56 – FROM ELVIS PRESLEY BOULEVARD, MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
Released in the USA May 17, 1976
57 MOODY BLUE
Released in the USA July 19 1977
Twelve months elapsed between the release of the albums Today and From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. Another twelve month gap occurred before the final album from Elvis appeared. The title of that album was Moody Blue and it summed up how everyone associated with Elvis felt. The RCA timetable of releasing three Elvis albums a year had ceased to be feasible. The phone calls of one eye on his bank account Parker were unanswered by Elvis. Like a character in a Shakespeare play, the manager was reduced to writing threatening letters that Elvis ignored. The tours in 1976 and 1977 were short but there were ten of them, and Elvis died on August 16th 1977 the day before another tour was about to begin. In the last eight difficult months of his life Elvis had become an embarrassment. A critic in the Houston Post felt that watching Elvis perform My Way on stage was like witnessing a prophecy. Memphis writer Stanley Booth recognised from one performance that the death of the singer was imminent.
Parker responded to the approaching disaster as he must have done when the animals had flagged on his circus tours. Some care for the human creature was arranged. Parker allowed Larry Geller and Dr Nick Nichopoulos to accompany Elvis on tour. Larry had been a hairdresser for Elvis and was full of mystical mumbo jumbo that for a while had given Elvis a sense of purpose. Dr Nick had a suitcase loaded with pills that did something. Parker also reviewed his options. He tried to sell the contract he had with Elvis and to say goodbye in the only way Parker knew, that is with a cheque in his back pocket. Elvis was signed up for a final TV special. That show can still be seen on YouTube but the recording has been obliterated from the official media catalogue. Well, blinkered Parker was never interested in legacy including his own.
Most have concluded that the erratic and self-destructive behaviour of Elvis was a consequence of fame, excess and the limitations of his character. The part they played cannot be denied but the individual transgressions and final paranoia of Elvis are also consistent with the behaviour of the very old close to death. Recent medics and DNA analysts have argued that the body of Elvis was programmed to die prematurely. Whatever his physical ailments Elvis would have most of the time avoided facing the prospect of dying. There are, though, two songs on the From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee album that refer to death and this, like the later inclusion of Softly As I Leave You in his live act, is no coincidence. The subconscious or deep instincts of Elvis were responding to a premature ending and had been for some time. The old and not just celebrities become childish and paranoid. There is a photograph of Elvis in a police uniform that was taken in 1976. He had been given some honorary position as a reserve policeman. The grin on his face belongs to a ten year old child.
The two final albums from Elvis are a consequence of two separate recording sessions that occurred in the basement of Graceland in February and October of 1976. Because of its decor, the basement has acquired the name Jungle Room. The original plan by Jarvis was to produce twenty tracks in the February sessions but the behaviour of a seriously unsettled Elvis was disruptive. Twelve tracks were recorded in the February sessions, and four more resulted from two days of work in October. The final day of the February sessions Elvis stayed in his bedroom. Just one song was produced on the second day of the sessions in October. Producer Felton Jarvis meanwhile had to deal with the demands from RCA executives. To try and recover the situation Jarvis set up a Nashville session for January 1977 and had both songs and musicians ready. Elvis appeared in Nashville but not in the recording studio. He stayed in a hotel and nursed what he claimed to be a sore throat. The musicians went home, and that was that.
In the last eighteen months of his life Elvis was overweight, weary and confused. Weaknesses infect the music Elvis recorded in the Jungle Room at Graceland, especially on From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. Whether it was the vocal chords of Elvis or his spirit that was damaged the cracks are apparent on Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain and I’ll Never Fall In Love Again. Elvis is good on the Roger Whittaker hit The Last Farewell and soulful on Danny Boy. Not all, though, would welcome the inclusion of those two songs. To ignore the album, though, is folly. Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain has a great blues-informed arrangement, Hurt packs a punch, and The Bitter They Are The Harder They Fall is a solid country song that benefits from the gospel style of Elvis. Because of its inherent emotion and despair, the music of late or broken Elvis has its advocates. Some credit is due, Elvis manages a statement, and the album does hang together. But form is as important as content, especially in popular music. This is the music of a giant but one that is stumbling.
