42 – LOVE LETTERS FROM ELVIS
Released in the USA June 16 1971
Elvis completed his third month long season at Las Vegas in the summer of 1970. During one of the shows he announced that his next album would be a soundtrack to the documentary being filmed in Vegas and that this would be followed by a country album. Elvis had spent the last decade sidestepping questions about his career. For him this brief statement amounted to a revelatory vision. Although he had recorded thirty six tracks at Nashville in June there was no mention by Elvis of there being a third album from those sessions. It is not fair to Parker and RCA to say, as some have, that the album was released despite the protests of Presley. The likelihood is that Elvis had no idea that an album full of leftovers was being released. It is even possible that he went to his grave unaware of its existence. We know there are instances of Elvis being surprised by fans when asked to sign album covers. ‘What are they shoving out now?’ he said on at least one occasion. He might or might not have referred to the Love Letters album.
Jon Landau was a tough music critic employed by Rolling Stone in the 1970s. Unlike some he was not averse to telling readers when Bob Dylan had fallen short. Landau went on to produce albums for Bruce Springsteen. Landau has had throughout his life mixed feelings about the records of Elvis Presley. He has, though, always recognised the talent of the performer. Landau helped produce the 2018 TV documentary Elvis The Searcher. The ambition of the documentary was simple, to establish that Presley was much more than a pop singer with a handsome face. Landau was one of the first to argue that Elvis was an artist that deserved to be taken seriously. His review of a concert that Elvis performed in Boston is one of the best pieces ever written about any rock and roller. After Elvis died a copy of the review was found at Graceland and inside a transparent plastic wallet. As my mother used to say, it’s nice to be appreciated. If Landau understood that at his best Elvis was incomparable, the critic was all too aware of the underachievement and inconsistency. He described the Love Letters From Elvis album as half funk and half muzak. This was not a compliment. Referring to the comeback in late 1968, the album was described by Landau as ‘the most discouraging event of the last three years of Presley’s career’. And so it was and is.
The review of Love Letters by Landau is still available on the Rolling Stone website and is an essential read. He describes as well as anyone the price that is paid by Elvis fans. ‘And those of us who have loved him from the beginning, and know that he could still be doing it, because every now and then we still hear him doing it, can only turn away in disgust from this sort of thing.’ That is or was my relationship with Elvis. All that I would change in the sentence by Landau is the word disgust. I prefer the word despair. These days, though, I have become either more tolerant or more desperate. My age and the death of Elvis have made a difference.
By the time I first heard the album in late 1971 I was thinking about a shared future with a woman I had met in the summer. I also had ideas about returning to University and repairing the damage from the previous attempt. Because financial promises had been made to me by certain authorities, I had something that had been resisted for long periods, hope and ambition. More cruel blows, though, would come later. One night I sat on the floor in a Glasgow flat and in the company of the same woman played the album. When listening to Love Letters From Elvis late at night and sharing female company somehow it all sounded less offensive. But even that evening I had hopes for more. I wanted Elvis to be ‘doing it’ again.
Back in 1971 smooch albums were still part of the armoury of certain less than principled males. Whatever the intention of the album title or the cheesy and Parker approved album cover the songs are too varied to support the concentration required by seducers. The album includes a storming version of the Muddy Waters classic Got My Mojo Working. White men should be wary of wandering into the territory of Muddy Waters but the track fades out with musicians roaring approval. Although the selection of the song has been criticised Cindy Cindy benefits from similar aggression. It is transformed into tough rock and roll. There is also gospel material. Only Believe was a traditional hymn written by evangelist Paul Radar. This chap was born in 1878 and as well as gospel songs he wrote a book called Big Bug. The infection referred to in the book title was the influence of Hollywood. Elvis had made 29 movies in the place. Not the first choice of Radar if he had been alive but he would have approved of the performance. Life was written by Shirl Milete and, like the Terence Mallick movie The Tree Of Life, flops somewhere between gospel intent and an unconvincing description of the big bang and what followed. Milete was not without ideas but they were not all successful. In one of the outtakes of Life there is a moment when Elvis says that he feels like he has been singing the damned song half of his life. That lack of enthusiasm for what is pretentious nonsense does beg the question why Elvis persisted. But without persistence there would have been a big bang and not much else. The country songs Ain’t No Big Thing and If I Were You are better. They have a tug that should not be dismissed.
