55 – TODAY
Released in the USA May 7, 1975
William Faulkner was one of the three authors that dominated American Literature in the first half of the 20th Century. The other two were Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The three men hated Hollywood but, like Elvis, all were obliged at some point in their careers to earn a living at the film studios. Faulkner believed that the past never disappeared entirely. History existed in the present, and he tried to represent the alternative realities in his stream of consciousness prose. The Elvis album Today also has history. There are two versions, well almost. When Elvis heard the undubbed masters he objected to what he thought was rough work. The bass and drum parts were replaced. Critics have compared this original version not to the alternative masters with revised contributions from the bass guitarist and drummer but the final dubbed version that has extra musicians and vocalists added. Because different stages in the process have been compared, most of the comments are meaningless. Even with the original drum and bass parts the final version of Today would have been similar to what was eventually released. Perhaps not quite as good but similar.
The cajolement of Elvis did, though, inspire Jarvis to create a bright sharp sound. The horns on Shake A Hand add bite to the not especially ambitious performance of Elvis. Susan When She Tried is catchy and direct with for once modest vocal backing that creates the effect of double tracking, Yet the benefits from the efforts of Jarvis are not consistent across the album. The vocals of Elvis on Bringing It Back, for example, are more impressive without the extra dubbing. In the version that was released in 1975, Elvis sounds like he has an aversion to a microphone being near his face. Recent remastered CD versions are an improvement. Heard with Elvis up front Bringing It Back is a decent song. Tony Brown was the piano player for Voice, one of the vocal groups that backed Elvis. He had played the piano on the original demo and was invited to play on the record. Brown could have been excused for being overcome by nerves. He has later admitted to ‘hyperventilating’ during the recording. He brings enthusiasm, and his playing is a highlight. Enthusiasm is not always apparent in the keyboard contributions to Today from the highly rated David Briggs. The rest of the band are also impressive on Bringing It Back, and so is Elvis when he is properly heard although in a couple of key moments he still lacks the punch that had once been second nature.
Neither the undubbed version of And I Love You So or the final Vegas-type alternative convince. A more astute producer than Jarvis would have utilised the lyricism of Elvis and not crushed the musicality with awful wailing females. It is not the fault of these ladies that their voices are so prominent in the mix but it is difficult to listen to them without feeling violent. The shame is that the Elvis version of And I Love You So begins with real promise. His vocals swell the notes. The same women are almost as destructive on Green Green Grass Of Home. Tom Jones had a big hit with the song, and Elvis at times parodies the singing of Jones.
Today was recorded at the RCA Studios in Hollywood in March 1975. The Hollywood location was picked for convenience. The rest of the month Elvis was performing in not so far away Las Vegas. Elvis used his stage band for the recordings. Three years earlier he had recorded in the same studio half a dozen songs that included the hit singles Always On My Mind and Burning Love. Maybe in 1975 that had also been his ambition, a handful of tracks to keep RCA vultures at bay. But Elvis was in Hollywood for three days and not desperate to arrive early in Las Vegas. Without too much inconvenience he managed the ten tracks for an album.
The third day of recording was interrupted by Beach Boy Brian Wilson wandering into the studio. Wilson was working in the studio next door. According to witnesses, Brian Wilson ‘stayed a while’ without ever being inspired to make a musical contribution. Wilson might have sensed similar feelings within Elvis. The pity was that the conversation between Elvis and Wilson was not filmed. It could have been used to warn young people against using drugs. Without the arrival of Wilson more tracks might have been recorded by Elvis at the RCA Studio although that does not seem likely. Elvis did participate in a jam session that produced a version of the Rufus Thomas hit Tiger Man. Elvis had done house rocking versions of the song for his TV Special and at Las Vegas. The Tiger Man recorded in Hollywood, and not included in the album, is superior to much that is on Today but it is not as energetic as previous attempts.
