“I got chills from head to toe as he was singing my song…”
 
Michael Jarrett interviewed by Arjan Deelen

"Where would I go, who would I have to lie beside me / To ease this emptiness inside me ...". Perhaps more than any other recording from the last decade of his life, Elvis' frail, world-weary reading of “'I'm Leavin’” captures the sad tragedy of his final years. This performance has received a fair bit of praise over the years, and indeed there’s no doubt that Elvis himself thought a great deal of the song, as evidenced by the dialogue preceding the recently released alternate take 3, where he comments, "Phew man, it's tough, but the thing is worth working on". The master of "I'm Leavin'" was recorded at RCA Nashville's Studio B on May 20th, 1971 and released as a single in June of that year. Elvis firmly believed that the song was a hit, but it peaked at a rather meagre # 36 in the US Singles Charts. Nevertheless, his passion for this song never waned, and he continued performing it at concerts for the next four years, usually introducing it as "one of my favourite songs".
Quite by coincidence, I recently got in touch with Michael Jarrett, who wrote both "I'm Leavin'" as well as a Christmas song cut at the same sessions, the bluesy "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day", and decided to do an interview.
 
Michael, can you tell me a bit about your childhood?
 Sure, my childhood is still very vivid, because that child has really never left me. I was born in San Francisco and raised in Forest Knolls in Marin County Ca., and grew up there in what's been called the Fabulous 50's. When I was a teenager Elvis was the rage...my close
friend Neil Jamison and I always had his latest 45's, and would drive our parents crazy with the constant playing of his music. What a time for us kids! This was our music, raw, unpretentious, right in your face and FUN!!
 
Do you remember the first time you heard Elvis?
Now that's kinda blurry to pinpoint, but I do remember that before Elvis the music seemed so different and organized and not that exciting for us, so we kids were listening to the one Radio Station in the entire Bay Area (KDIA) in Oakland, what was then the only R'n B station anywhere close to home, and that's where I got my education in the "Blues" with the music of B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters, ... now man! that was music with a feeling, get down in the alley music and stay there all night! Actually, I would sneak my radio under the covers and listen to the blues all night. Then suddenly out of nowhere came Elvis combining his raw rockabilly sound with that "southern blues style" mix and we were fractured and hooked, and to our parents horror we started slicking back our hair with Vaseline and turning up our pant cuffs and we all were shakin' with Elvis and I'm sure, to them, clear out of control (laughs)......liberating, very liberating for us...
 
Did you see him in concert in the early days?
I did see him when I was visiting a friend named Johnny B. in Texas in the mid-fifties, before he was really famous. We hadn't heard his music yet on the radio in California, and really didn't know who we were looking at (can you imagine) ... Me and Johnny B. and a couple guys were jamming on some blues when he got a call that Elvis was playing over  in Gladewater at the Baseball Park, and we scooted over there just in time to see him play.
I do remember the girls were really digging him, and the guys were getting pissed about it.
Seems to me he was playing on the back of a flatbed truck or something. Me and my friends were captivated by his boldness and the way he was jumping around. It was really raw then... raw but exciting! I think he had purple pants on and I remember his shoes were two-tone white and brown, kinda like loafers, and people were making fun of the way he looked. I remember hearing this one lady talking behind me saying something to her friend about telling the local pastor at the church about this behavior, and saying something like, "This will never fly around here!". I think when I heard her say that, Elvis was really okay in my book. It was a curious sight to be sure...
 
