9 ELVIS’ GOLDEN RECORDS VOL. 2
Released in the USA November 13 1959
1959 was not a good year for rock and roll. Elvis was in the Army, and Jerry Lee Lewis was being hounded by a hypocritical British Press that had accused him of immorality. Meanwhile, Little Richard had promised to become a preacher and devote himself to Christianity. And, almost as bad, Fats Domino was recording country songs. The disc jockey Alan Freed had played an important role in promoting not just the new music but the records from the independent labels. Freed in the 1950s was almost as much of a hate figure as Elvis. He had been sacked from his TV show The Big Beat in 1957 because there had been camera shots that had included African American rhythm and blues singer Frankie Lymon dancing with a white girl. The people at the ABC network that sacked Freed pleaded that the company could not risk offending their Southern sponsors.
For a while after this reversal Alan Freed remained a cultural force. He negotiated another television show but in November 1959 he was not only sacked from this TV show but by the radio station WABC. Somebody had noticed that Freed received payments for promoting the records from independent labels. The Americans had a rock and roll scandal that consisted of something more serious than Elvis wiggling his hips. The scandal was given the name Payola. The practice of paying disc jockeys to play records on the radio was made illegal in 1960. This invites the thought that Freed had been castigated for doing something that was actually legal and no doubt done by others. And thousands of miles away in Merseyside, England a young Elvis and rock and roll fan was still loyal but much diminished. I had been transferred from a small village primary school to a secondary school that had almost a thousand pupils. I still had the Elvis quiff but in my new school there were older boys and they had bigger quiffs. They also enjoyed thumping the younger pupils. That might have been why Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 2 was important to me. I needed something to trigger an aggression that would aid physical defence against others.
Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 2 had in certain instances an additional title. The phrase 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong feels like self-promotion by Colonel Parker and a reference to the success of his managerial and promotional skills. This suspicion is strengthened by the cover design which shows Elvis wearing the gold lamé suit that Parker had requested for his protégé. The gold lamé suit was like many of the promotional gimmicks of Parker. It alienated and deterred as many as it attracted. And in that sense the strap-line to the album also indicated the worst of Parker. Or so it seemed. The title or strap-line only appeared on the edition of the record that was printed in the RCA Hollywood factory. Doubt exists today about who decided to add the strap-line to the original album title. Lacking a forgiving nature, I prefer to blame crass Parker.
The idea of using the strap-line came from a 1956 article that appeared in the jazz and blues magazine Down Beat. The writer, Les Brown, had responded to a claim in 1956 by RCA executive Steve Sholes that each of the 50 records made by Elvis had sold a million records. Brown had argued this evidence counted for little and that 50,000,000 Elvis fans could indeed be wrong. Brown had an explanation for the widespread failure in taste. He blamed the disc jockeys for brainwashing young Americans. Three years later the most famous of these disc jockeys and supposedly the most culpable was Alan Freed. If there had to be a sacrifice, he was the favourite option. Freed finished his career moving from one small radio station to another. He died an alcoholic and a broken man at 43 years of age. The singers that jazz critic Les Brown had argued were ‘serious vocal artists’ have been forgotten.
Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 2 was the last of the three compilation albums issued while Elvis was in the Army. Like the previous two compilations, Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 2 had modest sales. It reached number 31 in the pop charts. Most fans had the hit singles. Again the British and American editions differed, and the British fans benefited from a fourteen track album that contained four extra hits. The bonus four songs included movie classics like Jailhouse Rock and Treat Me Nice. With the thrust of Jailhouse Rock included the album exists as an example of supreme rock and roll which, considering what was happening to rock and roll in 1959, is something of an irony. If the famous strap-line is defiant then so is the music. Both the cover and the iconic tracks invite accusations from the sniffy. Disc jockey Alan Freed may have been heading to an early grave but on this album Elvis waved the flag for what was back then modern and loud rock and roll.
In 1958 Elvis had completed three recording sessions. One was restricted to the King Creole soundtrack. The other two sessions produced six of the tracks on Elvis Gold Records Volume 2. The tamest of these six is Doncha Think It’s Time but, although the song relies on having a catchy and friendly hook, the performance by Elvis is blessed with firm and urgent rock and roll magic. The Beatles built an early career with similar catchy but tough music. The remaining five tracks are all rockers. Rated rock and roll and jazz guitarist Hank Garland was at the final session in 1958 and he has been credited with being the inspiration behind the revised and tougher approach from Elvis. But the increased emphasis on the musicians and the harder edge in the music was also evident in the 1958 studio session that preceded the arrival of Hank Garland. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck came from the first session. It is a pop song aimed at teenagers. Even after the best efforts of Elvis and the musicians the record is no classic but, because of its treatment, it does qualify as solid rock and roll.
The final recording session of 1958 had been negotiated between Parker and the record company RCA. The manager had wanted no recordings while Elvis was in the Army but RCA had insisted. Elvis appeared in the studio wearing his Army uniform and, to make the outfit complete, matching brown eye-shadow. In 1958 Elvis may have been responding to a change in the musical line-up but the likelihood exists that the boy in the eye makeup was also angry about his Army service. The music, like the strap-line of the album, sounds like an expression of defiance and temper. Two months after this final recording session in 1958 the mother of Elvis died. After that loss Elvis appeared to be only defiant and angry when encouraged and persuaded by others.
There is no doubt that the fourteen track version of the album solidified his appeal amongst British fans. In 1958 these hits earned Elvis the title King of Rock and Roll. Later, when rock and roll acquired a wider definition that included modern rock bands the title was disputed. Many African Americans felt that the idea of a white music king was offensive. But an album that includes One Night, A Big Hunk Of Love, I Need Your Love Tonight and I Got Stung and much more has to be regarded as exceptional. He may have been blessed with fortune but Elvis in 1959 had reached a peak that was back then beyond his peers. Listen to Elvis’ Golden Records Volume 2 and the Hollywood and Christmas album compromises are forgotten. The Ivory Joe Hunter song My Wish Came True is a little weird but it is also a good example or reminder of how kitsch meeting imaginative artistry creates its own potent mixture. The ballads Loving You and Don’t carry an eroticism that is pleasantly creepy and are, in their own way, as threatening as the rock and roll. Despite the proclamations on the album cover not all the tracks were number one hits. Records were being released but Elvis was in the Army and absent from rock and roll service. A price was being paid for the willingness of Parker to let Elvis succumb to the draft.
Not one to willingly take the blame for anything Parker found an alternative reason for the decline in record sales. He expressed disappointment with the records produced in the two studio sessions of 1958. He thought the music was too noisy and that there was too much space given to the musicians. Who needs musicians, thought Parker. Most villains find a Lady Macbeth, and Parker had discovered someone willing to be his. Because he was tone deaf, Parker had no idea what constituted good or bad music. He took guidance from his wife Marie Mott whom he had met while the two of them had been working in a carnival. Marie Mott was from a different generation to the fans who bought the records of Elvis in the 1950s. She had no understanding of the appeal of rock and roll. Nevertheless this Lady Macbeth felt entitled to insist that the musicians were too loud on the records. This protest was heard throughout the career of Elvis Presley and too often acknowledged in the subsequent doctored recordings of Elvis. Colonel Parker was the third husband of Marie Mott. Before her marriage she had abandoned one of her two sons. The forgotten son had a club foot. Parker and his wife were people who did not like to be disappointed. The couple must have listened to the wild and tough records that Elvis made in 1958 and felt despair. This Macbeth and his wife, though, would have their revenge later.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.