18 ELVIS’ GOLDEN RECORDS VOL.3
Released in the USA August 12 1963
In 1963 when Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.3 was released the earth was orbiting the sun as always but the world had tilted forwards, sort of. The cliche is that the 1960s decade had to wait for 1963 before it could begin. Google the year 1963 and any periodical will mention before anything else that this was the year when Beatlemania arrived. Hairstyles changed, and for some people that was really important, but there was also the assassination of an American President, a Vietcong attack on five American helicopters and the emergence of civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Elvis may have kept his hairstyle intact but off camera and, like the world, he was also tilting forwards. Aware of its antiracist message Elvis described To Kill A Mockingbird as an ‘incredible film’, superior to the award winning Lawrence Of Arabia and the best movie of that year. If biographer Peter Guralnick is to be believed, it was around this time that Elvis began to suffer from depression. Whatever the reason he responded to what was happening inside his head by beginning his search through religious texts for illumination and consolation, a search that continued for the remainder of his short life. He was also making other discoveries in his relationship with Priscilla who was now living permanently at Graceland. In the personal photographs taken at this time Elvis and Priscilla make an attractive couple but because of her puppy fat the age difference is obvious. Elvis the performer, though, was going backwards. The movies that Elvis was making followed Hollywood formats which had become dated decades earlier. Elvis’ Golden Records Vol 3, because it collected classic singles from the early 60s, at least offered some relief from the movie soundtracks.
The Beatles had to wait for their third single She Loves You to reach number one but from their arrival in 1963 there was a sense that something important would happen in their wake. Like Elvis had been in the 1950s, The Beatles were different and a talking point. The other kids in school thought they were great but, if later The Beatles unified a generation, my own family disapproved. The day after The Beatles appeared on the TV programme People And Places my grandmother called to see her daughter. ‘Did you see those Beatles last night?’ asked my mother. My grandmother nodded. ‘They can’t sing for toffee,’ said my mother. ‘Shite,’ said my grandmother, ‘but they’re Liverpool lads and good luck to them.’ When it came to music I listened to my mother. I went to see The Beatles in Llandudno the week before She Loves You was released but my main objective was to have something that would make my mates in school envious.
Although the singles collected on Elvis’ Golden Records Vol. 3 do not represent the very best of what Elvis recorded in the early 1960s the album captures the brief period when an alternative Elvis conquered the world for a second time. All of the singles on Elvis’ Golden Records Vol. 3, though, had appeared in the charts before The Beatles were doing their own conquering. If Elvis was losing his command of popular music, the next generation of singles from Elvis in 1963 did have merit. The one exception was One Broken Heart For Sale which had been taken from the movie It Happened At The World’s Fair. The record was a pale imitation of its excellent predecessor Return To Sender. But even the best of the Elvis singles in 1963 failed to wave a flag for a future world. The inevitable happened. The best of The Beatles was soon compared to the worst of Elvis. No one had any trouble locating the worst of Elvis because it was being shown in cinemas on a regular basis.
I remember listening to Elvis’ Golden Records Vol. 3 during my first year at University. This was in 1967 and four years after the album had been released. The flat I rented was a wreck, and the afternoons were dominated by winter gloom and the dullest of textbooks. I appreciated and remembered the classic performances on the record but I was also compelled to ask why Elvis had been willing to surrender to those that had the enthusiasm he lacked but nothing like his talent. I had arrived at University and witnessed human beings transform into something different and supposedly earnest. In this new world Elvis was a laughing stock, still an icon but a symbol of reactionary forces. Elvis’ Golden Records Vol. 3 provided pleasure and relief but it also nagged and haunted. The failure of the gifted is complex, interesting and in its own way impressive. Elvis had become an inexplicable mystery, one that stimulated in me relentless and addictive curiosity. For me the disappointments and baffling moments felt like punches to the brain. Some of them might have even landed on my ego and self-esteem. Fans of The Beatles and the new conquerors took pleasure from their heroes. I was suffering and obliged to endure.
