Ed Bonja interview - Part 2
- Elvis' friend & photographer talks with EIN
Bonja needs little introduction to most Elvis collectors
and his pictures are some of the most famous images
of Elvis ever produced. While his photographs can be
found on nearly all of Elvis’ LP covers in the seventies
and in every Elvis book, he has also published his own,
"Elvis: Shot by Ed Bonja" as well as the DVD "Elvis,
The Colonel & Me."
Bonja worked for Colonel Parker throughout the seventies
but was part of the Elvis family since his childhood.
This year Ed Bonja took part in the Las Vegas Elvis
week celebrations and EIN’s Piers Beagley spent a few
hours talking with him about his fascinating life.
Part 2 Ed reminisces about The Final Years.
(For his stories
about the early years, Click here for Part 1)
EIN – Isn’t it true that Tom Diskin was a very smart man who did
always keep souvenirs and didn’t gamble his money?
Ed - He
was a very sharp guy, a very quiet guy. He amassed a great
deal of wealth, mainly in real estate in Tennessee. He got
all he ever wanted and was living a fine life until he had
that automobile accident. It was so sad.
EIN - At one point
Elvis fans were hoping for a pile of undiscovered recordings
to be found in your Uncle’s house but nothing new has turned
up and I believe your aunt has gone through everything of
Tom’s. Do you know or believe there are more tapes that will
Ed – If anything existed I’m afraid it has been destroyed or
lost by now. Before he died Tom used to tell me about some
unreleased rehearsal tapes he had, but Tom was extremely protective
and, if he thought if it wasn’t good for Elvis’ image, it
wouldn’t be seen or heard from again. He probably destroyed
EIN – That is sad because nowadays, with FTD releasing complete
rehearsal tapes, we do get to hear Elvis swearing & fooling
around - but in the end it only helps prove that Elvis was
human after all.
- Exactly! It does help everyone to understand the real Elvis
and all the fans love it. If the tapes were destroyed or hidden
away some place so no one ever gets to hear them it is a real
- Your last photos are from August ‘75 I think. Is it right
that you stopped taking photos because you hoped that Elvis
was going to get himself back into better shape? What did
The Colonel say?
Ed – I always had my cameras with me but even before 75, when
Elvis put on a little weight I’d notice it at the beginning
of the Tour and I’d deliberately leave my cameras on the plane.
I just didn’t want to shoot him if he wasn’t looking really
good. Then in 1975 I decided that I’d just hang on until he
lost some weight - but sadly it never came to that. I actually
talked about it with The Colonel and he agreed 100% that Elvis
needed to lose weight. Looking back at it, it surprises me
when I think that The Colonel often didn’t seem to particularly
care what pictures he used of Elvis.
- What did you feel when you realised that it was all getting
worse? That period in mid 1976 sounds terrible?
Ed – That was a bad, bad period. That’s why when people asked
me if I was surprised to hear that Elvis had died, I said
I wasn’t surprised at all - but I was shocked.
- Do you think that anyone could have done anything more to
help Elvis in those years?
Ed – Boy, that is the billion dollar question. Because Elvis
had so much power, so much strength and so many connections,
who could stand up to him? Jackie Kahane (comedian) and I
used to have lunch every month and he was writing a book called
"I killed Elvis". He said he used that title because he, like
everybody else, could see what Elvis was doing to himself
and how he was deteriorating. But for whatever reasons, fear
of losing his job, fear of getting Elvis angry, he kept silent.
As did everyone else.
- Did you have anything to do with Dr Nick? In your
opinion was he a good or bad influence for Elvis?
Ed – Well actually I liked Dr Nick and used to get along
with him. Dr. Ghanem was also my doctor in Vegas. He
told me how he would dump stuff out of capsules and
put in placebos too. He knew that a lot of other stuff
was being prescribed by different Doctors but he said
he had nothing to fear as he tried his best for Elvis
and tried to help him get off anything that he shouldn’t
have been on.
still tell stories about all of Elvis’ doctors but it
is hard to know the truth.
can’t help a man who won’t help himself. With Elvis’ power
he had to get his way - which made it a hundred times worse.
