15 POT LUCK
Released in the USA May 18 1962
The best selling single in the USA in 1962 was Stranger on The Shore, an instrumental by British trad jazz man Acker Bilk. The title of the single was apt. The only other British single to reach number one in the States and before Acker Bilk was Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart by Vera Lynn. This happened in 1952. Perhaps Vera had brought back memories for demobbed GIs that had visited Europe in the Second World War. More British strangers, though, appeared in the USA at the end of 1962 when the Tornados topped the American charts with the topical Telstar. The Americans and the Russians were spending pots of money on a space race but on the ground a comfortable and well equipped suburbia promised economic freedom and independence. The Beatles topped the Billboard charts in February 1964, and British strangers soon packed the American shore. Before the end of the decade the Americans had landed a man on the moon and everything had changed. Long haired Brits were still all over the American pop charts, and suburbia was condemned by hippies as a prison in which narrow minded families led inauthentic lives. Even in 1962 there were beat poets that were critical of American consumer capitalism. None of them, though, were interested in shaping the career of Elvis Presley.
After the success of the Blue Hawaii movie and album in 1961 and before the release of Pot Luck in 1962 there had been two more movies from Elvis. These were Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad. Although both movies featured some songs neither were full on musicals. The movies were modest dramas but that meant they also had plots. Both films were directed by journeymen but competent directors. Follow That Dream had fine comic moments, and Kid Galahad benefited from the commitment director Phil Karlson had to community. In the classic Phenix City Story director Phil Karlson had outlined how small town corruption facilitated brutal crime. The aversion Karlson had to excessive ambition and greed was even evident in Kid Galahad. In both of the Elvis films the songs were not great but few complained. The voice of Elvis was not just different from the days of rock and roll but better than ever. This is obvious from the Kid Galahad soundtrack and the title song of Follow That Dream. The songs may be from the Hollywood production line but Elvis is supreme, and his triumph and mastery, in their own way, represent, like his earlier rock and roll, a look at me defiance. Elvis in the early 1960s somehow breathed life and distinction into everything he sang.
Some music fans, though, had previously responded to Elvis because he was a champion of rock and roll and loyal to the blues and his roots. These people and critics were losing interest. For them the Pot Luck album probably ended the appeal of Elvis. The cousin that had groomed my brushed back hairstyle was no longer an Elvis fan. I remember recoiling when he mocked the new crooning style of Elvis. But at school the other pupils that were my own age still thought Elvis was great. And so did I. At fourteen years of age I was too busy worrying about the impact of puberty to think about becoming a serious music critic.
In March of 1962, Colonel Parker confirmed details of the recording contract between Elvis and RCA. In that communication Parker also stipulated that the names of the musicians involved in the recordings should not be named on any album covers. Parker had his reasons. He liked to imitate his role model Scrooge, and what was the point of attributing credit when his wife was encouraging Parker to adjust the recordings so the musicians could not be heard. The one thing Parker did not want to interfere with the Elvis brand was music that might demand attention and be considered.
The album title Pot Luck is a variation on Something For Everybody except this time the title assumes that there has to be disappointments within the selection. The music of Elvis will attempt to appeal to everyone but the implied price is that no one will be entirely satisfied. On the back of the cover we were told that the ‘great collection of hits (has been) made up to satisfy and please the many Elvis fans throughout the world.’ Individual fans will have to take pot luck and make space. The photograph on the front cover of Pot Luck was also different. The man on the previous two studio album covers is either smirking or just being superior. On the cover of Pot Luck the insolence is no longer present. Elvis is wearing a denim shirt and looks like a young workman in between tasks. The look of open innocence that had previously secured independence has been replaced by a grin that suggests naivety, trust and obedience.
Pot Luck was the sixth album released in the two years after Elvis had returned from the Army. The list had been swelled by the gospel album His Hand In Mine and the two movie soundtracks G I Blues and Blue Hawaii. Pot Luck belongs to the trio of non-movie studio albums from the early 1960s. The other two are Elvis Is Back and Something For Everybody. On each successive album there were more original songs but the music was now something at the end of a production line rather than heartfelt choices by Elvis.
Pot Luck has fine moments and on the ballads it hints at an improved artistry from Elvis but it is the weakest album of the three. Pot Luck is a pop album aimed at a market where people want to put up their feet on the sofas in the suburban homes and relax. The blues that distinguished Elvis Is Back and to a lesser extent Something For Everybody are not present on the Pot Luck album. Elvis may have developed an exceptional vocal technique by 1962 but much of his previous fire is missing from the album. The year before Elvis had released the fabulous double A sided single His Latest Flame and Little Sister. That proved Elvis could still rock but either he or the people around him had developed an aversion to rock and roll or they had lost faith in its commercial potential. Judgements were, of course, haunted by the success of Blue Hawaii and what dominated the Billboard charts in the early 1960s.
Much has been said about how Pot Luck is not really an album but a collection of selections taken from various sessions. This is almost but not quite true. Two months before the album was released Elvis had recorded ten songs for an album release. There were songs available from previous short recording sessions and no doubt that was why no one felt inclined to record the statutory twelve for an album. Once the bundle was examined there were second thoughts and three songs were removed from the initial ten that had been intended for the album. Two tracks were considered suitable as a single and the other, which had been written by Elvis, was put to one side. This left a need to find five songs for Pot Luck. Four of the tracks added to the selection came from non-movie studio sessions that had taken place in 1961. The fifth was a pastiche rock and roll leftover from the Blue Hawaii sessions.
But if Pot Luck does not qualify as a concept album, it does have its own distinct and smooth sound. The rock and roll vocals are lighter than on Elvis Is Back and Something For Everybody, and Elvis compensates with busy instrumentation. Elvis continued to employ two drummers in the studio band. Elvis was a fan of the records by Ricky Nelson. The gifted Jimmy Haskell had arranged and produced 75 records for Nelson, and nothing in rock and roll equalled them for tight production and effective instrumental moments. But imitating that sound, excellent as it might have been, also obliged Elvis to tone down his own rock and roll vocals. Of the three rockers on the album Gonna Get Back Home Somehow has urgency and is the best. Night Rider is okay and a decent song but neither Elvis nor the musicians regarded their recording as a success. Elvis and the musicians perform the song adequately but fail to lift it.
Thanks to a quip by Paul McCartney about the title of Kiss Me Quick the opening track on the album has been ridiculed throughout the years. Elvis liked the tune, and the record has a beat but the lyrics do let it down. And after the McCartney quip it was doomed. Elvis adds welcome blues proficiency to Such An Easy Question but it remains no more than a 60s pop record albeit a fine one. Suspicion has its fans which it should have, and Elvis unleashes power on the chorus but again it is catchy pop music. It is the ballads on Pot Luck that reveal the superior vocal talent and poetic imagination. The sentimentality of I’m Yours and Just For Old Time Sake is transformed through formal respect into exquisite Americana. The best track on the album is the moody That’s Someone You’ll Never Forget. This classic record, which is an obvious reference to the dead mother of Elvis, has suppressed drama that haunts and a potent atmosphere. With justification Elvis was proud of the arrangement he helped create.
Pot Luck was the fifteenth Elvis Presley album released by RCA. Elvis had earned money as a musician and a performer for the previous eight years although in two of them his income was supplemented by a salary from the US Army. Those fifteen albums had been aimed at different markets but all have to be regarded as a success. Elvis had delivered what his bosses and fans wanted and often what had appealed to him. His eight year musical career had shared a revelatory talent and had been one of sustained triumph. The failures and stumbles would occur later, and the first of these would appear and surprise before the end of the year. And before that happened an American called John Glenn would orbit the earth.
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.