As summits go, it might have been a secret meeting of heads of state. It was the evening of August 15, 1965, and police motorcyclists had been deployed to block any pursuing vehicles as three limousines sped down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and into the gated, millionaire Bel Air community of Beverly Hills.
But this wasn’t a political meeting of giants. It was a cultural one. The Beatles, then the most famous performers on earth, were going to see Elvis Presley, the “king” of rock ‘n roll.
It should have been a meeting of minds: only the four Beatles and Elvis knew what it was like to be so universally worshipped; only they had experienced being in the eye of a musical hurricane. And as John Lennon would repeat until his death, “before Elvis there was nothing”.
But, as an exhibition called The Beatles And Elvis Ñ newly opened in Liverpool Ñ recalls, the party that took place that night at Elvis’s house was something of an anti-climax. With a nervous John Lennon being characteristically smart-ass before his idol, Elvis was shy, embarrassed and almost certainly jealous.
Jealousy, of course, was understandable. Before The Beatles had invaded America 20 months earlier, Elvis had been the undisputed leader of all he surveyed.
Now, the young pretenders had stolen his throne. And, while Elvis found himself contractually imprisoned as an actor in one tacky Hollywood movie after another, for which he recorded the worst songs of his career, everything The Beatles touched was turning to gold and critical praise.
Only 30, Elvis, who a few years earlier had been the great young revolutionary, was looking old-fashioned and out of touch compared to his young rivals - all in their early to mid-20s then. Elvis hated it, and probably them, for what they represented.
Not that the four Beatles could have been fully aware of this. Even if they were disillusioned with Elvis’s recent records, such as Do The Clam and Kissin’ Cousins, they knew how much they owed him.
Indeed, the emergence of Elvis’s first British single Heartbreak Hotel nine years earlier had led the schoolboy Lennon to form his own group, the Quarrymen.
Paul McCartney had been similarly obsessed, and all through their years playing in Liverpool’s Cavern Club and in Hamburg, The Beatles had included more than a dozen Elvis songs in their repertoire.
So, even though universally famous and feted by 1965, as they were led across the white shag carpet into the sitting room where Elvis sat with his heavily made-up and bouffant-haired girlfriend Priscilla Beaulieu (wearing a sequinned mini-dress), they were nervous. In fact, so overawed were they, that at first none of them could think of anything to say.
It was Elvis who broke the ice. “Well, if you guys are just gonna sit there and stare at me all night, I’m going to bed,” he said, before calling for guitars to be passed around. Things improved a little after that, with Ringo beating time on a table with his fingers.
This meeting of idols was due to the work of a music journalist called Chris Hutchins, who was reporting on The Beatles’ latest tour of America - and who got on well with Elvis’s manager, the self-styled “Colonel” Tom Parker.
Hutchins was after a scoop, and, as he recalls in his memoir Elvis Meets The Beatles, having met Elvis and quickly realised how curious the star was about the Liverpool group, he set about coaxing Beatles manager Brian Epstein and Parker into the meeting.
It was a venture that required not a few diplomatic niceties.
First, The Beatles would have to go to Elvis. The King would not go to the young pretenders. Second, there were to be no reporters, no photographs, no recordings and no advance leaking of the plans.
How Hutchins squared the “no Press” demand with his role as a journalist is a curious one, but everyone, including Parker and Beatles publicist Tony Barrow, knew that Hutchins was bound to write about what happened, and The Beatles were bound to tell everyone when they got home, anyway.
Barrow remembers that George Harrison was doubtful at first. He feared a publicity and fan hoopla. John Lennon, meanwhile, suspected Elvis might cancel. But Elvis didn’t cancel. In fact, he summoned a dozen of his pals, dubbed the “Memphis mafia”, and their molls, and greeted The Beatles and their retinue with much polite shaking of hands.
With conversation at first limited to reminiscences of near-misses while flying on tour (The Beatles’ plane having caught fire a couple of weeks earlier, and an aircraft Elvis was flying on having had an engine fail), it was the impromptu jam session that helped everyone relax.
The Beatles’ I Feel Fine had been a recent hit, and as Elvis played along with it on bass he joked, “See, I’m practising”, to which McCartney replied, “Don’t worry, between us, me and Mr Epstein will make a star of you,” before, as a nod to Priscilla he played a little of You’re My World, the hit he and John wrote for another, Priscilla - Cilla Black.
John, as usual, was being John. “Why have you dropped the old rock stuff?” he asked Elvis bluntly, adding that he’d loved his early records and didn’t go for the film songs. Elvis, not used to being even mildly criticised, and hating the film songs himself, responded that he would be making rock records again soon.
“Oh, good. We’ll buy them when you do,” came back John.
Lennon probably wasn’t being rude - that was the way he always talked, and he wasn’t making fun either when, putting on an Inspector Clouseau accent, he added: “Zis is ze way it should be ... ze small homely gathering wiz a few friends and a leetle muzic.”
Later, overhearing Elvis say that he was being paid $1million a movie and that one had only taken him 15 days to shoot, Lennon reputedly cracked: “Well, we’ve got an hour to spare now, let’s make an epic together, shall we.”
The meeting of the musical giants had begun at 10pm, and as the evening wore on Ringo went off to play pool in the next room, while Brian Epstein began trying to persuade Colonel Parker to let him present a series of Elvis concerts in the UK. It came to nothing.
At 2am, the party came to an end, with the Colonel handing The Beatles and their friends going-home presents by way of Elvis albums, and John standing in the garden shouting: “Sanks for ze music, Elvis. Long live ze King,” before inviting his host to join The Beatles at their place the following night.
“Well, I’ll see. I’m not sure I’ll be able to make it,” came the reply from the star who only ever socialised at home.
As they got into the waiting limousines, publicist Tony Barrow reckons he heard John Lennon say: “Elvis was stoned.” To which George Harrison replied quietly: “Aren’t we all!”
History doesn’t recall Elvis’s reaction to that night, but in 1970, when The Beatles had broken up, a by-then drug-soaked Presley made an extraordinary secret trip to Washington, was given an audience with President Nixon, and tell him of his worries about the bad influence of stars like Lennon on American youth.
For his part, the day after their meeting, Lennon was telling everyone: “There’s only one person in the USA that we ever wanted to meet - not that he wanted to meet us.”
That being said, he was famously photographed dressed as Elvis at a party in 1967 and there were still Presley records on Lennon’s jukebox when the Beatle was murdered 15 years later. The question is: did Elvis have any Beatles records on his?