How and when did you become active in music?
I joined the Air Force Reserves in May 1955 and volunteered for active duty in ‘58 and went to Texas for my hitch. I kept getting upper respiratory infections and ending up in the hospital with pneumonia and spent nearly a year in that hospital waiting on my medical / honorable discharge. One night a rock 'n roll band came to the hospital and played for us in the Red Cross Recreation Hall, and in between songs, someone yelled out, "LET MICHAEL PLAY"!! (I'd been playing in the rec hall each day on the piano and singing "Earth Angel," and,"In The Still Of The Night" and all the current do-wop songs of
the day). Shaking like a leaf I climbed on the stage and replaced their piano player, who was playing a big upright that was sitting off the floor on wooden coke cases. There I am in my blue hospital jammies and white canvas slippers on stage with this ass-kickin’ Texas blues band and wondering what to play, and, I'd never, ever played with a band?
The guys in the band were looking at me and snickering… I know just what they were probably thinking... (laughs) So the leader says to me, "Hey partner! Whatcha gonna play?" This was it! Oh man! I said, “let's do "Johnny B. Goode". Then the guy said,"How fast do you want it?" I faked it and said, "Same tempo as the record, you kick it off"....well, they did that classic Chuck Berry intro and off we went and I started singing my brains out with my heart going 9000! In the middle of the song while the guitar player is blazing away on his
solo, the sax man walks over to me and whispers in my ear and says, "You want a job?" ....That's how it all started. Two weeks later I was discharged and off on the road with "Kenny Brewer And The Volcanoes" that was the early part 1959, by the fall and early winter of that year we were on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis as his opening act in the mid-west.
 
What was it like to be on the road with Jerry?
Jerry Lee Lewis? Wow, where do I start? Well, at the beginning I guess. When he first came out with "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On" and "Great Balls Of Fire", I was still living in Forest Knolls, California. I remember watching him on TV the first time and was astounded by his boldness and incredible playing abilities, not to mention those big locks of blond hair flopping in his face! Our parents were still reeling from the gyrations of Elvis when Jerry Lee hit the scene. From then on, every chance I got I'd be down in our basement playing the piano and trying to be just like him. I really started getting his style down and I think my mom was even starting to like what I was doing. Having preferenced this story with my being enamored of Jerry Lee as a teenager, let's jump cut to the fall of 1959. So I was playing with "Kenny Brewer And The Volcanoes", and we got a call one day from a booking agent in the mid-west who was booking a tour for Jerry Lee and had heard
good things about our band, and wanted to know if we'd like to open for him. We couldn't believe it! We agreed and off we went to meet and play on the same stage as my hero.... Arjan, I suppose if I were to tell all the things that happened on that tour you would have to put hard covers on each end of this interview and call it a "book." The stories themselves are priceless, and anyone who was involved with Jerry Lee Lewis at that "chaotic" stage of his life will tell you in no uncertain terms, that you had to hold on by the seat of your pants very tightly, because one would never know what was gonna happen next. I will say however, I got to stand just a few feet away from him each night while he did his thing, and each night my heart would jump out of my chest with excitement in watching this 23-year old kid destroy the venue, sometimes literally! He was amazing to watch, his playing ability and style captivated his audience and drove them into frenzy, we all waited each night in anticipation with each performance for him to "explode" and drive his audience crazy. We had learned very quickly not to stand directly behind him if one didn't want a piano bench flying their way! You asked what it was like to be on the road with him, and I guess to give you an honest answer to that question I'd have to say educational, very much so. I was just a 21-year old green kid almost right out of high school, and by the end of the tour I had matured a great deal and had experienced something that would stay vivid in my mind for the rest of my life...
 
When did you start writing songs? And what were you best at, melody or
lyrics?

I started writing songs during the time I was listening to the blues station in Oakland Ca. I composed both lyric and melody at the same time. I was blessed (or cursed) as some would say with the ability to play by ear and I could listen to songs on the radio and sit down and play them from memory. I come from a very musical background. My mom was a composer and played piano and organ in the silent movies and had her own dance band during her college days and my grandfathers on both sides were also musicians.
 
What's the story behind the writing of "I'm Leavin'"? Was it an easy
song to write?

