Author: Howard Jackson

Howard Jackson was born in Merseyside in 1948. He still lives there and has spent most of his life in Liverpool, although he has also lived in London, Nottingham, Glasgow and Preston. He reads, watches movies, listens to music (a lot), supports Liverpool Football Club and climbs hills in the Lake District and Yorkshire. Though not a keen fan of travelling he has toured extensively around Brazil and the Southern States of America. These journeys were a consequence of an interest in Brazilian history and the music of the American South.

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

47 HE TOUCHED ME

Released in the USA April 3 1972

Schōiki Yokoi was a sergeant in the Imperial Japanese Army.  In January 1972 he was discovered in a hideout in the jungles of Guam.  The cave where for 27 years Yokoi hid from a victorious and willing to be gracious enemy has, a little like Graceland, become a tourist attraction.  The existence of Yokoi and his circumstances evoke the famous question pondered by writer Ernest Hemingway.  Yokoi either wasted twenty seven years of his life or fulfilled it in a way that was beyond all those that returned home.   Hemingway believed that we would only be able to appreciate existence if we knew the date we would die.   Without that knowledge we were obliged to fritter away precious time.  In 1972 the working life of Elvis consisted of recording sessions, two month long seasons in Las Vegas and some touring.  When it occurred the work was demanding but Elvis also had plenty of free time.  In the diary accounts of his life there is nothing to indicate that he did anything constructive during his free days.  Although Elvis could be obsessive the nearest thing he had to a hobby was the time he spent watching movies, collecting police badges and reading books on religion.  His existence was not solitary like that of Sergeant Yokoi.   Elvis may have been remote from his wife in 1972 but the boys in the Memphis Mafia were always around.  They were paid to take the eyes of Elvis away from the time that was proceeding to an unspecified date.  No one can deny the Memphis Mafia succeeded although the likelihood is that Elvis was a willing accomplice.

The album He Touched Me was on sale less than two months after the release of Elvis Now.  Two months after He Touched Me appeared the album Elvis At Madison Square Garden was released.  A third album would be in the record shops eight months later.  Whatever was in the minds of the folk at RCA it did not constitute a timetable.  These are not the kind of people one should trust with family planning.   The recording sessions of 1971 had not been as successful as those of 1969 and 1970.  The other two albums to emerge from the 1971 sessions rank amongst the weakest recorded by Elvis.  He Touched Me is much superior to those efforts but it fails to match the achievements of the gospel albums that he recorded in 1960 and 1966.  He Touched Me is not, though, without merit and the album has some fine tracks.  The grammy award that it earned is deserved.  But after the triumphs and perfection of His Hand In Mine and How Great Thou Art more than me were disappointed with its contents.  If there is ambition in He Touched Me, there is also caution or examples of creative next steps being avoided.   

The album mixes both contemporary and traditional gospel music.  Inevitably it feels neither one thing nor the other.  And Elvis in 1971 was beginning to feel weary.  The superman that had appeared in Vegas in 1969 no longer felt so super.  His commitment suffered and wavered between serious ambition, professional application which tilted too often towards the routine and more than a few what the hell moments when standards collapsed.   He Touched Me captures that range of involvement or so it seems.  The title track is a bold take on a song that was written in 1963 and is up there with the best of his gospel music.  I’ve Got Confidence is modern gospel funk.  Seeing Is Believing is less successful but each of these three tracks is an impressive example of Elvis being ambitious and singular.  The routine professionalism on the He Touched Me album exists in his acceptable but unimaginative versions of Amazing Grace and Bosom Of Abraham.   There is an alternative and bluesy version of Amazing Grace.  This was not included in the album.  Who is responsible for this censorship is not clear.  It could be Elvis being timid or his masters insisting on the familiar.  Or it could be general nervousness all round.   Despite the timidity the voice of Elvis prevails .  

