24 HARUM SCARUM
Released in the USA November, 1965
25 FRANKIE AND JOHNNY
Released in the USA March, 1966
26 PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE
Released in the USA June, 1966
Where the hell does one start with all this? If the previous movie soundtrack albums, Kissin’ Cousins, Roustabout and Girl Happy, qualify as commercial and artistic fraud then these particular horrors must constitute abuse. The Sony Elvis Presley RCA Album Collection contains on CDs all the recordings by Elvis that were released in his lifetime and, apart from a couple of budget items, all his albums. A chap called Richard Palmer was the first Elvis fan to post a review on Amazon. Palmer stated that within the 60 CDs could be found ‘the very best and the very worst of American popular music’. For those curious about the very worst these three albums provide a more than adequate starting point.
In the middle of the 1960s decade Elvis may have been enjoying increased spiritual fulfilment while searching through religious texts but his emotional well being did nothing to stop him picking up an awful lot of bugs and colds. And oddly most of them happened on day one of recording and filming the latest movie venture. This phenomenon was noticed by vigilante Parker. There was enough friction growing between the two men for the offended manager to admit to a friend that perhaps ‘I should move on’. He never did, of course. Parker continued to suffer, and so did we.
Elvis did at least have the grace to appear in the studio and record the musical tracks for the Frankie and Johnny album when the musicians were present. There are only so many colds and infections that can overcome the resistance of a healthy thirty years old male. Elvis also appeared in the studio to record Harum Scarum and Paradise Hawaiian Style but only after the musicians had left Hollywood. The building was not empty. Backing vocalists were in attendance at the studio. These vocalists were proficient and opera trained. None protested about the cynical working methods of Elvis, and more than one described Elvis as ‘a dream to work with’. This is not so surprising. These capable and classically trained singers had spent most of their working lives singing over movie soundtracks. One of the highlights of the very dubious Frankie and Johnny album is the strong and qualified tonsils of Eileen Wilson. Prior to working on the Frankie and Johnny album Wilson had dubbed Ava Gardner on songs in a couple of movies. Wilson had to earn a living, and Ava can be forgiven anything.
And, of course, before Elvis and the other singers arrived real musicians had appeared in the studio to play their instruments. We know this because their names are recorded on the daily studio work schedules. Yet Phil Spector in an interview in the 1960s claimed that for these Hollywood albums the instrumental tracks used would often be the demo discs with the original singer removed. If Spector is right then skinflint Parker was paying musicians for work that had previously been completed and for which he had already paid. The overpayment of cash would have annoyed him but him not hearing the expensive musicians would not have been a concern. Whoever played on the records, Parker and his wife insisted they were too loud.
Working with musicians on the Frankie and Johnnie album might have inspired an effort from Elvis that was missing from his woeful efforts on Harum Scarum but none of his vocal performances on the album are accomplished. Few of the songs have potential yet any decent singer that can recognise a key or octave could and should have done better with chestnuts like Frankie And Johnny and Down By The Riverside. The track Please Don’t Stop Loving Me does at least have the merit of sounding heartfelt and it has loyal supporters. Elvis may add heart but he is lacking in inspiration, especially on the chorus. Throughout the album Elvis sounds either bewildered or bemused. Because the movie is set in the American South a blues song was added to the soundtrack. Without doubt Hard Luck is the worst blues performance by Elvis in his career. At times he sounds like he is singing through his nose which, as any bluesman knows, is how not to sing the blues.
The unwillingness of Elvis to appear in the studio and face the musicians might have been the consequence of something other than sloth. The photographs of Elvis recording the Frankie and Johnny album show him wearing sunglasses. He could not escape being burdened with the results of his Hollywood efforts but perhaps he hoped at least to be as anonymous as possible for the brief period those efforts lasted.