My playing in bands and clubs over the years had really taken its toll on me by 1970. I'd pretty much worked 6 nights a week, 5 hours a night for years with little time off including a 32 week stint at the newly opened Caesars Palace in Vegas in 1966. It was at the Castaways in Portland Oregon in 1969 the middle of Nilsson's classic song, "Everybody’s Talkin’", that I had this epiphany, and realized that I'd had enough of the club scene and turned off my guitar, packed it up and walked straight out the door on a Saturday night. I hesitated briefly outside the club and looked backed through the little windows in the bar door and watched the clouds of cigarette smoke billowing up into the stage lights and said to myself, this is the end of this, I can't handle the drunks and the smoke and the lying club owners any longer... I didn't know what I was gonna do, or, where I would go, I just knew it was over and I felt ambivalent and insecure as well as joyful and hopeful. I had been playing a lot of my originals in the bars and they were being requested nightly, so I headed for home in the Bay Area to get my thoughts together, and try and figure out just what to do with my life now.
By chance I went to San Francisco one day
to clear my head, and maybe catch some good jazz in North Beach when I saw a marquee that said "Sonny Charles Tonight." I'd known Sonny from my Vegas days when he was part of the famous Las Vegas group "The Checkmates" that ruled that town in the 60's…The group had split up and Sonny was touring on his own. I popped in that night and caught his first show and walked up and said hello...We were really glad to see one another, because it had been quite awhile. I told him my story and he said to me that his B3 Organ player had to leave the band after that night for family reasons and, that he had this up-coming important gig in Hawaii, and would I help him out and do the gig with him. It was Sonny's B3 so I had something to play and I'd never been to Hawaii so why not... well, that was the beginning of a years stint with him... It was a lot of travel and being in the role of a "sideman" was just fine with me after fronting groups the entire time prior. Sonny lived in Laurel Canyon in L.A. right between Three Dog Night and Linda Ronstadt, with Joni Mitchell just across the canyon. What a time to be in L.A.! Sonny put me up for awhile, and it was in the fall of 1970 that I took Sonny's 12 string into the shower (water off, of course) and shut the glass door and was getting off on the natural echo and the 12 string, it sounded huge! I just started singing the la la la's and was just fooling around and the first verse just happened. It was then I realized I was singing about this girl I'd left behind in Portland who really wasn't supportive of my quitting the band and taking off for parts unknown, and had said to me at one point, "What if your songs aren't good enough"? She said this to me when I told her I wanted to go to LA and get my songs recorded, and I'm thinking, “Gee baby, if you’re my girl, why can't you dream with me?” ... well, she just didn't understand so I said, "I'm leavin’ and that's that, I'm not beating my chops up in the bars anymore and if you can't dream with me, then what good is it anyway....."
 
The structure – with the sudden change of rhythm – is unusual. Was
that your idea? And how much did co-writer Sonny Charles contribute?

I came out of the shower 10 minutes later with the first two verses and the la la hook, and played it for Sonny. He suggested I repeat the build up to the "I'm leavin" part, in other words do it twice, ah ah ah ah, then again, ah ah ah ah...I'm leavin’. I felt that suggestion was the key to the build and gave the song its impact, and I gave Sonny half writers credit because of this idea he had. Then the bridge had to be written and Sonny and I started throwing out ideas, and he would say things to me and give me ideas where to take it, we brain stormed for a half hour or so when all of a sudden the words started coming out of me, and they were all about my experience with this girl in Portland again. The song was complete by the end of that day... Small as Sonny's contribution might seem to some, it was huge to me in the writing "I'm Leavin"....
 
What's the song behind "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day"? Both this song
and "I'm Leavin'" seem to have similar basic themes: feeling lonely /
being in an alien environment / leaving for an unknown destination / ending
a relationship. Are these songs a reflection of who you were at the
time?

Yes, most definitely. Prior to my short relationship with the Portland girl, my 5-year marriage had just crumbled, and it was heart wrenching for all as I had a daughter with my former wife and was a father to her 3 children from a previous marriage at the time. Here's the scenario: It's X-mas Eve 1969 and earlier that week I had a little going away party at my apartment, and the next day the furniture rental company came to take their stuff and the place was totally barren, not even a bed to sleep in, just me, my sleeping bag and my guitar and the silence.... the next part of the story is perhaps somewhat legendary in the annals of songwritingdom (laughs) ...To some, this next part of the story will probably cause them to frown and say, "gee, that's too bad", while others will understand and smile...... so, I'm sitting there looking out the window at the Xmas lights in Portland, and reflecting on the 10 years I worked in and out of that town and was feeling the ambivalence again, when I noticed a small rock in the shag carpet and thought to myself, "I better clean this place up good so I can get my cleaning deposit back, because I'm going to need that money for my trip south. I sat and stared at that rock and decided to pick it up at least, so I wouldn't step on it. I sorta crawled over to it and picked it up, and that rock wasn't a rock at all, but a nice chunk of Black Afghani hash....My my! Just what I needed for an attitude adjustment for the funk I was in. I fashioned myself a pipe out of one of those old coat hangers that used to have the round stiff cardboard on them. I pulled the wire out the ends and took some tin foil and made a bowl that turned up and fired up the hash. Always, when I would get high I would head right for the keyboard or guitar and play and sing, and on this Xmas eve I felt very emotional to say the least. I picked up my guitar and wrote "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day" in less then an hour. I included my children's names in one of the verses, and just got it all out of my system in one fell swoop....it was a bittersweet experience but liberating for me in many ways.
 
