5 ELVIS’ GOLDEN RECORDS
Released in the USA October 15 1958
The release of an album that contains fourteen of your gold records would put a smile on the face of anyone, especially a 23 year old of a supposedly insecure disposition. And it might have done the trick for Elvis except on the 24th of March 1958, nine days after Elvis’ Golden Records was released, Elvis Presley was in the US Army and leaving behind not just an unprecedented music career but also a devoted mother in tears. All that would be available to the record buying public for the next two years would be an album from the movie King Creole and compilation albums of material that had already been issued on either extended plays or singles. Elvis’ Golden Records would have been, after the release of King Creole, a good place to begin its series of compilation albums but the filming of the movie King Creole had delayed the date Elvis joined the Army. Without a movie to complete Elvis would have been in the Army from January. The puzzle is why the record label RCA did not delay the release of the album Elvis’ Golden Records until Elvis was serving in the military.
When the album appeared there had already been conflict between RCA and Parker over what recorded product was and should have been available for the record company. Steve Sholes wanted to arrange furloughs that would allow soldier boy Elvis to make additional records. Secure in knowing that their man had signed on the dotted line and was in uniform the US Army was both agreeable and flexible. But our man of perverted principle Colonel Parker said no. Parker was not quite the same patsy with RCA executives as he was with Hollywood bosses. For all we know the absence of Elvis from the recording studios in the next two years might have been a demand made of Parker by the movie men. The suits that ran the film studios had been neither shy nor slow about insisting that Elvis should stop touring. The desire around Hollywood was for Elvis fans to spend as much as possible of their Elvis pocket money in cinemas.
Steve Sholes on behalf of RCA had meanwhile asked that Elvis record an album of classical music, presumably light opera. The people in charge at RCA Records continued to target what was considered to be their refined market. RCA was eminent in classical music and remote from what was popular. Elvis warbling Italian arias would have reinforced the RCA brand or, at least, someone in head office thought so. Although Sholes meant well, his request was a reminder of what had been forfeited when Parker had agreed to a recording contract with RCA and not the more attuned Atlantic label. The presence of Elvis on the RCA label can be regarded as either a paradox or an irony.
Throughout its existence, which ended in 1986, RCA Records failed at harvesting popular music. During the underground revolution of the 1960s the best that RCA Records could manage was the one hit wonder Jefferson Airplane. The commercial success of Elvis was not typical of what happened at RCA and that might have been a factor in giving the Colonel the power to say no to the request of Sholes for more product. Parker also rejected the notion of the classical album which is another irony because Sholes had a much better idea of the talent and musical worth of Elvis than the Colonel ever did. Elvis would be in the Army from March in 1958, and Colonel Parker was adamant there would be no recordings for the next two years. But adamant or not a compromise was soon agreed. Elvis would do a single recording session for one night only in February. That session produced five songs and big hits. The full-throated and hard edged rock and roll that emerged defined the sequel to Elvis Golden Records, the great but crassly titled 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
The British version of Elvis’ Golden Records was not released until winter arrived in October, a whole six months later. Four tracks on the British version are different from the American original. The movie hits from Loving You and Jailhouse Rock were replaced by four tracks from Sun that had not previously appeared on British albums. Both versions of the album confirm versatility and both reveal the wandering ear of Elvis. Love Me Tender is gentle and deliberately awkward. Love Me and That’s When Your Heartache Begins are desperate passionate ballads. Within the melodramatic agony of Heartache Begins, though, Elvis somehow manages to pay homage to the Ink Spots. The rockers range from the violent Hound Dog to the playful but marvellous Don’t Be Cruel. There is also the strange. Heartbreak Hotel is the equivalent of a modern noir movie. Anyway You Want Me pushes a ballad to the dark limits and in its own malignant way is as violent as Hound Dog. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You has an unrestrained Elvis taking risks with a vocal that is anything but consistent but that exists as a baroque antidote to the obsessions that exist elsewhere.
A listener today might consider the range within the album eccentric. The purists will prefer the Sun records and the first Elvis album released on RCA. But it is Elvis’ Golden Records that demonstrates best how Elvis stamped crude but urgent and modernistic rock and roll on American culture. Although already familiar with the singles I first heard the British version of the album in 1963 and around the time I saw The Beatles on stage. The record belonged to a brother of a school friend. We sneaked a listen when the brother was elsewhere. I was more impressed with the music on the album than the friend. We had different paths to travel. One of the daughters of the aunt that had been baffled by Santa Claus Is Back In Town had also scrounged a copy of Elvis’ Golden Records. I listened to that copy a lot even if it did mean that the trip to my aunt involved cycling a round trip of eight miles. The American version in its entirety I only heard after purchasing the RCA Elvis Presley Album Collection this year. Both versions of the album are great but I prefer what I am used to because it has memories. I remember sitting in the living room of my friend, listening to a record owned by his elder brother and me thinking that there was no one to touch Elvis and nor would there ever be. And that thought more than any other was why my early teenage years were filled with cycling trips to bemused relatives. Today my thinking about Elvis is more nuanced but I am still sympathetic to that initial premise, perhaps faith.
Anyone back in 1958 who doubted Elvis was great only had to read the liner notes to Elvis’ Golden Records. This is an extract from what was written. ‘No matter how desperately imitators may attempt to capture his personality, Elvis will always be the innovator of a style which set an entire musical trend in motion.’ To describe what was written on the back of the cover, though, as liner notes is a misnomer. The 1500 word essay by press agent Anne Fulchino not only refers to every track on the album but also includes the recent history that began with the first recording sessions at RCA in 1956. For a fan this was different from the acclaim heralded by the album title. No doubt the simple phrase Elvis’ Golden Records appealed to a manager whose reading was restricted to profit and loss accounts. The liner notes of Fulchino were beyond the thinking of Parker because they added respect for a musical talent. Fulchino also noted the controversy around Elvis, the existing hostility to rock and roll and the division that existed between people who were for or against Elvis Presley. What followed by Fulchino was obvious but important. Everyone had to agree, said Fulchino, that Elvis was in a class by himself. That was enough for me.
But the young singer whose raw and naive talent had helped produce the hit records for RCA between 1954 and 1956 was changing and he had been changed. In the year that Elvis’ Golden Records was released Elvis had acquired an entourage of lackeys and hangers on. People were calling him the King of Rock and Roll. Elvis may have modestly rejected the title but in his private life he was assuming the air of royalty. Although he usually cooled off and rehired the lackeys that he fired there was the assumption that he could now dismiss people that offended his sensibility and sense of a perfect existence. Early in 1958, Elvis fired two people for arguing during a tennis match. More than one author has alleged that the Colonel had noticed the arrival of a different Elvis and that was why the manager thought a spell in the Army would be good for everyone.
The people who were loyal to Elvis defended an unsettled innocent that was loyal to his family and his mother in particular. In March 1958 his mother had cried when he joined the Army. Elvis was stationed in Germany from October. This time his mother did not cry when he left because she had died at the premature age of 46 years. The newspapers reported her age at death as 42 years, an error that has significance because Elvis would die when he was 42 years old. The death of his mother and the freedom for the Colonel to plan without restrictions for two years the rest of the career of Elvis Presley would have ramifications that would be understood and much regretted 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 book Go Break Bad is now available here.