23 ELVIS FOR EVERYONE
Released in the USA July 19, 1965
A month before the Elvis For Everyone album arrived in record stores the eighteenth Presley movie Tickle Me appeared in cinemas. I watched the film with three mates. All of us had left school and were now earning a living. Soon I would abandon working in the Liverpool Stock Exchange and become a student. None of us complained about the movie. To four seventeen year old males the female lead Jocelyn Lane was a gorgeous and more than adequate Brigitte Bardot look alike. But there must have been doubts about Tickle Me because, to encourage people to buy cinema seats, Parker put the gold furnished Cadillac of Elvis on tour of USA cinemas. There was no Cadillac to be seen in Britain but for once an Elvis musical had decent songs and solid vocals. The featured recordings, though, were all taken from previous studio albums. The film company Allied Artists that had funded Tickle Me was making its way towards bankruptcy. Without enough money to commission original songs someone in an office somewhere suggested using music that Elvis had previously recorded. Always a man to take pleasure from selling mutton as lamb, Parker either made the suggestion or promptly agreed.
The agreed rescue of the Tickle Me soundtrack could have inspired the thinking behind the Elvis For Everyone album. At the behest of Parker, and perhaps desperate RCA executives, a collection of album material was cobbled together from tracks that had been previously recorded and mostly discarded. The idea was to bring some relief from the Hollywood soundtracks and perhaps encourage the sales of the records of Elvis. The idea had limited success. 40% fewer Elvis records were sold in 1965 than in 1960. Elvis was also now thirty years old. In 1965 people aged differently than they do today, especially in Britain. This side of the Atlantic the rock and roll star Elvis Presley was no longer young.
Memphis, Tennessee had been recorded a year before the Elvis For Everyone album was released. The intention was to release the Elvis version of the Chuck Berry hit as a single. But rock and roller Johnny Rivers stole the stunning bass loaded arrangement by Elvis. The chart success of the Johnny Rivers single persuaded Elvis to return to Memphis Tennessee and create an alternative and equally fine version. Whatever the strengths of the two versions Elvis was convinced that Rivers had destroyed any potential for using the song as a single. An embittered Elvis was prepared to let the record languish, as he had been with the other tracks on the Elvis For Everyone album.
Although remixed by Chet Atkins, Tomorrow Night had been recorded a decade earlier at Sun Studios. The Elvis versions of the Hank Williams country hit Your Cheatin’ Heart and the Billy ‘The Kid ‘ Emerson blues number When It Rains It Really Pours had also come from sessions in the 1950s. Memphis, Tennessee and these three songs provide essential grit for the Elvis For Everyone album. Memphis, Tennessee bounces in a way that was beyond Chuck Berry, and on Tomorrow Night Elvis added soulful yearning to the plaintive cry of blues master Lonnie Johnson. To make the original Sun recording of Tomorrow Night sound more contemporary, producer Chet Atkins had added backing singers and pedestrian country percussion. But if the original Sun master has the edge, the remastered version is also impressive. When It Rains It Really Pours is not the most accomplished blues performance by Elvis but it has to be one of the toughest. His version of Your Cheatin’ Heart is very different to the Hank Williams original but it slips too easily into the rock and roll style of Elvis and feels predictable. This opinion, though, might be harsh. In the early 1970s, when I was living in Scotland, I was obliged one evening, like everyone else in the company, to stand up and sing. I was as drunk as the rest and offered Your Cheatin’ Heart. I sang it in the Elvis style with which I was familiar. Scotland is full of hardcore country and western fans, and a few were present that evening. I have never forgotten their shocked facial expressions.
Also added in the mix for Elvis From Everyone were five forgotten songs from the movies. The worst of these is Sound Advice. Elvis hated the song and after it was recorded in 1961 he insisted it should never be released. Much, though, had happened in the intervening four years. Elvis had become interested in theology and was more concerned about building a Meditation Garden in the grounds of his Graceland home than making decent records. Two years had elapsed since Elvis had recorded the 1963 studio album that had been abandoned by RCA because of commitments to Hollywood. In that disappointing two years, Elvis had, apart from making movie soundtracks, visited the recording studios on just one occasion. This happened at the beginning of 1964. Elvis recorded three songs. These were Ask Me, It Hurts Me and Memphis Tennessee. All are excellent but none made it as single A sides. The first two were relegated to B sides of movie title songs, and Memphis Tennessee landed on the unbalanced collection that defined Elvis For Everyone. The initial album title was Today Only. There is no hard evidence that Parker was responsible for the proposal but whoever it was needed to have no shame. Colonel Shameless Parker is the favourite suspect.
