43 – C’MON EVERYBODY
Released in the USA July 1971
44 – I GOT LUCKY
Released in the USA October 1971
In late June 1971 the Memphis City Council voted to change the name of Highway 51 South to Elvis Presley Boulevard. Highway 51 South runs from South Parkway to the Mississippi State Line. These days visitors are made welcome by the real friendly folks at 3764 Elvis Presley Boulevard. There is, though, an admission fee to the house. Bob Dylan wrote a song named Highway 51 Revisited. The decision to change the name of this stretch of tarmac might or might not be a coincidence. If the local officials down in Memphis were doing their best to award some status to a local boy made good, then stab you in the front Colonel Parker and some strange executives at RCA were gritting their teeth and reminding us that circus acts were just that. In December 1969 the Colonel and RCA had agreed that four more Elvis albums could be released on the budget RCA Camden label. RCA paid $300,000 up front to cover the royalties from the proposed albums. The Colonel claimed on behalf of his signature half of the $300,000.
In the chase for cash no sensitivity was shown to the studio album Love Letters From Elvis. That album had been released just one month before C’Mon Everybody appeared in record stores. But if Parker and RCA had had any sensitivity, the collection of scraps on Love Letters from Elvis would never have been released either. Always interested in the ‘now money’, RCA released five single albums in 1971. Two of the albums contained songs from the 1970 sessions, two were these budget albums of movie songs, and, later in the year, a Christmas album appeared that was recorded in the summer of 1971. And while the pigs were feeding at the trough someone licked his lips and came up with the idea of re-releasing all the previous number one hits on a four vinyl album collection. Not only did no one think it might be a good idea to include a commemorative booklet, an expensive box set that had historical importance was released without sleeve notes.
To be precise the collection of A side hits was released in 1970. Its existence is mentioned because to the already overcrowded 1971 schedule RCA added a similar four album collection. This time it contained the B sides of the hits. Again there was no commemorative booklet or sleeve notes. Instead, perhaps responding to criticism from fans and music critics, a very small piece of clothing from the wardrobe of Elvis was included. Apologies to anyone who felt obliged to read the previous sentence more than once. No prizes for guessing the person and what kind of brain dreamed up that idea. If Elvis had made in the years 1968 to 1970 a serious attempt to improve his music then his manager and record company were as tacky as ever.
I had a friend that bought the collection of the 50 A sided hits. I remember being in his basement flat and listening to the four albums. I am not sure how but two American political radicals were present. Both were also Elvis fans. I hummed along to Wear My Ring Around Your Neck and the other Elvis hits while hearing about the limitations of Marx and Marcuse. Antonio Gramsci was not yet fashionable. At the time my party line was that I was too left wing to believe in socialism and too misanthropic to have any faith in capitalism. One of the American radicals was an attractive woman. She explained to her British cousins that when Elvis had begun his career he was a country singer. This was not how I understood the history of Elvis but the woman was attractive and she was American. Back then in the UK we not only gave extra consideration to the opinions of Americans but they were so rare on British soil we counted them as sightings. For once I smiled and resisted the temptations of an argument.
These two budget albums between them collect songs from the movies Follow That Dream, Kid Galahad, Easy Come Easy Go and Viva Las Vegas. Despite the content both albums have photographs of Elvis on stage and in his white suit. Neither are the albums thematic. This is RCA and Parker. The tracks are arranged in no particular order. The sensible option of having them follow one another chronologically is ignored. Jumbled together across both albums and in a chaotic mess each track somehow undermines what preceded it. The collections also fail to be comprehensive. There are only four tracks from Viva Las Vegas even though twelve songs were recorded by Elvis and Ann-Margret for the film. All the songs from Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad are included on the two albums but one is missing from Easy Come Easy Go. And this is where the selection becomes really eccentric. The lukewarm Sing You Children is the song omitted, and that is no great loss, but even that tame effort at imitation-gospel is superior to the truly awful Yoga Is As Yoga Does. In recent years friends have recommended yoga as a remedy for the inevitable arthritis. No thanks, not after being traumatised by Yoga Is As Yoga Does.
