Ian Nelson was the only journalist to interview Elvis on UK soil when he landed at Prestwick Airport in 1960. Gayle Ritchie takes a trip down memory lane with Ian’s daughter and grandson – who hail from Perthshire – 60 years on…
When Elvis touched down on British soil in 1960, it was a momentous occasion.
The rumour that the king of rock ‘n’ roll was due to stop over at Prestwick Airport as he flew home from national service in Germany spread like wildfire and fans raced to see the world’s biggest star in the flesh.
Stepping off the plane in his military uniform and descending the stairs, Elvis hollered to the crowd below: “Where am I?”
“Prestwick!” came the response from the excited, screaming teenage girls.
Elvis Presley stops over at Prestwick Airport after completing American national service. (1960) Pic: Ian Ghee. pic.twitter.com/KoPBl4oQzm
— PictureThis Scotland (@74frankfurt) February 23, 2019
The stopover to refuel the plane was brief – around 90 minutes – and meant to be a closely guarded secret among personnel in US Air force Unit 1631.
But a secret like that was too big to keep, and of course, the cat was quickly out of the bag.
Elvis was the perfect gentleman – chatting, signing autographs and smiling while his picture was taken with fans.
And when roving reporter Ian Nelson asked if he could interview him, Elvis was more than happy to oblige.
The big interview
It was the evening of March 3 1960 when Ian got the tip-off about Elvis.
“I lived in Prestwick at the time, a short distance from the airport,” the former staffer for the Scottish Daily Mail recalled a month before his death aged 89 in 2009.
“The Americans had a base there and I had met quite a lot of them. The colonel knew I was always looking for stories and he phoned me to say there was a famous name arriving, so I nipped down.”
Ian’s swift trip would earn him the rare distinction of being the only British journalist to interview – and be photographed with – Elvis on British soil.
“Girls were there, shouting,” he remembered.
“It was about 10pm. Everyone was asking for his autograph and I recall my daughter, Nicola, saying later, ‘Why didn’t you get an autograph?’
“But that isn’t what journalists do.”
Then only 25 years old, Elvis was already a huge global star.
But to Ian he was simply another high-profile visitor to Prestwick, a base convenient for A-list types given its greater privacy than the airports in major cities.
“Luckily, we had a small lounge to ourselves and we chatted away for over 20 minutes while the plane was refuelling,” he recalled.
“I thought he was charming, a very polite young man. He called me Sir. He was just like the kid next door.”
Elvis was still in uniform, so he felt compelled to keep his hat on throughout the discussion, before the pair closed with a warm handshake.
“I thought he was charming, a very polite young man. He called me Sir. He was just like the kid next door.”
He avoided questions about his teenage girlfriend, Priscilla, but when Ian asked him if he would perform in Scotland, Elvis said: “I kind of like the idea of Scotland. I’m going to do a European tour and it would be nice to come back here.”
He never did, but the picture of Ian asking the question came back into the family’s life more than once over the years.
“His parting words to me when his flight was called were: ‘Well, Sir, it’s been very nice talking to you. Hope we meet again some time.’ But of, course, we never did.”
Those magical 90 minutes were the only time Elvis set foot on British soil.
All the photos taken during the short visit were by Ian Ghee, official photographer for Scottish Aviation Limited.
He had taken his camera to the airport having been told only that a celebrity would be visiting.
A photograph of Ian interviewing Elvis hung on the walls of his various homes, including in Dunblane, until his death.
Ian kept press cuttings of his famous meeting close until his final days in a nursing home, enchanting caring staff with the legendary tale.
The Prestwick visit is commemorated in the Elvis Presley Bar at the airport.
“My dad interviewed Elvis”
Nicola Hodge was only nine years old when her father interviewed the rock and rock legend.
“The night my dad got the tip-off that Elvis might be landing, I was in my bed,” recalls the 68-year-old, formerly of Braco, Perthshire.
“I knew all about it and I knew who Elvis was but I was too young to go along to the airport.
“My dad phoned my god mum’s daughter, Joyce, who was a lot older than me, and asked if she wanted to go.
“Of course she did and so he took her along. As soon as she hears Elvis on the radio these days, she thinks about my dad and that night.”
The young Nicola wasn’t, as you might expect, shocked and star struck to hear her father had spent the evening chatting with the handsome music star.
For her, it was just something that happened; it was her dad’s lifestyle.
“It didn’t matter who he interviewed – whether Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra or the first woman on the moon,” she reflects.
“My father always had his feet firmly on the ground. He was a journalist through and through. That was his job.
“I grew up hearing about all these people he was going to interview and it was just a job for my dad, so I saw these people as being basic individuals.”
Nicola would often accompany her dad on jobs, and always when he interviewed President Eisenhower – although she admits she didn’t even realise who he was.
“It was only later on in life that I realised how amazing it was,” she says. “But it was just a case of – that was my dad interviewing Elvis Presley in the same way as he interviewed Frank Sinatra or President Eisenhower.”
When she spoke to her dad about Elvis over the years, he would describe him as a “very nice, mannerly young man”.
The photograph of her dad with Elvis takes pride of place on the walls of Nicola’s house in Stirling, where she moved in 2011.