The conversion of the country tune There Goes My Everything to the plodding gospel of He Is My Everything steps even further away from creativity and registers as a ‘we are all tired, this will do’ instance.  After this track on which Elvis delivers an almost identical performance to his version of the same tune on Elvis Country the album never quite recovers.  There Is No God But God and A Thing Called Love are obvious examples of contemporary gospel but they compare badly to the gospel music which belongs to the past and is rooted in unsophisticated and pious self-effacement.   Without the inspiration from Elvis that secured greatness for his previous gospel albums these two tracks fail to be novel and distinguished.   Instead they exist as nothing more than wayward selections.  They are okay but, compared to what Elvis could have done, they are disturbingly modest.   If that sounds overly critical then compare these songs to the stunning versions of How Great Thou Art that he delivered in his concerts of the 1970s.  But as always there are those moments when Elvis is compelled to ignore the corporate entropy of RCA and discover his capabilities.   An Evening Prayer and Reach Out To Jesus have compelling performances although the off key ending to the latter jars.   I, John is also great and rocks in a way that is beyond the contemporary material.

 Elvis was nominated on fourteen occasions for Grammy awards during his lifetime.  The three Grammys he received were all for gospel recordings.   They included an award for a recording of How Great Thou Art that Elvis performed on stage in 1974 in Memphis.  He did not attend any of the Grammy award ceremonies or any other ceremonies held by the music and movie industries in which he worked.  If Parker had some expertise regarding how to maximise publicity opportunities, the notion of securing influence appears to have been beyond him.   This is no surprise.  Butch Dutch Parker was the conman that needed others to know they had been suckered.  The fourteen Grammy award nominations for the records of Elvis are a pitiful handful when compared to the numerous classics Elvis did deliver but understandable when we consider his part-time impression of Sergeant Schōiki Yokoi.

In 1972 the Watergate scandal weakened previous notions of American exceptionalism and perhaps some of that pending darkness prevented Elvis from having the conviction needed for his best gospel music.  The discovery that the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the DC Watergate building had been burgled by the cronies of Nixon led to the resignation of an American President.  If something similar happened today, the likelihood is that the perpetrator would tough it out.   Richard Nixon may not have been the number one model for integrity but he was willing to concede elections when he failed to win more votes than his opponent. Right now such principles are under threat in both the USA and the UK. 

Back in 1972 both countries had governments that were right of centre.  The utopian hope of the sixties had been replaced by an expectation that the future and people would be different but not in ways that would weaken existing economic systems.   Protest continued but it fractured.  The talk of revolution amongst student idealists had never prohibited discussion of the merits of violence.  Urban terrorists appeared.  The USA had the Weathermen, Britain had the Angry Brigade, and in Germany there was the Baader Meinhof gang.   The Angry Brigade appeared in court in the UK in 1972.   The roots of the Brigade were complicated but most of its members had been inspired by the debates about revolution that they had heard in their Universities.  No students debated revolution more than those at Essex University.  I was a student there from 1966 to 1969 and, though no aspiring capitalist, once sold beer to the organisers of a University Revolutionary Festival.  Jean Luc Godard attended that event.  I was disappointed it was not Jean Paul Sartre.  

The mystery is not that some students set off bombs in order to weaken modern capitalism but why all the other campus conformists that had made grand plans and had violent political fantasies did not.   I knew the two women that were members of the Angry Brigade and was surprised they became involved.  Both had attended Essex University whilst I was there.  I expected one of the women to be too serious to tolerate sloppy bohemians.  The other I imagined as too hedonistic to connect utopian political thoughts.  The serious woman is now dead.  After she was released from prison she became a highly regarded poet.  We first met when she was carrying a copy of Elvis’ Golden Records.  Two people shared their enthusiasm for an unfashionable singerThe brief time I knew her I thought she was alright. Though much of my behaviour was best ignored, I liked the idea that she might like me.   In 1972 the number of Elvis fans was diminishing fast.  What was not needed was one of them being locked up.  

My memories have wandered more than normal.  But perhaps there is a connection between a poorly informed Japanese sergeant that lived in a cave and had to survive by eating rats and plants, students that could have so easily never been involved in the next revolutionary step that all their friends avoided and a singer and musician that became so famous his masters built a factory where he was as confused as anyone about what the factory was supposed to be making.   What happens to people is so random it might even be inevitable.  He Touched Me is worth a listen.  The certainty of His Hand In Mine and the clarity of How Great Thou Art may have been replaced with confusion and anxiety but this all happened in 1972.   Maybe the confusion and tension of He Touched Me are its strengths.  There would be plenty of time to consider not just the significance of this third and final gospel album but also how the world cracked a little in 1972.  This we did 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. 

