53 – ELVIS AS RECORDED LIVE ON STAGE IN MEMPHIS
Released in the USA June 15 1974
Paul Gambaccini is an American that lives in London. He has hosted various BBC radio shows and written books that combine curiosity with a lack of pretension. Throughout his career Gambaccini has also been available for comments about the latest developments in popular culture. His education and urbane manner were appreciated by those in Britain that felt the pop music shaped by The Beatles and Bob Dylan deserved intellectual weight. The American disc jockey qualified because he was smart and believed in the cultural banners of his generation. Gambaccini compared Paul McCartney to Mozart. Because he sometimes wrote for Rolling Stone, a magazine that under the editorship of Jann Wenner acknowledged Elvis as a generational talent, Gambaccini was obliged to have some respect for the rock and roll pioneer. What respect he had, though, was begrudged. The admiration of Gambaccini was limited to the Elvis that had existed before 1958. Early rock and roll was important to Gambaccini but only because it facilitated the revelations of the new masters.
The hip sensibility of Gambaccini and others had disapproved of Elvis extending his repertoire. African American musicians that drifted from their own cultural roots, though, were welcomed. This was because they embraced the influences of The Beatles and Dylan. The 1971 album What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye had been acclaimed by both critics and fellow musicians. Gaye had challenged the commercial traditions of Tamla Motown and added subtlety and sophistication to his musical arrangements. He also used his songs to register his protest at a terrible world and the intolerable circumstances of African Americans. Everyone including Gambaccini applauded, and the political indignation was heartfelt, but Gaye was no Antonio Gramsci. The Tamla Motown star was a fabulous singer and gifted musician but his political utopian utterances, whatever the merit of the cause, were trite and banal. This bothered few. The hip critics played with loaded dice.
Gambaccini was given by Rolling Stone the responsibility of reviewing Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis. Perhaps to make the work less odorous he combined the review with a look at Marvin Gaye Live. I remember opening Rolling Stone and seeing the two album covers side by side and the name Gambaccini. I feared the worst. Gambaccini made comparisons, as I had expected, but not in favour of the live album by Marvin Gaye. Gambaccini may have had his cultural heroes but he had enough wit to realise that Elvis had made the superior album. Gambaccini did, though, admit to being astonished. After the disappointments that had followed the success of Elvis Country, Gambaccini was not alone. Of course, what few realised back in 1974 was that Marvin Gaye had his own demons, and one of them consisted of patriarchal flesh and blood that had shaped a confrontational family. Despite the success of his What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On albums in the early 1970s the man Gaye was floundering. In Liverpool in 1976 I saw Marvin Gaye when he gave a concert at the Empire Theatre. The audience responded as partisan supporters rather than aficionados. The performance by Gaye that night consisted of tired rituals from a bleak and broken spirit but few noticed.
Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage in Memphis was the fifth live album by Elvis that RCA released in five years. It is, and against all reason, the best of the five. It is evident from the still fine performance of CC Rider that Elvis does not have the vocal power he had in 1969. But somewhere back in his home town Elvis finds a spark that many of us thought he had lost. Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis is as different from the previous Aloha From Hawaii as is night from day. Over the years the lifelong fans have adjusted to his complicated musical interests but there is little on disc that compares with listening to Elvis when he is having fun making music, realising his potential and, without forgetting his powerful roots, surprising himself. The top As that Elvis sings at the end of Can’t Help Falling In Love not only provide an alternative ending to the song but help create in this context a climatic moment that persuades us that we can touch the stars. Such triumphs, of course, stimulate fans to want more. As more than one critic has said, Elvis broke our hearts for twenty years, and this is true, but for that to happen there once had to be something to love. And once you have loved, there are memories.
Amongst many gems Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis contains stunning and intense versions of the early Sun classic Trying To Get To You and his gospel favourite How Great Thou Art. The performances of these two songs are so good they are barely credible. Trying To Get To You makes devotion to the Elvis cause feel worthwhile, reminds us that this was indeed the man that led the 1950s rock and roll breakthrough. How Great Thou Art is given both a very different arrangement from what was on the original studio album and an inspirational double encore. This live version earned a deserved Grammy for best gospel performance in 1974. One suspects that the vote was unanimous. Those of us not involved in the work of committees can only listen and admire. It is enough. His sheer brilliance dries the throat.
