13 SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY
Released in the USA May 19 1961
In 1961 Elvis performed three concerts. Two happened on a single February day in Memphis. The third followed in March and was in Hawaii. All raised money for charity. They also helped manager Parker reinforce his branding of Elvis as a decent and loyal American. The concerts in Memphis collected money for 26 local charities. The concert in Hawaii raised cash to help erect a memorial for the entombed sailors of the USS Arizona. There would be no more concert performances before 1969. The Colonel had a plan, and it was movies and more movies. A tension between Hollywood obsessed Parker and recording company RCA was inevitable. RCA wanted more non-movie studio sessions and Elvis on stage and promoting their records. Parker and the bosses at the movie studios preferred Elvis fans to spend their money in the cinemas. The contract Elvis signed with Paramount earned him $200,000 a picture. The subsequent contract with MGM valued his contribution per film at $400,000. That kind of money comes with demands, and they included not only appearing in movies but a restricted number of personal appearances, an inoffensive image and even different music from Elvis when he recorded in the studios. No one can claim that Elvis without Hollywood would have remained a rock and roll rebel but we have to wonder.
Something For Everybody exists as an example of not only the commercial ambitions that existed behind Elvis and perhaps within him but also the conflicting concerns of Parker and RCA. Prior to the album being released Elvis had made two movies that were intended to develop him as an actor. Neither were entirely song free but Flaming Star and Wild In The Country were dramas rather than comedies. The end of Flaming Star had a wounded and battered Elvis riding off into the sunset to die. The final shot in Wild In The Country promised progress for hero Elvis but the suicide of the older woman that Elvis loved had been edited out of the movie because preview audiences were horrified. These two films were not just dramas. They were gloomy and pessimistic. Neither Wild In The Country nor Flaming Star was a huge commercial success but the title song of the former was chosen to be a single. Parker and the Hollywood bosses wanted one of the other three songs in the movie to be the B side. RCA insisted that one of their non-movie studio recordings be used. Elvis suggested that RCA used his version of a Chuck Willis rhythm and blues hit. A movie song I Slipped I Stumbled I Fell replaced I Feel So Bad as the final track on Something For Everybody. The standoff had been avoided, and everyone was happy. RCA had a studio recording on the single, Elvis had a blues track on the B side and the Colonel had a movie song on the next album.
A glance at the cover of Something For Everybody confirms the conflict between Parker and RCA. The twelve tracks are listed against an appealing design that mixes different shades of purple and red. The movie track alone is highlighted in yellow, as if it has special status. All the other tracks on the album are identified by just their title. I Slipped I Stumbled I Fell also merits extra information that identifies the film in which the song appears. The tension between Hollywood and RCA continues on the reverse of the cover. The photographs are from the movie Wild In The Country but the sleeve notes are written by RCA executive Steve Sholes. Elvis may have meant well when he suggested I Feel So Bad as a B Side. Its absence, though, did weaken the album. The details are important, and decisions can have unintended consequences.
Something For Everybody was the fourth Elvis album released after he returned from the US Army. Two of the four were a movie soundtrack and a gospel album. Elvis Is Back and Something For Everybody are the remaining pair. If details are important then so are words. The title Elvis Is Back suggests a returning warrior armed and ready to conquer. The title refers to Elvis and him alone. Although I omit it for my own reasons the title of Elvis Is Back even has an exclamation mark. Elvis was at his best as the competitive warrior. It brought out something in his nature, and his warrior instincts explain the fascination he had for guns. There is little evidence that Elvis, unlike Jerry Lee Lewis, had a desire to shoot anyone. The image of himself, though, as a glamorous gunslinger appealed to him. The title Something For Everybody, as his movies did, reduces him to the role of servant. The ‘everybody’ he has to please are now the subjects of the title. For the rest of the decade Elvis would be subservient to the market and presented that way, This approach not only affected presentation, it harmed Elvis. Without the opportunity to conquer or at least enjoy combat Elvis lost some of his spark.
