September 9, 2022 by Jim Clash | Forbes Magazine
When I was pitched the musician, T.G. Sheppard, I confess that I had no idea who he was. As far as the music part of my beat, I cover classic rock, have interviewed the likes of Grace Slick, Ian Anderson, Roger Daltrey, Art Garfunkel, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, to name a few. But, as I was then told, Sheppard is a country guy, a genre pretty much foreign to me. He had a No. 1 hit on the country charts in 1974, “Devil In The Bottle.” Okay, I thought, that’s interesting. Then, when the public relations person mentioned Sheppard’s long-time friendship with, and mentoring by, Elvis Presley, my ears perked up.
After doing some research, I found Sheppard had not only one No. 1 hit, but more than a dozen on the country charts. He also co-sponsored a NASCAR race team, worked A&R for record companies before becoming a performer, has his own radio gig (The T.G. Sheppard Show on SiriusXM’s Prime Country, Channel 58) and ran away from home at age 15. I was sold.
Sheppard and I got on the phone earlier this week for what was supposed to be a 15-minute call. An hour later, we were still yakking. Following are edited excerpts from that longer conversation focusing on Presley, given the topicality of Tom Hanks’ new Elvis film.
Jim Clash: Let’s discuss Elvis Presley first. How did you two meet?
T.G. Sheppard: At the age of 15, I ran away from home, was sleeping in the alleyways and eating out of garbage cans, literally homeless. One night, I was at a skating rink where my friend worked. I had skated for free, and when I walked outside, all of the lights had been turned off. Two or three Cadillacs pull up, and Elvis gets out from behind the wheel of the lead car, walks right up to me, and asks, “Where are you going?” I was in shock. For God’s sake, Elvis Presley starts talking to a homeless 15- or 16-year-old kid? I told him I was leaving, as the rink was closing for the night. “No way,” he says, “they’re open for me. We skate here all night, play a little game called “Kill.” I’m a man short on my team. Will you take his place?” Are you kidding me?
We go inside, and it was like football on skates, crazy. You could get hurt really bad. We skated until 5 a.m. Elvis then asked if I was hungry, and, of course, in those days, I was always starving. So we get in the car and head to Graceland, pull into the driveway, and again I’m thinking, “Is this really happening?” We had the famous peanut butter and banana sandwich. When I got ready to leave, Elvis asked if I had a ride. I said no, I walked or hitchhiked wherever I went. He said he’d get somebody to drop me wherever I wanted to go, then told me to give him my phone number. I’m thinking, “Yeah, right.” The next day I get a call from Charlie Hodge, who worked for Elvis. Elvis wanted to go to the movies that night, and did I want to go?
Clash: Are you ribbing me?
Sheppard: No, and that was the start of our friendship, which lasted 16 years. He even gave me my first tour bus as a gift so I could get started [in the music business]. Elvis was one of the most down-to-Earth, funny, practical jokers I have ever met.
Clash: Give me an example of a practical joke.
Sheppard: I was sitting in a Memphis theatre one night watching Gene Hackman in “The French Connection,” one of Elvis’ favorite movies. We watched it three times that night, hours and hours. All of a sudden, ice water comes on me from nowhere. I turned around, then Elvis pitched a cup of water in my face. He said I was too quiet and asked if I was okay. I said, “I am now [laughs].” People always ask what I miss most about Elvis. I tell them it was his laugh. He had the most incredible laugh, deep in his soul. He had no ego, and was well read - a very smart man. He was able to converse on most any level.
Clash: Have you seen the new Tom Hanks’ Elvis movie?
Sheppard: Yes, I really enjoyed it. Matter of fact, I went a second time with friends. It is pretty accurate but I wish they had shown more of Elvis’ humorous and spiritual sides. Both of the main actors, Tom Hanks and Austin Butler, did a great job, too. The story being told from Col. Parker’s point of view was unique and different.
Clash: If you could say something to Elvis right now, what would it be?
Sheppard: Thank you for inspiring a young kid, helping him get started, straightening him up. You know, all of the years I was around him, I don’t believe I ever really thanked him for being my friend. It altered my life. So I would simply say, “Thank you.”
Clash: Speaking of icons, did you ever meet The Beatles?
Sheppard: Yes, I did, briefly. They stuck their heads into my office at Stax Records in the ‘60s. They had dropped by Stax because they were big fans of rhythm and blues, like Otis Redding, Booker T. and The M.G.’s, Steve Cropper, who co-wrote, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” I have the utmost respect for The Beatles, and am a huge fan of Paul McCartney. What a talented human being, the real deal. I would give anything just to have a conversation with him, maybe even interview him on my Sirius XM radio show.
Clash: Me, too [laughs].