Backup singer reminisces about Elvis
by Kenny Farmer
Aug 16, 2011 | 9412 views |  0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mary Holladay Pederson sang backup on such Elvis Presley hits as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.”
Mary Holladay Pederson sang backup on such Elvis Presley hits as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.”
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CROPWELL — Mary Holladay Pederson grew up in Pell City and is now a resident of Cropwell, but she has made some fantastic memories in between.

Pederson sang backup for many of the biggest musical acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Sonny and Cher, Ray Charles, Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Ronnie Milsap and Neil Diamond, but none were bigger than Elvis Presley.

Pederson has always enjoyed singing. She began while in seventh-grade in an all-girls quartet and continued throughout high school. She sang for many local functions in Pell City, including store openings and school events. Once after appearing on the Country Boy Eddie Show, Holladay was asked by a nearby radio station to come over and sing for them, too.

After graduation from high school, Pederson went to Auburn University where she began singing with a friend, Susan Coleman Pilkington. She and Pilkington met Jeanie Green, and the three would later become backup singers for Elvis. Green liked their sound and in 1967 invited them to come to Muscle Shoals to begin recording music.

Pederson and Pilkington drove to Muscle Shoals from Auburn many Sunday mornings. They worked at the studio through the night and had to drive back by 7 a.m. on Monday for class. Pederson said they didn’t know it at the time, but they “were being trained to be session singers.”

They soon joined the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and were paid on the union scale, which was $22.50 per song or hour.

After graduating from Auburn, Pederson moved to Tennessee to work at the American Sound Studio in Memphis. Her sister Ginger, also an aspiring singer, moved in with Pederson and began attending Memphis State University. The sisters began singing backup for musical acts such as Ronnie Milsap and Billy Swan.

The sisters’ big break came when Chip Moman, owner of the American Sound Studio, struck a deal with Felton Jarvis, Elvis’ producer. They agreed on a deal that would have Elvis record at the Memphis studio. Moman liked the Holladays’ work, so they were brought in to sing backup for the Memphis sessions.

Pederson and her sister joined Jeanie Green and Donna Thatcher to become the singers that would back up Elvis on hits such as “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Rubber Neckin’,” “Cold Kentucky Rain,” and others. During those sessions, the girls recorded nine songs with Elvis. Pederson was paid $240.35 for her work.

Pederson talks about the first time she met Elvis. She said she was in the studio recording when the lights went out. When the lights were turned off, it meant recording had stopped, so she quit singing and wondered what was going on.

“In walks a huge mob of guys,” Pederson said. “Then Elvis walked through the middle of them. Elvis walked straight over to us and shook our hands.”

As Elvis approached her, Pederson said she began to think of what she was going to say to him.

“What do you say to someone like that?” she asked. “I didn’t want to sound stupid. All I could think to say was, ‘Hello, how are you?’”

Pederson said during later sessions Elvis would sit and talk with them. Many times he would talk to them about karate, saying he learned the techniques to protect himself.

“He was really, really nice to us,” Pederson said. “We were glad to get to work with him because he’d pull up a chair and chat with us like anyone would. After doing about four sessions with him, you kind of felt like he was a friend.”

Pederson said Elvis was sometimes nervous about performing on stage.

“He sometimes heard someone was going to try to get him; hence the big entourage,” she said.

Pederson and her sister did several more sessions with Elvis in Memphis. She said he only recorded at night, and the recording sessions lasted from 8 p.m. until daylight. These sessions usually lasted for about a week at a time.

On the fourth or fifth day of one of the sessions, Elvis came to talk to the girls like he often would. He was wearing an old poncho. Backup singer Jeanie Green approached him and said, “I sure do like that poncho.” Elvis stood up, took off the poncho and gave it to Green. Pederson said she and the other girls were really jealous because “we didn’t think of it first.”

Pederson married her husband, Steve, on July 25, 1970. He was a pilot in the Air Force and was sent to F4 training. The couple moved to Germany for a brief time, and she missed out on three years of recording with Elvis. However, she did sing backup for Ray Stevens at the inauguration of President Richard Nixon in 1973.

Pederson and her sister were asked to do a show with Elvis in Atlantic City in 1974, but Pederson declined because she was three months pregnant. “What a thing to do!” she said.

Pederson crossed paths with Elvis again in 1975 in the Memphis recording studio.

“He looked puffy and fat. He looked unhappy and he wasn’t friendly,” she said.

She knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was that had changed Elvis so dramatically.

In 1977, Pederson’s husband was sent to Pilot Safety School in California. She went to Nashville while her husband was away, and she was right back in the studio. She was in the studio recording tracks on Aug. 16, 1977, when the lights went out. She quit singing, and the engineer came over the speaker and said, “We just heard Elvis died.”

Everyone in the studio was shocked. They couldn’t believe it. They all thought he was too young to die.

Moments later the phone rang at the studio. The voice on the other end told them, “Yeah, it’s on the news. Elvis is dead.”

“I felt so sorry,” Pederson said. “You don’t want to see a singer like that decline like he did. We felt helpless.”

Pederson still embraces her time with Elvis.

“The older I get, the more I see it as a great privilege,” she said.

Pederson will be a featured guest on the “Elvis Cruise” Jan. 12-16, 2012. She and her sister have also been invited by former Elvis pianist Bobby Woods to join him on an upcoming European tour where she anticipates playing in 10 countries in two-and-a-half weeks.

While Pederson and her sister had some successful recording sessions before Elvis, Pederson said it didn’t seem like they were to the point in their career where they should have been asked to work with Elvis.

“But Elvis liked us,” she said.

Contact Kenny Farmer at kfarmer@dailyhome.com.