There are two tracks on Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage in Memphis that can be described as pop. These are An American Trilogy and Let Me Be There. The interesting folk roots of Trilogy and the compelling bravado from Elvis transcend genre. The Olivia Newton John confection is rescued by drive and energy. To please an ecstatic and euphoric crowd Elvis responds to shouts of ‘more’ and repeats the chorus. What could have been a weak interlude becomes, with the help of the crowd, inspirational and life affirming. The other tracks are rock and roll, rhythm and blues and gospel. And for once the rock and roll medley bounces with aggression, something that even the triumphant Elvis of 1970 had not delivered in his Las Vegas performances.
Because of the limitations of vinyl, the whole show is only available on CD. The 2001 introduction and eight songs from the original show were omitted from the album. It is a pity that no place was found for an essential version of Steamroller Blues that is much superior to the rendering that was in the Aloha From Hawaii concert. Yet the overall selection makes sense. The idea was to avoid too much duplication. Twelve songs included in the album had not featured on the previous five live albums. This contradicts the notion that Elvis recycled the same songs in his concerts. The complete Memphis stage show on the CD is great but the edited version on the album is superior. A vinyl album can emphasise the highlights. This is how it should be but it did not happen on the two live albums from Las Vegas. RCA must have learnt from previous mistakes.
Even the album cover is a triumph. There might be exaggeration in this story but this is the anecdote told by Parker. The task of creating cover images was given by the aesthete Parker to the son of a friend. The photos of Elvis on stage that were taken by the inexperienced son were, according to Parker, terrible. Close to the release deadline a substitute photographer had been forced to wander around Memphis and to search for a possible image. The last minute idea of using photos of Graceland gives the album not only distinction but welcome relief from the ubiquitous white suits that featured on the studio album covers.
American fans that saw Elvis on stage in 1974 have argued that there was physical recovery after the disappointments of 1973. The evidence from the records and CDs is not conclusive. Perhaps the success of the Memphis concerts or that spring tour persuaded Elvis that he could shift his concert material to something more raunchy. On his opening night in Las Vegas in the summer of 1974 he added some blues and dropped the 2001 introduction. The next night, though, the new format was abandoned and Elvis returned to a song selection that had proved popular with Vegas audiences. This has led some to speculate that this was the turning point that compelled a disillusioned Elvis to self-destruction. Elvis in August 1974, though, sounds as weak as he did in 1973. Perhaps he realised what he could do in Memphis and what he had managed in the previous spring tour was not sustainable. And maybe the recovery in the spring of 1974 had been achieved through long term physical damage. The way Elvis had responded to the challenge of returning to Memphis was very different from his cautious approach to a concert that had been seen on television by a worldwide audience. Elvis set himself challenges for the five concerts in Memphis in 1974. To find the right mood for the shows he had stayed the nights between concerts in a Howard Johnson motel. Elvis wanted the concerts and perhaps himself to be authentic. The autumn tour of 1974 was regarded as a disappointing sequel. Before one concert in that tour Elvis stepped out of his limousine and collapsed. The usual lackeys ensured that this did not prevent him from going on stage.
In 1974 I was living in the third of the seven houses that would feature in the sixteen years of that marriage. The mortgages to pay for these houses accumulated at almost the same speed as the houses appeared. In different ways it was a marriage of two restless spirits, and the dissolution fourteen years later was inevitable. Before that happened there were plenty of disagreements but one thing the two of us did agree on was the potency of Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis. Not just my eyes sparkled when we first heard the album and its relentless drive and energy. In the summer of 1974 there remained residual expectation and hope for not just Elvis but the lives of his young fans. But the previously turbulent past meant wary realism and compromise were weights on more than one set of shoulders. The inevitable breakage and disappointments 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.