John Wilkinson, guitarist and singer from Springfield, Missouri, played in Elvis Presley’s Taking Care of Business Band (TCB). He showed signs from childhood that he not only had a passion for music, he knew he was good.
Wilkinson was born on July 3, 1945, in Washington, D.C. A year later, his parents, Richard and Virginia Wilkinson, moved to Springfield. He picked up the guitar at age 5 and banjo at age 6, and attended all grades at Greenwood Laboratory School through high school.
He briefly attended the University of Arkansas but left to pursue music. He gained recognition in folk and country circles, playing with The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels.
Wilkinson’s widely celebrated, prophetic first encounter with Presley took place in 1956 in Springfield, on the afternoon before the young star played a concert at the Shrine Mosque.
The 10-year-old Wilkinson, already an accomplished guitarist, had been appalled upon seeing TV clips of Presley mistreating his elite Martin D-18 acoustic guitar by beating on it with his hands.
On the day of the Springfield performance, Wilkinson heard a radio broadcast in which the announcer mentioned an afternoon sound check, closed to the public. The boy seized this opportunity to give Presley a piece of his mind. Wilkinson rode his bicycle to the venue, sneaked in and found Presley in his dressing room.
After an exchange of pleasantries, Wilkinson lowered the boom, telling Presley, “You can’t play guitar worth a damn.” The young star was bemused at first, then impressed when he handed a guitar to the boy and heard him play a few tunes.
“He said, ‘you’re pretty good,’ and Wilkinson said, ‘I know.’ ” Presley predicted the two would meet again. Twelve years later, after Wilkinson had established himself as a top-shelf studio musician, Presley hired him to play rhythm guitar in his new traveling band (TCB).
Wilkinson played with the band until Elvis’s death in 1977. He said of Elvis, his boss and his friend: “Besides my father, he was the most compassionate, generous, loving human being I have ever met.”