him. But I was never really a big fan of his until 1969, and I met him. Once you meet him and you understand the charisma that the man had, you just can't help but love what he does. We immediatly had a great rapport. Visually, our eyes were constantly watching eachother.
I heard that you were competing with the staff-drummer of Motown at that audition in '69.
Oh yeah, everyone... I was sinking slower and slower in the chair as the night went on, because I didn't even think I was going to get a chance to audition. My friend Larry Muhoberac was playing keyboards (for Elvis), and we were both running a studio in Dallas, and we both wanted to move to the West-Coast to be session-players. He said basically: "I know we're gonna start auditioning drummers, and if they can't find somebody, I'll be happy to put your name in. I'll throw your name in the hat". I said: "Yeah, great!". So, sure enough, one Friday he called up and said: "Ronnie, we're gonna send you a ticket. We've been auditioning drummers for two weeks. Can you get on a flight tomorrow night?". So I take my drums, haul 'em on the airplane, and there I go. I set them up, this drummer walks in, goes to my drums and starts playing around, thinking they are a rental. They were my own drums, you know. And he starts playing, and somebody says: "Hey, that's that guy's set". So he says: "Hey man, is it okay if I play your drums?". And I said: "Well, I guess so". As the evening started, they'd play a song, and I could see everybody going: "Yeah, we found the guy!". And I'm sinking slower and slower in the chair, thinking: "There's no way I'm gonna get a chance to play". They all stopped the song, and started packing their instruments. So Larry goes over to Colonel Parker and says: "You know, this guy that you just bought a ticket for, he's right over there". And that got his attention, because it cost some money! (laughs). The Colonel went over to Elvis, and I could tell they were all reluctant to play more. But they did, and...
What was Elvis' involvement like on those auditions?
He was very active. It was his idea to have a band behind him like that. No one had had that kind of a band, and had singers the way he had it. It was a dream. He had the vision in a dream. He told me that. It was something that he wanted to do, and he told Colonel Parker that that's exactly what he wanted to do. The Colonel said "no", because he wanted Elvis to go on there with dancing girls, like the '68 special. But Elvis said: "I've done enough of those stupid movies. I don't want any more part of that. I just had this dream. I wanted a hard driving rhythm section, a rock 'n' roll band, a big orchestra in the back, but no dancing, but all singing, with a black soul group and a white gospel group". So he called the Colonel up in the middle of the night, and said: "This is what I want to do". And the Colonel said: "No, no, no". Elvis told me: "That's the only time I ever hung up on the Colonel. I said: 'We're gonna do that, or I'm not going to Las Vegas', and I hung up". So he won! (laughs)
When you went to the auditions, did you go with an idea of what your drumming should be like, and did you listen to Elvis' earlier drummers?
No, not at all. Never. He wanted me to do what I did.
What do you think made you get the job?
Well, number one, I think it was my own understanding of being a competent studio player, and I'd done a lot of R&B playing in Memphis with all the great rhythm sections. All that experience was good. But more than that - because this drummer from Motown was good - it wasn't just a matter of expertise, but a matter of rapport. It was a matter of sensing, and watching his eyes, and watching everything he did. I emulated and accented everything that he did just instinctively. Every move, almost like a glorified stripper! And he loved that. And that's why no matter who would play with him - a few other drummers had to play for other reasons through the years - he was never happy because of that reason, no matter how great they were. And they were some great players, Larry Londin included.
The players in Elvis' rhythm section all came from very different backgrounds. How did you "connect"?
It was instantly connection. It was something about the energy. The difference in the musical styles made it an interesting contrast. I don't know how to describe it, but it worked.
Do you remember Opening Night?
Yeah, I'll never forget it. It was the most important thing that he'd ever done, obviously. It was all going to be recorded. RCA had the remote truck there. That's part of that album, FROM MEMPHIS TO VEGAS / FROM VEGAS TO MEMPHIS.
RCA made those recordings later on in the month, but what was it like on Opening Night?