The progress of the career of Elvis demonstrated well the instincts of Parker. The man had an old-fashioned notion of popular taste, faith in repetitive formula and was seduced by the thrill of conning people into paying for inferior products. Nothing, though, reveals his obsession with money as well as the American cover of the Elvis For Everyone album. It differs from the British version, probably because the employees in the British headquarters of RCA felt that the American cover was distasteful. The USA alternative is unique amongst Elvis album covers. Well before Elvis for Everyone a pattern had been established for the images on the front covers. They consisted of a large photograph of Elvis and not much else. On the American cover of Elvis For Everyone the image of Elvis is reduced and has him posing next to a cash register. The photograph of Elvis is not flattering. Elvis looks like an anxious to please store salesman. This is what you pay for and this is what is delivered. The reverse of the cover is filled with photographs of the front covers of fifteen previous Elvis albums. The songs that the albums contained are listed below each album. The strapline on the back of Elvis For Everyone makes clear that all these albums have earned over a million dollars. This proclamation is not sufficient for Parker, and he insists upon the individual album receipts being quoted. Above each album is the amount of money that it had earned, all rounded to the nearest thousand dollars. The emphasis on money, of course, puts Parker centre stage and argues that he is the success story. It is his entrepreneurial skill rather than the musical talent of Elvis that is important. The Colonel, of course, had called it wrong. Popular music had changed but rock and roll had not lost its appeal. The album cover of Elvis For Everyone was a defiant gesture from a hustler that was floundering.
I had stopped buying Elvis movie soundtracks after the Girl Happy disaster and insult. The five movie tracks on Elvis For Everyone were enough to make me wary. But three rhythm and blues numbers and a solid country tune were sufficient temptation. Listened to today, the album is not unpleasant but it fails to satisfy. The diversity of Elvis is transformed into something schizophrenic. Memphis Tennessee is followed by Elvis crooning For The Millionth And Last Time, memorable for an accurate but bizarre and extreme impression of Dean Martin, and then Santa Lucia, an Elvis attempt at light Italian opera. Any legacy of the urgent rhythm of Memphis Tennessee is immediately destroyed.
Amongst the five movie songs there are two from the 1960 movie Wild In The Country. Although modest and short both In My Way and Forget Me Never have naked and appealing vocals. Elvis is accompanied by nothing other than acoustic guitar. In My Way has the stronger melody but on Forget Me Never the two guitars achieve an interesting descant harmony. If the movie songs are pleasant, interesting but uninspired ballads, there is more than adequate compensation from a great song by Don Robertson. Elvis takes the substantial and consequential I Met Her Today and contributes his own special lyricism and ambiguity.
In 1965 it was not difficult to dismiss the isolated strengths of Elvis For Everyone. The Beatles had set in motion a wave of triumphant Brits claiming American music as their own. After a couple of years of this nonsense Elvis fans hoped that the original rock and roll conqueror would retaliate and reclaim his territory. Elvis For Everyone failed because hope was vanquished by expediency and mercantile pragmatism. The album confirmed that Elvis had lost all sense and understanding of what had made and would make him successful. And for people that had been carried along by his once conquering enthusiasm, and who themselves had not yet faced the difficult choices that await adults, this discovery was beyond comprehension. For them and me the diminishment of Elvis Presley in this period was a bitter mystery. In a 1965 interview Elvis promised that he did not ‘withdraw from my fans but from myself.’ He added ‘I guess if you are poor you always think bigger and want more than those who have everything.’ Too much has been written and exposed for us not to have views as to how he reacted to the destructive commercial compromises of the mid-1960s. Now we also have an idea of what he wanted or at least could not refuse. All that, though, came 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.