10 ELVIS IS BACK
Released in the USA April 8 1960
On the 5th of January 1960, three days before his 25th birthday and three days after he had left Germany, Elvis was discharged from the US Army. Somewhere near the end of his two years military service Elvis was made a sergeant. Presumably by then the risk of damage to homeland security was limited. The cynical exploitation of the Army experience continued after the discharge. Colonel Parker arranged press conferences and made sure that both he and Elvis were visible. The front of Elvis Is Back avoids a photo of Elvis in uniform but there are plenty elsewhere on the cover. The album was released in gate-fold format. The inside of the cover had pictures of Elvis in Army uniform, carrying a rifle and climbing out of a tank. The message for all Americans was clear. The rebellious boy had turned a corner and done his bit. The cover felt like a plea for forgiveness. Loyalty should be rewarded was the message from Parker. Elvis Is Back reached number two in the Billboard album chart. After the modest sales of the compilation albums while Elvis was in the Army the response to Elvis Is Back felt like a return to normal. The loyalty was indeed rewarded. Well, kind of. Elvis Is Back sold 500,000 copies. RCA had hoped for more.
Elvis was not rushed into the recording studios after he returned from the Army but the album appeared on the 8th of April, just five days after the twelve album tracks had been completed. In the initial weeks of his return Elvis was preoccupied by two issues. These were the transfer of the grave of his mother to the grounds of Graceland and the Holiday On Ice show at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. Elvis watched the show twice and even invited the performers to his home. On his second visit to the Ellis Auditorium he witnessed an Ice Show that was described by the promoters as ‘a performance for Negroes’. Elvis responded to the cheering African American crowd by conducting the orchestra with a lighted baton. After that unscheduled appearance the emphasis was on being ready for the Frank Sinatra TV show. In a photograph taken from the rehearsal Elvis is wearing a Sinatra style trilby and the crooner wears a baseball cap. The photograph suggests that both men were playing games with the identity of the other.
Few have commented but the original Elvis Is Back album has never been released. The more enterprising out there, though, will no doubt be using the original selection as a personal streamed playlist. The intended twelve songs for Elvis Is Back were recorded on April 3 1960. A fortnight before that Elvis had recorded six other numbers. These six recordings were intended to be the three double sided singles that would reconnect Elvis with his fans. The Colonel and RCA were keen to have a single released prior to the appearance of Elvis on The Frank Sinatra Show which was why the singles were recorded in a separate session. The twelve songs that were recorded for the Elvis Is Back album two weeks later included a rock and roll pop tune I Gotta Know, the old Al Jolson tearjerker Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now Or Never. This final song was inspired by There’s No Tomorrow, a previous adaptation of the Neapolitan light opera tune O Sole Mio. Are You Lonesome Tonight had been recorded as a favour to the wife of Colonel Parker, the same woman that repaid this debt by having the records of Elvis remastered against his wishes so that record buyers would be prevented from hearing the musicians. These three songs were removed from the intended album and replaced with the doo wop tune Soldier Boy, the bluesy It Feels So Right, and Make Me Know It a pop rhythm and blues song that had been written by African American songwriter Otis Blackwell. All those three songs were considered initially as having single potential.
The twelve songs that were recorded for the album on 3rd of April 1960 were intended to deliver an album that gave the previously scorned Elvis new credibility. The wide range of material included pop, rock and roll, blues, popular jazz, doo wop and, for the old folk that bought record albums, a couple of chestnuts. But when man on the make Colonel Parker heard It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight it was decided that this was an opportunity that would support his long term future plan for Elvis. Neither can we ignore the influence of taste-maker and musician averse Mrs Parker. Elvis might not have needed to be persuaded to release It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight as singles. He could have responded to what he had achieved. The two tunes may not suit the taste of everyone but these excellent recordings exist as unique and heartfelt creations which is why they sold in millions. It’s Now Or Never was and remains the biggest selling Elvis single. But after the second take of Are You Lonesome Tonight there was a request from Elvis to ‘throw the song out’. The request was ignored.
