3 LOVING YOU
Released in the USA June 20, 1957
The two rock and roll movies that appeared in 1956 were called Don’t Knock The Rock and Rock, Rock, Rock. The first Elvis movie, Love Me Tender, which also appeared in 1956, does not qualify as a rock and roll vehicle. In that film four songs were added to a grim Western drama that contained a few nods to Homer. Elvis was killed before the end of the film. His death allowed the warrior brother to claim the girl that little brother had married while big brother was fighting in the Civil War. If the first rock and roll movies appeared in 1956, neither inspired a record album. Loving You was not only the first rock and roll movie album. There were two of them, an eight track 10 inch version and the twelve track 12 inch alternative. These days most people prefer to forget the 10 inch item but it is still available on eBay. Important to me, the 10 inch cover was on display in the record store nearest to my home. And because it was unusual, the owner left it there well into the 1960s.
The cover of the Loving You album differs from the covers of the previous two albums. The photograph is a head and shoulders shot. Elvis is not singing, and there is no guitar. The music is already taking second place to the image or brand. In a photograph that is not flattering Elvis looks like a hero from a Western movie. The intention had been to call the film Lonesome Cowboy, the title of one of the songs in the movie. Elvis objected to singing the song and registered his protest by hamming up his performance. Lonesome Cowboy is cheesy but once it is in the head it is difficult to shake off. The song Loving You was of a different class and became both the movie title. Everyone was happy. Well, kind of.
The Paramount film took eight weeks to make which is how long Sam Peckinpah spent filming his masterpiece The Wild Bunch. There are rock and roll purists that claim that the Peckinpah effort even had the better music. Much of the retrospective criticism of the Loving You album, and it has been considerable, focussed on the authenticity of its rock and roll. I remember first listening to the album, as opposed to individual tracks, at University. One morning after a party the night before a crowd had stayed over to recover. Despite the sore heads someone put the Loving You album on the turntable. A year later most of those present that morning would be refashioned as cool pretend hippies. That gloomy morning in 1967, though, none objected to the music on the album. As far as they were concerned, this was hip Elvis Presley.
In 1957 the positive reaction was stronger. The movie had a routine plot but was regarded as an example of how modern rock and roll and Elvis were able to redefine even a Hollywood musical. That judgement still stands even if the commercial considerations that Elvis was beginning to make are now obvious. There was back then, though, some concerns about direction. In an interview Elvis insisted that people wanted him to change but he would not. He added he was unable to change. Elvis was asked about his relationship with the charmless neanderthal Colonel Parker. Elvis replied, ‘The Colonel does not butt into what happens in the recording studio.’ This was only half true. Being tone deaf the Colonel was unlikely to tell Elvis how to sing. But it was Parker that was negotiating the movie contracts. Hollywood would make its own musical demands.
And it was Parker and the film producer Hal Wallis that had the final conversation about where the songs from the movie would be recorded. Elvis wanted to use the Radio Recorders Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard rather than the large and echoey Paramount Sound Stage. Elvis had recorded his previous album at Radio Recorders and after his experience at Sun Studios he preferred working in small studios. Elvis also rated the sound engineer Thorne Nagar who worked at Radio Recorders. Parker, as he always did, surrendered to Hollywood. The songs were recorded on the Paramount sound stage. But there was an unintended compromise. Two of the songs added to the film had previously been recorded at Radio Recorders. These were Mean Woman Blues and Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do. Elvis had also struggled with the movie title song Loving You. He only mastered the song when he did a third version which was belatedly produced at Radio Recorders.
Elvis was paid $15,000 by Paramount Studios for his role in Loving You. Production of the film ended in March 1957. In the same month Elvis bought Graceland for $102,500 which today might get you a small garage in central London. In 2017 ex-Prime Minister David Cameron spent £25,000 to buy a garden hut. Later in the year Elvis bought two stone lions for the steps in front of the entrance to his Graceland home. The two lions are still there and they probably know as much as anyone about what happened inside Graceland.
Of the twelve songs on the 12 inch album five were not featured in the film. They are essential to the album because without them the stamp of Hollywood would have been even greater. In the liner notes to the album the additional songs are referred to as ballads yet all qualify as rock and roll and three of them confirm the rhythm and blues roots of Elvis. The music is no longer what Chic Crumpacker had described as ‘commercial folk music’ but the style and intensity of early Elvis persuaded at least some aspiring hippies to accept the Loving You album as valid rock and roll.
Elvis was committed to making the album a success. Not all the songs are great but they are listenable, and it is obvious that the songwriters have been listening to rock and roll. The weakest of the movie songs, Hot Dog, was written by the princes of 1950s hip, Leiber and Stoller. Amongst the ‘ballads’ the Elvis version of Blueberry Hill is pedestrian compared to the Fats Domino hit but the serious tone provides an interesting alternative. The inclusion of the Bing Crosby hit True Love may have put a smile on the face of Colonel Parker but it startled rock and rollers. Elvis helps the Jordainaires create gorgeous harmonies, and the irresistible performance has aged well. The songs Have I Told You Lately That I Love You and I Need You So are country and rhythm and blues opposites, or perhaps equivalents, that would have made suitable bookends for the album. On the country track Elvis demonstrates his 1950s talent for taking an ordinary song and adding something elusive and transformative. To his performance of I Need You So, an Ivory Joe Hunter composition, Elvis adds raw passion, and that is enough. Apart from the marvellous Mean Woman Blues the movie songs do not compare but all are distinguished by rock and roll defiance. Even the pop novelty Teddy Bear has sly knowing innuendo.
In the UK but not the USA the songs Party and Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do were taken from the album and released as a single. This was the first Elvis record I ever held in my hands. My family did not own the single. A cousin brought the record around to our house on Christmas Eve in 1957. I remember listening to it and watching the small 45 rpm disc go around on the family portable record player. I was nine years old and unaware of the history of American music and the debates about what constituted authenticity. I wore short trousers and a new crew-neck pullover but I stood next to the record player, clicked my fingers and attempted to embrace the revolution. The rotation of the record was slow enough to read the titles of the songs. There had been plenty of precedents but in the proclamation Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do even the apostrophes felt subversive. As a nine year old, I thought the words in Party were great and memorised them. ‘I’ve never kissed a bear, I’ve never kissed a goon, but I can shake a chicken in the middle of a room.’ Two days later I saw the movie with a friend, another nine year old. We walked the two miles home, and the song we sang along the journey was Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do. Images were important to me in 1957. I saw my first Elvis movie, and my family bought their first television.
The presence of Elvis as a headliner in a movie meant not just a higher profile for him in the newspapers but incidents that were connected with his fame. One involved a disgruntled marine that felt Elvis had been rude to his girlfriend. Elvis waving a gun in the air had also unsettled the marine. The next day Elvis wrote a long letter of apology in which he explained he had not intended to give offence and that the gun was a fake model he had taken from a Hollywood set. Elvis also mentioned that he had no prejudice against marines and added, though it was unnecessary, that he disapproved of all prejudice and valued all people as equals whatever their race and creed.
1957 was the year when Elvis appeared on stage in the famous gold suit. Elvis hated the outfit and said that it made him feel like a clown. The Colonel asked that Elvis not kneel on the floor during his stage act because the friction tore at the gold leaf that adorned the suit. Elvis threw the trousers away and left his stage show intact. The gold suit exists as an example of a musical performer being used to pay homage to the money making talents of the manager. The gold suit is not a unique example of this phenomenon in the career of Elvis Presley. More examples would appear later.
Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest travel book Go Break Bad is now available here.