Inevitably there are moments on the three albums that remind us that we are listening to an exceptional talent but, apart from one instance, none stretch as far as one whole song. The exception is the melodic and haunting This Is My Heaven which had enough strength to be used as the finale in Paradise Hawaiian Style. The song Drums Of The Island has an uninspired vocal from Elvis but it is a traditional Hawaiian tune and has good percussion. The producers of the British 1960s puppet show for children Pinky and Perky recognised its potential. Nor can the limitations of these three records be ascribed exclusively to impoverished material. The songs were not worthy of his gifts but an energised Elvis working and communicating with his musicians could have redeemed a good proportion of the material, as he had on the G I Blues and Blue Hawaii soundtracks. The Harum Scarum album is a real stinker but Golden Coins and So Close, Yet So Far have drama and a degree of potential that Elvis treats with contempt. On a better day Hey Little Girl and Animal Instinct might have even sounded like rock and roll.
The three albums straddled the years 1965 and 1966. In that period Elvis met The Beatles, Tom Jones and the not so important Peter Noone. The various accounts of his meetings with the Brits differ. Although they may have had more in common than they realised the meeting between eccentric Elvis and the rebellious Beatles, like the earlier antagonist encounter between Proust and James Joyce, was not a meeting of minds. If the mood had been friendlier, The Beatles and Elvis could have explored similar interests which is what happened when Led Zeppelin met Elvis a decade later.
Elvis, like John Lennon, had a quirky sense of humour. In later years Elvis became a devotee of British comedians Monty Python. He had also during the filming of Harum Scarum acquired a yoga teacher. Paramahansa Yoganada ran something called the Self-Realisation Fellowship Order. Paramahansa was popular amongst the Hollywood fraternity and that now included Elvis. And back then both musicians and actors were curious about drugs which were supposed to not only provide transcendental delights but save trips to the bookshops. Elvis, though, liked to read. In 1965 he bought and read The Psychedelic Experience by Ralph Mentzer and Timothy Leary. The Doors Of Perception by Aldous Huxley also joined the Elvis reading list that year. These three authors are responsible for more ruined brain cells than most. Elvis was lucky. Working his way through the treadmill but financially rewarding Hollywood contracts, he had become risk averse. Curious but wary, Elvis persuaded members of his Memphis Mafia to try LSD and marijuana cakes and tell him what they had experienced. Whatever the employed mates said to Elvis he was not discouraged. That year Elvis had a Meditation Garden built in the grounds of Graceland. For some reason the name of the construction acquired a couple of capital letters.
But despite the fashionable preoccupations, Elvis was more at ease in the company of the less adventurous Tom Jones, a man that probably reflected the extrovert side of Elvis. The side of his personality that Elvis showed to the world. The extent of the friendship between the two men has been subsequently disputed by onlookers. No doubt Elvis was impressed with the voice and down to earth manner of Tom Jones. The Beatles and the other groups were of a different generation and were people pulling at the strains of convention. The years 1965 and 1966, which these three albums had straddled, confirmed the arrival of a rebellious age and consolidated its progress. In 1965 the British war leader Winston Churchill died. The past was being buried.
I had left Liverpool Stock Exchange and become a student. In the process the friendships with schoolmates were lost. Whatever the company I found myself in a fondness for Elvis and the music of his era made me the exception. I had become an outsider. I was not as downhearted as I could have been. In 1965 Liverpool Football Club won the FA Cup, the first in its football history. Waiting for that victory had felt like waiting for a decent single from Elvis. Without listening to any of these three albums the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan appeared on British television and, like the Elvis fans that were kidded into buying his movie soundtracks, uttered a famous and frank four letter expletive. (The clue is in the alliteration.) It is not connected but Elaine Dunphy was married to Tynan for a while and she wrote the marvellous and thought provoking Elvis And Gladys.
The radicalism of the 1960s may have been overdue but it was not achieved without the potential for change being well overestimated. The success of the The Beatles had made the working class and their regional accents fashionable. Some Britons convinced themselves that the rigid class hierarchy of British society had been broken. This was not true but in entertainment and the media a brief period followed where working class faces could be seen and their voices heard. The extent to which this was an illusion of change we would discover 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.