Historic Route 66 hotel dedicated a themed room to late musician John Wilkinson, a former Springfield resident who played guitar for Elvis Presley.
The room, located in the Best Western Rail Haven motel next to the Elvis-themed room, honors the musician who played more than 1,200 shows with Presley from 1968 until Presley’s death in 1977.
Wilkinson, 67, died in January after a four-year battle with cancer and is survived by his wife, Terry, whom he married in 1983.
Tears were shed and memories were shared as Wilkinson’s friends and family gathered at the motel on Friday to view the room for the first time.
Tom Petit met Wilkinson in 1972 while working at a hotel in Aurora, Ill., and they became close friends.
Petit was unaware of who Wilkinson was when he checked in, Petit said. Later that evening, two women came to the hotel, asking for Wilkinson’s room number.
Petit refused to share the information and told the women, “Sorry, that’s not the way we operate.”
“The next morning, before I got off work, (Wilkinson) was down in the bar having breakfast, having it served to him in the lounge because he didn’t want to be around all the people,” Petit said. “Somebody came and told me there was a gentleman down in the lounge who wanted to have a word with me.”
Petit approached Wilkinson and asked, “So you wanted to see me?”
Wilkinson held up a finger to pause Petit and listened to a song that was playing on the jukebox.
A few moments after the song was over, Wilkinson told Petit, “Sorry, but that’s the only song we play that you can hear me play in.”
Petit said he thought, “Who is this guy? What are we talking about here?”
Wilkinson had two notes in the song “Burning Love” that could be heard. Petit said now he can’t listen to the song without hearing the guitar and those notes.
Wilkinson thanked Petit for taking care of things for him the night before.
“We sat down and we talked for a few minutes,” Petit said. “Next thing you know, we’re talking for half an hour.”
Gordon Elliott, owner of the Rail Haven motel, said the Elvis-themed room was updated for the motel’s 75th anniversary in August.
“We didn’t get the chance to do anything to tie (Wilkinson) into Elvis when he was alive,” Elliott said. “We ended up getting the room right next door to Elvis’.”
Elliott said creating the room for Wilkinson would be a great idea since he and Presley were close friends.
“And it ties into Springfield history,” Elliott said.
Presley appeared at the Shrine Mosque in 1956, and Wilkinson, then 10 years old, took the opportunity to tell the king of rock ‘n’ roll how he felt about his guitar playing.
Wilkinson sneaked into the mosque and approached Presley while he was in his dressing room. After some small talk, Wilkinson said, “Elvis, you can’t play guitar worth a damn.”
Presley, slightly insulted but amused, let Wilkinson play his guitar and said, “You’re pretty good.”
Wilkinson responded, “I know.”
Presley hired him 12 years later.
By Katie Lamb – News Leader