MUSIC, STUFF AND ELVIS

Explores USA Music, politics and the rest through the phenomenon of Elvis Presley

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

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. 

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

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.