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

45 – ELVIS SINGS THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHRISTMAS

Released in the USA September 1971

46 – ELVIS NOW

Released in the USA February 20 1972

One person that must have had a good Christmas in 1971 was John Sinclair.   He was released from prison that December.  Previously he had been sentenced to confinement for ten years for selling two marijuana joints.  The likelihood is that he avoided listening to the awful Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas.  Ten years is a bit steep for a couple of joints, so we have to hope so.  The man was entitled to a decent yuletide celebration.  Northern Ireland is the country where everyone is willing to argue politics.  In the same year that Sinclair was released the Reverend Ian Paisley founded the Irish political party Democratic Unionist Party.  Talk of economic revolution was fading, and so was hope for a better world.   The agitation of the 1960s had been reduced to nothing more than an insistence on having long hair and the freedom to be promiscuous and take drugs.  But away from the cultural fuss, and not just in Northern Ireland, revised battle-lines were being drawn.  People who said that the nation state should not be involved in the economy because long term plans invariably failed were, without any sense of irony, making their own plans.  We all know what followed.

Parker and the executives at RCA belonged with those that were arguing against long term planning.  Like the economic neoliberals, they took money very seriously and believed the future should be shaped by immediate demands and desires rather than long term objectives.  The priority for Santa Claus Parker and RCA was what money Elvis could earn that year.  Parker had learned working in carnival that there was always another town where the tills could be filled.  But even life in the short term lane requires a plan. In six days in 1969 Elvis had recorded 33 songs in six days.  In Nashville the next year he recorded 36 songs in five days.  Ready to capitalise on a revitalised Elvis, another mammoth session was set up for 1971.  This time the people opposed to planning had a plan, kind of. 

The recording session that was set up in 1971 had distinct objectives.  Elvis was to record a Christmas album and enough contemporary material for the pop market.  Parker was convinced that Christmas, because it kept popping up in the calendar, had long term economic potential.  The gospel album that came out of the sessions was a sop to Elvis. In the recording sessions of 1969 and 1970 the purpose had been simple.  Elvis had an opportunity to record material that would allow him to rediscover and reveal his talent.  The albums that emerged from the Nashville sessions of 1971 suggest something organised by a committee.  Elvis appears to have had little say in the discussions.  ‘Why can’t they just re-release the Christmas album I did in 1957?’ he said.  So much for consultation.

The inexpensive songs of Geoff Morrow, David Martin and Chris Arnold had earlier attracted now British based song collector Freddy Bienstock.  Morrow attended the 1971 recording session for one day and witnessed what most of us had heard too often in the previous fifteen years.  A lifeless and alienated Elvis worked his way through the Christmas songs but the free spirit when released found solace in an animated and impressive jam session of the Dylan song, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.  

Apart from the sessions being ill conceived there was another problem.  The physical decline of Elvis had begun.  His excessive use of uppers and downers were having an effect.  No one can deny that Elvis used pills for the same reasons some of us drink alcohol and others like John Sinclair smoke marijuana.  The pills taken by Elvis were, though, also an attempt at self-medication.  They alleviated his depression that had been ever present from 1962.  The pills also mitigated physical discomfort and pain.   While John Sinclair was contemplating release from prison Elvis was enjoying a certain freedom with a lady called Joyce Bova.  She recalls seeing Elvis have injections put into his eyes.   These were to mitigate the pain he was experiencing from glaucoma.  This was the reality behind celebrity and glamour.  Bova has confirmed that Elvis had wide mood swings.  Her view was that the drugs were the main cause.   Bova worked as a congressional aide in Washington.   She remembers that physical gratification, although it existed in their relationship, was neither the most important element nor the reason why he was betraying his wife Priscilla.  Married or not Elvis yearned for more emotional intimacy and perhaps approval from authority.  

In the years between 1971 and 1977 there are impressive moments from Elvis on record and often a soulful ache to his performances that is beyond the younger man.  Elvis remained a great singer but only the cloth-eared can fail to hear the deterioration in his voice.  Throughout the sessions of 1971, Elvis gulped ice to ease what was either a pain or a constriction in his throat.  Another problem also emerged.  The performances in Vegas had helped Elvis realise how audiences responded with enthusiasm to crude showbiz effects.  If the lifeless and animated coexisted in Elvis then so did the artist and the ham.  And when Elvis hammed it up he was neither restrained nor calculating.  And just in case he missed opportunities, Parker and RCA were always on hand to remind him of his responsibilities.

