Released in the USA May 20 1968
33 SINGER PRESENTS ELVIS SINGING FLAMING STAR
Released in the USA October 1968
Norman Taurog directed 180 films. Nine of his last 13 films were musical comedies, and Elvis sang and acted in all nine. Taurog won an Oscar for Best Director for Skippy in 1931 but his finest moment was the movie adaptation of the Mark Twain classic The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer. Not only did the film have critical and commercial success, Taurog somehow survived working with producer David O Selznick. Prior to Taurog arriving on the set of the film two directors had been fired by Selznick. These were George Cukor and William A Wellman. Neither were slouches. The career of Taurog covered the same period as that of the great Howard Hawks. Both groomed by Hollywood the two men had a work ethic and a similar no nonsense fast moving directorial style. Hawks, though, had a talent that could mix a light touch with ideas and depth. At some point someone recognised the limitations of Taurog and assigned him to working with comedians and entertainers rather than actors. Whatever his limitations Taurog had the ability to keep working. When he retired Taurog became a director of the Braille Institute in Los Angeles. His blindness had come to Taurog while he was still in Hollywood. At the end of his movie career Elvis was being paid $850,000 a picture, 50% of the profits and assigned a blind director. And slow to blink snowman Colonel Parker thought he was the con artist.
The movie Speedway was the end of the line for the musical comedies of Elvis. The singer had already been abandoned by producer Hal Wallis. The last film Elvis made with Wallis was Paradise Hawaiian Style. The reduced enthusiasm of Wallis is demonstrated by the half-hearted attempt at the movie title. After Speedway there were five more Elvis movies but the number of songs featured was reduced. Speedway is the last of the soundtrack albums and even in that movie there were only six songs although one more had been intended to feature. Five Sleepy Heads was one of the five bonus songs on the album and the not so unlucky effort that was removed from the film. Five Sleepy Heads is an anything but winsome lullaby. The sense of an era or a phase stumbling to a close haunts both the album and the movie.
These memories of Speedway are being written in the week that followed the final episode of the British hit series Line Of Duty. After six series and God knows how many episodes and cliffhangers the identity of the top cop conspirator was revealed. Many viewers were disappointed because the conspirator was anything but a master criminal. It felt like an unsatisfactory conclusion to a lot of effort. No ending, though, baffles as much as the one written into Speedway. Throughout the film, Elvis and his gambling addicted manager have had to deal with debt. Not for the first time on celluloid, Mr Presley needs to win a car race. The prize money will enable him to survive a putative arrangement with the IRS. The situation for his treacherous manager is more complicated. The manager owes gangsters for huge gambling losses. This is serious money and beyond anything Elvis can earn as a stock car racer. Elvis, though, persists, but to the surprise of the audience he loses the car race. What happens to the hero of Speedway has to be regarded as failure. But Elvis has tax inspector Nancy Sinatra to love him and, having a cheerful nature, he is at least able to sing the finale. Meanwhile everybody, including the scriptwriters, had forgotten the threats of vicious gangsters. The actors playing the gangsters must have failed to show the next day on the film set. All the fights, car races, albums, songs, girls, mindless mates, beaches, flat jokes, assorted guitars, sharp jackets and hair dye that had been so essential to those 27 Elvis movies, and this was how it ended, in failure and confusion. Elvis is left with just enough money to prevent his previous gifts to some poor folks being repossessed. The what the hell conclusion of Speedway suggested a tongue in the cheek of a 1960s hip and alienated screenwriter. Although the movie may have already been thirty years out of date nonsense when it was made the baffling denouement somehow transforms cheese into appealing camp. Quentin Tarantino pays homage to Speedway in his much more self-conscious Pulp Fiction. No prizes for guessing how. Think of restaurants and open top motors.
