14 BLUE HAWAII
Released in the USA October 20 1961
Two of the visitors that Elvis received while filming Blue Hawaii carried Memphis memories. Marion Keisker was at Sun Studios when Elvis introduced himself and recorded My Happiness and That’s When Your Heartaches Begin. Subsequent publicity material stated that Elvis had recorded the two sides as a birthday present for his mother. Gladys Presley, though, was born in April, and Elvis visited Sun in July. Keisker thought Elvis had potential and recommended to Sam Phillips that the young singer be invited into the studio. During the subsequent meeting in Hawaii seven years later Keisker discovered a disenchanted and embarrassed Elvis. She remembered Elvis saying, ‘We didn’t think it would turn out like this, did we?’
Stanley Booth was a journalist from Memphis. Later he would form a friendship with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. If Keisker had a loyalty to the music Elvis had recorded at Sun then Booth was attracted to rock and roll as a form of underground rebellion and defiance, an alternative passport to hedonism. Every man has a hero, and the one that fulfilled the role for Booth was Memphis disc jockey Dewey Phillips. On the radio show Red Hot and Blue the disc jockey had played That’s All Right the first single recorded by Elvis. The admiration of Booth for Dewey Phillips extended beyond listening to the rhythm and blues on Red Hot and Blue. Booth appreciated the always available supply of amphetamines that Phillips possessed. Booth remembered Presley being bored and remote, standing alone on a hotel balcony and staring into the Pacific.
In the two accounts of their trips to Hawaii there was the suggestion by Keisker and Booth that a raw talent and a gifted man had been corrupted. What was left was someone that had fame and success but lacked contentment and fulfilment. If everyone has a hero, we all also carry baggage. What we see is shaped by our own values. And Elvis was a performer, a man tempted to say to people what he suspected they wanted to hear. Elvis was 26 years old when he appeared in the movie Blue Hawaii. He was making money and could buy friends and a lot more. There were also an awful lot of people willing on the Hawaii island and elsewhere to offer intimate relief. We can imagine the hardly metaphysical Parker saying, ‘What is there not to like?’
Few of us that watched Blue Hawaii when it was released would have imagined Elvis as unhappy. The movie existed back then as a promise of happiness. And to a lesser extent so did the album. All we had to do in order to enjoy was forget about reality. I watched the film when I was a teenager. It appeared in a nearby fleapit in a dreary Lancashire town and on a double bill with Jailhouse Rock. The afternoon outside was cold and British grey. In the cinema Jailhouse Rock appeared first, and although the movie had merit the photography was in uninspired black and white. There was plenty of that outside.
Blue Hawaii appeared in the second half of the bill. The screen was filled with colour, palm trees, bright beaches and elegant titles. I sat back in the cinema seat and settled for escape and diversion. And so did many others. Critics exist to warn us about diversion and empty headed entertainments. And they are right because in 1961 many of us had assumed we were sharing illuminated innocence. Today we are sensitive to cynical manipulation of our emotions. Well, we are some of the time.
Nothing was as important to the strategy of Parker as the exceptional success of Blue Hawaii. The album stayed at number one on the Billboard Charts for twenty weeks. On the back cover of the later album Elvis For Everyone the self-effacing Parker listed the covers of all the previous albums and, just in case we forgot what is important, the manager revealed the cash equivalent of the sales of each album. The earlier and much superior Elvis Is Back and Something For Everybody studio albums had in sales earned between them $2,130,000. The receipts for Blue Hawaii alone amounted to $5,025,000.
Apart from money Parker also liked routine and formula. This was how he had previously earned his living in the carnivals. The shows moved from one American town to the other and provided identical shows because small town crowds wanted ceremony as much as entertainment. Those who are kind to Parker like to believe that he was not just chasing dollars but was also a man that felt obliged to meet expectations of the familiar and keep people happy. He was after all kind to animals. The man, though, talked a lot about money. As his subsequent gambling addiction demonstrated, the inspiration and motivation for Parker was always dollars.
