54 – PROMISED LAND
Released in the USA January 15 1975
In the late 1970s I visited Memphis. Someone showed me the bar in which Charlie Rich liked to drink but that night Charlie stayed home, and after that I had other places to visit. Although Rich was at heart a blues and jazz man the album of his that had the greatest commercial success was Behind Closed Doors. The album also generated the irresistible The Most Beautiful Girl, a number one single on the Billboard pop chart. From 1972 to 1976 the live-in partner for Elvis was Linda Thompson. According to Thompson, the album that Elvis listened to more than any other in this period was Behind Closed Doors. The critics on Rolling Stone, though, were unimpressed by the album. They considered it to be countrypolitan and a betrayal of authentic country music.
If Behind Closed Doors topped the country charts it also had widespread appeal. Listen to the album today and the original commercial intentions remain clear. Yet the production by Billy Sherrill is not the expected middle of the road mush. The instrumentation on some tracks is quite spare, and the bass and percussion are always pronounced. Elvis has been reported as playing Behind Closed Doors for other musicians and asking why his own records did not have the same production values. As Elvis liked the album so much, the next step would have been to invite Billy Sherrill to produce his future records. That, though, would have involved dismissing producer Felton Jarvis. Elvis was not even capable of resisting the exploitation of bully boy Parker. Jarvis was loyal to Elvis, perhaps excessively so, but he was also an employee of RCA. Billy Sherrill understood how to add an edge to countrypolitan music. The timidity of Elvis and the defensiveness of Parker and the executives at RCA meant that the gift of Sherrill was forfeited.
The Promised Land album by Elvis appeared six months after the release of Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis. Promised Land is more diverse than Behind Closed Doors, the album includes the Chuck Berry rocker Promised Land. Yet the countrypolitan intentions are obvious. The music on Promised Land is a distance away from what Elvis performed in front of a Memphis audience. Elvis, of course, is not the only musician to tone down his music in the studio. It had been different for Elvis when he was young but from 1971 the singer was plagued with ill-health. From then Elvis was aware of restrictions and limitations, even if occasionally on stage he overcame them.
No one, though, should be criticised for continuing to wonder why Elvis was so interested in Behind Closed Doors. Did he actually like the music on that album, was he exploring what he saw as commercial options and next steps or was it nothing more than being interested in the production techniques of Billy Sherrill? Linda Thompson is an attractive woman that most consider to be bright and lively, someone who had a close and worthwhile relationship with Elvis. Unfortunately the answers to those questions appear to be beyond her memory. We will have to wonder.
The younger fans of Elvis were obliged to miss the glory of early rock and roll. Some of them insist that Elvis delivers a powerhouse performance of the Chuck Berry hit Promised Land. Timing, though, is everything. The music catalogue of swamp rock and roller Johnnie Allen is patchy. His version of Promised Land appeared around the same time as the Elvis version and is both inspired and incomparable. The record is the finest in the career of Allen, an achievement that in the words from a certain cowboy movie will help him ‘walk into his father’s house justified’. Compared to Allen, the version by Elvis sounds routine. It is not but sometimes life is not fair. Just as odd was someone at RCA choosing Promised Land for the album title. As a representation of the album it is inadequate and misleading. If the title was meant to be a patriotic affirmation, someone picked the wrong song.
In 1975 there was turbulence rather than promises in the land of the UK. Some sunny days must have occurred because the month of August of that year is distinguished by being the warmest on record. But hard as I try, I cannot remember sunny days from that year. I had by then, though, developed a narcotic reading habit. Around this time I once read nine books in a weekend. Double figures in a week was not unusual. Not only was I a civil servant that had job security and regular income, I could at least lose myself in a book. It helped. Others were not so fortunate. These days the accusatory British media attribute past economic blame to powerful trade unions but the wreckage of British industry was begun in the 1960s by venture capitalists from their homes in Mayfair. In 1975 rising oil prices had helped drag the inflation rate of a battered economy up to 24.2%. The previous Prime Minister Ted Heath, to help folk survive, had in one of his better moments made monthly pay increases mandatory. Decline often begins at the moment of the greatest success, and in 1975 the National Union of Mineworkers did not just help defeat a Tory Government they secured a subsequent 35% pay rise. In a referendum 67% of the British people voted to remain in the European Economic Community. These victories made the more sinister within the British establishment determined to secure vengeance. Margaret Thatcher was the pin up girl of the venture capitalists. In 1975 she was elected leader of the Conservative Party. The rest is relentless grim history.