The best track on the Speedway album is the Return To Sender soundalike Western Union. This bonus song is no more than hummable but it does make a difference when the sound engineer remains awake. Western Union was previously recorded in 1963 for an album that was never released. Two later studio efforts from 1967 are included but they are the least successful of what Elvis had recorded in Nashville that year. The rockaballad Your Time Hasn’t Come Yet Baby is an inconsequential country tune designed to offend no one. Because it was selected from the film as the single, an attempt was made to mix the recording properly. This does not apply to the rest which is a pity because a couple could have been decent rockers. There Ain’t Nothing Like A Song has energy, and Let Yourself Go is blessed with raunch. Elvis also tries to add life but he sounds like a man lost in Hollywood. Let Yourself Go had to wait until the Comeback TV Special for its full potential to be realised. Who Are You is a trite ballad. But Elvis poses as a traditional crooner, and that is interesting, as is the simple but fine Stan Getz type jazz solo. He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad is, believe it or not, an exhortation to American citizens to pay their taxes. On the album it is even less amusing than it was in the movie. The track by Nancy Sinatra that is included in the album did at least sound contemporary.
In 1968 I had finished my second year at University. I would complete my third year but only because I had friends there and was curious about what might happen next. After two years my academic career was irredeemable. I could, though, take some pride in my nihilism. In an odd way I enjoyed being battle weary and an alternative to the hedonistic utopianism that prevailed amongst the majority. The fun and drama, though, was too good for any of us to let pass by, and I was not short of friends. If hedonism was de rigueur for all, there were consequences. For some the brain damage from chemical stimulants would be permanent. There were even a few premature deaths. Sexually transmitted diseases and skin infections were also rampant amongst the students. The careful prospered more than the careless.
Two young men that could be described as victims were present when I first heard Singer Presents Elvis Singing Flaming Star And Others. A crowd of us sat and listened to the album in the study bedroom of someone daft enough to buy anything by Elvis in 1968. The two people that were doped up struggled with a collection that included the tough urban blues of Tiger Man and the singalong sentimentality of Wonderful World. When this pair of confused chaps heard Elvis singing about the Eyes Of Texas looking down on everyone and us not being able to get away their paranoid addled brains crumbled. Someone suggested it might be better if our two friends left the room.
If Speedway was the last in a line then the very modest Singer release was the first event of the next phase. It was the first Elvis album to appear that had a budget price. In 1968 in the UK all standard vinyl albums cost £1 12s 6d. Retail price maintenance applied and retailers were not allowed to apply individual discounts to their products. Budget albums retailed at 99 pence. The Singer album is also the only example of an Elvis record that added the name of a commercial company to the album title. On the back cover we were told that Singer sewing machines were famous for innovation and that this reputation would be extended by the Singer sponsorship of the forthcoming Elvis TV Special.
The album consists of ten songs. Eight of these are from movies. The title track is Hollywood fake Western music from 1960 but Elvis is inspired and adds understated but irresistible rhythm and fluency. All I Needed Was The Rain and Wonderful World are from two movies that followed Speedway. The songs are undistinguished but the recordings confirmed that Elvis was now willing to exercise his tonsils. Apart from the rocker She’s A Machine the other movie songs were all recorded for Viva Las Vegas. She’s A Machine is far from essential and has a clunky stuttering feel but it was pleasant to hear Elvis on the chorus remember his growl. Of the Vegas songs Night Life is the best but not great. As with many movie songs the performance has to be detached from the material. But 99 pence or not, the Singer album had two standout tracks. Too Much Monkey Business is an original take on the Chuck Berry classic. The guitar work of Jerry Reed is fundamental but it is the vocal of Elvis that carries the song into a different space and transforms a rhythm and blues number into a fresh and distinct rockabilly form. Tiger Man was taken from the TV Special and provided an advance trailer. I remember sitting in that small University study room and all of us yelling approval. Elvis was again singing the blues. His performance is harsh, vital, loaded with energy and defiant. If the animal aggression of Elvis was triumphant, his performance was also enhanced by the absence of any trace of malice. This mix of sexuality, innocent fun, violence and good natured benevolence had been present in the best of his 1950s rock and roll. Hearing it again as the finale on a motley cut price collection and without knowledge of what was about to happen in the TV Special was astonishing. Elvis was singing rock and roll and he sounded as good as ever. Only when the show sponsored by Singer appeared on television would fans be able to make sense of what had been the contradictory events of the previous year. As most of the young had done during the decade, Elvis had been obliged to cross a line. This revelation would require nothing more than the ubiquitous television. But all that came later and, as it happened, just in time for Christmas.
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.