Marty Harell Interview
Marty Harell Saxophone player in the Joe Gurccio Orchestra. Also conducted the Elvis Presley show a number of times filling in for Joe Gurcio.
Joe Krein-This is Elvis Online and I’m Joe Krein
Today we have Marty Harrell with us. How you doing Marty?
Marty Harrell- I’m doing great Joe thanks for calling.
JK – Where were you born and raised?
MH – I was born in Cleveland Ohio stayed there about three months and I was raised in Southern Louisiana.
JK – What did you want to do when you grew up?
MH – Well actually from the firth grade on I wanted to play trombone. I started in the fifth grade and it never changed.
JK – So how did you get involved with Joe Guercio?
MH – Well it’s a long story , I went to school at Indiana University in the music school there. When I left the music school I went on the road with Les Elgar’s band for about six months and then I was also with the Tommy Dorsey Band and traveled with them. We put a show together with Frank Sinatra JR Helen Flores and Charlie Shaver. I traveled with them for about three years, I roomed with Frank JR because we were about the same age. Then I finally settled down in Las Vegas and then Joe took over the music coordination for the Hilton when they bought it from the International and he asked me to join the house band there. That was in 1969, so that is how I met Joe.
JK - So were you an Elvis fan?
MH – Well to be honest no , I was into big bands , and jazz . I was into things like that. But I wasn’t a big Elvis fan when I was younger, but when I worked with him then I became a huge Elvis fan because of his talent.
JK – Its funny because Stump said the same thing to me.
MH – Sorry?
JK – I just interviewed Jerome Stump Monroe The Sweets drummer, he said he was not a fan as well but became a fan.
MH – Stump is great we had a lot of fun together. He was something else Elvis, but we all knew that.
JK – What was your first meeting with Elvis? What was he like as a person?
MH – He was great . You know there was one thing about Elvis. There was no body on that stage that was enjoying more doing the show then Elvis. I mean he loved what he was doing. I first met him like I said in 1969, he actually did a show when it was the International Hotel they taped that. Then they came back and did another show when Joe took over and it became the Hilton. It was so successful and everybody loved it so much that they decided to go on the show with it. Joe asked myself and lead trumpet player Pat Houston if we would like to go. It took me about three seconds to decide yes or no. In the very beginning it was real interesting it was basically Joe and pat and I. We would get a pick up band in the different areas that we would go and do a ton of rehearsing. We really didn’t have a lot of music at that time. So Pat Joe or I would say well lets play this here and that’s how the music started. Then the rehearsals got to be a bit much so Joe said lets take a horn section out of Las Vegas. So that’s how we got Joe Guercio Hot Hilton Horns.
JK – I was going to ask you about that.
MH – That’s how it all got started. Its kinds interesting just the other day a friend of mine sent me something off of YouTube. Someone had taped us, instead of us standing up and taking a bow when Elvis would introduce us. We decided we would play something. Joe had Don Hannah who was just a marvelous arranger. He wrote all of Elvis’s arrangements. He wrote a short piece for us that we would play when Elvis introduced us. Well it took Elvis by surprise. Well anyway I just saw this the other day on YouTube. Boy we were something else, and right at the end of this short bit Elvis was yelling yeah and wow! He was very excited.
JK – Did you ever have a one on one with Elvis? Were you ever able to sit down and talk to Elvis at all?
MH- A few times not a lot to be honest we did not want to interrupt his privacy. We respected that and a few times we talked. It was interesting he was infatuated. I played bass trombone. I added a few low notes in his show so we talked about that and how I played.
JK – Your phone is breaking up wicked.
MH – Oh it is.
JK – Did you ever receive any gifts from Elvis?
MH – Not a lot, well I will tell you a very fun story about the Aloha From Hawaii TV Special. We actually did a show previous to that to kind of check the venue out and it was right on my 30th Birthday and Elvis found out. We got over to Hawaii and checked into the Hilton there and I walked into my room and I’m looking there was a bowl of fruit on the table with a card and it read Happy Birthday Marty stay an extra week. That was the type of guy he was he found out it was my birthday and arranged that.
JK – That was cool of him.
MH – He was great, I have a card at home, it’s a gold plated card and it says I was a member of the Elvis Presley Show.