Prior to this, it hung in her home in Braco, and her two children, Ed and Geraldine, grew up idolising it.
Like living on Fleet Street
Nicola describes her father as a workaholic, always on the hunt for stories and tip-offs.
“Growing up was almost like living on Fleet Street,” she says.
“In the house in Prestwick, the dining room was completely taken over by my dad.
“I’d sit and listen to him typing away and putting his copy over. Those were the days when you’d phone it over to the office and you’d have to punctuate it.
“I’d listen to my dad telling the copytaker to put in full stops, exclamation marks, commas and all the rest. I remember that so well.
“I teach English as a foreign language (ESOL) and adult literacies and I use my dad’s story a lot in my teaching, I must admit. People are very interested in it.”
Just like her dad, Nicola has met a lot of famous people in her life, having worked at Sir Jackie Stewart’s shooting school of Gleneagles for 15 years.
“My feet were always on the ground because of my father’s training,” she says.
“I saw the King in the flesh”
Joyce Sloan, nee Henderson, accompanied Ian to see Elvis at Prestwick Airport in 1960.
“I called him my Uncle Ian as our families were very close,” says Joyce, 75, of Ayr.
“Ian knew I was a huge Elvis fan and when he told me to get down to the airport as quick as I could because he was going to be there, I thought all my dreams had come true.
“I must’ve been about 14 or 15 and I tied a scarf round my head, put on a wee beige coat and ballet pumps and ran to get the bus.”
The plane was waiting when Joyce arrived at the airport. She had gone there alone, not knowing any of the screaming fans already waiting.
“I’ll never forget when the plane door opened and Elvis stepped out, so handsome in his uniform,” says Joyce, a retired farmer.
“He stopped, looked around and asked where he was before he walked down the steps.
“That image truly stuck in my mind. It was so exciting, exhilarating and yes, a dream come true, My husband tells people that his wife met the King, and it’s true!”
Joyce, a keen artist, painted a portrait of Elvis which she hangs on her wall.
“I just love it,” she says. “I love everything about Elvis. As a teenager, I collected girly magazines which, each week, would give you an Elvis body part.
“You put them all together – head and shoulders, torso and legs – to make a full size Elvis! It was bizarre when you think about it!”
While she’s one of very few people in Scotland to have seen Elvis on UK soil, Joyce headed to Glasgow’s SSE Hydro three years ago to see the star “live” in concert, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
“The show was quite surreal, with Priscilla Presley coming on and off stage to tell stories and Elvis being projected onto the screen, almost like a hologram but as if he were back from the dead!” laughs Joyce.
“We had to wonder what on earth we were doing there, but it was all good fun!
“It’s amazing to think that after all these years, Elvis can still fill a huge stadium.”
Following in grandpa’s footsteps
Ian’s grandson, Ed Hodge, was so inspired by his grandad’s stories that he followed him into journalism.
“We’d go down to see my grandparents in Saltburn-by-the-sea in North Yorkshire for the holidays and I remember seeing grandpa working away on stories,” says Ed, 42.
“He had a desk in his lounge looking out onto the garden. You’d hear him on the phone or bashing away on the keys of his old-fashioned typewriter every day, churning out stories.
“He had so many contacts in the north-east and I was always intrigued by it all. What he did struck a chord with me.
“I was fascinated by the fact he was doing what looked a fun job, covering news and sport. It became a career path, from my early teens, that I wanted to follow.”
Ed studied history at St Andrews University and then got into journalism, combining news and sports, subjects he loved.
He did this for 11 years before moving into PR and becoming a respected author with his first book – Jewel in the Glen: Gleneagles, Golf and the Ryder Cup – being published in 2013.
When his grandfather got the Elvis exclusive, it was a massive deal.
“He certainly met a lot of famous people but the Elvis interview couldn’t really be topped,” says Ed.
“He just got out his notepad and pen and chatted away to Elvis in a small lounge while the plane was refuelling.
“The picture of Elvis is fantastic. Grandpa’s next to Elvis with his head down, glasses on and just taking notes. He would’ve been 40 then.
“That’s the picture I grew up with in Braco. There were a few prints of it which we managed to get our hands on.
“We had it framed in our family home in Perthshire, as did my grandparents.”
While the Elvis exclusive could never be beaten, Ian interviewed many sports stars over the years including golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer.
“He knew a lot of staff at the airport and he would get tip-offs about people coming in,” says Ed.
“At that time, access to those kind of legends was probably not as exclusive as it is now.
“But grandpa was never star struck; he never really got too excited. He was just always the consummate professional. It didn’t matter who it was. He just got on with it.”
Other notable interviews included Yuri Gagarin’s space comrade, Valentina Tereshkova, and various royalty from countries around the globe who passed through Prestwick.
Personal interviews with US president Dwight Eisenhower, who had a residence at Culzean Castle in Ayr in the 1950s, also became a regular theme.
Ian had also once sat in the next chair to Frank Sinatra in the Prestwick barber shop, the request for an interview met rather brusquely.
Ian had himself been a wartime flight lieutenant in RAF intelligence, though he seldom talked about it.