MANAGING THE HILLBILLY CAT
This interview took place in June 1973 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rockville International interviewed Bob Neal, one of Elvis Presley's first managers, in the offices of his Bob Neal Talent & Booking Agency in Music City USA. Welcomed at the reception by Bob's lovely wife and after some small talk about Holland, wooden shoes and tulips she introduced us to her husband who, after a firm handshake, offered us a seat and invited us to get the questions rolling.
Looking at your office I see a strong African motive with spears, drums and hides on the wall, not at all what I expected to see in the office of a manager and booking agent.
Oh the reason for the decoration of our offices goes way, way back. I was born in the Congo of Africa on October 6th, 1917. My parents were missionaries and as a youngster I traveled back and forth between Africa and Europe and later America many times. One time I actually stayed in Brussels, Belgium for over two months.
How did you become interested in music ?
My mother liked classical music a lot but I did not have a great interest in music while growing up. Like many other kids I took piano-lessons and while in college I joined the chorus-club, but that was about it. Then after I finished college I went into radio. I was a deejay. In fact at that time, it was before they called them deejay, back in 1939 you were an announcer or a newscaster or whatever. I was in radio for a number of years settling in Memphis in 1942 and I stayed there until 1958 and most of that time was in radio. In the late forties I started doing an early morning program on WMPS Radio featuring country music.
What kind of music had you been playing before that time ?
When I first got into radio in 1939, basically the music that we used then was just general music; a bit of pop music, some classical music, a few country programs. When I started this specialized program in 1948, called "The Bob Neal Farm Program", I played country music entirely. The program relied basically on the requests of listeners as to the guidance of the music to play. I did that program from 1948 until 1956. Consequently becoming more and more familiar with country music and more found of it all the time. The reaction to the program was very good and I started occasionally doing some little shows within a 100 or 150 miles range of Memphis. I would take some local people, and every now and then some Nashville musicians like Johnny and Jack, Kitty Wells or Bill Carlisle, and I set up arrangements for them to play at a Highschool auditorium, a Gymnasium or a Ballpark or something. I would plug the shows on my radio program and I'd go out and be the host and MC and so on.
I understand everything was rather small until you decided to take a chance and organized a country show in Memphis at the Auditorium. The first show did quite well and more shows followed but your biggest success came after a phone call from Sam Phillips, right ?
Yes, Sam phoned me and said he had this new boy who just had a record out and would I put him on a show. I agreed with Sam and so I got Elvis on a show on August 10th, 1954. He got a tremendous reaction, which really amazed me, because he had just started. Then a couple of months after that I was thinking one day and asked Elvis had he got a manager. He said "No" and well I said I've never been a manager but let's try it. So I was his manager for about a year and a half.
While managing Elvis you got a good look at the Sun Record Company and you worked with Sam Phillips before in radio. How do you recall the SUN days ?
Sam Phillips is credited with discovering a different sound but he had been a radio engineer prior to that time and I know we had done some things on radio programs in Memphis on commercials where we used the electronic-slap-back-type-sound and everything. Sam more or less was the first one that really capitalized on that sound on his recordings. He was also fortunate enough to see people like Elvis and Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins knocking at his door. It was like everything fitted together and clicked at the same time. Ofcourse a lot of people have criticized Sam about the way he drove the company business wise. He was not quite as good a merchandiser or salesman as he could have been, because with the material he had at that time, if he had had the imagination and sales concepts that some other record people have, Sun Records might have become a big record company instead of reaching a peak and sort of staying there and dropping off.
What are your views on the fall of SUN in 1963 ?
Well Sam seemed to loose interest. In the later Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee days, as I recall, he seemed to loose interest to a great extend in the recordings. He had Jack Clement working with him and Jack carried the ball a lot of times. Sam was involved in various other projects and investments and he just didn't seem to have a great deal of interest in the record business anymore. For what ever reason I don't know but it just looked like it had fascinated him for a while and then it just seemed that he got interested in other things.
Do you think that he one man type record company, where he was in control of the recordings, the pressing, the administration etc., contributed to his success ?
Yes it contributed to his success but then like I said a moment ago I think it also kept his company from becoming a huge strong company. Sam is the type, and always was, that believed in doing everything himself or supervising everything. He never thought in concepts of becoming like an RCA or Columbia or Mercury or anybody else, where you have a large number of people that have delegated authority and run the shop themselves. I think Sam always wanted to be the whole ball of wax, which possibly was the reason that Sun Records did not expand, and later on folded.
You worked with Elvis as his manager for about a year and a half when a certain Tom Parker came into the picture. When Parker took over the management of Elvis there actually still was a contract between you and Presley was there not?
