In 1955, I was in New York and received a phone call from Hank Snow. He was coming to New York and had something interesting to discuss with me. So we had lunch, and he told me he found it impossible to go on the road alone. He had to go with a complete ensemble, playing for the biggest audiences he'd ever entertained. On the road he saw a singer who performed without a cowboy uniform. The singer worked in a white shirt and black pants, with a guitar, and he was so popular that the girls chased him off the stage. Hank said his name was Elvis Presley. Very shortly after that luncheon, I flew to Las Vegas.
I saw Eddie Arnold and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in a setting in which they were sitting at separate tables. I immediately knew something was wrong. I found out that they had broken up. So I told Parker about Elvis Presley and that I would go to Louisiana the next week to check him out. I went to Shreveport the following week, where Elvis appeared on the "Louisiana Hayride" television program. I found him to be absolutely phenomenal.
At that time, Elvis had an exclusive contract with Sun Records that made it impossible to do any business with him. Sun had two music publishing companies, one called Knox Music and the other, Hilo, which furnished songs for Elvis to record. He also had a manager, Bob Neal, who did all of his booking. Though I couldn't work with Elvis then, Bob Neal told me he was doing very well in three states: Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana. But he needed more important bookings and asked me to help. I told Colonel Parker about my conversation with Bob Neal and he started booking Elvis. He also got very friendly with the Presley family. One year later, we were able to make the following deal: I told Steve Sholes to get funding from RCA Records; with great difficulty and nervousness about the outcome, he got permission to buy out Elvis' Sun Records contract from Sam Phillips for $40,000. So Elvis became an RCA Victor recording artist with the contract done by our attorney Ben Star. The second contract was between Elvis and Col. Parker, and was to last the duration that Elvis was an RCA Victor recording artist (which was pretty much forever). The contract stipulated that Col. Parker would receive 25% of all income generated by Elvis Presley. The third contract established a music publishing company in which 50% of the shares belonged to Elvis, 25% belonged to my brother, and the remaining 25% to me. At the signing, Elvis received $2500 and promptly went and bought a Cadillac.
After that, Elvis was recorded by RCA and the phenomenon started. "Love Me Tender" was the first song recorded and it was an instant winner. Col. Parker secured a movie contract with Hal Wallis and Joe Hazen, who turned Elvis over to the Fox Picture Company. Elvis starred in a film also called Love Me Tender; it, too, was an enormous hit. From that point on Elvis Presley had hit after hit. A year later there was a standing order for 1 million records per album from the RCA distributors.
At that time I put my cousin Freddy Bienstock in charge of Elvis Presley Music. He did a brilliant job and went on to become one of the world's most important independent music publishers. I also hired his brother, John Bienstock, who proved himself by creating a group of hit songs. Today he owns his own music publishing company and still works closely with his brother.
My brother and I organized groups of songwriters for Elvis' motion pictures (he made 31 of them). Freddy Bienstock was very helpful in getting the best people to write for us, bringing in writers like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The songwriters were handed the scripts, with places marked for songs. Then Freddy would present the songs to Elvis, who made the final selections for recording. This was a phenomenally successful enterprise; even today, the royalties are 10 times what they were when Elvis died.
In addition to the movies, Col. Parker took Elvis on a tour of 40 concerts, all of which were for sold-out crowds. He also secured two months of appearances in Las Vegas at the American Hotel, always in February and August. Invariably, I would go and talk to Elvis about things we wanted to do together in the future. We had a great, close, personal and professional relationship.