Elvis’ Golden Records Vol 3 was the last album by Elvis to have liner notes on the back cover. Another 39 albums would appear before Elvis died but none had any reference to what might have distinguished a a particular album. It felt to me as if conman Parker, rather than be concerned, was relishing the mystery that was Elvis. Colonel Parker wanted the public and the fans of Elvis to be baffled, and if it took an unfathomable decline in the meal ticket of Parker then so what. Parker had created an icon and, rather than the music of Elvis, it was the icon and the brand that were important. This was what defined the carny man that had hustled a living through rural America. His exploits had required belief, and the faith of Parker was that the size of the circus tent was more important than what was on show inside.
The back cover liner notes to Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.3 are slapdash but their reference to thrilling ballads and toe tingling rockers is accurate. Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.3 did contain the unbeatable double A sided single, His Latest Flame and Little Sister. There was also a lively cover of I Feel So Bad, the blues hit by Chuck Willis. Also categorised as one of the rockers, though, was the slight rock ballad Good Luck Charm. The record had a gentle beat and an easy listening lilt. If Good Luck Charm was how a record company employee defined rock and roll in mid-1963 then his notions would be seriously overhauled by the end of the year.
Yet there is not a track on Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.3 that fails to reveal a performer of exceptional skill. Today some of the songs will qualify as inconsequential pop perhaps but every track has a contribution from Elvis that makes it memorable. His voice was never better and nor, so it seems, did he ever again have such a sense of his self-worth and importance. If Good Luck Charm qualifies as pure pop then so does She’s Not You. But both records were number one hits and big sellers. This happened for a reason. It takes effort by Elvis, supreme timing, spot on decision making and remarkable confidence to make these two tracks sound as effortless as they do. Good Luck Charm may be cheesy but it can still be listened to repeatedly without it ever sounding repetitive. This is how and why the record stayed at number one for nine weeks in the UK. She’s Not You has the same quality and also an inspired instrumental break that is tantalisingly short. Elvis hums along and in harmony with the piano of Floyd Cramer. What could be bland suddenly throbs. On the verse Elvis forgets he is a tenor and pretends to be a baritone. A routine song becomes essential listening.
The image used for the front cover of the third volume revealed the destiny being shaped for the performer. On the first volume the image of Elvis was contained in a bubble that was surrounded by gold records. He looked like a man floating on gratifying success, and his face carried the sneer of someone whose time had come. For the second volume the photograph of Elvis in the gold lamé suit revealed a man transformed into a brand. On Elvis’ Golden Records Vol.3 the design was simple. The cover was filled with a photograph of a gold record. Instead of a label in the centre of the single gold record there was a photograph of Hollywood Elvis which had been taken from It Happened At The World’s Fair. Elvis remained the brand that was revealed on the cover of Elvis’ Golden Records Vol. 2 but he was now a prisoner, reduced, distant and trapped in a small space.
Before the release of Elvis’ Golden Records Vol. 3 in 1963 there had been the slight promise of relief for the prisoner of Hollywood. The people at RCA were worried that the career of their recording artist was being shaped too much by Hollywood. Executives from the record company discussed with the Colonel the possibility of Elvis going on tour and making personal appearances. The tour would promote records rather than celluloid. What happened is not certain. The plan was for RCA to pay initial costs. Parker suggested a tour of 43 cities. As they were paying, the people at RCA thought it prudent to restrict the venture to eleven cities and then review. Parker said 43 cities or nothing and pulled out of the deal. What happened is obvious. Parker and Hollywood had no intention of ever letting Elvis make personal appearances while they had cinema tickets to sell. Guest spots by Elvis on TV shows had already been vetoed. Elvis did appear on stage much later but by then The Beatles were no longer in existence and a young generation had discovered revolutionary politics, sort of.
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.