EIN – What would you say about the idea that The Colonel at the
end was just flogging Elvis to death on tours just to support
his gambling habit?
Ed – Well, the tours wouldn’t have taken place if Elvis hadn’t
wanted them to. You know when they had that major break up
in Vegas, in September 73, Elvis had told him, "Stay out of
my personal life, I’m my own man". If Elvis at that point
had said to The Colonel, ‘I want to take six months or a year
off’, it would have been done! To emphasise that, when The
Colonel once tried to talk to Elvis about the drugs and things,
Elvis just went crazy. That was when The Colonel typed up
the terms of the dissolvent of the contract. George Parkhill
(of RCA) took them upstairs to Elvis’ suite at about 6 o’clock
in the morning. We all went back to our offices at MGM in
L.A. and we just waited.
couple of weeks went by and I came into the office one morning
and The Colonel was sitting in his office when the private
line rang. This was the phone line that only Elvis or Vernon
called on. I picked up the phone and Elvis said, "Hello Eddie,
is The Colonel there?" I raced around to get The Colonel and
said, "It’s Elvis on the phone!" Well, typical Colonel he
says to me, "Tip me off, how does he sound?" - and I said,
It was a very strange conversation with the
Colonel just saying four or five times, "Yeah, Yeah" and then,
"I’ll arrange it." After that he hung up. I immediately asked
The Colonel, what did he say? And he replied, "Elvis just
said, ‘He wants things to be the way they were and he wants
to go out on tour again’." And that was the end of the fighting,
and the break up. There had to be such psychological dependency
between the two of them. They were inseparable.
EIN – He was obviously a complicated & manipulative man. Have
you read Allana Nash’s very thorough book on The Colonel?
Ed – No I haven’t. I have not read any books about Elvis or The
Colonel since I figure that I was there and I don’t want to
know another person’s opinion. I did have Allana Nash contact
me for interviews, but I have never let anybody do that. The
Colonel was a very, very complex man and although people want
to say that he was a "No Good", I would say no, he wasn’t
bad. - And there’s very little genuine proof of anything in
EIN – What are your regrets?
Ed – There are always hindsights and regrets. One of my regrets
is the fact that we would often have meals up in The Colonel’s
suite, as it was a very family thing. The Colonel would habitually
regale us with stories about the old days. Fascinating stories
- and he was a very, very good storyteller. I only wish that
I had written them down or taped them.
EIN – Let me ask you what you thought of your book "I Shot Elvis" because, although your photos are great, a lot of people were
disappointed in the production.
Ed – Unfortunately I have to agree that the publishers did a
terrible job with that book. Sadly the Danish publisher did
not do me any justice with that at all! I was to fly over
there to check it and give my final approval but they said
not to bother since it was already done. Of course I complained,
saying that I needed to approve it, but he said "Don’t worry,
it’s a great book." When I finally got the finished copy I
sunk to the floor practically. It was tragic.
EIN – Have you got anything else planned?
Ed – Well to try & rectify that, I’m now working on a high-quality
book. I’m working with a designer in Germany and I think it’s
going to be very special. I took around 10,000 photos of Elvis
but there are only a couple of hundred that remain unpublished.
I have a photo of Elvis that’s never been put out where he’s
wearing the Black Fireworks suit and he’s got only one single
spotlight on him. It’s black all around him and he looks like
a black panther. It’s a really extraordinary shot and I need
to use it for something very, very special since, when it
comes out, it will be stolen by everyone all over the world.
I’m not sure if we’ll be using it for the cover of the book
but we’re hoping to get the book out around Christmas.
EIN – Let me ask you about the final year. I presume that you
were there for the 76/77 New Year’s show. What a blast that
is, possibly Elvis’ last great show – what do you think?
Ed – I look back at that one and think that I probably should
have taken some photos, as he was back in good form - but
it really caught me by surprise so I didn’t. The older I get
the more I realise all the great things I’ve been through
and what great opportunities I had but how I didn’t realise
it at the time.