The energy was incredible. He was like a cat let out of a cage. Like a big cat, a panther. He had such energy and power. It was an amazing thing. Unfortunately, it never got transmitted to recording. They never captured that kind of energy that the man had. 'cause we'd go down and listen. We couldn't wait till the show was over to go down and listen to the tracks. Later on, we were so discouraged because of the fact that the Colonel was responsible for messing up those tracks. They'd put Elvis' vocal like 70% of the sound, and the rhythm section way down. Elvis didn't know enough about producing to understand why his records really didn't have that power and energy that he felt. Because he stood right in front of me so that he could feel the power and energy from the drums all the time. Even when we recorded in a studio, he'd take the microphone off the stand and go over and stand in front of me. He'd stand in the middle of the musicians. He was really a purist when it came to that, you know.
What did you think of Elvis as a musician?
Well, I didn't have much respect for his musicianship as a person that played an instrument, but as a singer I had a lot of respect for him. He had a very powerful voice, and he was very rhythmical. Even while doing this new project, ELVIS THE CONCERT, I learned to rely more on his rhythm and his feel for music, more than anything else. Because we can't hear... I'm listening to a mono track of the TV mix, and sometimes you hear the crowd louder than the rhythm section. So I'm relying more and more on his voice, and I've gained even new respect for his ability to have feel for music.
You were not back for the second Las Vegas engagement in February 1970, and was replaced by Bob Lanning. Why was that?
That's because the Colonel did not let us know. He did not inform us that Elvis would be coming back. One of the first things I did after August of '69 was, I got an opportunity to play on the Andy Williams TV show from Los Angeles. That was a one-year contract for the Mike Post Orchestra. I had a verbal agreement to play. I replaced a great drummer named Jim Gordon through Jerry Scheff's recommendation. Colonel Parker never said a word about having to go back ever again to Vegas. For all we knew, it was a one-time thing. The interesting thing about it is that Elvis always expected his same people. Once he liked what you did and respected you, he had no reason not to think that you would always be there with him. Those were part of the games that happened with his manager.
The second Elvis biography by Peter Guralnick suggests that you couldn't come to a financial agreement with the Colonel's office.
That's not correct at all. Not at all. That was purely a matter of what I just said to you. If they would've said to me: "We're gonna come back here in February", then we would have worked something out. They never let us know, and that's the reason Glen D. left the group. They waited till the last minute. The Colonel guarded Elvis' image so hard and so carefully. Even in the pictures, most of us were always blacked out. The same thing with contacting us for playing. We were individual contractors, we were never considered part of Elvis' entourage. That's the reason Glen D. left after several years. He got tired of waiting around. The Colonel also, I believe, would wait until the last minute to let us know, just hoping that maybe we wouldn't do the job, so that he could tell Elvis: "Oh, they weren't available". I think that's how that rumour got started, you know, like: "He wasn't available, he wanted too much money", or something like that. If we had a great rapport with Elvis: fine. If we didn't: also fine. Jerry Scheff had to leave the country at one time, and went to Canada. We had to hire Emory Gordy to come along and play for a while. Of course Jerry was welcomed back when he made the decision to come, but the Colonel always tried to disassociate. If I may read further into it, I think it was because of the problems they had with Scotty. Scotty was Elvis' manager at one time, and I think the Colonel resented anyone having any influence on Elvis. He wanted to be able to control him.
Around that time, it became quite common that all musicians were given credit on the albums, but Elvis' musicians never did. Was this ever discussed?
We were told that the Colonel didn't want to do that. He only mentioned the singers, because their union requires it to file a contract. The AFFM, where our contracts were filed, does not require you to do that. So therefore, if he didn't have to do it, the Colonel wouldn't do it. So nobody would know that we played with Elvis, unless Elvis introduced us live on stage, on the record itself, or in the film. That's the sad part of that aspect.
It's interesting to note that in my previous interviews with Elvis musicians, none of them has much good to say about the Colonel.