JK – Sure I have seen them. Now was it tiring after a while I mean didn’t the show get a little repetitive?
MH – You know that’s one interesting thing it was so much energy on that stage and I don’t ever remember crossing my mind that I wished it was over and I wanted to go back to my room. It was so much energy and so much fun that no I never got tired doing it. You know I always wondered what made that show successful? Why was it so good? I am a firm believer that the different facets on that stage represented all types of music. You could think of. You had the most phenomenal rhythm section that you could put together studio players out of LA. Ronnie Tutt who was just incredible who is still touring with Neil Diamond. You had Jerry Sheff on bass who was just a unique bass player he didn’t just play thump, thump, thump. If you listen to the bass lines they are melodic. It was kind of a counter melody to what Elvis was doing. Then you have Glen Hardin on piano who was phenomenal slide piano player he was great. Then James Burton if you remember the old Ossie and Harriett Show. When they introduce Ricky Nelson if you look closely James was his guitar player. Then you had the Gospel section J D Sumner and the Stamps. Then you had the Sweet Inspirations from Motown and then you had all the horns that were Jazz and Classical trained. All these different facets of music up there. The main thing everybody respected everybody else. You had the best in the business on stage. Everybody respected each other and it was just magic it all jelled together. Elvis was very unique in the eight years I was with him I never heard him sing a note out of tune or out of place at all he was a phenomenal singer. . A lot of singers that I worked with would listen to themselves but they had no clue what was going on in back of them. Elvis was not like that if you look closely when he is performing he is interacting with the singers and the musicians. He hear things that we play that are out of the ordinary, I would go an octave low on some of the stuff and Pat would play something high . You would see Elvis turn, he heard all that. That was one of the unique things about Elvis.
JK – Lets not forget about John Wilkinson
MH – Oh John Wilkinson, yeah he was fantastic.
JK – Sweetheart of a man.
MH – Oh yes
JK – What was it like comparing Vegas to Tahoe . What was your choice Vegas or Tahoe?
MH – To be honest Vegas back then was phenomenal, there was so much great music going on . Great entertainers and real good music. Tahoe was kind of the same but on a much smaller scale. But I enjoyed Vegas. Vegas was just magic back then.
JK – Tahoe was more laid back?
MH – I would say so yes.
JK – How was it being on tour with Elvis?
MH – Oh it was phenomenal it was so much fun. We would be in a different city every night , First when we started touring we were doing three weeks a month. Then Elvis said that was a little to much so he cut it back to two weeks. So we did it two weeks a month in a different city every month.
JK – Wow that had to be something?
MH – Oh it was . It was just fantastic.
JK – What was your preparation for an Elvis Show? Did it differ in Vegas then being on the road? Did It differ much or no?
MH – Well when we finally put the band together with the horns, we would have a rehearsal the very first day of the tour. It was more like a sound check, get organized or if we added anything on the charts. Or whatever but then we wouldn’t rehearse the rest of the time. There is an old saying in the music business, if you have an eight o’clock show and you show up twenty minute’s till eight then you are already late. Because there is no way you could get prepared and warm up and everything in fifteen or twenty minutes. Like everybody in sports have there own routine they go thru to warm up and prepare and to get ready for the show. You don’t just go out and pick up your horn and play.
JK – Right. Now there were times you had to conduct for Joe Gurcio . Seattle 1976. Denver in 76 then in Minnesota. Do you remember those times and can you kind of fill us in why that happened?
MH – Well Joe Guercio, he was a phenomenal coordinator for the Hilton . That is why the Hilton hired him. He was in charge of the entire musical end at the Hilton. There were a lot of times they needed him to be there at the Hilton to conduct and to coordinate a lot of the shows like Gladys Knight and the Pips . Different shows like that. So when they asked him to stay and take care of that. I would then go out and conduct. There was a very funny story the very first night I conducted, I was nervous.
JK – I bet.
