Elvis Presley in Vegas: Righteous Brother Bill Medley remembers quiet times with the King

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Baz Lurhmann's “Elvis” was one of the top movies in the country over the weekend, further proof of the American public's fascination with the King.

Fans can't get enough of the music, the mystery and the rags-to-riches story of the man who changed the world. But what was Elvis really like? Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers knows. The two became close when both were performing at the Las Vegas Hilton in the early '70s.

“I think he was kind of a lonely guy, and right when he passed away I think he was really trying to figure out what was going on and what the hell happened to him at the age of 19, becoming the biggest thing in the world,” Medley said. “I think he was now trying to step back, 'Wow, what does all this mean?' ”

Elvis Presley, shown in 1956 at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
Elvis Presley, shown in 1956 at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

Presley passed away on Aug. 16, 1977, at the age of 42. Medical examiners found 14 drugs in his system, including codeine and morphine.

Drug usage, of both the legal and illegal variety, continues to vex musicians, including those the Righteous Brothers sang about in their 1974 hit “Rock and Roll Heaven.” 

“Look back at all those artists, drugs would be in there somewhere, drugs or booze,” Medley said. “Entertainers, even those who come off as real glamorous and this and that, we’re all very insecure. We want to be loved so you go on stage and you roll the biggest dice of your life because you're really afraid of all those people. You want to be loved by them but you’re afraid to approach them to get love. I think drugs and booze became the way of softening up the blow of going up on stage, and I think you get addicted and it becomes a part of your life.”

Bucky Heard and Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers.
Bucky Heard and Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers.

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Medley, except for three months of marijuana in the early '70s, did not partake. He and Bobby Hatfield racked up the blue-eyed souls hits with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,”  “Just Once in My Life,” “Unchained Melody” and  “(You're My) Soul and Inspiration” in the '60s.

Elvis was a fan and used to see the group's shows. When Medley went solo in the '70s, the King asked the Hilton to bring him over to the hotel where Elvis was having his multi-year run, much of which is depicted in the new movie.

“We just became real close friends, and I had a lot of one on one time with Elvis. A lot of people didn’t get one on one time with Elvis because all the boys and people would be around,” Medley said. “But he would call me in my dressing room and ask for me to come to his dressing room before the show, his 12 o'clock show. I would go down and it would be just Elvis, Elvis' hair dresser and myself, and we’d talk about 20 minutes and it was great.”

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The two could relate as small-town guys who made the big time. Both are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“(Elvis) was two different guys," said Medley, 81. "There’s always two different guys for a lot of us performers. If there’s a lot of people around, you kind of rise to the occasion and you have to become Bill Righteous. And when you’re alone or one on one with somebody, it’s Bill Medley.  He was real sweet, amazing and great to me — and great to a lot of people.”

“Elvis” is in movie theaters now.

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Chris Jordan, a Jersey Shore native, covers entertainment and features for the USA Today Network New Jersey. Contact him at @chrisfhjordan; cjordan@app.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Elvis Presley in Vegas: Righteous Brother Bill Medley was there