The good thing I can say about the Colonel is that he always did what he said he would do for me, or with me. If we had only worked for a few days, and had a one-month contract, and Elvis was sick or had a throat problem or something, the Colonel would never say: "Well, now that he's sick, we're gonna maybe have to discount, we'll pay you most of it". Never a question of that. It was always: "Here's your cheque for the whole thing". So he was an honourable man when it came to business associations and contractual agreements. And that's the best thing I can say about him. But on the other hand, he was also a difficult man in the sense that... I can count on my hands the times he said 'hello' to me. We'd be walking down the same hallway of a hotel, and he'd just walk right by you like he never saw you. We'd joke about it and say: "drummers are a dime a dozen". When you look at the old picture and look at all the experiences, maybe that was his problem, you know. Maybe he felt like there was only one star, and that's true. We've always laughed about that Elvis could've done the show with ten monkeys, and people would still come to see the show. But there's other people that have another view on those things, and say: "You guys were very much a part of the sound and feel that he had". Those concepts are far beyond a businessman's concept. Only musicians and real appreciaters of what was going on would understand that kind of thing.
You came back in July 1970, and by then the repertoire was shifting more towards ballads. Did you notice any differences?
I honestly don't remember. Some of the things are vague to me, some of them are very clear. I don't remember anything about repertoire at that particular point. I do know that he had a lot of pressure on him to record a lot of songs from a lot of his gofer people that were around him. Everybody had a deal going, and were constantly trying to get him to record their songs. Not necessarily that they were good songs for him. But of course he had the final say, so he had to like it or he wouldn't do it. We were constantly trying to get him to play more rock 'n' roll, but over the years he became more interested in doing more big sounding things. He liked the emotion that it brought forth.
In August 1970, MGM filmed several Las Vegas shows for the TTWII movie. Did the cameras annoy him?
No, I don't think so. I think he had some kind of a premonition that... It could be great to have a documentation of what he was doing at that point in his life. He was far-sided enough to have done two documentaries, instead of trying to do more of those crazy stupid movies that he did, and that he was embarrassed by. I think he was very serious about being an actor, but he never got the chance.
Did he talk about that?
Oh yeah. We were studying karate, and at one time he talked about us doing kind of like a Bruce Lee international thriller, where we'd all be part of the cast. You know, like a guy and his group, kinda like Bruce Lee had with his guys, that went to this big tournament. He was very impressed by that movie. He talked about wanting to do a karate movie, and he was starting to write a script. I saw some pages. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition or reality, but I thought it'd be a great idea. There were quite a few of us involved, you know.
Was there a big difference between playing in Vegas and playing on the road?
Big, big difference. All the difference in the world. He tolerated, and only tolerated, playing in Vegas. The first year was great, and then he became very bored. He was like a caged animal. Because he had this penthouse at the top, and he was like "the prince in the tower", you know. It was very difficult for him to do that. He was too much of a free spirit to be hung in one place and having to do two shows a night. It was very difficult for all of us.
Then why did he keep himself "caged" so much?
Well, that was only a rumour, but there we go back to the Colonel again. The rumour came about in the last few years that the Colonel had tremendous gambling debts in Vegas, and that he constantly manipulated Elvis to come back again and again. I do know in the last year or two that we played Vegas, that Elvis insisted that he only do one show a night. Which was realistic, and which is what he should have done in the first place all those years.
How did the playing itself in Vegas compare to playing on the road?
There was a big difference in the reaction. If you think about it: we're doing a dinner-show in this big showroom, and there's plates clattering, and there's waiters dropping glasses, and people sipping their soup and eating their steaks, and there's a clamour going on, and he's out there singing his heart out, we're trying to reach out to these people. The second show was a big step up, because all that was gone. People were sitting there ready to be entertained. It had a better concert feeling, but it was nowhere compared to the major arenas of the United States, where thousands of people had payed money to sit undevidedly and watch every move we made. You can image the difference in response from people.
Before this interview we discussed that Opening Night in August 1974, where he did a totally different set-list, got disappointed with the feedback and went back to the old format one day later. Do you think the reaction would have been different if he had tried this on the road?
Possibly, but he was a very impetious man. He'd try something once and if he didn't like it, it was gone. He was very impatient when it came to this kind of thing. He was so secure in one way, and yet very insecure - almost like a small boy - in other ways.