MUSIC, STUFF AND ELVIS

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

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

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. 

ELVIS – A LIFE IN 57 RECORD ALBUMS

42 – LOVE LETTERS FROM ELVIS

Released in the USA June 16  1971

Elvis completed his third month long season at Las Vegas in the summer of 1970.  During one of the shows he announced that his next album would be a soundtrack to the documentary being filmed in Vegas and that this would be followed by a country album.  Elvis had spent the last decade sidestepping questions about his career.   For him this brief statement amounted to a revelatory vision.  Although he had recorded thirty six tracks at Nashville in June there was no mention by Elvis of there being a third album from those sessions.  It is not fair to Parker and RCA to say, as some have, that the album was released despite the protests of Presley.  The likelihood is that Elvis had no idea that an album full of leftovers was being released.  It is even possible that he went to his grave unaware of its existence.  We know there are instances of Elvis being surprised by fans when asked to sign album covers.  ‘What are they shoving out now?’ he said on at least one occasion.  He might or might not have referred to the Love Letters album.

Jon Landau was a tough music critic employed by Rolling Stone in the 1970s.   Unlike some he was not averse to telling readers when Bob Dylan had fallen short.  Landau went on to produce albums for Bruce Springsteen.  Landau has had throughout his life mixed feelings about the records of Elvis Presley.  He has, though, always recognised the talent of the performer.  Landau helped produce the 2018 TV documentary Elvis The Searcher.  The ambition of the documentary was simple, to establish that Presley was much more than a pop singer with a handsome face.  Landau was one of the first to argue that Elvis was an artist that deserved to be taken seriously.  His review of a concert that Elvis performed in Boston is one of the best pieces ever written about any rock and roller.  After Elvis died a copy of the review was found at Graceland and inside a transparent plastic wallet.  As my mother used to say, it’s nice to be appreciated.  If Landau understood that at his best Elvis was incomparable, the critic was all too aware of the underachievement and inconsistency.  He described the Love Letters From Elvis album as half funk and half muzak.  This was not a compliment.  Referring to the comeback in late 1968, the album was described by Landau as ‘the most discouraging event of the last three years of Presley’s career’.  And so it was and is.

 The review of Love Letters by Landau is still available on the Rolling Stone website and is an essential read.  He describes as well as anyone the price that is paid by Elvis fans.  ‘And those of us who have loved him from the beginning, and know that he could still be doing it, because every now and then we still hear him doing it, can only turn away in disgust from this sort of thing.’   That is or was my relationship with Elvis.  All that I would change in the sentence by Landau is the word disgust.  I prefer the word despair.  These days, though, I have become either more tolerant or more desperate.  My age and the death of Elvis have made a difference.

By the time I first heard the album in late 1971 I was thinking about a shared future with a woman I had met in the summer.   I also had ideas about returning to University and repairing the damage from the previous attempt.  Because financial promises had been made to me by certain authorities, I had something that had been resisted for long periods, hope and ambition.  More cruel blows, though, would come later.  One night I sat on the floor in a Glasgow flat and in the company of the same woman played the album.  When listening to Love Letters From Elvis late at night and sharing female company somehow it all sounded less offensive.  But even that evening I had hopes for more.  I wanted Elvis to be ‘doing it’ again.

Back in 1971 smooch albums were still part of the armoury of certain less than principled males.  Whatever the intention of the album title or the cheesy and Parker approved album cover the songs are too varied to support the concentration required by seducers.  The album includes a storming version of the Muddy Waters classic Got My Mojo Working.  White men should be wary of wandering into the territory of Muddy Waters but the track fades out with musicians roaring approval.  Although the selection of the song has been criticised Cindy Cindy benefits from similar aggression.  It is transformed into tough rock and roll.  There is also gospel material.  Only Believe was a traditional hymn written by evangelist Paul Radar.  This chap was born in 1878 and as well as gospel songs he wrote a book called Big Bug.  The infection referred to in the book title was the influence of Hollywood.  Elvis had made 29 movies in the place.  Not the first choice of  Radar if he had been alive but he would have approved of the performance.  Life was written by Shirl Milete and, like the Terence Mallick movie The Tree Of Life,  flops somewhere between gospel intent and an unconvincing description of the big bang and what followed.  Milete was not without ideas but they were not all successful.   In one of the outtakes of Life there is a moment when Elvis says that he feels like he has been singing the damned song half of his life.  That lack of enthusiasm for what is pretentious nonsense does beg the question why Elvis persisted.  But without persistence there would have been a big bang and not much else.  The country songs Ain’t No Big Thing and If I Were You are better.  They have a tug that should not be dismissed.  

