38 ON STAGE
Released in the USA June 1 1970
In 1970 most British disc jockeys welcomed the reformed Elvis. John Peel had his underground ambitions and was the obvious exception. Ex-Radio Caroline man Johnnie Walker had in 1970 become a BBC stalwart. Walker was not a solid Elvis fan but he had hopes for the revitalised rock and roll hero. Walker reported with excitement that in the States a music critic had described On Stage as the best album ever by Elvis. After hearing that we all had hopes. The notion that a live album consisting of just ten tracks could be the best from Elvis is an odd one. What presumably impressed the critic was hearing Elvis tackle contemporary songs and perform them with energy and passion.
The traditional CC Rider is taken at a high tempo and is a blistering rock and roll opening to the album. Featured also on subsequent live albums the progress of CC Rider demonstrates how the energy and aggression Elvis had in 1970 was not maintained. Loaded with surprises Polk Salad Annie is a communal masterpiece that incorporates swamp rock rhythms from the band, Sly and the Family Stone soul ornamentation from the Sweet Inspirations and macho authority from Elvis. Even the ballads are given chest thumping force. Let It Be Me becomes inspirational rather than plaintive. Release Me has a gospel fervour, and Elvis growls the chorus. Elvis introduces the song by saying, ‘Let’s play it hard now.’ Sweet Caroline and Runaway are also fashioned into solid rock music.
Somehow, though, I had wanted more back in 1970. My own circumstances played a part. I had ceased living in London by the time the record was released in the UK. After hard times and burdened with the angst that had been promised my generation I had returned home. The summer of 1970 I spent working for an uncle in his roofing business. We also spent a considerable amount of time in the local pubs but only certain establishments. Not because my uncle had a refined palate that rejected substandard beer. The pubs we avoided were those in which he had acquired financial debts. I was not making progress, and before the dark nights of winter appeared a friend persuaded me to move to Nottingham. The year that followed was the most difficult period of my life. Compared to what happened in Nottingham the impoverished existence in London had been a breeze. I needed an Elvis masterpiece to give me a lift. Despite its strengths, On Stage is not one.
These are some of the reasons why. Ten tracks on a live album is sparse. The number ten was only achieved by including two songs from the previous 1969 engagement. This means that the full album title February 1970, ON STAGE, is not true. And not all ten tracks are great. Yesterday would have impressed the audience because the voice of Elvis is fine but on record his version lacks sensitivity. Elvis gives a powerhouse performance of Walk A Mile In My Shoes that when seen takes the breath away. But on record the version by Elvis, unlike the original by Joe South, does not have the same impact. Proud Mary is the same but has the added flaw that Elvis struggles with the tune. Elvis changed the arrangement later and, despite by then being reduced and suffering, he mastered the song.
The concept behind the album is good, songs that Elvis had not recorded elsewhere but if the intention was to make an album of such material Elvis needed to have learnt more songs. By the end of his career RCA could have filled a whole CD with songs that Elvis had only ever recorded on stage. RCA did not but I did, and all those performances assembled together flatter the creativity and commitment of Elvis in the final phase of his career. The opposite happens with On Stage. The achievements of Elvis in performance are best realised when full shows are committed to disc. In the subsequent live albums his energy had faltered but the format was improved. Fans, though, had to wait for the CD to be invented before they really appreciated the glory of Elvis in his early years at Las Vegas. There were also opportunities missed by RCA and a less than attentive Parker. Elvis had added an introduction to Walk A Mile In My Shoes that quoted the Hank Williams song Men With Broken Hearts. It is no more than a couple of lines but it stresses the need to respect those that fail. When Elvis sang Yesterday he added at the end of the song the chorus of Hey Jude. These are small details but if not removed by RCA they would have resonated and helped the performer to reach beyond a Las Vegas audience.
