Today future John Lennon collaborator David Robert Jones, alias Bowie, celebrated his 21st birthday. At this tender age he had already been in numerous bands, written dozens of songs, and released several singles and an album. But his career was at a low ebb as 1968 began; he’d been dropped from his label after the album flopped, and was back living with his parents. Things had gotten so bad that he was now pursuing a career in mime.

Even so, Bowie’s loyal manager Kenneth Pitt continued to try to find him a new record contract, and at some point in the year finagled a meeting with The Beatles’ new label. So had things gone a little differently, Space Oddity might have come out on Apple Records. But alas, no label was willing to take a flyer on David Bowie at this point, even one as profligate with its money as Apple.

This was also a birthday for Elvis Presley, his 32nd. Elvis’s career was not in good shape either. He was already well past his heyday and his most recent album — the soundtrack to Clambake — had been his lowest-selling LP to date. He wasn’t quite done, though; in late 1968 his famous “Comeback Special” would air, kicking off a startling, if brief, Elvis renaissance.

The Beatles/Elvis connection is well known; the Fabs were great admirers of the King, and had managed to arrange a meeting back in August 1965. Many versions of this story are told, and it’s hard to tell which ones to believe. The one thing they all agree on is that things were initially very awkward. According to Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, the boys arrived at Elvis’s rented house in Bel Air about 10:00, stumbling out of their limo in a cloud of marijuana smoke. Inside,

The room was bathed in red and blue light, which gave it the appearance of a cheesy after-hours club. No one knew what to do, or say. After a brief, embarrassing silence, Elvis summoned them to sit down beside him but grew weary of The Beatles’ vacant stares … and started clicking nervously through the channels of a wall-size TV set.

“If you damn guys are gonna sit here and stare at me all night I’m gonna go to bed,” Elvis huffed, tossing the remote control on the coffee table. Turning to his girlfriend [future wife Priscilla], he said, “Let’s call it a night, right, Cilla? I didn’t mean for this to be like subjects calling on the King. I just thought we’d sit and talk about music and jam a little.”

“That’d be great,” Paul said, suggesting they try a song by “the other Cilla” – Cilla Black – at which point guitars and a white piano were produced, along with ample drink.

The song in question, “You’re My World,” seems like a bit of an odd choice, but it’s just possible that Elvis might have known it. Though it was much more successful in the UK, where it spent four weeks at #1, it got as high as #26 in the U.S. — Cilla Black’s only top 40 hit stateside.

From here the different versions diverge. It seems like Paul and John jammed with Elvis for a good while, messing around with “That’s All Right Mama,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “I Feel Fine.” Ringo, stuck without a drum kit, apparently tried playing percussion on furniture for awhile, then wandered off to shoot pool with some roadies. As for George, he later said,

I never jammed with Elvis at all. I spent most of the party trying to suss out from the gang if anybody had any reefers. But they were “uppers and whiskey” people. They weren’t really into reefer smoking in the South.

Some accounts have Elvis plugging in a Fender bass and playing along with records, including Charlie Rich’s “Mohair Sam”; others say that Rich himself was there. Paul claims to have taught Elvis a few licks on the bass:

Suddenly, he was a mate. It was a great conversation piece for me. I could actually talk about the bass, and we sat around and just enjoyed ourselves.

The jam session came to an end when Colonel Tom Parker appeared with parting gifts including, says The Beatles Bible, “a complete set of Presley’s albums, gun holsters with gold leather belts and a table lamp in the shape of a wagon.”

In the aftermath, grumpy John Lennon was dismissive: “It was a load of rubbish … just like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck.” But it was George Harrison who summed it up best. As The Beatles’ limousine pulled away, John speculated that Elvis had been stoned out of his mind. Quoth George, “Aren’t we all?”

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