How did both songs get recorded by Elvis?
Late in 1970 my time with Sonny Charles had pretty much ended as I didn't want to travel long distances any more, and wanted to stay in LA and push my songs. Bobby Stevens, the other half of the Checkmates and Sonny's good friend, wanted me to play in his big band at the Hilton in Vegas which wasn't that far out of town, so I took him up on his offer... Bobby was good friends with Joe Esposito, Elvis's close friend.. Joe came back stage after a show one night and said to Bobby while I was standing there with him, {and I'll never forget that night} that Elvis was going into the studio to record and did he (Bobby) have any songs that Elvis might like. Bobby introduced me to Joe and told him that I was a good writer, and that he had just signed me to his publishing company "Oten Music", and would put together a package very soon and send to him. We went back to LA where now I was living up in the Hollywood Hills with Bobby and writing for his company, as well as doing Vegas gigs with him. The next day Bobby booked some time at the famous "Gold Star" Recording Studio in Hollywood and I layed down "I'm Leavin" on guitar and moved to the Christmas Song, and right then I decided to play "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day" on the piano, so I could get it more bluesy with some piano licks. I'd never performed it on the piano before that day and I did it in one take and Bobby said it had a good feel. When we left the studio that day, I wasn't sure if I gave the Christmas song the right treatment to create interest or not, never playing it on piano before...
 
When and how did you hear that he had recorded both songs? 
Very soon after sending the demos, Bobby Stevens’ secretary Judy Harris called me and said, "Are you sitting down?" I said, "No, but I will"…Then she proceeded to tell me Elvis picked my Christmas song and it was going to be his next Christmas single! I'm really not sure if there's a word to describe how I felt upon hearing this? I was in total shock and kept saying to Judy, "You're kidding me, right"? “This is no joke”, she told me. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night with this kind of excitement. The very next day the phone rings again and it's Judy, and she's giggling when she says to me once again, "Are you sitting down?" "Tell me, tell me" I said. Then she said, "Elvis just absolutely loves "I'm Leavin", and it's going to be his next single!” There again, there are no words to express the joy of a moment like this, it's almost surreal in a way, one day I'm sitting in an empty apartment in Portland wanting to crawl in a hole and pull it in after me and now surely this has to be a dream, it just can't be real, she's going to call tomorrow and say he changed his mind, I just know it... right?… but it was true, and still to this day it seems like a dream, a wonderful dream. Felton Jarvis said that Elvis picks songs that are meaningful to him, and I'm truly honored that he felt that way about my songs.
 
Did his publishing company get some of the publishing?
Hill And Range was the publishing company that originally owned the publishing rights to my songs back then, and that was owned by the Aberbachs (two brothers I think) and you can bet the Colonel had a big piece of that pie. Since then the Elvis Catalog with my songs has changed administration several times over the years and now Cherry Lane Administers 100% of the Publishing. Susan Aberbach inherited the Elvis Presley/Gladys Catalog from her father, and as far as I know still has ownership today.
 
When did you actually hear his versions, and were they close to your
demos?

I first heard "I'm Leavin" on KRLA radio in L.A. the summer of 71, when Judy Harris came running into Sonny Charles’ house when I was there visiting and was screaming, "It's on the radio, it's on the radio!!” Well Arjan, let me tell you when I first heard it, there was Elvis singing like me, singing like him… When I cut it at Gold Star I used that Elvis affectation on my voice, because I'd sang tons of Elvis songs over the years and had started singing them way back in the 50's, so it was real easy to put an Elvis touch on a vocal. Judy said, "He sounds just like you singing like him". We were all flabbergasted, and I stayed up all night listening as they played it once an hour.