On Stage may not be the best album that Elvis ever recorded but what the album does have is a unique cover. The black and white photograph on the front looks like something chosen by a record company employee that has attended a spirited bible class the previous weekend. Elvis has his head tilted to the side. He is singing which is why the facial expression is intense. The outline of the head of the singer is lost in shadow, and the same shadow fills the space in his open mouth and conceals his teeth. At this moment the icon is a weakened human. The hand held in front of his face suggests not just someone in pain but a victim ready to endure. In the image the angle of the head leans forward and towards the shoulder and neck. It is a posture that more than a few Renaissance painters have used to recreate the image of Christ during his final suffering. Well, no one said two shows a night in Las Vegas would be easy. Throughout the movie career of Elvis there had been a willingness by RCA and Parker to use album images that presented their protege as a vulgarian. The same wilful desire to keep Elvis in his place persisted after his TV Comeback Special. Apart from one notable exception all twenty albums of Elvis from On Stage to the end of his career were defined by a picture of Elvis performing live and in his white suit. Few of the photographs were flattering. The cover of On Stage is different. For once we have a proclamation that, if not a religious deity, this man is unique and separate from ordinary mortals. The imagery is sinister, especially as the name of Elvis appears nowhere on the cover. Yet two years before On Stage was released Elvis had been reduced to being a figure of fun.
The credits on the back cover confuse as much as explain. Elvis was supported on stage by the Imperials Quartet and the Sweet Inspirations. On the back cover the Imperials Quartet are given a credit. This must be the only instance when the backing singers are mentioned but the lead vocalist is ignored. There is, though, that front cover photograph of Elvis. The African American female singers, the Sweet Inspirations are not mentioned. As with the name of Elvis, this might be another oversight. This sloppiness might have had a racial context within the RCA record company. The Sweet Inspirations were at least mentioned on all the subsequent live albums of Elvis.
When the performers go on stage something odd happens to record covers or at least they do at RCA. None of the studio albums of Elvis that were released in his lifetime mentioned any contributor other than the lead singer. Release a live album and people treaded carefully. All the Elvis live albums released by RCA in his lifetime sprouted credits. Glenn Spreen and Bergen White are given credit for their arrangements of Sweet Caroline and Walk A Mile In My Shoes. They might have created the original strings arrangements for those two hits but neither was involved in the Las Vegas recordings of Elvis. Nor are the versions by Elvis note for note copies of the originals. Presumably it had something to do with copyright.
Bureaucratic mechanics are not supposed to compromise the freedom promised by rock and roll. Musicians, though, know the truth. Ian Hunter, the lead singer of Mott the Hoople, said the more famous a musician becomes the more it feels like working in a factory. Because of his success, factory life always beckoned for Elvis. There were compensations, a high salary, adoration from women and very long weekends and holidays. The Vegas shows required two performances an evening. Elvis was booked into Vegas for a month at a time and twice a year. One engagement was in winter, and the other in summer. The album On Stage was recorded before Elvis had added national tours to the Vegas commitments.
Rock critics may have disapproved of Elvis appearing in Vegas and being tempted by material that would have appealed to Tom Jones but whatever the reservations we have about On Stage what cannot be denied is that Elvis sings the hell out of these songs. Nor should we assume that an in-form Elvis was compromised by performing in a hotel showroom. When Elvis performed in Las Vegas in 1969 the relationship between modern American music and the desert city had been redefined. For some engagements Elvis was in residence at the showroom and Ike and Tina Turner or BB King on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton casino theatre. Sometimes the performers in the casino theatre were country musicians. The intention was that Elvis fans would be tempted to extend their stay. The rockers could listen to rhythm and blues, and the more conservative would settle for country music. Regard also has to be given to the size of the Hilton Showroom before dismissing late Elvis as a cabaret singer. The Hilton showroom had 2000 seats and a large stage. The Apollo Theatre in Manchester was a famous venue for soul acts. I saw Bobby Womack and BB King at the Apollo. Both were at the height of their fame in the UK. The Apollo has a seating capacity of 996 seats. Elvis would have been inspired by performing in front of 2000 people or 4000 on any individual night. The inspiration, though, palled for him, and well before the end he was heard to say in front of his audience how much he hated Las Vegas. On Stage is now available in an expanded CD edition that captures the force that the fortunate witnessed. After the death of Parker it became possible for others to organise the music catalogue of Elvis into something sensible. All that, of course, 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.