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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. 

GANGSTERS AND HARD CASES

24 LUCKY JACKSON

Viva Las Vegas, 1964, USA, Director George Sidney/ The Killers, 1964, USA, Director Don Siegel

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To be honest it wasn’t so good before the crash but after Lucky came off the track and turned the car right over, well, it all went boom, boom.  No one was surprised by Lucky and Rusty having arguments after they married.  Each was used to being the star of the show.  Egos, they call it.  The way Lucky had of giving orders didn’t bother me none.  I was the mechanic, and Lucky was the driver and the guy everyone wanted to meet.  So, so what.  Lucky Jackson had no fancy airs.  And Lucky did know one wrench from another.  I never met anyone who got a pair of overalls as dirty as Lucky Jackson could.  The wrenches weren’t the problem.  The wenches, it was different.  Lucky didn’t play around, not after Rusty appeared, but Lucky and Rusty were handsome people and they got the smiles.  Rusty was as cold as ice and that helped the marriage but Lucky had a different nature.  If a woman smiled at Lucky, he had to smile back.  That was okay when everything was fine between Lucky and Rusty, a smile is just a smile, but when there were arguments Rusty remembered the friendly grins.  Boom, boom, it just made things worse.  

Lucky and me worked on the cars together.  We were as close as brothers.  We had some good times but then Rusty came along and it was different.  We won that race in Vegas okay but the next couple of times out Lucky had bad breaks and finished nowhere.  Whatever Lucky and Rusty were arguing about at home it had an effect.  Lucky lost his edge.  He’d walk in the garage and he was a different man.   I could tell.  Before Rusty happened it was Lucky that was pushing me to work hard. After he got married it was me pushing Lucky.  The racing trophies didn’t line the shelves, I can tell you.  And, like Rusty, there is a lot of pride inside Lucky Jackson.  Troubled or not Lucky wanted to be the winner.  Lucky took chances on the track because he was slipping and because he had to.  It helped for a while.  He picked up a couple of wins but the inevitable happened. 

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It wasn’t all Lucky’s fault.  The other driver was in Lucky’s space.  But Lucky reacted and he was that busy worrying about this driver he messed up the bend.  The car went straight up in the air.  Lucky wasn’t dead but the accident wrecked his left eye and the cost of the car repairs ruined me.  I told him in the hospital.  Lucky, I’m broke and finished with all this, and you ain’t going to pass no medical, so you can forget about driving.  We argued about it.  We could have got jobs as mechanics working for this Italian count or something.  Lucky said that me suggesting working for the count was not showing respect.  I never saw Lucky Jackson again.

The rest I heard when I went back to Vegas for the big car race they have every year, the one that Lucky won in ‘64.  I went to watch.  No, I never married.  I was there alone.  The race Lucky won in Vegas, those were the best days, all of us pulling together.  Who would have guessed that on the same exact day a year later Pops would die.  That changed Rusty because when Pops was around he would tell his daughter to ease off worrying about car crashes.  And she did.  But after her father died Rusty brooded about death and what could happen on a racetrack.  The crash was not the final straw but it made the arguments worse than ever.  Yet when Rusty visited Lucky in hospital they acted like two people who remembered they loved one another.  If they hadn’t, I might have hung around.  But I thought the guy doesn’t need me. 

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It really blew up between them after he took the medical to go back into driving.  Lucky failed like I said he would.  So he starts driving under an assumed name even though Rusty had found him a spot in the Flamingo, the hotel Bugsy Siegel had built.  She thought it crazy that Lucky was racing and was not best pleased she had to tell the folks in the Flamingo no deal.  Rusty and Lucky had a row and said things.  Lucky walked out on Rusty and said goodbye to Vegas.  Not long after he was caught driving under the fake name, and after that he couldn’t even get a job working in the pits.  Boom, boom.  Lucky drifts around the small towns and gets by driving in junk heap races at county fairs where they ain’t so particular.