- The Spring tours of 1977 were a terrible affair. With perhaps
Ann Arbor being the slight exception. What was it like to
be there at such a low point?
Ed – (sighing) It was shocking, he was very, very bad. I was
there at Baton Rouge, Louisiana when they had to announce
to the sold-out audience that Elvis had been flown to Memphis
hospital. It was really sad. You know what, at that point
I found just enough strength in me to walk away before I also
got lost in the deep-end.
EIN – So I have a tricky question here. Why did you quit? Was
it the pressure of touring and didn’t you also get into bad
gambling habits like The Colonel?
Ed – (Laughing). Yeah, that’s true. The Colonel used to say to
me about roulette, "You make a lot of money, you should play!"
Well I didn’t want to play ‘cos I didn’t care for the game
that much and I always lost! He’d say, "It goes with the job."
The night I left, May 1st 1977, I stayed up all night with
The Colonel playing roulette, craps and I lost 12 thousand
dollars! It was a fortune to me and it was like him losing
a million, which he did practically every day. We’re walking
upstairs and he says, "Well, we had a pretty good night."
I’m thinking that I didn’t have a good night and I was losing
more than I made!
that coupled with being physically sick - as the Tours always
drained me - and at the same time I lost out on one of the
most important relationships of my life. I was emotionally
drained & depressed. I sat on my hotel bed and realised that
I didn’t have a life. My entire life was ‘The Elvis Presley
Show’ & working with The Colonel and, not only that, but I
was losing money like crazy! I just picked up my briefcase,
leaving all my clothes in the wardrobe. I walked out of the
Hotel room, lay my room key on the guard’s table and said,
"Tell The Colonel I said goodbye". I took a plane home, disconnected
my phones, and I never looked back!
EIN – Leaving at that point, you must than have been shocked when
you heard they were making the 1977 TV special?
Ed – You know, I started to watch that TV special but when I
saw Elvis come out and Ed Parker was there with someone mopping
Elvis’ brow, and I looked and I thought, "Oh my god, he’s
already dead" and I turned it off. And to this day I have
never watched it, I couldn’t.
EIN – So to get us out of this mood, can you tell me your
favourite memory of the great fun times you had on Tour
Ed – That’s really hard because there are so many. I remember
enjoying one night particularly and it was a closing
night after a Lake Tahoe engagement. As usual Elvis
had a party for everybody. (Laughing) I had found this
lovely young lady who I’d taken up to the party with
me and we were sitting across from Elvis on a couch.
Elvis was sitting there with his guitar, singing some
He’d start some songs and then he couldn’t remember all the
lyrics. Well I helped out & told him the lyrics - and this
happened 3 or 4 times.
Elvis laughed and said, "Eddie, how come you know the words
to all of my songs?" I said, "Well, I type up of all your
songs and keep them in a lyric book!" He then did a fabulous
laugh, as he thought that was very funny, and that I knew
the lyrics better than him! You know, to be there in a small
room while Elvis was creating music for a few close friends
– a lot of people can’t comprehend just how magic that would
EIN – Eddie Bonja, you are a very lucky man to have spent so much
time with Elvis and so many of his friends.
Ed – (Laughing) I’m beginning to realise that!
EIN – Thanks so much for letting me take up so much of your time.
- It’s been a pleasure and I’d love to get to Australia one
day and next time we can do it in person!
- This interview took place on August 5th 2004, just 2 weeks
before Ed Bonja & Al Dvorin's tragic car crash. Ed Bonja not
only lost a best friend in the accident but also lost a large
number of his precious possessions. There are tentative plans
for a fund-raising Elvis show in Las Vegas in November to
help pay for his bills. Ed is still bruised & battered but
is recovering. EIN wishes him all the best.
Click here for Part 1 of this interview.
would like to thank Paul & Joan Gansky for their assistance
in arranging this interview.
Click here for other insights into Elvis with these CD reviews-
Elvis live on tour 1977 'Spring Tours'
Elvis live in Vegas 1973 'Closing Night'
Elvis: Has Left the Building
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