Yes I had a contract with Elvis and when, through part of my efforts, Parker got interested we had a partnership agreement. You see I was doing quite well with my radio program in Memphis. We had a record store, a large family and I didn't really ... well I felt that Elvis was going to be very big, and I didn't want to get into the picture of being gone from town all the time. So I preferred to stay there and more or less then turned everything over to the Colonel with no.... I mean it was a friendly relationship all the way.
Are you still following Presley's career ?
Yes and I think the Colonel has done a tremendous job with Elvis. I possibly would differ a little bit with the ways he's gone down the line as far as concerts go. Elvis always is very found of performing for a live audience and I think possibly instead of keeping him away from an audience for so long I might have felt that it would have been better to be back with a live audience every now and then. However who is to argue with success, because apparently it's worked tremendously well and since he has come out to do live shows again everything is a sell-out .... so like I said who is to argue with success.
The unreleased Presley Sun tracks is a subject which always jumps up when rock & roll collectors talk about Elvis and Sun Records. What can you tell us about any recordings Elvis made for SUN ?
I was involved in working on that because the interest in Elvis was growing rapidly. At first when people talked to Sam it was a fairly moderate amount of money. I recall one time being on tour with Elvis out in Texas, when Mitch Miller, who was in with CBS, called, and asked about what the price was. And I told him since I had nothing to do with the record company I would simply find out and call him back. I think Sam at that time said he wanted $ 18.000 and I called Mitch and he laughed and laughed, because back at that time in the early fifties they were not making fantastic record deals and putting out a lot of money. Then later Colonel Parker worked on it with RCA and finally got the deal okay and they paid $ 35.000 for the complete masters, tapes and everything plus a $ 5.000 bonus that went to Elvis for signing. So back at that time in late 1955 that was considered a real big deal. Sam was happy with it because he had never had a lot of money or capital and that gave him some capital to operate with and to build and to make some investments and so fort for the future.
Do you know any reason why RCA is still denying that they have the Presley tapes ?
Well no, because that was part of the deal, of the contract. They bought everything... all the tapes... the masters... demos..it was all to be delivered to RCA.
After Elvis went with Parker you went back to radio but eventually you started organizing country shows and ended up in the managing end of the business and became involved with Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and also Carl Perkins. He is one of you favorites I understand.
Carl is a wonderful person. I met him about the same time I met Johnny Cash back in Memphis and that was about the time he came out with "Blue Suede Shoes". He was always a very pleasant person, a fine showman and a very likable person. I've always had a high admiration for him. I think he is one of the most underrated performers and writers in country, country-rock, rockabilly or whatever you might call it. Down through the years I think he has had more recognition overseas then he has here at home, which is ... you know, it's great that he's received recognition but he's not been nearly as popular here at home as I think he could have been, and I don't know the reasons. Basically I think it's just that when he came into the rock area, back there with "Blue Suede Shoes", the only thing that I've ever thought was possibly a reason is that Carl didn't go the route of being the pretty boy rock type thing that so many of the performers came along to at that time. Like Frankie Avalon and others that really didn't have the talent and everything but they got TV-exposure and the image type thing that Carl just never fitted into ... he was just Carl Perkins !
Wouldn't it have helped him if he had not been the friendly type of person he is. I mean from the first minute you meet him he is your friend, and in the record business you just cannot be friends with everybody....
That's true, if Carl would have been like other people I know, more demanding and pushing harder and so fort, it's possible that could have made a difference. Ofcourse he had a tremendous bad break too at that time as far as exposure is concerned when he had the huge record of "Blue Suede Shoes" going and went to New York to do the Perry Como Show and he had the car accident. When we went back and did the Perry Como Show it was good but this was several months later when the record had died off you know. There is so much involved in music whether it's pop, country or rock where the element of timing gets into it you see and if Carl had been able to get the exposure at that time I think it would have been tremendously strong. In the meantime Presley had recorded the song and as a matter of fact on many jukeboxes around the country (because Presley had the image of having the screaming kids after him) Carl's record would be on the juke-box but the juke-box operators labeled it Elvis Presley. Simply because they thought they would get more plays that way. So possibly the wreck may have been something, being more demanding might have been another and you know it's just unfortunate because Carl is such a wonderful person and such a fine person... it's just a shame that he hasn't received the recognition that I think he deserves.
What do you specifically like about the music business ?
I don't know, I guess I just like the business as a whole. I've always found it very interesting, it's always exciting to find a new artist that has promise and that you can push. It was exciting to work with Presley in the old days and it still is to work with a professional artist like Sonny James. It was exciting to work with an artist who is a little bit different like Johnny Cash and it still is today with Tom T. Hall. It was exciting to work with a talented guy like Carl Perkins and it still is with Johnny Rodriquez. It's rewarding and interesting and I've always enjoyed being involved in the business.