Jon Landau in his Rolling Stone review identified the two glaring faults in Love Letters From Elvis.  One, because the tracks are scraps or left overs, the songs are not great.  Two, the dubbing of strings and voices is awful.  Freddie Bienstock was now settled in England and willing or perhaps determined to accept songs from the British bargain basement.   This Is Our Dance and and Heart Of Rome were clearly once intended for Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdinck.  Elvis adds an intensity that Jackie Wilson would have admired but taken at a more sedate level these songs would have fitted on to a Vera Lynn album which is probably why they were not accepted by Jones and Humperdinck.   Because Love Letters From Elvis was a project conceived of within the offices of RCA and no doubt with input from oompah Tom Parker, the dubbing was added when Elvis was back home in Graceland.   Subsequent dubbing had occurred on the classic albums From Elvis In Memphis and Elvis Country but in those instances producers Chips Moman in Memphis and Felton Jarvis in Nashville had added basic competence and sanity.   

The dubbing on Love Letters From Elvis sounds like it was done by someone who had never heard an Elvis album.  The strings not only clash with the tough rhythm section but are often an octave too high.  This is particularly noticeable on the opening track Love Letters and what could have been the punchy When I’m Over You.  On the back cover, credit is given to three musical groups.  What dominates the vocal accompaniment, though, is the contribution of the five female singers.  These ladies can hold a tune, and we all like attention, but there is a time and a place.   It never occurred to whoever masterminded the dubbed backing on Love Letters From Elvis that vocal accompaniment was utilised in the music of the American South because no one could afford the violins.  Both can be used on a track but sometimes it is better to not have them contribute simultaneously.  On Love Letters From Elvis talented musicians are used to create suffocating swill.

These limitations have been recognised more than once since the death of Elvis.   Sony Music in 2020 released a four box set called From Elvis In Nashville.  Engineers stripped the music back to what had been recorded in the studio. The title was designed to invite comparisons with what had been achieved at American Sound in Memphis.  The box set included all the tracks that Elvis had recorded in June 1970.   Listened to without the dubbing, Love Letters From Elvis has weaknesses but both Elvis and the band are convincing and edgy.  Nothing quite redeems the self-satisfied and all knowing lyrics of Life but in a different setting the duff British songs exist as evidence of a musician that had complicated obsessions rather than efforts that confirm the terrible betrayal that so depressed Jon Landau.  For all its faults Heart Of Rome has tremendous energy and passion.  

In the period between the Elvis Country and Love Letters From Elvis albums the singer received an Outstanding Young American award.   The possibility exists that Elvis knew of the pending award when he visited Nixon in the White House.  Elvis was proud of the award.  Receiving the honour might have precipitated the complicated conservatism of his final years.  His recent success, though, was not reflected in an improved demeanour.  At the award ceremony Elvis slurs his way through the acceptance speech.  In the photographs of this period he wears clothes that resemble the garb of a megalomaniacal emperor.  His eyes often look heavy.  The excess weight that had been a feature of some movies and that had been lost had returned.  His yearly work schedule now consisted of recording sessions, two month-long seasons in Vegas and a couple of national tours.  In between he watched movies, flew between Memphis and Los Angeles, passed the time with friends and bought guns, a lot.  On one occasion alone Elvis spent $3,150 dollars on weaponry.  That amount of money would in 1971 have bought a family a decent used car.  Whether the comeback had persuaded Elvis that additional armoury was needed to confirm his exploits as conqueror or whether the extra guns appeared because he was dissatisfied at not capturing a wider audience we do not know.  In this period Elvis also had to visit hospital for treatment of iritis and secondary glaucoma.  One thing was certain.  After three years of making an effort the singer was bored and troubled.  There is no evidence to suggest that either Elvis shared his concerns with Parker or that his manager was concerned about the deteriorating health and emotional state of his meal ticket.   The extent of the physical and psychological transformation would not only be revealed later but be remembered for much longer than that.

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.