That must have amazing.
Yes! A tremendous thrill...I'll never forget that day. As it turns out RCA never did release "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day" as a single that I know of, but it came out that Christmas on the "Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas" Album and he practically sang it note for note off the demo.
 
I understand that it was originally titled "It Happens Every Year"?
Wow! Yes, I'd forgotten that over the years, what a detective you are! I found out that Elvis changed the title himself. I had wanted to call it "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day", but felt the title was one word too long and decided on the other title, even though there was nothing in the song referring to those words. I guess it was a "no brainer" for him to change it, after all he could title it whatever he wanted, he was the King and still is....
 
You mentioned that verse about your children earlier. Do you think that the fact that he edited that verse out made it a better song?
Yes, I really do. On that Christmas Eve in 1969 when I wrote this song, I wrote it for me as a way to process my pain and heartbreak and later when it came time to record the demo for Elvis at Gold Star, I left that verse in anyway. When it came out that Christmas and that verse was gone, I just thought he left it out because my childrens names weren't really relevant to his life. But I did tell my children just recently that I discovered he'd done a version with their names in it and they were ecstatic!
 
Did you get a decent income from the royalties?
 
I have to say that Elvis has very much helped to keep a roof over my head these many years, and of course we songwriters never know how much we'll be paid until the check arrives, but the answer to your question is a big yes!
 
Did the fact that Elvis recorded two of your songs make any
difference for your career?

In 1972, Hugh Hefner started Playboy Records and signed me as an artist based on the strength of my writing the Elvis songs, so yes, Elvis opened that door for me, but the label soon folded and myself and several other artists that were signed hit the streets once again.
They did however send my album "We're All Goin Down Together" around the world, and I still get performance royalties from that record to this day and it's never been rendered to CD?
 
Were your songs now more in demand?
If they were, I never knew it, as I got involved in a very bad management deal around that time, and I had to wait out a 7-year publishing contract from the same individual that had signed me to a management contract, and that left me completely unable to pursue any lucrative publishing deal for myself and this truly left me spiritually bankrupt as well and completely out of the business for that 7 years. That was the toughest 7 years of my life, but I learned from that and didn't take people at their word anymore and took responsibility and had better attorneys looking after my interest as well as reading and understanding contracts myself.
 
At concerts, Elvis sometimes introduced "I'm Leavin'" as "one of my
favourite songs", and he performed it on stage from July 1971 to December 1975, even though it was never a big hit. Does it surprise you that he thought so much of this song?

I am surprised, it's a tough song to sing! and to keep it in his song list that long is truly amazing, the song must have really meant a lot to him for whatever reasons, and again I'm truly honored he cared for it so much.
 
Have you heard the studio outtake of this song, as released on I SING
ALL KINDS?

I've heard a couple of cuts of that CD just recently, and for me as songwriter to even know that recordings of these "out takes" or alternates as their called even exists just blows my mind! Nothing that I know of for a songwriter is more thrilling than to hear the process that a recording artist goes through in working up the song in the studio to the final master that gets released, and here I get to hear Elvis comment on "I'm Leavin" and say, "Whew, that's a tough one to sing but worth working on" - WOW!!! That's huge for a writer, and for me, it puts a big grin on my face every time I hear it.
 
What about that ’75 live version on SOUTHERN NIGHTS?
I have heard it just recently and really love it! In this version Elvis can be heard instructing the sound person to bring the levels up for that particular song for the singers that were doing those great la la la harmonies. Also, I got a real kick out of Elvis saying, "I’d like to do a song that we did about two years ago, that we all like to do called 'I'm Leavin'", when actually, it had been 4 years. I'm not surprised that he got the time frame wrong as hard as he worked, I'll bet half the time he wasn't really sure what town he was playing in.... I know that one real well, I've been on tour and wasn't sure sometimes myself.
 