Jon Landau in his Rolling Stone review identified the two glaring faults in Love Letters From Elvis. One, because the tracks are scraps or left overs, the songs are not great. Two, the dubbing of strings and voices is awful. Freddie Bienstock was now settled in England and willing or perhaps determined to accept songs from the British bargain basement. This Is Our Dance and and Heart Of Rome were clearly once intended for Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdinck. Elvis adds an intensity that Jackie Wilson would have admired but taken at a more sedate level these songs would have fitted on to a Vera Lynn album which is probably why they were not accepted by Jones and Humperdinck. Because Love Letters From Elvis was a project conceived of within the offices of RCA and no doubt with input from oompah Tom Parker, the dubbing was added when Elvis was back home in Graceland. Subsequent dubbing had occurred on the classic albums From Elvis In Memphis and Elvis Country but in those instances producers Chips Moman in Memphis and Felton Jarvis in Nashville had added basic competence and sanity.
The dubbing on Love Letters From Elvis sounds like it was done by someone who had never heard an Elvis album. The strings not only clash with the tough rhythm section but are often an octave too high. This is particularly noticeable on the opening track Love Letters and what could have been the punchy When I’m Over You. On the back cover, credit is given to three musical groups. What dominates the vocal accompaniment, though, is the contribution of the five female singers. These ladies can hold a tune, and we all like attention, but there is a time and a place. It never occurred to whoever masterminded the dubbed backing on Love Letters From Elvis that vocal accompaniment was utilised in the music of the American South because no one could afford the violins. Both can be used on a track but sometimes it is better to not have them contribute simultaneously. On Love Letters From Elvis talented musicians are used to create suffocating swill.
These limitations have been recognised more than once since the death of Elvis. Sony Music in 2020 released a four box set called From Elvis In Nashville. Engineers stripped the music back to what had been recorded in the studio. The title was designed to invite comparisons with what had been achieved at American Sound in Memphis. The box set included all the tracks that Elvis had recorded in June 1970. Listened to without the dubbing, Love Letters From Elvis has weaknesses but both Elvis and the band are convincing and edgy. Nothing quite redeems the self-satisfied and all knowing lyrics of Life but in a different setting the duff British songs exist as evidence of a musician that had complicated obsessions rather than efforts that confirm the terrible betrayal that so depressed Jon Landau. For all its faults Heart Of Rome has tremendous energy and passion.
In the period between the Elvis Country and Love Letters From Elvis albums the singer received an Outstanding Young American award. The possibility exists that Elvis knew of the pending award when he visited Nixon in the White House. Elvis was proud of the award. Receiving the honour might have precipitated the complicated conservatism of his final years. His recent success, though, was not reflected in an improved demeanour. At the award ceremony Elvis slurs his way through the acceptance speech. In the photographs of this period he wears clothes that resemble the garb of a megalomaniacal emperor. His eyes often look heavy. The excess weight that had been a feature of some movies and that had been lost had returned. His yearly work schedule now consisted of recording sessions, two month-long seasons in Vegas and a couple of national tours. In between he watched movies, flew between Memphis and Los Angeles, passed the time with friends and bought guns, a lot. On one occasion alone Elvis spent $3,150 dollars on weaponry. That amount of money would in 1971 have bought a family a decent used car. Whether the comeback had persuaded Elvis that additional armoury was needed to confirm his exploits as conqueror or whether the extra guns appeared because he was dissatisfied at not capturing a wider audience we do not know. In this period Elvis also had to visit hospital for treatment of iritis and secondary glaucoma. One thing was certain. After three years of making an effort the singer was bored and troubled. There is no evidence to suggest that either Elvis shared his concerns with Parker or that his manager was concerned about the deteriorating health and emotional state of his meal ticket. The extent of the physical and psychological transformation would not only be revealed later but be remembered for much longer than that.
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.