After the Nashville recording session of January 1977 had collapsed Felton Jarvis and RCA had a problem. Another album was overdue and there were just six tracks left over from the Jungle Room sessions. Neither was there any prospects of Elvis returning to the recording studio. Aware of the problems past and forthcoming Jarvis had in 1976 followed Elvis on tours with recording equipment hoping to pick up some performances that could be added to an album. Jarvis managed to collect just three tracks. Two of these were weak but presumably better than those ignored. The third live track was an essential version of Unchained Melody that was so powerful it inspired the Observer jazz critic Dave Gelly to compare Elvis to Mahalia Jackson. The final live track on Moody Blue was Let Me Be There. This had already been released on the Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage In Memphis album but the times and circumstances were now desperate.
The six studio recordings on Moody Blue included the four tracks recorded in the Jungle Room in October. In different ways all have merit. It’s Easy For You has Elvis back in Drury Lane territory and is burdened with what Andrew Lloyd Webber assumes might be a melody. But as a final album track from Elvis, it is appropriate. It stands as weary protest, an accusation to critics and over demanding fans. Way Down, Pledging My Love and He’ll Have To Go allow Elvis to remember his roots and together they gave the Moody Blue album a boost. Elvis was persuaded to record Pledging My Love by someone playing him the revamped version by Delbert McClinton of the old Johnny Ace hit. Two years after the Moody Blue album was released Delbert McClinton released his interpretation of Mess Of Blues, a song that Elvis had recorded when he was in his prime. The brilliant performance of Mess Of Blues by Elvis in 1960 overshadows the efforts of the talented McClinton. The version by Elvis of Pledging My Love is okay, especially so considering the circumstances, but it lacks the drive of the version by McClinton. The once all-conquering athlete had slipped and fallen behind others that were not his equals.
I have an admission concerning the death of Elvis Presley. I was reading and listening to a playlist that was playing on what was then a fashionable reel-to-reel tape recorder. My wife went to answer the phone which was in another room. The lateness of the phone call worried me. Through closed louvre doors I heard my wife scream, ‘Oh, my God.’ She then said, ‘Right, I will tell him.’ The rest of the conversation was murmurs. When my wife returned to the living room, I asked what had caused the shock. ‘Elvis is dead,’ said my wife. ‘God,’ I said, ‘I thought something had happened to my parents.’
I have, of course, had plenty of time to pay proper respects since then, which in various ways I have. Once the relief about my parents was out of the way I tuned into radio stations to listen to tributes that kept me awake way past midnight. Next day in my lunch hour I walked around Liverpool and thought about what would happen next. The normal city centre bustle appeared to be missing, as if more than just Elvis fans were affected by the news. It helped that the weather was typical British summer grey.
Elvis has been dead longer than he was alive but not as long as I have been a fan. His music and movies continue to earn a fortune. The Michael Jackson estate earns twice that of Presley but it benefits from Jackson performing when the reach of the media was more extensive. $23 million a year suggests an enduring legacy from Elvis but modern music is shaped more by the influences of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the soul music of the 1960s and various guitar heroes. Elvis has his fans but many of us are old now and disappearing. His music does continue to recruit new devoted fans but being an Elvis fan today feels like being part of a cult, a very large one but a cult nevertheless. Elvis has left his influence on country music but the hegemony of modern rock music has values and aspirations that have left him being its most famous and successful outsider.
Some of this might be the consequence of being managed by Tom Parker. Not everyone believes Parker to be a villain. If mean with money, he was a man that appears to have been generous with his time. His great gift was to give Elvis disproportionate exposure in the mid-1950s. Whether villain or not, Parker was unqualified to nurture musical talent. In a similar way RCA misjudged the appeal and potential of Elvis Presley. But the likelihood is that a working class innocent from Mississippi and Tennessee was never likely to remain a favourite amongst critics and fans that wanted popular music to proclaim its artistic credentials. Since Elvis died in 1977 his music has been subjected to numerous compilations and remastered alternatives. There is much to remember. After the confusion in my youth I have lived a life that has been steady and calibrated. Elvis died almost half a century before this is being written. There is no later anymore. What is left I prefer to think of as afterwards, a time in which his music continues to be heard by those either curious or, like me, obliged to listen.
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.