Those bluesy outtakes of "I'll Be Home On Christmas Day" are just fabulous...
Oh, they’re the best!! They're my favorite of all, especially alternate take #4. Elvis sang the song bluesy just like me, almost note for note right off the demo, and on the last verse I hit a real high note and went out strong, and all these years I thought that Elvis didn't sing that high note because it was just too high for him. Not only did he hit that high note on this take but he sang some really great blues licks of his own that gave me chills. After 36 years of hearing different versions of my song, this is the cut I like the best.
 
With Elvis being so impressed with "I'm Leavin'" in particular, it
would have been logical to request more songs from your pen. Did he ask for more
songs?

If he did, I would have never known it with the management and publishing problems I was having at the time, because my so-called career was in the toilet...
 
Did you offer him any?
Sort of, when I lived in Palm Springs in 1974 I drove up to his house when I'd heard he was there, and put a letter in his mailbox and told him who I was, and that if he just wanted to hang out sometime and go over some songs at the piano I was there in town, and told him how to reach me...what dreamer huh? It was around that time that he was using the drugs pretty heavy and I'm sure the letter never reached him personally, someone got it and probably had a good laugh and dumped it?
 
Wouldn't it have been possible to reach him through Joe Esposito?
Good question!.. Joe was my Elvis connection through Bobby Stevens, I wasn't directly in that "loop" and after the 71 Elvis recordings, I'd signed that very bad management / publishing contract that ended up creating dissension in the ranks, and there became this awful alienation between my manager, me, and Bobby, so I was really out of the "loop" after that....painful time for me.....and a hard life lesson....
 
You saw Elvis on stage once in the early 70s. Do you remember where and when that was?
He was beautiful!!...I'll always remember when I saw him sing "I'm Leavin" in 1971 at the Hilton in Vegas. I was sitting with Judy Harris and Joe Esposito 7th row center, Joe must have told him I would be sitting in front with him, because he looked right at me and smiled real big and winked at me as he was singing my song. I got chills from head to toe.
 
Did you get to meet him that night?
After the show Joe said, "Come on, let’s go up to the suite and meet Elvis". I was beside myself with anticipation and as we got out of the elavator Sonny West I believe it was took Joe aside, and mumbled something to him and then left. Joe turned to us and said, "I'm really sorry, but the Colonel doesn't want Elvis to have any visitors because he's running a 103 temperature and he needs to rest"....Wow! So close but yet so far. I'm really not sure just what the truth was on that day, Elvis looked fine to me and was doing all his karate moves and was brilliant on stage all the way through the show, so if he was running a high fever we never knew it.
 
Today, "I'm Leavin'" is generally regarded as a standout track amongst his 70s output, one of his best recordings from the final years.
I think from all I've read through the years about his recording of this song, that I'm finding that most everyone that writes or talks about it, calls it "haunting" and the most unusual recording Elvis ever did, so I think it kind of has its own mystery and aura about it that's different from his other recordings and really when one thinks about it, it really defies explanation, it's just different, different and wonderful, because it's Elvis at his finest just doing what Elvis does best, singing from his heart about lost love.
 
What are you up to these days?
Since the fall of ’06, I’ve been writing songs together with my good friend and writing partner, David Mac Kechnie. David's the 'real deal' and a master story teller, his lyrics have always told me just what to write when we'd collaborate, they are compelling, and no matter the subject, his honest words come always from the heart.... Just recently, David,  myself, and our good friend and great songwriter Kent Maxon along with our other partner Rockie Gaddie, have started "Wiggle In The Road Records", where as, we feature the 'Song and the Songwriter', rather than the Singer of the Song… Sounds crazy I know, but this is really a great way to say thanks to the folks behind the scenes that write the wonderful songs we all enjoy. We want to give the songwriters their due for a change. We just released our first CD November 1st, "Just Outside Nashville" and we've gotten good response in a short time for a new company.
 
Thank you for your time, Michael
Thanks so much, Arjan for this interview. I've really enjoyed it tremendously. It's given me another look at what sometimes can seem like such a crazy life, but that craziness all comes with the territory I guess. I really wouldn't trade a day of it for anything, because inside I'm still in touch with that kid that grew up in the 50's loving all that great Rockabilly music, and I suppose when it's all said and done and they’re throwing that last shovel full of dirt on me, someone will look down and see my foot still tappin’!