Although all the tracks on Something For Everybody have merit it compares unfavourably to Elvis Is Back. The inclusion of I Feel So Bad would have helped as would a less arbitrary listing for the songs. The division of the album into ballad and rhythm sides suggests that no one needs to be offended and also admits to an expectation that fans will be disappointed with some of the content. Someone somewhere had decided that music listeners could be divided between the square and the hip. Again the details are important. A couple of songs are marred by bad decisions. The Jordanaires are at their worst on the country song It’s A Sin, and the pretentious fake classical ending of the fine Don Robertson ballad There’s Always Me is toe curling.
The sleeve notes on the back cover by Steve Sholes describe how the versatility of Elvis has widespread appeal. According to Sholes, parents like how Elvis avoids scandals, patriots approve of his service in the US Army and jazz fans like the gift Elvis has for the blues. Sholes omits to mention that the blues track I Feel So Bad had been removed from the album. The songs Give Me The Right and Put The Blame On Me have blues potential but Elvis tones down the material. This is evident from the early outtakes of Give Me The Right and the demo record of Put The Blame On Me. It is possible that Elvis felt the songs worked better with less of a blues edge. The final version of Give Me The Right is smoother and more coherent. Put The Blame On Me has high notes and is in a minor key and possibly a serious vocal challenge. But the approach of Elvis to the two songs might have been an attempt at self-censorship.
Like everything else on the album, the rock and roll tracks are accomplished but they swing rather than rock. In 1961 the album compared well to what was being produced by the rivals of Elvis. It belongs with the RCA albums of Sam Cooke. Great singers whose performances we acknowledge but two performers that today we believe had unused potential or wish had taken other directions. Something else nags about this album. It reveals the distinction between grace and achievement. Elvis through his music, his image, celebrity and favourable circumstances had established himself as the supreme icon of rock and roll music. This admittedly short lived acquaintance with grace is why many Elvis fans are addicted to both his music and the man. Grace consists of nobility, confidence and elan. Having grace is an alternative to a life based on work and responsibility and that offers nothing more than achievement. Elvis no longer needed to conquer after the triumph of Elvis Is Back. Although the movie contracts guaranteed him affluence for the rest of his life they demanded surrender. Elvis had become someone that only had the option of work. This is the irony of success. Elvis now had to provide a product for others or, in his case, everybody.
Something For Everybody constitutes an achievement but it does not offer the reward or illusion of grace. All we can do is admire the efforts of Elvis. And the admiration is deserved. The rock and roll that swings reveals his ease, charm, timing and rhythm. I Want You With Me is the fiercest of the bunch, and Elvis is great but the song is slight although the two drummers add extra punch. In those three concerts of 1961, Elvis had added an extra drummer. From then and until he reinvented himself in the TV Comeback Special in late 1968 two drummers were present at all his recording sessions. Perhaps Elvis thought the extra drummer would compensate for him softening his style. And if the ballads have a couple of wrong turns they are enhanced by his recently acquired skills as a crooner. Great crooners like Sinatra added not just emotional drama but through timing, restraint and ambiguity suggested plots that did not really exist in their songs. What are earnest pleas on paper are transformed by the human voice into mysterious narratives. Elvis manages this on all the ballads on Something For Everybody but especially on the two lyrical songs by Don Robertson.
I was thirteen years old when Something For Everybody was released. My preference was for rock and roll, and I wanted an alternative to the subtle strength of crooners. I listened to the album in the home of the aunt that had disliked Santa Claus Is Back In Town. My blues fan mother liked the record, and that was good enough for me. Four days before he recorded Something For Everybody, Elvis visited Nashville and was given a tour of the mansion of the governor. After that he went to the State Prison to visit an old friend, Johnny Bragg the African American lead singer of The Prisonaires. The ballad and rhythm sides on Something For Everybody rearranged complexity as division. The extent to which Elvis was divided and not just complex would become apparent when self-destruction occurred years 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.