In the month that Promised Land was released Elvis treated himself to an impounded Boeing 707 aeroplane. Having money to spend, though, was not helping the man. Two weeks after Promised Land was released Elvis was admitted to hospital for a 16 day treatment. Elvis had experienced breathing difficulties but there was also hope from his doctor that a stay in hospital might break a cycle of abuse of prescribed medication. Seven days before the album was released the British media showed a unity that would have impressed the National Union of Mineworkers. The tabloid newspapers of the UK relished that Elvis was now forty years old, overweight, depressed and becoming an eccentric hermit confined to his bedroom. This supposed revelation had first appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Whatever the triumphant stage show by Elvis six months earlier had inspired in his fellow citizens of Memphis it was neither kinship nor loyalty.
The album, though, was recorded during the Stax sessions in December 1973, over 12 months earlier. The return visit to Stax had been more successful than the visit in July. The decline in the vocal power of Elvis had not been reversed but he had learnt how to manage the limitations and exploit new strengths. At the time of its release the album was condemned for not being contemporary and was considered irrelevant. In 1975 I assumed the Promised Land to be the sloppy work of a man engaged in self-destruction. When the remastered versions on CDs are heard today one hears efforts that are professional and even calculated. But if Elvis sometimes impressively extends his repertoire, there is nothing that is seminal, nothing to excite a crowd looking for the novel. We should not be surprised. Elvis had been a professional singer for 17 years. He had recorded hundreds of songs in those 17 years. These were the final tracks from the Stax sessions to be released.
Despite what was written in the liner notes on the deluxe edition of the Elvis at Stax CD the problem Elvis was having in finding decent songs persisted until the end of his career. A song is like a son. Someone somewhere will love it. But Promised Land does have some poor choices. Mr Songman, Love Song Of The Year and Your Love’s Been A Long Time Coming have strong melodies but that does not mean they are easy on the ear. Even typing the three titles makes me feel uneasy. They evoke the covers of failed romantic pulp novels. Elvis sings these songs well, especially Your Love’s Been A Long Time Coming, but none of the three convince. If Elvis thought this material would provide an alternative mature or contemporary identity, he was either misguided, badly informed or desperate.
But Promised Land is what it is, an almost countrypolitan alternative to the chart topping Behind Closed Doors by Charlie Rich. For that reason some will hate it. Others will be seduced by the performances. The three songs above, though, are a burden that stops Promised Land being successful. The rest of the album is okay even if it fails to offer transcendental triumphs. And in his defence Elvis was operating with reduced powers. These are evident on the decent song by Elvis pal Red West. If You Talk In Your Sleep was subsequently covered by the great blues and soul singer Little Milton. The version by Elvis has a typical Stax arrangement, dark with punchy horns. In his prime Elvis would have made the track a chart topping classic. Instead it stands as a lost opportunity. If You Talk In Your Sleep is still a solid record but Little Milton adds the grit that is beyond the reduced Elvis.
Promised Land still has fine moments. Thinking About You is anonymous and meandering pop that could have been awful but the bass line and knowing and teasing vocal of Elvis make it worthwhile. There’s A Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me In) is a good country song, and Elvis pumps it with emotion. Conway Twitty had a hit single with the song. The tougher interpretation by Twitty feels more appropriate to honky tonks but the subtle operatic dimension from Elvis reinvents the song. Help Me is a fine example of what was in 1975 modern melodic gospel. It’s Midnight is melodramatic and a little self-pitying but also dark. The arrangement is overdone, and the likelihood is that It’s Midnight will never gain approval from our taste makers but it benefits from a heartfelt performance by a genuine insomniac. But if Promised Land reminds us that Elvis in difficult circumstances could be serious and make an effort, it is a pity that Linda Thompson did not hide the Behind Closed Doors album. There would be less and not more stamina 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.