Ozarks Life: The King and his Axe-Man from Springfield
Johnny Wilkinson played with Elvis for the final nine years of the King’s life.
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Once upon a time, there was a King. And in his court, an axe-man, from Springfield.
“He was very quiet,” Gary Ellison said about his longtime friend, Johnny Wilkinson. “John, never around me anyway, blew his horn about who he was and what he did.”
Wilkinson moved to Springfield at a young age when his dad started the psychology department for then Southwest Missouri State College. After graduating from Greenwood, Johnny pursued music and not academics like his father.
“He worked in the folk era,” Ellison said, “with the New Christy Minstrels and he would sub with the Kingston Trio. And he ended up in Los Angeles.”
It was there in 1968 that Elvis Presley saw Johnny’s talent and tracked him down.
“So the phone rings and Johnny picked it up,” Ellison said. “And the guy said, ‘Johnny, this Elvis,’ and John said, ‘oh, yeah, right’ and hung up. And immediately the phone rang back. He said, ‘Johnny, this is Elvis, don’t hang up.’ And he said, ‘I saw you on television. I like what I heard. And I’m getting ready to put together the TCB band. And I would like to talk to you about being part of it.’”
For the next nine-and-a-half years, up until Elvis’ death, Johnny toured and recorded with the King of Rock and Roll. Johnny played rhythm guitar for the Taking Care of Business Band.
“Elvis always mispronounced Johnny’s name,” Ellison recalled. “It was Johnny Wilkinson. But l was always called him Johnny Wilkerson.”
Elvis even did that at Johnny’s homecoming at Hammons Student Center on June 17, 1977. Almost two months to the day before his death, Elvis and his band rocked SMS.
“Well, it was like the Second Coming,” Ellison joked. “Elvis was the entertainer.”
Gary still has his ticket stub and a photo he snapped from that night. But what only a handful of people knew at the time was this was the second time Elvis and Johnny shared a moment together in Springfield.
Twenty-one years before the Hammons concert, 21-year-old Elvis Presley performed at the Shrine Mosque. And on May 17, 1956, 10-year-old Johnny Wilkinson wanted to talk to this up-and-coming rocker.
“John got on his bicycle and went down to the Shrine Mosque,” Ellison said. “Johnny and his dad had performed there, so he knew where the stage door was and where the dressing rooms were. And he found Elvis Presley sitting there by himself.”
Years ago, Johnny appeared on Ozarks Public Television’s Ozarks Watch Magazine program and told Dale Moore why he wanted to meet Elvis that day.
“Elvis, the real reason why I’m here,” Wilkinson said on the program, “I was looking for you; was to tell you, that you can’t play guitar worth a damn... I know this is a family show, but those are my words.”
“And so Elvis said, ‘well pick that guitar up and show me,’” Ellison continued telling the story. “ And so John pulled out his finger picks and started playing. And about that time, the backstage goons came in and said, ‘hey, who’s this’ and Elvis said, ‘wait a minute. This is my friend, Johnny Wilkinson. He’s given me a guitar lesson.’ And so they finished.”
“And when the thing was over,” Ellison concluded, “Elvis said, ‘you know, I just have a feeling we’re going to meet again someday.’ And Johnny said, ‘I hope so.’”
Johnny Wilkinson suffered a stroke in the late 80s, and could no longer play the guitar or banjo. He died from cancer in 2013. Before his death, he asked Gary Ellison to play at his funeral.
Their meeting in 1956 was set to be memorialized in Springfield. A statue of 10-year-old Johnny with Elvis was proposed for the front of the Shrine Mosque but they could never get the money together to make it a reality. A small mock-up of the sculpture sits on the fifth floor of the History Museum on the Square in a cabinet dedicated to Wilkinson.
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