It’s no secret that John Lennon was a huge fan of Elvis Presley when he was a teenager. Lennon formed his first band, The Quarrymen, which would later become The Beatles, as a result of his love for Elvis Presley and rock and roll.
“Without Elvis, there would be no Beatles,” John Lennon stated matter-of-factly in a 1980 interview.
But Lennon’s teenage love for Elvis didn’t stop when he became an adult. In fact, throughout his life, even though he criticized Presley in his later years, Lennon never stopped being a fan. Just like any other passionate music fan, Lennon had a lifelong obsession for The King of Rock and Roll.
It all started in April 1956 when Lennon heard Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” for the first time, shortly after its release in the U.K. in March. “Heartbreak Hotel” seemed to change everything, not just for John Lennon, but also for rock and roll history.
The song had a huge impact on many young British male teenagers. Some would become the next generation of rock stars. Both Paul McCartney and George Harrison have stated how “Heartbreak Hotel” was a big influence on them.
But it was John Lennon who was so greatly impacted by the song and its singer, Elvis Presley, that he decided to start his very own band.
“When I first heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’… me whole life changed from then on, I was just completely shaken by it,” John Lennon said.
After the release of “Heartbreak Hotel”, “We all automatically wanted to dress like Elvis, look like Elvis, swagger, strut and sneer like Elvis,” described Lennon’s best friend, Pete Shotton, “and every snide remark from Aunt Mimi, our teachers or the newspapers only served to reinforce our new idol’s grip on John’s and my young psyches.”
Pete said John was the first at his high school to wear his hair slicked back like Elvis. Lennon was known as the “leading rock and roll aficionado” at the school.
After “Heartbreak Hotel,” the hits kept coming from Elvis, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Captivated by Presley, Shotton explained that he and Lennon found the wait for each new Elvis record almost unbearable.
“It was Elvis who really got me hooked for beat music,” said John Lennon in 1963. “When I heard ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ I thought, ‘this is it,’ and I started trying to grow sideboards and all that gear.”
The band that John Lennon had formed at the end of 1956 gradually evolved into The Beatles. Less than eight years later, The Beatles had conquered the world when they took America by storm in February 1964.
Elvis represented the pinnacle of success in rock and roll, and he set the model for The Beatles’ achievement of success. The goal of becoming “bigger than Elvis” helped propel the band into worldwide fame which in some ways surpassed The King.
While touring the U.S., The Beatles had the opportunity to meet many celebrities – but there was only one that they really wanted to meet.
“There’s only one person in the United States we ever wanted to meet,” said John Lennon. “We just idolized him so much. The only person we wanted to meet in the USA was Elvis Presley.”
With the help of their managers, Colonel Parker and Brian Epstein, The Beatles finally got to meet The King of Rock and Roll in Los Angeles in August 1965. The meeting at Presley’s home was a success (even including an impromptu “jam” session) and led to future communications between the two music legends.
After the infamous meeting, John Lennon told Presley’s friend, Jerry Schilling: “I couldn’t say this to Elvis last night, but you see these sideburns? I almost got kicked out of high school trying to be like Elvis.”
Although John never got to see Elvis in person again, in subsequent years, Presley was often on Lennon’s mind. Here are just a few examples:
A bizarre drawing that Lennon did in the fall of 1966 called The Shroud of Tourin referenced Elvis. The drawing is a self-portrait of Lennon depicted with a gag over his mouth, in reference to the “We’re Bigger Than Jesus” controversy. The shroud, which was recently revealed at an auction in 2016, shows that to the left of Lennon’s image there is a cross on a hill with a crown above it and the word “Elvis.”
The following year, to celebrate Magical Mystery Tour before its national U.K. broadcast, The Beatles hosted a launch party for the film on December 21, 1967. The “Magical Mystery Tour Fancy Dress Party” was essentially a costume party. The Beatles and their significant others along with other guests including their staff, friends and family members were all expected to come in costume. John Lennon came as Elvis Presley – or at least a lookalike – with greased-up hair and wearing a leather jacket and jeans.
When the Beatles performed on The David Frost Show in September 1968, they led into the numbers playing as a hokey “Tea Room” band. Before they started singing their latest song “Hey Jude”, John Lennon sang a few bars of Elvis Presley’s 1960 hit “It’s Now or Never”, albeit in a parody, which was never seen by television viewers.
In October 1971, John Lennon put together his own “Elvis” jukebox. As he was being interviewed by a reporter at a hotel in New York City, he was sorting through a bunch of Presley’s records: “I’m gonna have a jukebox with just Elvis records on it. Isn’t it great?” Lennon told the reporter. “I asked someone to get all his old singles for me.”
In November 1974, John Lennon is filmed wearing a large round Elvis picture button. Lennon is wearing the button on the lapel of his all-black outfit when he filmed a promotional video for his song “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” A BBC film crew followed him around Central Park and other parts of New York City, and the Elvis button was prominently visible on Lennon.
“I’m an Elvis fan because it was Elvis who really got me out of Liverpool. If I can pin it on anyone, Elvis probably, you know, AHH!” John said in an interview in March 1975.
On March 1, 1975, John Lennon was a presenter at The GRAMMY awards ceremony in New York. He was wearing a large Elvis pin on his lapel, where “Elvis” was spelled out in rhinestone letters.
A month earlier in February 1975, John Lennon had released his Rock ‘n’ Roll album, a tribute to the 1950s rock and roll he loved so much. The cover featured the photo of a 20-year-old John Lennon in Hamburg taken in April 1961 by friend and photographer, Jurgen Vollmer. The photo showed Lennon with slicked-back “Elvis” hair and wearing a leather jacket.
It would be five years until he released his next studio album, Double Fantasy with Yoko Ono in 1980. The first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” was an homage to Lennon’s earliest influences in rock and roll.
“To me, it was like going back to 15 and singing à la Presley,” Lennon said about the song. “All through the taping of ‘Starting Over’ I was calling what I was doing ‘Elvis Orbison’: ‘I want you, I need you, only the lonely. I’m a born-again rocker, I feel that refreshed, and I’m going right back to my roots.”
Sadly, Double Fantasy was Lennon’s last album since he was murdered in December 1980.
However, Lennon’s love for Presley came full circle when his sons, Julian and Sean, helped induct Elvis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Ten-year-old Sean, dressed in a white tuxedo, was wearing his dad’s rhinestone “Elvis” pin.
That night at the induction ceremony, Julian Lennon read a direct quote from John Lennon, which spoke volumes: “Elvis was the thing, whatever people say, he was it. I was not competing against Elvis, rock happened to be the media I was born into – it was the one, that’s all. Those people who picked up paintbrushes, like Van Gogh, probably wanted to be Renoir or whomever went before him. I wanted to be Elvis.”
But how did Elvis Presley feel about John Lennon? Was the feeling of admiration mutual? And who was Presley’s favorite Beatle?
Yes, he had one.
Read more about the behind-the-scenes relationship between The Beatles and The King of Rock and Roll in the author’s new book, ELVIS AND THE BEATLES: Love and Rivalry Between the Two Biggest Acts of the 20th Century