Although there was no shortage of movie songs one studio recording is included. Fools Fall In Love is a worthwhile cover of the Atlantic hit by the great African-American rhythm and blues singer Clyde McPhatter. It belongs, though, on another and superior album. But, because this is Elvis, the two albums still have moments. The movie songs may have been written with two objectives, to make money and be as bland as possible in order to offend no one, but Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad were made in the early 1960s and when the voice of Elvis was at its peak. This Is Living is as empty headed as the title but when Elvis joins the backing group for the second verse the competent are joined by an exceptional talent, a sports car that purrs in second gear. Follow That Dream and What A Wonderful Life may be similar escapist fare but both Elvis and the band bring them to life and make them bounce. King Of The Whole World is also great but alternative versions of the record demonstrate that, if Elvis was a committed worker in this period, he and the musicians either had to apply self-censorship or were subject to interference. On a later release of King Of The Whole Wide World the record finishes with an extended bluesy sax solo from Boots Randolph. Elvis shouts approval. He manages to add something to all the tracks from the two movies Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad. The ballad Home Is Where The Heart Is should be tedious. In fact, parts of it sound like a first attempt from a budding songwriter. There is nothing in the song that pulls at the heart but it is being performed by someone who was blessed with a gorgeous voice, and that makes a difference.
On the Viva Las Vegas tracks Elvis is not as committed as the man that recorded the soundtracks for Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad, then a young man not long out of the US Army and relishing life. He undersells If You Think I Don’t Need You which is a surprise because his big mate Red West wrote the song and had a Ray Charles sound in mind. The vocal performance of Elvis on C’Mon Everybody is better but Parker and his Lady Macbeth had decided to turn down the volume on the band until it is almost inaudible. Play it loud on the headphones and it sounds better. The one great song that exists in these two collections is I Need Somebody To Lean On. Songwriters Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman were no slouches but this is far from their typical rock and roll and pop. The jazzy ballad is worthy of Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan. Elvis devoted twenty two takes to getting right what was for him unusual material. At the beginning of the song Elvis adds a slight stutter that emphasises the yearning of a haunted man. The best of his music always occurs when Elvis is being serious and inspired. Listen to I Need Somebody To Lean On and it is impossible not to think about what could have been achieved with a different manager and record company. Aretha Franklin had a superior voice to Elvis but she also had Jerry Wexler as a record producer. Chips Moman at American Sound Studios was the exception but the other producers that worked with Elvis were nodding RCA dogs.
Somehow the American radicals and me never mentioned the movies Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad. Neither are classics nor left wing but compared to other Elvis movies they are superior efforts and they do have subversive elements. Both films had competent directors. Gordon Douglas directed Follow That Dream. Phil Karlson directed Kid Galahad. The two films argue in a light hearted way that their characters are entitled to enjoy life as outsiders and resist conventional ambition and materialist greed. Douglas was no auteur but the CV of Douglas is nothing to be ashamed of and it includes an interesting Western called Rio Conchos. Karlson made enough assembly line films to qualify him as a journeyman director but there were memorable exceptions. Karlson had strong opinions about the destructive effects of ambition. American filmmaker Wheeler Winston Dixon said this about Karlson. ‘In Karlson’s best films, a truly bleak vision of American society is readily apparent; a world where everything is for sale, where no one can be trusted, where all authority is corrupt, and honest men and women have no one to turn to but themselves.’ These themes dominate the astonishing and critically approved The Phenix City Story which is based on a true story. Karlson delivers a savage exposé of crime and political corruption. Kid Galahad is a musical comedy but even here Karlson advocates against excess economic ambition. At the end of the movie Elvis quits the fight game and settles for owning a garage that will never make him rich. He sings the song I Got Lucky. The happy ending and Karlson refuse to pay lip service to the American dream. Before the end of the year and no more than a couple of months after the release of the album I Got Lucky, Elvis offered his services to FBI director J Edgar Hoover, crept to sheriffs for police badges and proclaimed that his career was evidence that the American dream existed. Rather than turn to himself he turned to the authority that Karlson had warned against. Decay and corruption in his heart would follow 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.