Whatever versions of the album are heard they are great although Elvis Is Back might have missed its classic status with the original selection. And then perhaps not. Listened to as nothing more than album tracks the attitude of rock and rollers to the two chestnuts might have been different. For some rock and rollers, though, the release of It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight as singles meant the beginning of the end. In an interview in the late 1960s the British TV producer Jack Good remembered with horror a meeting when Parker with obvious pride played It’s Now Or Never for Good to hear. John Lennon was more emphatic than Jack Good. Without any sense of grief John Lennon reacted to the news of the death of Elvis with the pronouncement that the rock and roll star had died when he went into the Army.
Few, though, were thinking that in 1960. Are You Lonesome Tonight reached number three in the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Chart. The three replacements for Elvis Is Back all have a bluesy edge and that helps but what distinguishes both album selections are the range of material and the vocal mastery of Elvis. After two years in the Army he was inspired or, as fans saw it, back to his superhuman best. The mood of Elvis was important to the success of the recording sessions but so was the change in his voice. If we are to believe Charlie Hodge, the Army pal that joined the group that surrounded Elvis, it was mate Charlie that showed Elvis how to use his diaphragm when singing. Someone did because the vocals of Elvis had acquired an additional warmth and maturity.
If Elvis had avoided combat in the Army, he retained his affection for the cloak of heroism. He was a young man that liked to conquer. Elvis Is Back is not just a great record but a surprise, a demonstration of skills that had been kept secret. Elvis is heard mastering pop jazz favourites like Fever and Such A Night. That tilt towards jazz and the songs The Girl Next Door Went A Walkin’ and It Feels So Right also give the album an independent eroticism, a relish for promiscuity. For rockers the tough blues of Reconsider Baby and Like A Baby provide a violent threat. The hit singles Are You Lonesome Tonight and It’s Now Or Never may now be perceived as betrayals by rock and rollers but back then, like the album, the two singles merely confirmed the prowess of a warrior.
The first song recorded in the album session on the 3rd of April 1960 was Fever and the last Reconsider Baby. The latter was used as the final track on the album but Fever was pushed back to second place on the album. Listen to the twelve songs originally intended and in the order that they were recorded on the 3rd of April and with Fever at the head of the queue, and the demand by Elvis to be taken seriously becomes obvious. The album feels like a Sinatra concept album but with a rock and roll dimension that is extended or widened to include the blues. Sinatra walked the thin line between pop and jazz and mastered both. An accomplished Elvis walks a similar path but this time between mature pop music and his own roots. Younger devotees of Elvis are not as impressed as fans of my generation by the album but even they acknowledge the worth of the exceptional blues classic Reconsider Baby, a routine blues tune that becomes transcendent in the version on Elvis Is Back.
The first copy I owned of Elvis Is Back I purchased after I left University and began work. I had, though, heard the album a few times in the homes of others. The tracks had stayed in my brain like folklore, a potent power that was not weakened by memory. Of course, because of the lapse in time I had forgotten where the tracks belonged. In 1970, a whole decade and a cultural revolution after its release, and with the songs half remembered, listening to the complete album felt like discovering treasure. Would I have felt the same way with It’s Now or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight on the album and would my loyalty have weakened? The same question can be asked about how I would have responded if I had only heard the shorter American versions of the three 1950s Elvis albums that I cherished. Just four Elvis albums shaped my attitudes to American music and the rest. Perhaps my loyalty did depend on the decisions of record executives rather than merely the talent of Elvis. And perhaps not.
Identifying and recognising the original selection on Elvis Is Back reveals the willingness of Elvis on his albums to not just mix pop with his blues and country roots but also include token examples of old fashioned and sentimental tunes. Songs that would have appealed to his mother. In the 1970s when his powers were reduced this willingness to indulge corn often made unclear what Elvis was trying to achieve. This led to his loyalty to his roots being underestimated. I heard Elvis Is Back and all that followed and without knowledge of the original intention I was confused. Understanding of his intentions arrived 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.