MH – I mean I was conducting for Elvis Presley, it was at Baton Rouge. I will never forget. I got on the stag and I was behind the podium and we had a routine. I had to make sure the sound was ready and the lighting was ready. I gave the okay and the horns stood up. All the guys had their horns up to their face and I gave them the down beat and not a sound came out. I’m waving my arms and I’m wondering what did I do wrong. (Laughing) Oh my god! So I look over where Elvis was going to come out . I saw his face peeping thru the curtain. He knew about it , turns out they had set me up. So I knew who did it . It was Pat Houston the lead trumpet player . He was my best friend. So I got even, we were in Baton Rouge the following night . Now Pat could not stand the thought of raw oysters. Well the next night in the same spot I gave them the downbeat and everybody was playing except Pat. All I could see was him shaking his horn trying to get this raw oyster out of his month piece. Elvis loved that , he loved practical jokes like that . We had so much fun.
JK- Can you think of any other funny stories on tour?
MH –Yeah there are a few but not meant for the radio. ! (LAUGHING)
JK – Your have to tell me that after I turn off the machine.
MH – There was another time , the war was on in Vietnam. So we went to Elvis and we said. Elvis there is this solder that would like to meet you. He came in from the War. Elvis said ok sure bring him in . Well we had taken Myrna Smith from The Sweets and we got a solder uniform. Got her hair done and we put glasses on her . (laughing)
He didn’t recognize her at first , and he is talking to this soldier from the war and everyone started laughing. We had so much fun like that. There were a couple times like that when we were touring a different city everyday. He turned around during the show and he said Marty where are we? We are in Milwaukie. Oh well its great to be in Milwaukie!
JK- Did you ever get tired of it?
MH – To be honest no, I never get tired of it. I mean it was really a shocker when he died. We all wanted it to go on forever.
JK – Did Elvis ever get tired of it that you thought? No never.
JK – Was there ever and substandard shows where you thought he should have rested?
MH – Well toward the end his health started failing and there were times we could see he was tired. But he still gave it his all.
MH – Any memories of Madison Square Garden?
MH – I remember conducting in the old Madison Square Garden, I think that is where a girl jumped from the balcony on to the stage. They had to carry her off. There were a lot of incidents like that. I remember once one of his managers Joe, I cant remember his last name.
JK – Was it Esposito?
MH – No not Joe Esposito, it was one of the other road managers. He was going to fly in our plane . We all had our own planes. Elvis had his and the Colonel had his plane. He was going to travel with us instead of being on Elvis’s plane. But changed his mind at the last minute but he didn’t tell me. Elvis had already left and we went up to his suite trying to find to see if Joe was still up there. So I hear this taping on a window. We are on the top floor at the Hilton. So we open the curtains and there is girl on the ledge trying to get in the suite.
JK – Oh my goodness. She must had gotten on the window washing thing.
MH – Or something, I have no idea how she got there. So we got security and we got her inside. She was scared to death.
JK – What did you think of the Aloha from Hawaii Concert?
MH – I think that was the best performance he ever gave. He was just so up for that and the band was. Its interesting because I just watched that a few weeks ago. PBS was running it as a fundraiser. He just sounded so great.
JK – Plus he looked so good
MH – Yeah he looked good and he was just so up for
JK – Did you ever have the chance to fly on the Lisa Marie? On Elvis’s plane? That. He couldn’t wait for that, he really wanted to do that show.
MH – No I never did we always had are own plane. He invited us on there one day just to show us the plane.
JK – What did you think?
MH – Oh it was beautiful, it was an incredible plane.
MH – What did you think of Colonel Parker?
MH – Colonel had his own way of doing things.
I wasn’t really around him much and what I understand Colonel Parker started out managing a carnival? I know he was very big on selling a lot of memobilia.
JK- He put posters everywhere at the Hilton. They said he made it look like a circus.
MH – Yes exactly. I know I had heard that Elvis insisted that they keep the ticket prices down. So all his fans could afford to come see his show.
JK – How about the last concert?
MH – I’m trying to remember.
JK – Did you have any idea?
MH – No, we knew he was not in good health. But we had no idea the end was coming. I was going to be conducting that last tour. We got on the plane and we left Vegas. I doubled checked to make sure everybody was there. We were on our way to Portland Maine I believe.
JK – Right
MH – The stewardess came to me and said Marty the pilot wants to see you in the cockpit. So I’m looking out the window to see if we were going down. I dint know what was going on.
JK – Like what are you going to do?
MH – Exactly!
