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Verde Valley At The Center Of Search For Missing Elvis Record

A fan photo of Elvis Presley in old town Cottonwood during the 1967 filming of "Stay Away Joe."
(Photo courtesy of the Billie Rizzo collection)
A fan photo of Elvis Presley in old town Cottonwood during the 1967 filming of "Stay Away Joe."

Most Hollywood trivia games probably won’t tell you that Elvis Presley made a movie in Arizona’s red rock country almost 50 years ago. “Stay Away Joe” is an absurd musical comedy that got mixed reviews.

But the movie is almost overshadowed by a rare record Elvis made while filming in the Verde Valley.

Elvis belted out “Stay Away Joe” the title theme of one of  his last movies. It was released by MGM in 1968. Elvis played “Joe Light Cloud” a Navajo rodeo bull rider who goes back to the reservation to start a cattle business with his family. The film was shot in Sedona and Cottonwood in the fall of 1967. In one scene, Elvis tries to seduce a café owner, the mother of a 19-year-old daughter named “Mamie” who also tried to win his affection.

Elvis: "Mamie is nice, but she’s just a baby.  I like a woman with maturity.”

Mother: “Uh huh”

Elvis: “Why don’t you take my car and drive up to Flagstaff?  As soon as I get rid of Hank, I’ll join you there…”

Mother: “What about Mamie?”

Elvis: “Leave her here.”

Mother: “That’ll be the day.”

People who worked on the movie said Elvis loved Arizona so much that he made a record to thank the people in the Verde Valley. It was a collection of gospel songs and it played exclusively on a Cottonwood radio station.

Karin Kwiatkowski lives in Cottonwood and she’s making a documentary film about the time Elvis spent in Arizona. I caught up with her at the radio station where Presley's record aired years ago, but today the building is vacant and lonely looking.

"I think that most people who drive up and down this highway aren’t even aware of this insignificant little building. It’s totally nondescript,” Kwiatkowski said.

Karen is working on the documentary with her daughter Abby. They’re on a journey to find the Elvis album that mysteriously disappeared right after it was played on KVIO radio, now known as Yavapai Broadcasting.

“It was not an album to promote the film. It was never meant for public release, it was never sold, it was just played one time,” Kwiatkowski said.

She said Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker brought the record to KVIO and asked the station to put it on the air. It was a collection of previously recorded songs pressed on one side of a vinyl LP and it had a typed RCA label. She said the radio manager had his 18-year-old disc jockey, Joe Adams, introduce the record.

“On this Sunday afternoon, Elvis and The Colonel bring you this program. Let us listen now as Elvis sings the title song from one of his great sacred albums 'How Great Thou Art,'" Adams said.

Kwiatkowski said, “Never at any other time in Elvis Presley’s career was there a thank you album for a community where he worked. That is the footnote, that is the anomaly and that’s what we have really been trying to pursue.”

Down the road from the radio station you’ll find a thrift store. Back in 1967, it was a used car lot where Elvis filmed a scene. He liked the local hospitality. Kwiatkowski said Elvis even asked a woman who lived across the street from the movie set for a favor.

"The next thing he said to her was 'I wonder if my helicopter could land in your backyard because I’m flying in from Vegas every morning.'  So apparently she said yes and every morning when he flew in she had coffee and breakfast waiting for him," Kwiatkowski said.

Kwiatkowski’s daughter Abby said she’s not sure what happened to the missing recording. Some believed Parker took it, others said it’s hidden away in the archives at Graceland or maybe the KVIO station manager kept it. Abby Kwiatkowski said this record could be the ultimate Elvis collectible.

“There’s no reason in my mind why we shouldn’t find it. Something that rare, I don’t see it being thrown out,” she said.

News The Show
KJZZ Senior Field Correspondent Steve Shadley is no stranger to the issues shaping Arizona.