RCA released the album two months after the recordings by Elvis. It must have been clear to the people at the record company that their prize pop asset was not just losing energy but inclination. Sensible folk would have held the album back until later in the year and then made every effort to have Elvis return to the studio. An energetic Elvis doing mammoth three album sessions was no longer available to the record company. The powers at RCA, though, acted like frenetic gamblers that live from one hand of cards to the other. The kind we only see in movies if we are lucky. People who believe that tomorrow will always look after itself. Not sure what William Faulkner said about the future and fate. Time has passed since I read him. What I did manage to learn, although not in Faulkner, is that a capable administrator should at least know how to relate timetables and contingencies. Parker appears in 1975 to have restricted his efforts to avoiding the bullets. There is little evidence of him making constructive proposals. Despite stays in hospital by Elvis and damning reviews of the performances in Vegas and on tour the dice rolling Parker acted as if nothing had changed. He counted the money and arranged tours for what would only be a gloomy 1976.
The commitment from Elvis to the album has been described as minimal but his efforts are a little more complicated than that. At least there is not the self-destructive sabotage from Elvis that sometimes weakened his efforts on his Hollywood albums. At times one can even hear vocal strain, this is evident on his version of the Pointer Sisters hit Fairytale. If the strain is a disappointment and undermines fond memories of previous success, it does reveal effort by Elvis if not serious ambition. For once the backing female vocalists are a positive addition even if their efforts are restricted to imitating the Pointer Sisters. Because his rock and roll timing had deteriorated at roughly the same rate as his health, Elvis made a mess of the second line at the opening of the rocker T-R-O-U-B-L-E. He does, though, somehow recover. The rest of his performance of the song is brilliant and wild. Of course, a more committed Elvis would have repeated the takes until his performance was note perfect. The Elvis that had laboured over 27 takes of Hound Dog had long gone.
In 1975 original material was not available for Elvis. The cut price rates being offered by Parker and RCA were unattractive to songwriters who were now only being rewarded with the royalties from the modest sales from Elvis albums. It is not certain who picked the songs for Today or how they arrived in the studio. The countrypolitan ambitions of the previous album Promised Land do not define Today. Instead, Elvis works his way around some of the various genres that for him defined American music. The likelihood is that Shake A Hand came from his blues and gospel memory. I Can Help was urged by Felton Jarvis on behalf of rockabilly inspired Billy Swan. The Elvis that recorded I Can Help had ceased to be the rockabilly master of the 1950s but he adds a bounce that is missing from the Billy Swan original. The real clinker in the set is Woman Without Love. Even in 1975 this sexist nonsense made most of us squirm with embarrassment.
Of course, the bizarre life of Elvis had by 1975 left him a little crazy and, despite constant flattery and attention, remote and detached. This perhaps explains why he did not consign Woman Without Love to the bin. One anecdote explains the irrationality that was in 1975 being endured by those who worked with Elvis. At the beginning of the Hollywood recording session Elvis had asked for the rights of the song Country Bumpkin to be secured. This proved to be difficult but with extra effort it was managed. Not without pride the song was presented to Elvis during the recording session. Elvis responded by saying something like, ‘What’s this damned rubbish? I ain’t no damned country bumpkin.’ I am not too sure about the accuracy of the words damned and rubbish in that quote.
The album cover continued the tradition of having a photograph taken of Elvis on stage and in his white jumpsuit. On the reverse cover there are no references to the songwriters but each song is identified as being the property of BMI, the music company in which Parker, RCA and Freddie Bienstock participated. It is not necessary to have a twisted imagination to suspect something sinister in the ten references to BMI.
In 1976 I bought my first car, a used, or what was then called second-hand, Royal Blue Morris Marina Coupe. I had a car, a wife and a mortgage. My mother was pleased to see me finally settled. The consensus is that the Morris Marina was a heap of British junk. It did, though, have a 1.8 V8 engine. The specification stated that the top speed was 95 miles per hour but the speedometer soon revealed that was honourable British self-effacement. Elvis had been buying automobiles on a regular basis since his first RCA hit and he persisted with his habit except in 1975 most of the cars he bought were for other people. He liked to surprise people and see their faces brighten with pleasure. His moments of happiness and perhaps consequence were now rare. Later they would disappear.
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.