So I get in there and he says I just got a call to go back to Vegas. I said don’t do that we will miss the first day. I told him to set the plane down in the first city we could land in. I think it was Pablo Colorado if I remember right. I went in and made a phone call and found out Elvis had died. That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do was go out and tell the people on that plane to all his friends that Elvis was gone.
JK – That had to be hard. Who told you?
MH – So we went back to Vegas.
JK – Who told you?
MH – I believe I called Joe. I’m trying to remember whom I talk too but I cant. I think it was Joe Guercio. Joe was phenomenal coordinating the entire different musician’s. That’s his talent. He is living in Nashville right now. He is still working, a great guy.
JK – I would love to be able to talk to him.
MH – I will try and get his number, I am sure he would love to talk to you.
JK – That would be great. Life after Elvis what did you do?
MH – Well after Elvis like I mentioned before. I toured with Frank Sinatra JR and the Tommy Dorsey band. I got to know the Sinatra family. Then I settled in Vegas and I started to work with Frank SR. He was just phenomenal also . You know Elvis, Frank there are a few singers that I worked with. They didn’t look at there show as a show. They considered it a concert, because they were serious about there music. Frank Sinatra would show up an hour or a half hour before the performance. He would vocalize in his dressing room with Bill Miller his piano player. I would hear Elvis doing the same thing. Its like playing golf you just don’t get on the field and start hitting the ball. You go to the driving range and warm up first.
JK – You didn’t go to the funeral did you?
MH – No, you couldn’t get a plane into Memphis at all. By the time we got back to Las Vegas. The night before we were off about a week prior to that with Ann Margaret at the Hilton. She was just a sweet heart, just a wonderful person . Ann Margaret knew that our plane was coming back. She held her plane up because she was heading to Memphis for the funeral. She held her plane up and I was going fly with her on her plane but they had to leave. The could not wait so I did not get to go to the funeral. I wish I could have but there was just no way to get in there.
JK – Elvis on the big screen were you involved with that at all?
MH – Yeah that was so much fun. I can’t remember what year. It was about ten years ago. We got a call , I guess Lisa Marie and Priscilla put it together and the production company called all the original musicians and singers and they wanted to now if we wanted to go on tour again? I said yeah why not, so we did that. We ended up at Radio City Music Hall and it was just unbelievable. It was just like it was forty years ago.
JK – Was it hard at all with Elvis on the screen? It looks like it would be a little confusing?
MH – We were on a quick track and the time wasn’t like a computer. Some time it would go up sometime it would go down. You could not hear it, but you could if you were playing. So that was the hardest part coordinating the time and the rhythm but we did it. It turned out awesome. I remember I was working for Party Home here in California. We opened up for the first day at the Delmar Races, and all my friends went and they were just thrilled. Then we went up to the Universal Ample Theater in LA. My fiancé at the time, I invited her to go up. So we got there, we were checking into the Hotel. Ronnie , James and we all went to lunch together. She told me this later. You know I was looking at these guys and they were all in there sixties, and I’m going to go to a Rock n Roll concert and they are going to be playing? She said this is going to be awful. She told me later she could not believe how great it was.
JK – I saw your show.
MH – Oh you did. After the show we were at the theater and we were back stage. Lisa Marie came up to me and she was so sweet. She said Marty, I know who you are. I said you do? She said yes , you were my daddy’s favorite trombone player.
JK – That’s cool.
MH – Yes that was very cool.
JK – What do you think of the everlasting popularity of Elvis Presley?
MH – I contribute it to the fact that his music will never die. Like the standard., like Frank Sinatra music. He is a legend and his music will never get old. I will bet any amount of money that in fifty years we will still be listening to it. His music isn’t just Hound Dog and Blue Suede Shoes, and those tunes. Like American Trilogy, some of them are really heavy songs. He did such quality music.
JK – What was your favorite?
MH – I think American Trilogy. That one you get goose bumps.
JK – What are you doing now?
MH – I’m retired from the music business, but I have been in the real estate business for about twenty five years now. I mostly sell new homes in Las Vegas. I enjoy it . Putting people into brand new homes. But I tell you the happiness years of my life were the eight years I spent with Elvis.
JK – Well thank you for sharing your memories Marty.
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