For most of his life Parker was bald and obese. There is nothing wrong with that but unless the standards in carnivals are lower than elsewhere the likelihood is that his experience of promiscuous sex was limited. The delight from fantasies and promiscuous sex pall quickly. Parker thought that celluloid fantasy would be a successful platform for sustained success. What occurred in Blue Hawaii was a one-off commercial triumph that depended upon a well made and serious attempt at escapism and a singer whose vocal skills were at their peak. Today the movie may appear routine and empty headed but none of the subsequent musical comedies made by Elvis and others came near to possessing the sunny optimism that distinguished Blue Hawaii.
The back cover of the stereo version of Blue Hawaii has beneath inevitable drawings of palm trees the following information. ‘RCA Victor’s Miracle Surface possesses an antistatic ingredient that helps keep records dust free.’ The key word in this phrase is ‘helps’. The ambitions of the technicians behind the scenes and the performers on the album were modest. The antistatic dust deterred a little dust but not much. The musicians sidestepped intentions of creating art and recorded simple songs that had commercial appeal. What RCA did believe, though, was that all their employed operatives were ahead of the rest. The belief was justified. Miracle Surface was an attempt to deal with a problem that occurred with vinyl recording. In the studio itself acclaimed jazz drummer Hal Blaine was recruited to a crew that already had guitarist Hank Garland, pianists Floyd Cramer and Dudley Brooks and sax man Boots Randolph. The songs in Blue Hawaii are variable but no one hits a bad note. There is a sense of musicians having fun and being curious about the results if not the material.
The blues and rock and roll on the album are contrived and imitative rather than authentic but the numbers all swing. Rock-A-Hula Baby is lightweight but mixes irony and chaos with confidence. Slicin’ Sand does not deserve to be taken seriously but it has a decent guitar solo and the chorus is an interesting switch from the G.I Blues style rock and roll of the verses. Beach Boy Blues is Hollywood fun rather than the blues but it is still being performed by the best white blues singer out there.
Those who are offended by Blue Hawaii are critical of the album because of what it lacks and what they desire which is something that they think captures authentic experience. Some attempt, though, is made on Blue Hawaii to go beyond normal Hollywood ambitions. Aloha Oe and Island Of Love are based on traditional Hawaiian folk melodies. Hawaiian Wedding Song and Can’t Help Falling In Love are demanding ballads where Elvis reveals his emotional vulnerability and suspicion of fate and the future. But the album is a Hollywood soundtrack. Elvis is pitched as an alternative to an audience more familiar with Doris Day and Dean Martin. His talent, though, ensures his performances are superior, more rhythmic and, in some instances, more mysterious and lyrical. Novelist Elaine Dundy wrote what might be the best book yet on Elvis. In Elvis and Gladys she described his voice as having a unique warm and cow like quality. Whatever we think of the songs, that vocal quality is evident throughout the Blue Hawaii album.
The song Moonlight Swim has been condemned for being slight and sweet. And so it is but it is also as catchy as hell. The slurred vocal from Evis is delightful, and the Jordanaires provide fine echoes of the Sons of The Pioneers. The standout tracks on the Blue Hawaii album are ballads. Can’t Help Falling In Love and No More are based on attractive classical European melodies. Can’t Help Falling In Love took 27 takes before Elvis was satisfied with the results and the record is both sombre and important. No More is not in that league but the record has quality. The vocal is strong and has operatic touches but it still leaves space for the counterpoint of silence. If there is suspicion about the future in Can’t Help Falling In Love then Hawaiian Wedding Song is enhanced by dread and possibly some of the gloom that Stanley Booth suspected he saw on a certain hotel balcony. The worst of the tracks is the trite and unfunny calypso style Ito Eats. Parker thought that Blue Hawaii would be the platform for future success. Instead it provided an opening for subsequent substandard and cynical efforts. Even if the best of Blue Hawaii had prevailed it would have palled eventually with audiences but songs as awful as Ito Eats soon became the standard. Blue Hawaii was completed in March 1961 and at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Elvis visited Las Vegas in September and attended the shows of his favourites. Elvis saw Fats Domino, Della Reese, Jackie Wilson and The Four Aces. In Vegas he indulged his interest in rhythm and blues, jazz and pop. There had been enough in Hawaiian melodies and its imitations to engage Elvis and his musicians but the demands of Hollywood and their notion of what was popular differed from his own preferences. There would be serious conflict 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.