Despite the terrible title the material on Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas is gloomy rather than heartwarming.   Suicides increase around Christmas.  Holly Leaves And Christmas Trees is pure yuletide despair and chills.  Even the chirpy material sounds like a desperate plea.  I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day has received praise.  The song is superior, and Elvis recorded two versions.  That he likes the song is obvious but his voice is poor on both occasions.  Either the vocal strain is a consequence of his gift of precise timing deserting him or the timing is off because there is now vocal strain.   Like much of the album, the track sounds like it was recorded in a garage.  The backup vocalists are fine singers, and none of them are as flat as Elvis sometimes is, but they still sound like rookies in an audition.  With their wails and thick strings the arrangements belong in the kind of Christmas movie that you watch on a wet December afternoon.  In the 1960s the corny single If Every Day Was Like Christmas was regarded as a disappointment but the vocal performance on that song offers relief after listening to this album.  There are interruptions to the assault on the ears.  The two carols O Come All Ye Faithful and The First Noel are not perfect but they are accomplished.  They have drama, pious devotion and medieval mystery.  They evoke another world.  The hip critics on Rolling Stone gravitated to the cover of the Charles Brown blues, Merry Christmas Baby.  Ideological bias at Rolling Stone may have existed but Merry Christmas Baby is as great as the rest is poor.  Elvis is relaxed and is no longer worrying about his throat.  Or so it seems.  Whatever the reason, there is a return of the marvellous timing that made so many of his records special.   Stepping off the production line created by taskmaster Parker and RCA also helps.

The album Elvis Now appeared half a year after the release of Elvis Sings The Wonderful World Of Christmas.  I was engaged to be married and was home in Merseyside and doing a job that I had mistakenly thought might secure a future.  I visited the NEMS record store where I had bought records in the past and where The Beatles had been heralded.  A young lady let me listen to the album but when she turned over the record for the second side her female boss said enough was enough.  I still wonder why the boss was so begrudging.  I was the poor soul that had to listen to its failures.  If the record had been great, I might have stood my ground.  Instead I sloped out of the record store.  The Liverpool Sound had passed, and the NEMs store, like a nightclub that had become unfashionable, was soon to follow.  That day the future felt reduced.

The initial reaction to the poor performances by Elvis on the Christmas album was to assume that the efforts belonged to a man alienated by the material.   The same thing had happened on the movie soundtracks in the 1960s.  The lack of interest in such circumstances by Elvis was understandable.  Hearing Elvis Now, though, was different.   The opening track was Help Me Make It Through The Night.  Whatever we think of the anything but inspirational Kris Kristofferson, the song is the type of country material Elvis should and could have made special.  Elvis sounds like an amateur when compared to the fabulous efforts by soul singer Gladys Knight and country singer Sammy Smith.  Again the Elvis Now album reveals vocal strain and awful timing.   The songs Put Your Hand In The Hand, Until It’s Time For You To Go and Early Morning Rain had definite strengths that could have been exploited.   These tracks by Elvis are not awful but all those songs are remembered for versions superior to those on Elvis Now.   Elvis sounding inferior to other performers was novel.  

The reaction at the time was that Elvis had either lost interest, sold out, forgotten his roots or that contemporary material was now exposing his limitations.  There were also suspicions about the role of Parker.  The cover for Elvis Now was cheap and cynical, advertisements for box sets substituting for design.  The title Elvis Now was a lie.  Hey Jude had been recorded by Elvis two years earlier in Memphis and abandoned.  Few imagined that Elvis, the charismatic superman that appeared in Vegas a year before, was having to manage reduced powers.  If, like Joyce Bova, we had witnessed a suffering Elvis having to endure needles being poked in his eyes, some of us might have been more sympathetic.  In an odd way I expected recovery.  It had happened before.   Movie trash had been replaced by the glory of the TV Special and From Elvis In Memphis.  Hearing Elvis make the same mistakes as before, though, was depressing.  The changing times added to the disappointment.   There were opportunities for Elvis to learn from the past mistakes.  Whatever was happening in the world around him it appeared to make no difference.  The real problems for Elvis were serious and internal.  This discovery was made much 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.