Rusty hung on in Vegas and found new friends.  Not good friends, I can tell you.  One was Ginger McKenna, a gorgeous moll that wise guy Ace Rothstein had in tow.  Having loaded friends kept Rusty working.  She always had the pool job but funds came from the showroom spots, the kind of entertainment work that Rusty had wanted for her husband even though Lucky Jackson was no professional entertainer.  Autos were his love.  He didn’t mind having fun on stage but applying himself to music like he did to cars, that wasn’t Lucky Jackson.  Rusty didn’t forget Lucky which was why she got into bad habits maybe.  Not the drink or the drugs like her friend Ginger.  No, Rusty couldn’t stop spending money.  If a beautiful girl likes nice things then maybe Vegas ain’t the place to be.  The more money Rusty had the more she wanted.  Did the men use her or did she use the men?  Difficult question, mister.  The men paid big style but then so did Rusty.

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I don’t know who came up with the idea.  Rusty wanted money for the sake of it, and Ginger wanted money that boyfriend Ace Rothstein wouldn’t know about.  Money for the coke and bourbon, I suppose.  The plan was to rob a US Mail truck that took money from all the hotels on the Californian coast before dropping it in a bank in Los Angeles.  The people Rusty knew, they needed a driver.  Rusty with the help of Ace finds Lucky dragging a junk heap at some dump of a racetrack and makes the offer. 

Lucky and this guy, it wasn’t Ace Rothstein, this guy was called Nicky Santero and bad news, well, Lucky and this Santero guy would pose as cops and divert the US Mail truck off the main drag and on to a country road.  In the pretend cop car they’d use to divert the Mail truck, Lucky and Nicky Santero would then follow the truck, overtake it and, with the help of two guys waiting at the other end of the country road, rob the money in the back of the truck. The country road was not that long so the driver of the cop car had to be fast.  But Lucky could do that kind of thing in his sleep and maybe he did.

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They rob the money, and no one gets killed which is a blessing.  I like to think that Rusty and Lucky insisted on no violence but who knows.  The haul was not peanuts.  Somebody said a million bucks which those days could have bought you a lot of top class motors and even a big garage to keep them nice and shiny.  

The problem was it got complicated.  Before the heist Rusty sneaks a visit to Lucky and tells him that psycho Santero is planning to kill Lucky after the job.  So after the stick up Lucky and Nicky Santero are driving away to escape.  The two others in the robbery are in another motor but Lucky and Santero are in the auto with all the money and, because Lucky does not want to drive to his death, he thinks a detour might be in order.  Lucky slugs Santero and pushes him out of the pretend police car.  That must have put a smile on the face of Lucky Jackson.  Not the kind of smile that Lucky shared with his lady admirers but a smile I bet. Boom, boom, indeed.

 

This is the way I heard the rest from folks in Vegas.  So Lucky is driving the pretend police car and is on his way to meet Rusty who Lucky thinks still has the hots for him.  Rusty is where she should be which would have put one of those famous smiles on the face of Lucky.  But the problem is Rusty takes Lucky to a hotel where Nicky Santero is ready, waiting and armed.  Santero plugs Lucky in the chest but somehow Lucky escapes.  It didn’t do him much good.  Santero hired a couple of hit men, and they found Lucky.  These guys were professionals.  Lucky was working in a blind school, teaching car repairs.  That was the end of Lucky Jackson.  The talk was that Lucky just stood there, as if he was waiting to die.  We were close but I only ever knew him as Lucky.  I’m not sure what they wrote on his tombstone but I’m damned sure it wasn’t Lucky.   People said Rusty really had the hots for Santero but, after Lucky Jackson, I don’t think so.  Santero had to have something on Rusty to make her sell out Lucky.  What it was we’ll never know.  What I know is this, Rusty worked all her life and her and Lucky should have stayed together.  Maybe that was why they argued so much.  They needed one another and because of what was inside them they hated being that way.  Rusty and Lucky had plenty of pride, I can tell you.  I used to think they were blessed.  Cursed more like it.

Howard Jackson has had ten books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism.  His latest travel book No Tall Heels To Tango is now available here.