Wilkinson passed away Friday at his home in Springfield after a fight with cancer, according to a family spokesman and the Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home. Priscilla and Lisa Marie Presley offered their “deepest sympathy” to his family, saying in a statement that “John and the beautiful music he made with Elvis will live forever in our hearts.”
Wilkinson first met Elvis Presley when he was 10 years old after sneaking into his dressing room before a show at the Shrine Mosque in Springfield. He amused Presley when he told him, “You can’t play guitar worth a damn.”
Family friend and spokesman Gary Ellison said a Springfield history museum recalled the pair’s meeting in an exhibit that ran until about three weeks ago.
“John loved to tell that story,” Ellison, a fellow musician, said Friday.
After the chance meeting, Wilkinson developed a name for himself as a singer and guitarist, performing with such groups as The New Christy Minstrels.
He was 23 when Presley saw him perform on a television show in Los Angeles in 1968, and asked him to join the TCB Band _ not knowing he was the youngster who insulted his playing a decade earlier, Ellison recalled.
Wilkinson went on to play 1,200 shows as Presley’s rhythm guitar player until the legendary singer’s death in 1977.
“John considered Elvis more as a friend than as a boss,” Ellison said.
Even after suffering a stroke in 1989 that left him unable to play the guitar, Wilkinson continued singing with fellow musicians, including the old TCB Band (the acronym stood for Taking Care of Business), and also made a living in retail and airline services management.
“He was honestly one of the best acoustic guitar players I’d ever heard,” Ellison recalled, adding that Wilkinson kept in touch with many of the performers from the folk music era in the late 1960s and early `70s.
A statement from the family, released through Ellison, said Wilkinson also was proud of the fact that he never turned down a request for an autograph.
“It didn’t matter if he was meeting adoring fans, joking with Chuck Berry about keeping his B-string in tune, or if he was talking to a neighbor about her dog, people were people to him,” the statement said.
“Folks were folks. John would look you square in the eye and accept you, just as you were. There was nothing phony about him.”
He is survived by his wife, Terry. A private graveside service is planned.